The Description calls Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test an "exploration" of the "madness industry". At times it felt more like a sampling. I am not sur...moreThe Description calls Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test an "exploration" of the "madness industry". At times it felt more like a sampling. I am not sure why I was expecting something more academic and objective. Ronson's journey reads more casual and conversational, even zealously subjective. However, the book is quite effective, thought-provoking, and at times emotional (in a way meant to reassure me the reader I am not a psychopath).
This is not a book that will ground you firmly in a clinical understanding of psychopathy. This is a driving tour through the suspicion, fear, horror, and outright paranoia we may experience when contemplating psychopathy from a non-expert standpoint. At its best, Ronson's work shows just how fanatically anyone and everyone clings to beliefs they have a vested interest in, especially a professional interest. Though the book was not what I expected, I found it effective and worthwhile. Highly recommended. Lastly, kudos to the fearless leader of the book club I attend for throwing some non-fiction into the mix. (less)
Around the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-cen...moreAround the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-centered (Copernican). In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk provides a wonderfully accessible history lesson explaining these two astronomical systems--how the Ptolemaic view dominated for so long and then was overtaken by the Copernican theory (roughly around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). If Mr. Falk’s book had been solely, or even mostly, about this crucial history lesson, I would probably be writing a four-star review. I am not.
At the heart of Falk’s book is a vein of wishful-thinking that borders on conspiracy theory. What begins as an informative interdisciplinary discussion--examining the intersection of Elizabethan drama and modern science—by Chapter 7 diverts in to a scholastic pipedream with Shakespeare being a closeted devotee of Copernican astronomy. Perhaps, the author and his chief source suggest, Hamlet is more than just a great play. Perhaps it is also a clever and elaborate allegory exploring the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo et al. What if the characters in Hamlet are actually symbolic stand-ins for the leading thinkers of Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomies?
As Falk grants by way of academic integrity, prevailing literary theory finds this hypothesis flimsy. Shakespeare’s plays have clear, unmistakable, and fully-developed themes. Science-flattering allegory is not one of them. It smacks of the same contrived, cherry-picking investigation that lies at the core of conspiracy theories--like the one about Shakespeare not being the author of any or all of those plays. This does not stop Falk from devoting a lot of ink and credulity to the idea. It is as if Falk wants to be the Copernicus of Shakespearean scholarship--establishing a new unifying truth of what the Bard's plays really mean, a revelation that has eluded centuries of previous thinkers.
To his credit, Falk makes clear the highly speculative nature of suggesting Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I am not offended that Falk addressed the notion of Hamlet as science allegory. I am annoyed at how hard he worked to make it look compelling. I come at this as a Shakespeare fan with a humanities degree. I feel like Falk might feel if he had to read multiple chapters of me saying, “The Academy may have dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas about the solar system, but clearly he was on to something. Scholars should revisit him.”
The truth is Hamlet does not want for a science tie-in to be one of the greatest achievements of human expression.
Late in The Science of Shakespeare, Falk makes a compelling exploration of King Lear. The author hits his stride juxtaposing the Bard with the fledgling modern science of his day. He also does justice to what makes King Lear great--its humanity. For this chapter above all others, I am glad I stuck this book out to the end. Falk even got me in the mood to reread King Lear. And that is great, because Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read. They do for English literature what Copernicus and Galileo did for science--they give us a lasting foundation for worthy exploration.(less)
Just now, I listened to the morning news while wolfing down breakfast at a local cafe. 100 percent of the covera...moreUnderstatement: It is a violent world.
Just now, I listened to the morning news while wolfing down breakfast at a local cafe. 100 percent of the coverage I heard was about recent violence, violence in progress, and the prospect of violence in the future. To say the least, we are a violent species.
Yet, as Walter Kirn points out in his new non-fiction work, Blood Will Out, we humans are also capable of great tolerance and cooperation. That is not a wonderful thing. Kirn explores how these traits--in concert with our desire for acceptance--make us easy pickins for psycopaths.
In Blood Will Out, Kirn casts himself as the thoughtful dupe of a murdering con man. The premise is so oddly touching it borders on hard to believe. Kirn agrees to drive an ailing dog across country and deliver it to a member of the Rockefeller family. Sounds like a great start to a novel. However this is a true story. Or at least it is the recounting of a great deal of lying.
The book flips back and forth between a murder trial in the present and a rocky friendship in the past. This dual plotline allows the author to draw parallels between con artist and mark. In every chapter, the implicit question being begged is "Kirn, how did you fall for this guy's claims?" Therefore, the book's greatest accomplishment is its candid rendering of how Kirn, or any of us, can be grandly duped.
Blood Will Out is a fairly quick read. This is not an in-depth exploration of forensics and crime investigation. It is a memoir about the bond between two men: the deceiver and the deceived. Doubtless, some will be cynical of Kirn's choice to convert his unflattering experience into a moneymaking bestseller. Still, he seems candid about his personal shortcomings and offers up a tale with plenty of healthy caution for the reader. I highly recommend Blood Will Out.(less)
At a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Yo...moreAt a panel discussion in Salt Lake City, I once heard a BYU Philosophy professor suggest that the Adam-God Doctrine may have been something Brigham Young used for the purpose of trying to drive Orson Pratt out of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. My brow furrowed. I had never before heard that notion, nor for that matter was I aware that a serious conflict had occurred between the two men. I left the matter unexplored until I found Gary James Bergera's book Conflict in the Quorum.
Orson Pratt, one of the great theological voices of early Mormonism, had run-ins with both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. His rift with Joseph occurred over the practice of polygamy and claims that Joseph attempted to take Pratt's wife in plural marriage. His conflicts with Brigham Young covered a great deal of ground, including questions of authority--should Church rulings be made by a First Presidency or a majority of the Twelve--and issues of theology, such as the nature of the Godhead.
This work is a magnifying glass held up to two men who were fiercely devoted to Mormonism in excruciatingly different ways. Young was a manager. Pratt was a theologian. Bergera's book is not for the beginner. This book is not a primer. It is a close examination of original records. It moves fast and is laden with footnotes.
One of the great values of Conflict in the Quorum is in providing the reader extended excerpts taken from meeting transcripts. At times, the reader has the chance to picture being in a closed-door meeting of the Twelve. Bergera provides enough depth and breadth of material so that, whether one is partial to Young or Pratt, it is possible to appreciate the perspective each man had.
For me personally, I strongly valued the candid discussion of Brigham Young's Adam-God Doctrine--in which Young taught that Adam was a resurrected polygamist when he entered the Garden of Eden, and also the Father of our spirits. Pratt became an outspoken critic of this odd doctrine that did not stand the test of time. Pratt and Young also repeatedly butted heads over the question of how God's omniscience omnipresence should be understood in light of Mormon belief that God has a physical body. In these matters, Bergera lets Pratt and Young speak for themselves.
As Young and Pratt grapple with each other and deep doctrines, the reader has a chance to learn a lot about human nature and also 19th Century Mormonism. The goal of this book is not to disprove Mormonism, nor does it come down unequivocally in favor of Young or Pratt. I recommend it for people engaged in a serious study of Mormon history, and who are interested in examining source material not as often examined.(less)
When author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your rel...moreWhen author Jeff Chu finished speaking about his new book, I raised my hand and made the following request: "I'm curious to hear you describe your relationship with the Bible." This tends to be the first question I want to ask anyone who identifies as both homosexual and Christian. Perhaps, in terms of a person's walk with God, it is not the most important issue. Still, as a former Mormon Christian and a devout agnostic, it's the most pressing question in my mind. My decision to commit to an agnostic lifestyle was directly precipitated a few years ago when I sought to re-read the Bible.
Mr. Chu responded to my request with a wonderfully thoughtful answer, reflecting the keen observations and nuanced analysis readers will find in his book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? Jeff said he has a great respect for the Bible. (So do I.) He said he loved the poetry of the King James Version. (Preach it!) Then he spoke of the difficulties of conveying meaning, especially filtered through translation. (Hallelujah, Brother!) He astutely described how even with contemporary writing people often miss the point, sometimes willfully misreading text. (Amen!)
However, as Jeff wrapped up his response to me, I gathered that he is less willing than I am to take a clear stand on the Bible's various injunctions regarding sexual morality. (For the record, I am wholeheartedly in favor of legalizing gay marriage.) Yet, Jeff never came around to saying what I believe--that whole sections of the Bible are horrifically archaic by any reasonable interpretation, and in consequence it is irresponsible to patronize politically active organizations that persist in marketing the anthology as inerrant. Shucks! I was hoping he had the same opinion I do. Nevertheless, I bought Jeff's book and had him sign it.
"Dear Jake, God Bless You!" reads his personalized autograph on the title page. Thank you, Jeff.
Does Jesus Really Love Me has a great deal of depth with regard to unpacking the larger issues and comparing the various factions Jeff encountered on his "pilgrimage". This is a work of non-fiction, but there is a story arc built in around two people: 1) the author; and 2) a closeted homosexual in Nevada called Gideon. Over the course of the book, I came to see organized Christianity as the well-intentioned antagonist. The tension plays out between individuals and the collective. Most of the time the focus is on relationships, not theology.
The longer I live as an agnostic, the harder time I have sympathizing with people of faith, especially people who persist in practicing religions that oppose their lifestyle. I sometimes forget that many homosexuals are motivated by a genuine Christian spirituality. They have felt the burning in the bosom; they have heard the “still small voice” after praying about Jesus. This book gives them a greater voice.
Yet, Does Jesus Really Love Me is not a one-sided analysis. The stories and heartfelt perspectives of fundamentalist Christians are also examined. There are several fascinating passages rendered as oral histories, where the interviewee speaks at length and uninterrupted. These include a passage of reflection by disgraced pastor Ted Haggard. This diversity of perspectives should ensure that any reader, me a prime example, will find himself alternately validated and challenged in his current opinions.
Jeff's book does have one key limitation--a point on which it opts for exclusivity instead of inclusiveness. He limits his pilgrimage to Protestantism. The question of if Protestantism is the sole synonym for authentic Christianity is one I won't debate here. Through personal study and frequent debates during my Mormon mission, I came to appreciate the theological distinctions whereby Protestants often claim they alone are authentic Christians. However, this denominational focus does mean that people coming from other versions of Christianity will find their traditions neglected by Jeff's tome.
That is arguably a minor criticism though. There are so many gems of humanity in Does Jesus Really Love Me? The insights are keen and affecting. Take this one from Episcopal bishop Mary Glasspool, after realizing her sexual status had become a newspaper headline:
"I feel like only one aspect of the complexity of the person I am is being singled out."
In a world with an Internet, where we repeatedly post our beliefs in an attempt to drown out dissent, Jeff's book has the potential to be an antidote. You cannot read it fairly without setting aside your assumptions and giving your full attention to people with different perspectives. For that reason in particular, I highly recommend reading Does Jesus Really Love Me?(less)
When I was a kid, I accompanied my parents to a big cookout with a bunch of their motorcycle friends. The event took place in some nondescript park so...moreWhen I was a kid, I accompanied my parents to a big cookout with a bunch of their motorcycle friends. The event took place in some nondescript park somewhere. Next to the park was a nondescript trail. At least, it all seemed nondescript to me at the time. At some point that day a hiker with a lot of gear emerged from the nearby trail. He asked me if he could purchase a meal from our gathering. Turns out he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. To this day I wonder if he made it.
Last month I grabbed a free copy of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods off a table of periodicals at my local coffee shop. The book had been chosen by a local wellness and library contingent for an event called 5H Community Read. (The H is for health and the 5 is for the number of local towns participating.) Lots of folks like me are reading and sharing copies of the book. Various activities are being held. Good times and a very good book!
Bryson's travelogue centers on his tackling of the famed Appalachian Trail. The trail ends up tackling him. While the book lacks supporting pictures, it does not lack for vivid imagery and a large supply of anecdotes calculated to leave readers laughing or groaning with empathy. In a handful of cases, it also left me thoroughly spooked. This is highly accessible and engaging storytelling. I binge-read the last half as if I was at a campfire and did not want to go to sleep. Just stay on the trail a bit longer and tell me more about being there, I wanted to say to Bryson.
I highly recommend this book as a piece of Americana first and hiking second. This is a character-based narrative with universal appeal, not a technical primer for hikers. I found it as riveting as the many Everest books I have read. Best of all, it is the kind of book that sparks conversation. Read it, share it, and then reflect with other readers. (less)
Unlike the record-chasing canyon run recounted in The Emerald Mile, I did not race through this work. That is not to say it dragged. The book was engr...moreUnlike the record-chasing canyon run recounted in The Emerald Mile, I did not race through this work. That is not to say it dragged. The book was engrossing and often quite intense. Author Kevin Fedarko captures the high stakes nature of this historic time in the Grand Canyon's history. He ably pulls together a wide variety of sources to accurately convey the story. The task is challenging given that many incidents happened amid chaos and tend to be scantily documented and skewed by legend loving.
My only gripe is the effusive nature of Fedarko's prose. Restatement gives way to overstatement, and his unmistakable love for the subject matter sometimes runs wild like the rapids in the canyon. His musings on the wooden boats preferred by elite river guides for example, or any of several aria-like passages of reflection. Such unbridled romanticism captures the sentiments of the players; however, it also sometimes gums up otherwise efficiently engineered reportage.
Here is one example from the Epilogue, not the most verbose, but certainly characteristic of the author getting carried away:
"As this new generation ran the river together, the ferocious clashes of the past--motors versus oars, rubber versus wood--fell away and were forgotten, and everyone became friends."
I could forgive every word up to and including "forgotten" as common positivism laced with hyperbole. But when Fedarko asserts universal friendship, he claims the unlikely existence of a utopia.
Nevertheless, one of the things which The Emerald Mile effectively relates is the tension between various groups who are inextricably tied to the Grand Canyon. In particular, the book recounts volatility between the free-spirited river culture and the bureaucratic--though similarly idealistic--society of Glen Canyon Dam. And it is in exploring these tensions that the novel achieves true depth from which every reader can draw meaning and appreciation.
Selling Point: The Emerald Mile comes with a great deal of bibliographic material sure to be helpful for readers who want to pursue further reading about the Grand Canyon. (less)
I was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal d...moreI was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal descriptions, I had to choose a book covered in construction paper, check it out, and take it home before seeing the cover. Even after learning which book I had chosen, I did not experience love at first sight.
This book details a serial killing spree in the recent history of Italy. While the material was unavoidably engrossing, it took me about half the book to truly connect with the players and the struggle. Part of the challenge, pointed out by coauthor Douglas Preston, is the issue of the killer never being revealed or caught. However, I also felt Part One of the book relied too much on impersonal fact recitation. The cumulative effect was a sense of detachment from the personal tragedy in deference to an exhaustive outline. The considerable upside is the comprehensive nature of the authors' research.
The Monster of Florence almost could be understood as two books. The first provides a straightforward rendering of the history. The second part deals with the emotional and professional fallout for the authors. If Part One is the chalk outline of the victim, Part Two is the victim's remains. Moving and spine tingling interviews occur in the second half which enabled me to develop a strong emotional connection. Perhaps the most mesmerizing passage occurs in Chapter 36, as coauthor Mario Spezi recounts a monk offering penetrating insights into mental illness and the nature of evil. Here is only a snippet:
"Madness is the renunciation of all efforts to be understood."
Was my blind date with The Monster of Florence good enough to merit another date? Yes and no. It definitely rekindled my interest in the true crime genre. It also reminded me how this genre is a bay window view of our whole society. I may not return to the works of these two authors right away, but they have succeeded in strengthening my enthusiasm for excellent long-form journalism. This book is worth getting to know.(less)
This is the second instructional book on Photoshop I have explored. Specifically, it covers Photoshop CS5. It does not strike me as a book for novice...moreThis is the second instructional book on Photoshop I have explored. Specifically, it covers Photoshop CS5. It does not strike me as a book for novice users; certainly the printed portion of this publication is not. For context, I would describe myself as having an intermediate level knowledge of Photoshop. So the book was right at my knowledge level, offering a great deal of review but also insights into tools and techniques I had not yet considered.
The videos on CD, which make up the bulk of the content, are more user-friendly than the text. They are also more comprehensive, laid out in a fashion that underscores the virtues of non-destructive editing and logical work flow. I especially appreciated the segments dedicated to Camera Raw, which is an essential tool in my use of Photoshop at work.
Unfortunately I did not get to try all the videos as I had to get my copy back to the local library. However, on the basis of going through all the printed material, and perhaps a fifth of the videos, I do recommend this manual to Photoshop users wishing to achieve confidence and a broad knowledge of the CS5 version. Had I purchased this manual instead of borrowing it, I would feel I got my money's worth.(less)
For all the absurdity to be found in the story of Scientology, detailed in the new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,...moreFor all the absurdity to be found in the story of Scientology, detailed in the new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, one quote from a critic of the religion bugs me most. In Chapter 7, a German labor minister named Norbert Blum says, “This is not a church or a religious organization. Scientology is a machine for manipulating human beings.” I appreciate his sentiment; however, “machine for manipulating human beings” strikes me as an apt description of religion, albeit an undiplomatic one. It also makes for a good definition of fraternities, sororities, corporations, political parties, really any organization motivated by self-interest that sets out to sculpt whole societies.
I came to Lawrence Wright’s new book by way of having appreciated his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on al Qaeda in The Looming Tower. Going Clear has proved a less satisfying read, though not for lack of quality. Wright’s work continues to be first-rate long form journalism. He brings together copious amounts of new research, while providing thoughtful analysis of extant source material. Nevertheless, the book is dissatisfying and at times outright dismaying.
My dissatisfaction stems from the impossibility of achieving a complete and factual narrative. A clear picture inevitably remains hidden underneath a mountain of hearsay, slander, counter-slander, and unverifiable speculation by persons actually willing to give interviews. My dismay stems from almost everything Wright is able to verify. For all that is shocking or maddeningly esoteric about Scientology, it proves to be just the latest in an ever lengthening line of religions which pursue existential comfort at any cost: financial or intellectual. I write this as someone with a great deal of personal experience in religion.
It’s a credit to Wright that he can sift through the intellectual rubble, uncover so many troubling instances of ruined lives, all the while keeping a level head and coming back to the larger picture. And the larger picture must grant Scientology and its members some merit and understanding. Wright is able to confront the darker episodes but then pull back to remind worked-up readers like me that many in the church have harnessed the religion to attain fulfilling lives.
Wright is especially successful in making sense of Scientology’s fanatical crusade against psychiatry—a seeming hatred that comes to a head with Tom Cruise’s notorious on-air squabble with Today host Matt Lauer. Wright points out more than once the troubling underbelly of psychiatry, from its early and painful experimenting to its current reliance on profit-driven pharmacology. The fear and apprehension of Scientologists toward psychiatry, though hypocritical, is not entirely misplaced.
Where Going Clear achieves great value is in its perceptive and heartfelt portrayals of John Travolta and Paul Haggis (now an ex-Scientologist). The latter, screenwriter of the acclaimed films Crash and Million Dollar Baby, emerges as the book's protagonist. Wright has a tougher time pinning down founder L. Ron Hubbard, current leader David Miscavige, and cultural icon Tom Cruise. With these men, who lived or live cloistered behind public relations machines, Wright can do little more than report the wealth of critical testimony about them, while dutifully footnoting the blanket denials provided by these men’s spokespersons.
The notion of belief as a prison can seem disheartening, but Wright makes a strong and carefully documented case that it is often just that. Readers of every persuasion will be given much to think about if they read Going Clear. Though it is not a fun or uplifting work, the book candidly relates the pitfalls Scientology has created for itself and its opponents. Ultimately it is an all too familiar tale of religion in pursuit of the best but often winding up at the worst. (less)
When I took a Freshman-level Physics class in college, basically Astronomy 101, I was still a practicing Mormon. The highly enjoyable class played no...moreWhen I took a Freshman-level Physics class in college, basically Astronomy 101, I was still a practicing Mormon. The highly enjoyable class played no distinct role in my choice to leave formal religion and live agnosticism. On the contrary, in the closing weeks of the course, as we delved deeper and further into cosmology, I was impressed by how much room serious science leaves for the existence of god…or at least a godlike force that behaves according to law.
Reading professor and blogger Adam Frank’s book About Time brought me back to those fundamental ruminations on how/if the universe began, and does/will it ever end. However, this book is not an easy read. Many of its chapters are far from user friendly. Nevertheless, free from intellectual obligations to a church, and buoyed by Frank’s balanced approach to competing theories, I had a positive and enlightening experience reading About Time.
The first half of this book is as much a history lesson as a scientific discourse. Frank speaks of a Big Bang of human consciousness that occurred far back in our history, a time when our ancestors became capable of metaphorical thinking. Metaphor and illustrations are two of Frank’s essential tools in making quantum physics remotely understandable. We have come a long way from eras when our ancestors lived according to solar or lunar cycles. Yet we find ourselves in a similar place, on the cusp of a new era of understanding and discovery, led on by prophets (now of math and physics) who promise us the truth is just over the horizon. Though, unlike religion, science doesn’t sell itself with faith.
About Time often drifts into academic speak, utilizing phrases and word choices germane to the university but not to everyday conversation. A key term Frank relies on is material engagement. It speaks to how our notions of time and space are informed and altered by what we build and the culture that results. Stonehenge is an example of material engagement. But in Frank’s book, these rock-hard object lessons soon give way to ever more abstract discussions of gravity, space-time, relativity, and the maddeningly counter-intuitive quantum physics.
As the book drifts into increasingly complex theory that only, purportedly, makes sense to the theorists who know the math, About Time drifts further away from its titular focus: time. This is not accidental. Frank isn’t wandering. Rather, he arrives at a chapter where a scientist theorizes that time does not even exist. It isn’t that crazy of a notion, especially since Einstein proved time is at least relative.
About Time has a carefully constructed narrative. But I strongly suggest taking notes to follow it. Frank often calls back to previous chapters. There is a great deal of braiding in this book, braiding of similar theories and braiding of culture with cosmology. It’s a lot to take in, especially if you are not a scientist and lack the mathematical training. Fortunately, Frank is a gracious author willing to make explicit the limitations of present scientific theory.
Now here’s the irony this book provides. Physicists who try to sell you string theory, or the supposed existence of a multiverse, are asking you to accept as reality something that at present cannot be physically tested, may never be observable by humans, and which has as its only evidence the writings of believers. Sound familiar?
Granted the true believers of string theory are a highly trained academy. They submit their work to rigorous peer review and generally encourage skepticism and scrutiny. Nevertheless, in granting how far out some of theoretical physics is, Frank sheds light on the considerable difficulty of making deep science intelligible to the layman.
Reading About Time is the hardest I’ve yet tried to wrap my mind around quantum physics. Saying I barely succeeded is generous. Still, Frank ably furthers a discussion that needs to happen, and needs to be made intelligible to the public. He speaks thoughtfully to the enticements and limits of current and popular theories of science. All of these have direct implications for how our species navigates what we call the future, and how we frame our values and priorities against both the known and supposed universes heretofore conceived. (less)
I am a big fan of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and his arguments for increasing NASA's budget to ramp up space exploration efforts. As such, I'm not inclin...moreI am a big fan of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and his arguments for increasing NASA's budget to ramp up space exploration efforts. As such, I'm not inclined to do a conventional review. Suffice it to say, Tyson is one of the preeminent voices advocating for space exploration. He also has an engaging writing style, a great sense of humor, and well-honed arguments worth considering. So I strongly recommend reading this collection of essays and interviews.
On the lighter side, here is a blog piece I did that involves my copy of Dr. Tyson's book and, well...a cat.