Monday, April 30, 2007

All Things Bright And Beautiful, James Herriot

Title: All Things Bright And Beautiful
Author: James Herriot
Rating: Great!

A short review here. All Things Bright And Beautiful is just as good as All Creatures Great And Small. The writing is wonderful and the stories uplifting, even when they are addressing something sad.

If you haven't read these books, you should. There's a reason they were best sellers.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell

Title: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Author: Sarah Vowell
Rating: Good

After completing the previous thousand page monster - A Storm Of Swords - I desperately needed a change of pace, so I made sure that I got one when I next dipped into my TBR pile. The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a collection of essays and articles written by Sarah Vowell. I'd originally planned on reading one or two at a sitting, but instead I gulped the whole book down in a single day, and probably avoided a lot of things I should have been doing as a result.

In a nutshell, I like Sarah Vowell. Her politics is probably close to my own. Her simple and honest atheism is an attraction. Her writing is can be funny or serious or persuasive and is great to read. I cannot claim to be a history buff, but I find reading about her history fetish interesting. I think what I find most refreshing, though, is her open embrace of complexity, and even hypocrisy. Almost nothing in the world of human relations is simply black or white. It's all shades of gray, and in these essays Vowell clearly acknowledges that. At times she almost revels in it.

Vowell writes in an approachable and fun style, but she can be serious when needed. Not all of the essays in here work as well as they might; some are better than others. But most are good or very good, and some, like the the title essay - written shortly after 9/11 - are great. I'd like to share a couple of quotes, just to bring home the nature of what she does.

From The First Thanksgiving: When I invited my mom and dad to come to New York City to have Thanksgiving at my house, I never expected them to say yes. Not only had they never been to New York, they had never been east of the Mississippi. Nor had they ever visited me. I've always had these fantasies about being in a normal family in which the parents come to town and their adult daughter spends their entire visit daydreaming of suicide. I'm here to tell you that dreams really do come true.

From The Partly Cloudy Patriot: The true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government.

Also From The Partly Cloudy Patriot: I will say that, in September [2001, after 9/11], atheism was a lonely creed. Not because atheists have no god to turn to, but because everyone else forgot about us.

I think from those quotes you can see both the humor and the seriousness of her work. These essays are worth reading, and I hope Sarah Vowell keeps on writing for a long, long time. It's nice to have someone of about my age write like this and make points I think are funny, important, or both.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Storm Of Swords, George R. R. Martin

Title: A Storm Of Swords
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: OK

What to say about A Storm Of Swords?

Well, to start off with, it's big. Really big. Huge. Immense. Massive. You could stun an ox with this hunk of dead tree. The problem with this bigness, however, is that Martin desperately needs an editor. At least partly as a result of that I am growing less and less thrilled with his story telling as A Song Of Ice And Fire slogs along. Oh, and did I mention that it's big?

What else can I tell you without giving things away?

Well, as I have said before - in my reviews of previous volumes in this saga - Martin is willing to kill off characters you've come to know. Characters you've bonded with over thousands (literally) of pages of text. It's more than a bit disconcerting to have that happen and yet know that the story is still going to go on for thousands more pages.

Yes, this willingness to knock off anyone amounts to a more "real" take on fantasy literature, but it is hard on the reader. And that's the place where - for my money - Martin falls down a bit on the job. Perhaps he only falls to one knee or some such, but he does stumble. You see, his story telling doesn't fit any of the normal patterns - hero defeats villain, hero dies trying, etc. Instead we follow an enormous cast of characters through an outrageously complicated series of events. We need notes to track everyone involved and what they've done (and said) to whom. And we cannot assume that any given character is a hero, villain, or even that he or she will be alive at the end of the chapter we're reading. Not having a clue about who to root for causes me some discomfort after something like 2400 pages of text.

Martin's prose is fine. Not stellar, but fine. His character development is, a bit, well... prolonged. And this is where he needs the aforementioned editor. There are entire chapters that could be replaced by single paragraphs. I love and respect good character development, but Martin does it to such an extent that I wind up wishing for him to get back to the plot. An entire chapter can often be summarized in 2 or 3 simple sentences. True it wouldn't be quite as good a read in summary form, but if it were a couple of paragraphs (or even a couple of pages) it would often be just fine.

I'll read the next tome - A Feast For Crows - but I'm getting less patient with both Martin's tendency to excess verbiage and his odd narrative structure, completely lacking in even semi-well defined heroes and villains. I don't promise to read the entire series as it is finished. I may have more important things to do.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I continue not to understand (or possibly appreciate) Kurt Vonnegut. I really enjoyed Cat's Cradle, but thus far nothing else of his has worked for me. Slaughterhouse-Five is the latest case in point.

I know it's a classic piece of science fiction, but I just don't get it. It's not funny. The characters aren't well developed. The prose is simple to the point of monotony. I'm writing like Vonnegut now. Ugh.

The front cover of my copy has the following gushing review on it:
Poignant and hilarious, threaded with compassion and, behind everything, the cataract of a thundering moral statement.
- The Boston Globe
I didn't feel much poignancy here, and I never even cracked a smile, let alone found anything "hilarious". Compassion? Maybe, but not for his characters. They're all cardboard cutouts. And that "thundering moral statement"? Ummm... war is bad. Yeah. That's deep. Maybe that moral would have meant more if I'd cared about any of the characters in the story.

The best thing about this book was the first chapter, which was really an introduction that explains (in some measure) that at least parts of the book are true and autobiographical. I appreciated that far more than the rest of the content.

Oh well. I have a few more Vonnegut works in my TBR pile. I wonder how they will fare?

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins

Title: The God Delusion
Author: Richard Dawkins
Rating: Great!

Some time back I reviewed a book by Sam Harris - Letter To A Christian Nation - a cry for change in our nation. Among other things, it discusses how atheists are treated and begs for improvement.

Dawkins has a different agenda in The God Delusion. In it he sets out to disprove the existence of god to the best of anyone's ability, to show the places that we give religion undue respect, and to debunk the case for it's underlying necessity in our daily lives. I think he succeeds admirably, and in the process he centralizes and summarizes a lot of good arguments that atheists have made over the years. I'm sorry to report, however, that despite Dawkins's extensive and well researched efforts, not everyone will be persuaded.

I've been in an email conversation with a friend (John) about religion, faith, and related topics for months. He and I read The God Delusion at the same time, and at least in the case of John, Dawkins didn't get a convert. I don't fully understand it, but I'm reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I cannot understand it. Let me try to explain.

For me, the single most important human quality is reason. Without it we're merely a collection of animal instincts stuck together in an ungainly body, the current product of an ongoing evolutionary process that is clearly not directed or controlled. But reason is something wonderful. It's a product of evolution, of course, but it is an amazing ability. With it we can do things no other species we know of can even contemplate. We can build complex tools to learn more about our world and expand upon our limited senses. We can inquire into the nature of the world around us, and refine our models of how and why it works to a degree no other creature on this planet can envision.

From the weird realm of quantum mechanics, to the 14 billion (give or take) year old universe, to the millions of light years that separate galaxies, to the nature of light itself, things that are not accessible to our senses have been teased apart and understood in ways that religion cannot and could never approach. The universe is an amazing place, full of unexpected things, chances to learn, and opportunities to use our reason to unravel the mysteries of why and how things happen. Science is the method, driven by reason and curiosity, that opens these vistas to us. There is nothing else - no other "way of knowing" - that even comes close to science as a vehicle for understanding.

Now take even a moderate religious believer like John. For him, there comes a point where faith cuts in. A point where, despite evidence, reason, logic and all the things make humans so unique on this planet - the very things that keep us from living as bands of hunter-gatherers in the jungle - he sets aside all that to say "God did this."

I must respectfully - and with great bewilderment at the faith John and others espouse - disagree.

There is no evidence for god. None. Oh some claim they've proved he exists. They haven't, and Dawkins explains why. Some claim they've experienced revelation directly, but they don't understand just how odd and fragile the human brain is, and the amazing things it can be made to do under the right circumstances. Revelation fails to impress, and again, Dawkins explains why. Others demand that religion must be true because it is a civilizing force, that our morals come from it, and therefore it has power. Dawkins shows the fallacy of those arguments as well. Dawkins also asks the obvious question: why does the believer never ask where this god came from? Who or what created him? Isn't this god at least as unlikely as the universe it supposedly created? In fact, as Dawkins points out, he's even less likely.

After years of reflection and discussion with others - including many of faith - it's become obvious there is nothing supernatural in the world; no god or gods created us. Dawkins nicely collects and summarizes much of the information I've used to come to that point of view, and he pushes some of the conclusions a bit farther than I had on my own.

Don't get me wrong. Assuredly there are natural things that we don't yet understand and haven't yet encountered, but to assert there is some special force/presence/power/energy/spirit (or whatever you want to call it) in the universe that is somehow outside of human experience, well, that's just making up stories.

I know someone who had imaginary friends when she was a child. She talked to them; they followed behind when her family went somewhere in the car. They had names and behaviors and all kinds of specific qualities. But over time she outgrew them. As a youngster they were very real, but as she aged she realized they weren't there and the game ended. If it hadn't ended she'd be called mentally ill and treated for the condition. Deservedly so.

Religion - or any belief in the supernatural for that matter, be it god, ghosts or astrology or auras or whatever you like - is that same kind of childhood fantasy, but still present long after it should have been outgrown. And formal religion is the most pernicious case of all. Thanks to a set of deeply rooted cultural expectations I - and everyone else - must show religion all kinds of extra respect that we don't have to show towards similar beliefs. Criticize astrology and few will mind. Criticize Islam or Christianity and you're (possibly literally) taking your life into your hands.

And faith - the ability to discard reason for the invisible man in the sky - there I just cannot go. John has that kind of faith. He's not a biblical literalist, thankfully, and in fact I'm not exactly sure what religion he would claim to follow. Perhaps he isn't sure himself. But strip away the garb of any religion and you get to the same point, a place where the believer says "I accept X on faith alone" or (even worse in my mind) "I deny X, despite all the evidence in favor of it, because my faith requires that I deny it". This is the thing that I cannot comprehend, the gulf I cannot cross: the denial of reason and evidence for an unfounded and false belief.

I've tried to understand it over the years. I've talked to believers of various sorts and asked all kinds of questions, framing things in different ways trying to find the limits of their faith, or learn why and how they believe what they do. In the end I always come away lost. For me, there is nothing that I know - or think I know - that isn't subject to revision and correction. Reproducible evidence from a reputable source is all I ask and I'll stop believing in X and start believing in Y. John - and apparently 95% of the population of the US - doesn't feel that way. For them there are simply some truths - given to them via scripture or revelation or trained into them by their parents and their religious leaders - that simply cannot be questioned. To my mind that denies humanity's best and most precious attribute: reason.

Dawkins has to admit the same puzzlement that I do in dealings with the truly faithful so he cannot end that confusion. But he does well on everything else in this volume. The God Delusion is an excellent resource if you wind up in discussions about religion. Dawkins is very well read - on both sides of the issue - and quotes from all kinds of sources regularly. His logic is impeccable, and his writing approachable. This isn't a dense, scholarly tome. Instead it's a fun and sometimes funny book that happens to discuss a serious topic, one that has been without effective criticism far too long.

And at the end he provides a hefty bibliography and a list of organizations that people looking for help in escaping religion can turn to. If you're one of those whose faith is wavering or who is wondering about the value of the religion you were taught, please read this book. There is a lot of real value in here, and the honesty with which is is presented is refreshing.

This is a powerful book. But it's not a call to arms. It's not asking atheists to rise up in open rebellion in the streets. Dawkins is a very good scientist, and he makes his case clearly and logically. It's for the rest of us - those who share his view of the world - to determine how we will act. As it should be.