Archive for August 3rd, 2012

Book Review: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Author: Alain de Botton
TitleReligion for Atheists
Publication Info: New York : Pantheon Books, c2012.
ISBN: 9780307379108
Summary/Review:

An erudite atheist, de Botton makes a good case for religion.  Not for the belief in god or the supernatural, but the basic fact that humans invented religion and carried it down through the ages that it must serve some good purpose.  In this book he proposes adopting some of the best elements of religion to secular purposes.  In chapters on subjects such as community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture, and institutions. he identifies the best of religion and make proposals for how these things may be adapted.  For example, he proposes agape restaurants where people dine and converse with strangers and universities where people read books to learn from their emotional content instead of literary analysis.  At times the ideas are silly, but I really like de Botton’s approach and open mind.  As a religious person myself, I find that extreme atheists (really, anti-theist bigots) are one side of the same coin of religious fundamentalists.  It’s good to have ideas that move beyond the tired arguments of the extremes and work toward the betterment of humanity.

Favorite Passages:

“In a world beset by fundamentalists of both believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.  It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting.  We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill:  first, they need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses.  And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of love ones and to our decay and demise.  God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away….” p. 12

“The true risks to our chances of flourishing are different from those conceived of by liberterians.  A lack of freedom is no longer, in most developed societies, the problem.  Our downfall lies in our inability to make the most of the freedom that our ancestors painfully secured for us over three centuries. ” p. 77

“‘The object of universities is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers.  It is to make capable and cultivated human beings.’ – John Stuart Mill” p. 100

“Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.” p. 131

Recommended booksBlue Like Jazz by Donald Miller and Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) by Frank Schaeffer.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Author:  Eric Foner 
TitleThe Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
Publication Info:  New York : W. W. Norton & Co., c2010.
ISBN:   9780393066180
Summary/Review:

Every year on or around Lincoln’s Birthday I read a book about Abraham Lincoln, and this year I read this study about Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery.  Some people consider him the great emancipator while others think he was racist and never freed a slave.  Both views have an aspect of truth.  Foner shows that Lincoln was anti-slavery from early in his life but did not think freed black persons were equal or capable of living alongside white Americans.  Until late in his Presidency he held true to a plan of colonization and resettlement of freed blacks in Africa or Latin America.  Yet, even these views were modified over time as during his Presidency he was actually exposed to meeting and respecting black individuals on a regular basis.  It’s an interesting look at how a mind changes and how the country changes as Lincoln was often just a step ahead of popular opinion.

Recommended booksThe Radical and the Republican by James Oakes
Rating: ***1/2

  • The Fiery Trial : Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner

Book Review: The Sandman : Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

AuthorNeil Gaiman
TitleThe Sandman : Preludes & Nocturnes 
Publication Info: Vertigo (2010), Edition: Reprint
ISBN: 1401225756
Summary/Review:

This is the first collection of the legendary comic book series about Dream, the personification of dreams.  In this story he his captured and held prisoner for 70 years, avenges himself on his captors, and sets forth to rebuild his kingdom.  Gaiman’s writing is dark and Dream is cruel but still at times a sympathetic protagonist.  The illustrations are rich and often gruesome but always effective.  It appears with the groundwork set in this volume that the series could really take off from here.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

Author: Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
TitleThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 
Publication Info: America’s Best Comics (1999)
ISBN: 1563898586
Summary/Review:

This novel brings together several fictional characters – Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyl, and the Invisible Man – to solve mysteries in an alternate universe London.  The tone of the book is dark and the characters are highly-flawed and untrustworthy.  Moore unsettling writes in style that reflects the racist and jingoistic attitudes of the time.  On the other hand Mina is a strong female lead, and although the other characters grumble about her, they still follow her lead.  I’ll definitely read more in this series.

Recommended booksBoilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan, The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Erez Yakin, and Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction
Rating: ***

Book Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

AuthorJennifer Egan
TitleA Visit From the Goon Squad by
Publication Info: Anchor (2011)
ISBN: 0307477479
Summary/Review:

I think it took me a good 70-80 pages to get into this collection of intertwined short stories and vignettes, but from that point on I was won over.  Egan does a good job of establishing characters with seemingly minor characters from one story emerging as the main protagonist in a later story.  She also does a great job of writing in many different styles, most remarkable with an emotionally touching story written as a Power Point slideshow.  This type of experimental literature has been done before, but Egan effectively uses these devices without pretension to tell a story of ordinary people facing life and love and morality (as well as music).  The only part I didn’t like was the final story set in the future which had too many cutesy gimmicks that didn’t ring true to the rest of the book.  All the same, A Visit From the Goon Squad is in the running for one of my favorite books read this year.
Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and Ulysses by James Joyce.
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton: Including Jackson Hole by Don Pitcher

AuthorDon Pitcher
TitleMoon Yellowstone & Grand Teton: Including Jackson Hole
Publication Info: Avalon Travel Publishing (2011), Edition: Fifth Edition
ISBN: 1598807366
Summary/Review: I read a couple of travel guides to feed my daydreams of taking my kids to Yellowstone in a few years and enjoyed the armchair tour.  This guide is good in that it describes not only the National Park, but offers an extensive description of fascinating places to visit in the surrounding region.  This of course expands my daydreams to what would be a months long visit to Yellowstone and its environs.

Recommended booksLost in My Own Backyard by Tim Cahill and The Rough Guide to Yellowstone & Grand Teton by Stephen Timblin.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Rough Guide to Yellowstone & Grand Teton by Stephen Timblin

AuthorStephen Timblin
TitleThe Rough Guide to Yellowstone & Grand Teton
Publication Info: Rough Guides (2011), Edition: 2,
ISBN: 1848367716
Summary/Review: I read a couple of travel guides to feed my daydreams of taking my kids to Yellowstone in a few years and enjoyed the armchair tour.  This guide is good in that it lists of options for hiking in and around Yellowstone.  This of course expands my daydreams to what would be a months long visit to Yellowstone and its environs.

Recommended booksLost in My Own Backyard by Tim Cahill and Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton: Including Jackson Hole by Don Pitcher
Rating: ***

Book Review: Best Mets by Matthew Silverman

AuthorMatthew Silverman
TitleBest Mets
Publication Info: Lanham, Md. : Taylor Trade Pub., c2012.
ISBN: 9781589796706
Summary/Review: I received and advanced copy of this book for free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program, who like to send me books about baseball (I wonder why).  The title of the book pretty much sums things up, this is a book of lists about the best Mets players, teams, games, traditions, etc.  Obviously this book is not going to have widespread appeal beyond Mets’ fans, although I’d think it best for the novice Mets’ fan looking to learn a little bit about the history of the team.  Still, there are better Mets’ books out there. (see below)
Recommended booksFaith and Fear in Flushing by Greg Prince, Mets by the Numbers by Jon Springer and Taking the Field by Howard Megdal.
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Green Metropolis by David Owen

AuthorDavid Owen
TitleGreen Metropolis: why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are keys to sustainability
Publication Info:Riverhead Books, c2009.
ISBN: 9781594488825
Summary/Review:

Owen makes a very compelling case for cities as the most environmentally friendly places to live and work due to the efficiencies of living closer, sharing resources, and reducing travel with New York City as the key example.  I’m already sold on the idea but he piles on the evidence for his theory in a way that I hope convinces other people who have the ingrained idea of cities as dirty places.  He also takes on the pastoral vision of many environmental movements and “LEED brain” where new construction is rewarded for fancy add-ons that are not good for the environment especially when compared to simple renovations of existing buildings.  I’m less sold on his opposition to things like the locavore movement which is as much built on nutrition and local sustainability as environmentalism.  He’s also opposed to vertical agriculture because he thinks it would interfere with the connectivity of cities, but I think they’d fit in perfectly replacing underused light industrial and warehouse districts that already exist in cities like New York.  I’m also not sold on his cop-out argument for continuing to live in a drafty farmhouse in suburban Connecticut where he believes if he moved to New York someone less environmentally aware would occupy his current house.  Nits picked, I still think this book is a great argument for an idea whose time has come.
Favorite Passages:

“Jefferson…embodied the ethos of suburbia. Indeed, he could be considered the prototype of the modern American suburbanite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational self-improvement. The standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello” (p. 25)

Making automobiles more fuel-efficient isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it won’t solve the world’s energy and environmental dilemmas. The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging. Most so-called environmental initiatives concerning automobiles are actually counterproductive, because their effect is to make driving less expensive (by reducing the need for fuel) and to make car travel more agreeable (by eliminating congestion). In terms of both energy conservation and environmental protection, we need to make driving costlier and less pleasant. This is true for cars powered by recycled cooking oil and those powered by gasoline. In terms of the automobile’s true environmental impact, fuel gauges are less important than odometers. In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon.

The near certainty is that, for many years to come, what the market will replace oil with is not something better (such as nuclear fusion, which, at the very least, is decades or generations away) but something considerably worse (such as low-grade coal, China’s main fuel, which makes oil’s carbon footprint and pollution profile look demure), and that ordinary market forces, rather than leading us inexorably toward a golden future, will most likely entice us to compound our growing troubles by prompting us to invest heavily in the energy equivalents of patent medicines (such as shale oil and ethanol). Sometimes, the invisible hand goes for the throat.

Recommended books:  Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser, The cul-de-sac syndrome : turning around the unsustainable American dream by John F. Wasik, The death and life of great American cities by Jane Jacobs, and Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities by Jeff Mapes.
Rating: ****

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

AuthorNeil Gaiman
TitleAmerican Gods
Publication Info: New York : W. Morrow, c2001.
ISBN: 0380973650
Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Shadow is released early from prison when his wife and boss die in a car crash.  With no future ahead of him, Shadow accepts a job from the shady Mr. Wednesday.  I don’t expect it’s a huge spoiler that Mr. Wednesday is actually an incarnation of the god Odin who ushers Shadow into the worlds where the gods of antiquity have fallen on hard times in competition with the modern “gods” of technology, drugs, and celebrity.  Gaiman’s characterization is well-done as he introduces many complex figures of gods in human form.  I also like how places that Americans value like roadside attractions become temples and places of power. I am curious though why Gaiman chose to ignore the God of Abraham and the many churches, synagogues & mosques as a rival (or even the questionable “gods” of televangelists and religious extremists).  Shadow is true to his name in that he often seems to have no identity, following Mr. Wednesday with seemingly no good reason, but then there are moments of compassion where his humanity shines through and sets him apart from his godly companions and leads to a satisfying conclusion.

I have to admit that this book was a struggle to read and had it not been for Gaiman’s reputation and that I was reading this for a book group, I may have given up.  In fact the rest of my book group hated this book and we haven’t met since.  Although this is not something I would usually recommend, if you find yourself struggling through the early pages of the book, just read a summary online and skip ahead to page 150.  It gets much better from there on.
Rating: ***

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