I'm not sure what MZD is attempting to make redundant here: literary theory and criticism, or literature itself. Probably, though, I'd be wrong on eit...moreI'm not sure what MZD is attempting to make redundant here: literary theory and criticism, or literature itself. Probably, though, I'd be wrong on either account. For House of Leaves is simultaneously a great work of literary criticism and a great novel, reading half like Harold Bloom and half like Stephen King at his best. The scope of its influences and the subtlety of their incorporation into the text is dazzling. It's as if MZD took the whole of English literature and compressed it into one horror story cum love story. Don't buy into the haters; House is riveting and enlightening, terrifying and erudite. Pretension doesn't even factor into the mix. This book is, to my taste, flawless; it's the greatest postmodern book post-Pynchon, and also part of the new canon.(less)
FCP was an excellent book, but it fell short on a few things. The gist of the book was that what passes for female empowerment in the modern sexual ar...moreFCP was an excellent book, but it fell short on a few things. The gist of the book was that what passes for female empowerment in the modern sexual arena is actually the same as the objectification of yore; that women are trading in real sexual fulfillment for the mere appearance of sexuality. Where it lost me was a) when it tried to go all Woman's Studies 101 on Sex and the City; that landmark TV show is just escapist fun (esp. w/ Julia Sweeney as creative director on Seasons 5 and 6), and when you try and make it about consumerism or feminism you'll fail, because it's really just about the characters' lives. Not everything they do is condoned. Their mistakes just make them more human;--and b) she tried to tie Darwinism in with the religious right and bad conservatism and all that, as well as making the factual error that belief in Darwinism is on the rise in the US (both just in the last few pages of the afterward, so no big shakes). These tiny blips aside, it is so worth reading.(less)
Anybody who has owned a cat and therefore knows that a cat is no mere pet but rather a sort of little being with which you travel life's rocky roads n...moreAnybody who has owned a cat and therefore knows that a cat is no mere pet but rather a sort of little being with which you travel life's rocky roads needs to pick this up. We've seen this sort of thing before here and there, i.e. the van Kliban cats and all that, but never with so much poignancy involved in the storytelling. There's a page in here called "Crying," in which we see a faceless, morose Brown sitting in a chair. The angle never changes but at the start there's no cat on his lap, and at the end, there is. It makes all the difference. The watercolour (I think?) portraits throughout are breathtaking. Good on you dude.(less)
Cormac McCarthy has been cited by Harold Bloom as being one of the four major, living American novelists (the others being Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth...moreCormac McCarthy has been cited by Harold Bloom as being one of the four major, living American novelists (the others being Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo). However, in his book The Anxiety of Influence, he puts forth that, in order to have their work committed to posterity, i.e. read in the future, poets (and all authors) must make their work entirely original. It looks like he's contradicted himself, because McCarthy's book The Road, like all his books, is entirely indebted to the work of Ernest Hemingway. This is not to say that his work is not original; one might make the case for McCarthy being "The New Hemingway" in the sense that Conor Oberst (of the band Bright Eyes) is probably "The New Dylan." He takes another's style and makes it his own. In music, some bands are good because they reinvent (or create) their genres; others are good because they do their (preexisting) genre as well or better than any one amongst their predecessors or contemporaries. This transfers over to literature.
Anyway, I'm not here to slag McCarthy, because I haven't been so riveted by a novel since I read Jurassic Park in grade school. This book is exceptional; to quote another reviewer, "You feel like if you don't keep reading it, the characters will die." McCarthy's post-apocalyptic vision is, if not the best in the annals of similar fiction, certainly the most bleak of its kind. In a word, Road is depressing. Something has happened—what, we cannot be sure; a supervolcano? an asteroid impact? a nuclear war?—that has blotted out the sun and its light, killed all vegetation and most animals, and made life on earth a luxury, easily taken from kind people by rapists, cannibals, murderers, and thieves. It's through this landscape, amongst these people, that The Man and his son, The Boy, wander. The writing is tense and lean; forget about cutting out unnecessary words, thanks, because McCarthy's gone and cut out superfluous punctuation, and virtually every sentence is a descriptive fragment (reminiscent of Annie Proulx's style in The Shipping News). Just read it, okay? Trust me. I, for one, will be teaching it in my English classroom.
An interesting parallel: the book is very similar to Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree in the respect that it is about unconditional, selfless love at its core—furthermore, The Man is like The Tree and The Boy in either work plays the same role. Both tell us something profound about giving—in either case, that it is what gives our life meaning. We live because we give.(less)
As a short digression before reviewing, I once lent this thing to a singer in a folk band around Fredericton, didn't get it back, and then had to buy...moreAs a short digression before reviewing, I once lent this thing to a singer in a folk band around Fredericton, didn't get it back, and then had to buy it back when I found it in a used bookstore. Boo-urns, as they say, to pawning books that aren't your own!
Anyway, reading Clumsy is interesting if you read it before Brown's other work, because you're just blown away by how relatable the characters are, and then you go and read the book's sequels Unlikely and aeiou and the books after those, and then, inevitably, you will want to revisit Clumsy, because you can't get enough of this guy's stuff. And then it hits you: the drawings in the book look like absolute shit!—I mean, in comparison to the other books, naturally.
The question is, then, as to whether Clumsy is so emotionally wrenching (a) in spite of or (b) because of the low resolution of the artwork. Are simple caricatures more personable than complex ones?
You've probably heard the joke about how you know the world's going through a strange time when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white,...moreYou've probably heard the joke about how you know the world's going through a strange time when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white, but what about when the best defender of evolution, and harshest critic of intelligent design, is Roman Catholic? Even PZ Myers, the "fifth horseman of the apocalypse," had to concede as much:
Miller is a fine writer who sharply addresses the details of the arguments about intelligent design creationism. When tackling old chestnuts such as the 'only a theory' complaint, or Michael Behe's argument for a maximum limit for the number of genetic mutations, or William Dembski's rehash of William Paley's watchmaker argument for complexity, Miller discusses the contemporary biological explanations while refuting the errors.
Indeed, Michael Behe is not so much the villain of the book, which centers on the 2005 Dover evolution trials, as he is its comic relief; I'm willing to wager that never has the major proponent of one side of a debate in science been portrayed as being so comprehensively lost and stupid by his counterpart on the other side. He's left with no leg to stand on, his ideas and claims shown comprehsively in a court of law to be founded on...
...absolutely nothing! Wow! It's like the incredible dissapearing evidence or something.
I won't do Miller's writing a disservice by rehashing his arguments here, suffice to say that you should read the book. He takes every ID-approved argument and sends it to the cleaners, most notably irreducible complexity, whether of blood clotting, bacterial rotifers, or mousetraps.
Of course, any scientist, be it Myers, Richard Dawkins (who was beaten in the race to get to use this book's title for his forthcoming book, and opted instead for The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution; don't miss it), Carl Zimmer, Neil Shubin, or anyone of their ilk, could do that, and do it well. What Miller does as a religious scientist is show that evolution and God aren't necessarily at odds, and that, in fact, a proper understanding of the natural world and how it works is entrenched within the Christian tradition as envisioned by Augustine. Again, I'm not going to rehash, but the book is actually quite convincing. I'm not sure that most readers would realize what a feat this is. Most attempts at reconciliation of faith and science end in tears, or, worse, laughs. Miller's ends only in careful contemplation of issues that, otherwise, many readers would have closed their mind to long ago.
In short, Miller's book can be described with that oh-so-rare combination of adjectives: good and timely. That he has co-written many textbooks currently in use in high schools across the United States is, to me (and I hope even to forerunners of the "New Atheists") a glimmer of hope.(less)
To most people, tuna isn't a fish, but rather a food item that comes in a can, disconnected from anything it might've been in life, to be mixed with c...moreTo most people, tuna isn't a fish, but rather a food item that comes in a can, disconnected from anything it might've been in life, to be mixed with celery and mayonnaise, or served on a plate with wasabi, without requirement of further contemplation. To Richard Ellis (and other biologists like him), though, the tuna is a masterpiece of evolution, the most perfectly adapted creature on earth, a wonder to behold. And it turns out that this wonder is in serious (immanent, even) danger of being wiped off the face of the planet.
In this book, Ellis's anger and passion are palpable, and you can't help but become wrought with emotion. His prose is fast-moving and he makes even relatively dry facts about tuna and the tuna fishery come to life. Prior to this, the best wide-angle tome on the destruction of sea life for man's supposed gain was Farley Mowatt's Sea of Slaughter, and the best that attempted to summarize the same using a single-species microcosm easily could've been the same author's A Whale for the Killing. Believe it or not, Ellis has put his skills to use here to outdo both in one fell swoop. He combines Mowatt's emotion with a degree of technical accuracy and academic formality (i.e. sources!) that Mowatt didn't come close to.
I would sooner recommend this to rile up the masses than I would Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring. At 300 pages, it's a relatively quick read, and it packs in just about everything you need to know. If we are to measure non-fiction books by how much information we've learned about the subject of the book when finished reading, combined by how engaging the delivery was, then A Love Story gets full marks.(less)
To be clear, Wonderful Life is not a perfect book, but it is certainly an amazing book. It's pertinent to ask, "Where does the book fall flat?"
First,...moreTo be clear, Wonderful Life is not a perfect book, but it is certainly an amazing book. It's pertinent to ask, "Where does the book fall flat?"
First, the middle section of the book, "The Reconstruction of the Burgess Shale," is just a little bit too long. I mean exactly what I said; a few pages, say, 20 or so, after you've said, "OK, I'm ready to get out of this murky details section and get on with the implications of it all," the section ends. As Gould points out, the section is, admittedly, important:
Pleading is undignified, but allow me one line: please bear with the details; they are accessible, and they are the gateway to a new world.
And bear with them you will, through about 200 pages of descriptions of, say, how the specimens of Opabinia or Hallucigenia were dissected, camera lucida diagrams, and repetitive descriptions of Harry Whittington's conservative temperament.
The best parts of the book are the first, fourth, and fifth sections. The first, "The Iconography of an Expectation," deals with the tendency amongst scientists and laypeople alike to see evolution as a linear process resulting in more and more complexity and always yielding intelligence. The fourth, "Walcott's Vision and the Nature of History," tells of the myriad expectations that led the original discoverer and describer of the Burgess to make the fatal error of placing all the Burgess biota, most of which were completely new to science, in previously known categories, as ancestors of modern creatures. And the fifth, "Possible Worlds," uses parts two and three (the ones with all the details) as a jumping board from which to explore the idea of punctuated equilibrium and its subsequent idea of contingency.
Punctuated equilibrium is the idea that evolution is not a straight line of progress. Rather, evolution centers on mass extinctions such as the extinction that killed 96 or 97% of life on earth, including most of the Burgess organisms. Evolution only works in a straight line up until a really mass extinction, and then all bets are off. Natural selection is so tied to local environments that if the environment changes it can mean game over:
Even if fishes hone their adaptations to peaks of aquatic perfection, they will all die if the ponds dry up. But grubby old Buster the Lungfish, former laughingstock of the piscine priesthood, may pull through... if we are Buster's legacy... how can we possibly view our mentality as inevitable, or even probable?
One instantly thinks of polar bears doomed by global warming. Gould calls the element of history that relies on happenstance and massively improbable coincidence "contingency," and he hammers its prevalence home with numerous examples—notably that the Burgess organism Pikaia was the earliest chordate, and its nonexistence would have erased us from history.
My main objection to contingency is complicated, but in the spirit of this review, I might ask you to bear with my details.
Sigmund Freud immodestly wrote that "humanity has in the course of its time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its native self-love": the discovery that our world is not the center of the celestial spheres but rather a speck in a vast universe, the discovery that we are not specially created but instead descended from the animals, and the discovery that often our conscious minds do not control how we act but merely tell us a story about our actions.
Science does have a proud tradition of muckraking by demoting the status of humankind further and further, from Lord of Creation, created in God's image, to just another ape on another rock in another galaxy. To most people, this is insulting, even troubling; to those who understand, to those who find themselves, like Job, "comforted that I am dust," it's humbling, and beautiful. But it does lead to a sort of playground-style fight over who among the sciences has demoted man furthest. Gould seems to be making a play here:
As Freud observed, our relationship with science must be paradoxical because we are forced to pay an almost intolerable price for each major gain in knowledge and power—the psychological cost of progressive dethronement from the center of things, and increasing marginality in an uncaring universe.
He's referencing Freud in order to tie in the concept with his view of contingency.
Here's where things get neat: think about SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI optimists, people who feel that it is likely that the universe is populated by intelligent life (myself included), base our assumption on a certain feel for evolution. Carl Sagan was a SETI optimist; he felt that evolution follows, if not a straight line, per se, a route to progress. If Gould is to be believed that (a) contingency is all-important in understanding evolution and (b) contingency is one of Freud's demotions, then Sagan's converse idea should be empowering to man, in the sense that it indicates that evolution must eventually result in something like us. And yet—here is Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot, titling a chapter "The Great Demotions," and claiming among those demotions the notion that we may not be alone in the universe!
The thing is that Gould is not the only supporter of punctuated equilibrium that upholds his ideas as those most demoralizing to mankind. Here's Michael Shermer in the Spring 2008 issue of Skeptic magazine:
Historical experiment after experiment reveals the same answer: we are a fluke of nature, a quirk of evolution, a glorious contingency. It is tempting to... write yourself into the story as the central pattern in order to find purpose and meaning... But skeptical alarms should toll whenever anyone claims that science has discovered our deepest desires and oldest myths are true after all... a purpose-seeking animal will find itself as the purpose of nature.
Shermer is responding to SETI optimism with a stone face. The point is that Shermer and Gould accuse SETI optimists of wishful thinking, without realizing that their notion so perfectly backs up the very teachings of the church: that we are alone and that we are the only intelligent life out there.—you see, the idea of SETI was once about where contingency is now. The idea of other people was very troubling to the religious; how could God send a saviour to two or more worlds? I'm not saying that contingency is a bad idea, and neither am I knocking punctuated equilibrium. I'm just saying it's not as much of a revelation as Gould thinks.
I'm done complaining.—so, what did Gould get right?
One of the major appeals of the book is his treatment of scientists as real, quirky people instead of arcane demigods; think the best parts of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in more depth. Whittington, Briggs, Conway Morris, Walcott, and even Darwin come alive in these pages, in their words, if possible.
He also presents the details with arresting scope and clarity. Sidebars throughout help the layman through arthropod terminology, and the book is lavishly illustrated throughout. Gould's prose is stellar—each punctuation mark and word is devastating. Some say that he rambles, but they're missing the point, because Gould's rambling is his charm. He conveys his passion like few other science writers manage to do.
Finally, despite being 20 years old this year, the science in Wonderful Life is cutting-edge. After that long, there were bound to be some corrections: for example, Anomalocaris did not perish soon after the Shale's time; a relative named Schinderhannes survived until the Devonian, 100 million years after the Burgess. Furthermore, Anomalocaris and Opabinia are now considered lobopods, not their own distinct phylum. Hallucigenia walked on its "tenticles," not on its spines, making it substantially less hallucinogenic than once imagined. These are trivialities, in my opinion; for every incorrect guess, Gould makes three that panned out, including correctly placing Aysheiea in the phylum Onychophora, at a time when it was in dispute as to what it was, and calling that the Burgess represented a world-wide fauna based on a few Chinese fossils, guessing that more would show up (in the 2000s, the Changjiang fauna did indeed show up, replete with complete anomalocarids and primitive chordata related to Pikaia, theretofore a single specimen).
The facts are these: Wonderful Life makes you think. It's brilliantly written. And, at the end of the day, the creatures and fossils are just awesome. Paleo enthusiasts like me are all kids at heart, Gould being no exception at all.(less)
NOTE: Feel free to read the full review, but I can sum it up in a fact. Gould need only have written the two-page epilogue to his book, a concise essa...moreNOTE: Feel free to read the full review, but I can sum it up in a fact. Gould need only have written the two-page epilogue to his book, a concise essay, rather than the remainder of the book. In fact, the entire thing is just so much pink fiberglass insulation leading up to the final page of the book. Everything he intended to say is there without any jargon or facts and figures. As a teacher, I intend to photocopy and teach that page alone. Carry on if desired. ____________________________________________
I am not a philistine, nor am I stupid, and rare is the book that totally mystifies me. It is regrettable, then, that this, which will be placed, in due time, on that narrow metaphorical shelf, bewildered not out of being truly beyond grasping, but rather out of poor presentation and overly technical writing. I feel that this is relevant to the aims of this review. I quote David Kipen's review of the The Zohar: Pritzker Edition Vol. 1:
If a book is so knotty that it makes a critic's skull ache, most critics would consider that something an unwary reader deserves to know.
And now you know. (To be clear, the first four chapters are not troublesome; it's chapter five, "The Real Error of Cyril Burt," that should've been omitted. But I'll get to that in due time.)
These are the main points of Gould's book: (a) That there is no discernible difference, especially of intellect, between the various races of Homo sapiens; (b) that scientists are prey to the same biases and subjectivities as we all are, and they may colour their work thus; (c) that intelligence is a nebulous, unquantifiable entity, and we often fall prey to the fallacy of reification when referencing intelligence, i.e. we feel that that which is named is definable; and (d) that sociobiology, as put forth by Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, is incorrect insofar as it seeks to find an explanation for human behaviour in Darwinian theory. I can get behind propositions (a) through (c), but I find (d) revolting and completely off-base.
In fact, my point (b) above, Gould's assertion that scientists' work might be shaped by their biases, is the basis for the ultimate failure of The Mismeasure of Man. Gould "knows" that IQ measures nothing, and that sociobiology is false, and that admitting any innate difference between human minds will lead to social darwinism, so of course, he's churned out this massive synthesis in support of precisely those ideas. The fact that he doesn't realize his hypocrisy is more or less vomit-inducing. The fact is that IQ measures something real, so says recent, moderate research (see "The Search for Intelligence" by the ubiquitous Carl Zimmer, Scientific American, October 2008, pp. 68-75). I agree with Gould when he quotes John Stuart Mill, saying that
The tendency has always been strong to believe whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.
The rub is that some things that don't answer to names actually don't exist, for one. Unicorns come to mind.
This is key. It simply states, rather uncontroversially, that all traits might be inherited, and to say as much is not to embrace genetic determinism. But in the book, Gould poo-poos sociobiology and the rule. He states that human being have no innate leaning toward aggressiveness. In a sense, Mismeasure is the archenemy of The Blank Slate. Gould never actually advocates that we are blank slates, stating instead that
I cannot adopt such a nihilistic position without denying the fundamental insight of my profession.
He does, however, essentially state that IQ is meaningless because it reifies intelligence, and that there's nothing innately different about one human's brain or another's, in a sort of "Harrison Bergeron" vision of equality. Pinker pretty much shows this to be false, but finds a way to celebrate our differences.
To me, the problem with IQ is not that it measures nothing, in theory, although some people just don't test well, and I exclude them from judgment. My beef is that IQ is just so linear and one-dimensional. Who decided that skill in math and grammar was the sole indicator of intelligence? What about athletic ability? Artistic ability? Ability to categorize? Or to ask the big questions? What about people with great "people skills," or an aptitude for mechanics? Educators will be familiar with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and I subscribe to it wholeheartedly. Darwin himself was of average intelligence, but excelled at research (Gardner's "naturalist" intelligence). And I believe that each of us is capable of whatever we wish to accomplish—there are pilots and painters without arms, and I almost cringe before throwing out the token "Beethoven was deaf" nugget. Genes are not destiny, and work can overcome them. That said, smart people know their limits and they don't wax poetic about how they don't exist and we're all equal in every way. I know that I am not good at math, that is, I was not born with an innate ability to comprehend mathematics intuitively. I could certainly apply myself and learn math, but why bother?—I understand biology and literature in ways most mathematicians do not.
And this brings us to the part of the book that made me give it one star—"The Real Error of Cyril Burt," consisting of eighty-six pages of advanced math. This is a fatal error for a pop-sci book. I had to skip the chapter after 20 pages; it was going in one eye and out the other, or as Richard Ellis says, MEGO syndrome set in (My Eyes Glaze Over). Sample:
The original measures may be represented as vectors of unit length, radiating from a common point. If two measures are highly correlated, their vectors lie close to each other. The cosine of the angle between any two vectors records the correlation coefficient between them...
Not exactly quantum mechanics, to be sure, but enough to kill my interest, and lose the point. If Gould needs a lot of math to tell me something very loose and unsure, and Pinker needs no math to tell me something completely concrete, well, Occam and his famed blade point to the latter.
This is the second Gould I've read, and it was the second to involve a disclaimer about a glut of details to come in the introduction. When you're used to Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, with their grand, sweeping,and poetic generalizations about life, the universe, and everything, these details are not only shelter to the devil—they are the devil.
Believe it or not, I recommend this book. The first four chapters and the epilogue—the story of a sterilized woman with Down's syndrome, which broke my heart—are pretty good. But bad editing is its downfall. When I count three spelling errors, I send the thing back to my mental publishers.(less)
When people use the word "synthesis" to describe a massive, multidisciplinary treatise, drawing from all areas of human knowledge to make a singularly...moreWhen people use the word "synthesis" to describe a massive, multidisciplinary treatise, drawing from all areas of human knowledge to make a singularly visionary point, they should be thinking of The Ancestor's Tale as the archetype for all others. There are a few other books out there that approach its scope (Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate get pretty close to the Grail) but none with so original a narrative. Dawkins borrows, with some modifications, the frame narrative used in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. If you're a classics fan, then, this is your best bet for a science book you can sink your teeth into.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer (the character) joins a band of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, and each tells a tale. Dawkins, here, is Chaucer, and his Canterbury is the earliest human ancestor. As he moves his way back through time, the other pilgrims, being chimpanzees, rats, whales, starfish, salamanders, dinosaurs, bacteria, and many other creatures great and small, tell tales, each of which reveals something poignant and remarkable about the nature of life on earth. The book is densely philosophical, but, at the same time, completely approachable, even to an evolutionary newbie.
This CD version is highly abridged (about half the text), but it's worth it to pick up both versions. Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward, make the book come to life. The reading is exceptionally spirited and conveys the ideas even better than the text version, I think.(less)
This wonderful Canadian book is so highly recommended. It was written by the editors of Pound magazine, which is, in my opinion, the best hip-hop maga...moreThis wonderful Canadian book is so highly recommended. It was written by the editors of Pound magazine, which is, in my opinion, the best hip-hop magazine out there. The book explores gun culture, as the subtitle states, from its earliest inception all the way through to its current glorification in the media, particularly in rap music. It lays down the framework, describing the issues and introducing the makes and models of guns and their histories... Desert Eagle, AK, etc. Then it takes you on a whirlwind tour of aficionados and detractors, rappers, enthusiasts, woman's rights advocates, everybody. In the end, you have a newfound respect for guns and gun culture but a simultaneous desire to become a pacifist. It doesn't really resolve much. I don't know whether I want to boycott guns or buy them. But it sure crams a lot of information into just over 300 amazingly well-written pages. I couldn't put it down. On a final note, if you liked Bowling for Columbine, check out this book.(less)