Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Green Man, by Michael Bedard

2012 Book 81: The Green Man, by Michael Bedard (5/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: LibraryThing Early Review

My Review 4/5 stars
When her father temporarily moves to Italy, O is sent to live with her reclusive aunt Emily--so that O can take care of her aunt after a heart attack, and Emily can take care of O. In her eccentric way, Emily encourages O to get in touch with her inner poet, and O helps out by cleaning up her aunt's dusty used book shop. However, there is a deeper evil that is creeping in to town...The Green Man was a very interesting specimen since it defies genres. In some ways, it's a psychological mystery, in others a fantasy, and in others magical realism. Its deeper message is to encourage the poets in its readers--though you don't have to appreciate poetry to enjoy the book. I think this book would be enjoyable to adults and budding young cerebrals of ages 10-13ish.

Friday, May 25, 2012

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

2012 Book 80: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (5/24/2012)

Reason for Reading: Murder and Mayhem in May

My Review 4/5 stars
In Cold Blood is a first-of-its-kind true crime book where journalism was written in novel-form. In a small Kansas town in 1959, four members of the Clutter family were brutally slaughtered in their home. The book begins by personifying the members of the Clutter family and laying out the last couple days of their lives. It also brings to life (disturbingly) the two murderers, outlining their histories and motivations. This is a work of genius in real-life characterization. The author clearly had compassion for at least one of the murderers, so much so that he was accused of being "obsessed." I don't find this obsession as shocking as some people, I suppose, because I understand that psychopaths are generally EXTREMELY charming and are able to manipulate people into feeling empathetic towards them. I wonder, though, if Capote knew as much about the diagnostic criteria of psychopaths back then as a good journalist-doing-his-job would have today, would he have portrayed the two men the same way? While reading, I kept saying, "these men are psychopaths, and yet they are portrayed as having (very tiny!) consciences..." If the book were written today, I don't think it would be the same book. Regardless, I think it's a classic that will stay with us forever simply BECAUSE it portrays a world that was perhaps less complex and more innocent than today's.

Islands of the Blessed, by Nancy Farmer

2012 Book 79: Islands of the Blessed, by Nancy Farmer (5/18/2012)

Reason for Reading: Third, and final, book in the Sea of Trolls trilogy

My Review 3.5/4 stars
When an angry ghost arrives on the shores of Jack's village, he, Thorgill, and the Bard must go on a dangerous voyage to pacify her spirit before she hurts anyone. Like the first two books of this series, Islands of the Blessed is packed with adventure after adventure, a vast array of creatures from Celtic, Norse, and Christian mythologies, and an engaging historical background. Like the second book, The Land of the Silver Apples, Farmer may have tried a little too hard to pack in extra adventures and creatures...this makes the book fun and entertaining, but it has the disconnected-wandering-adventures feel of Homer's The Odyssey instead of the tight every-event-has-a-reason feel of Harry Potter. Overall, an excellent book for perhaps the 5th through 8th grades.

Pictures of Hollis Woods, by Patricia Reilly Giff

2012 Book 78: Pictures of Hollis Woods, by Patricia Reilly Giff (5/17/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review 4/5 stars
Hollis Woods is a 12-year-old orphan who has run away from every foster home she's ever lived in. As a last-ditch effort, she is placed with an elderly lady who is "good with girls like you." In her new home, Hollis is finally happy, until she realizes that her foster mother has a fading memory, and she must hid this fact from the state in order to stay where she is. This book is simply precious. Hollis seems so real--snarky but sad, brave but insecure, and willing to do whatever it takes to care for her foster mother. This short book could be appreciated by adults as well as people in 5-8th grades.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Iron Lake, by William Kent Krueger

2012 Book 77: Iron Lake, by William Kent Krueger (5/14/2012)

Reason for Reading: I wanted to read a book set in Aurora, MN :) I’ve been there many times in my childhood.

My Review 4/5 stars
Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Aurora, MN, investigates the disappearance of a young boy at the request of a friend. While looking for the boy, he stumbles upon a mystery (and possible conspiracy) within his tiny town. This first book in the Cork O’Connor series was intriguing. Although I sort of guessed who the big baddie was, it was a total mystery to me how Kreuger’d get there. The characterizations were fantastic, and Kreuger did a good job of mood setting (with his cold MN winter). I DID wonder why most of the characters seemed to have redish hair, though? Also, Kreuger might as well have picked a non-existent town for all the similarity his Aurora had to the real Aurora, but I suppose that’s just fiction for you. :) I’m excited to move on to the second book and see how Kreuger manages to fit another mystery into the small town of Aurora.

Exile, by Kathryn Lasky

2012 Book 76: Exile, by Kathryn Lasky (5/13/2012)

Reason for Reading: 14th book in 15 book series (almost done!!!)

My Review 3.5/4 stars
The Band is exiled from the Tree when an evil blue owl (the Striga) gizzard-washes the young King Coryn. Can The Band get rid of the Striga before it’s too late for Coryn? I was pleasantly surprised by this fourteenth installment of the Ga’Hoole series. There’s a little life left in this series after all! Like The Golden Tree (the 12th book), this installment was an allegorical critique of organized religion (this time it criticized witch hunts, censorship, and apocalypticism). I was a little disappointed at what Lasky did with the Striga’s character…he seemed so nice in The River of Wind, and since we were omniscient (and could therefore hear his thoughts) you’d think we would have noticed that he had an evil streak in him? After all, can someone go from wonderful kindness to pure evil in a period of one month? In fact, time makes no sense in Lasky’s world. But I guess that’s what I get for reading children’s fantasy. :)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Surrender the Dawn, by MaryLu Tyndall

2012 Book 75: Surrender the Dawn, by MaryLu Tyndall (5/12/2012)

Reason for Reading: ACFW bookclub choice for May

My Review 4/5stars
Because all the men in her family have left to fight in the War of 1812, Cassandra Channing must financially support her family. She desperately decides to invest the rest of the family’s money in a privateering ship captained by the town rake Luke Heaton. Because she is forced to trust someone outwardly untrustworthy, she is forced to come to grips with the fact that not everything is as it seems…and sometimes she should have more faith. This is the third book in the Surrender to Destiny trilogy, but I read it as a stand-alone book. (It works fine that way.) However, I liked it so much, I’m planning on reading the first two in the series, as well…just so I can get a complete picture of all the characters. This book is a sweet romance with an interesting historical backdrop. It definitely has a religious message, but it is never preachy. I think it was just what I needed at the moment.

Guns Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond

2012 Book 74: Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (5/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: This has been on my reading list for years—since before I watched the documentary.

My Review 4/5stars
In this Pulitzer Prize winning book, Diamond attempts to answer the question of why the Western Civilization rose to power instead of other civilizations. His answer is that they lucked out on geography and ecology. Western civilizations were better able to domesticate animals and plants due to the varieties that they had available, and were therefore able to develop larger farming societies, allowing for development of crafts and “scientific exploration.” Also, because they were in larger groups, they were exposed at low levels to many germs, and developed immunity. Because of these factors, they were able to harness the power of guns, germs, and steel in their pursuit of world power. This was a fascinating book, and definitely worth reading even after watching the documentary (reviewed here). It’s just packed full of information, the writing is smooth and articulate, and the research is extensive.

From Darkness Won, by Jill Williamson

2012 Book 73: From Darkness Won, by Jill Williamson. (5/6/2012)

Reason for Reading: Third book in the Blood of Kings Trilogy

My Review 3/5 stars
In this final installment of the Blood of Kings trilogy, Vrell and Achan battle their adolescent romantic problems as well as the forces of evil. I was happy with the outcome of the book, but felt the story dragged a bit. Like I said in my review of the second book, To Darkness Fled, although the story is fantastic, this trilogy does not have enough plot to last three books. It could have made such a sweet standalone book! On the other hand, the characters are very well-developed and lovable (even though their adolescent vices are a tad frustrating at times). And there was a good story to it. The trilogy would appeal only to readers of Christian Fiction—the religious message gets to the point of sermonizing at a couple of points.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thoughts on God in scientific research

In The God Issue of New Scientist, there was an article by Stenger which claimed that because science has not proven that God exists, God must not exist. After reading this, I pouted. I felt that it's not very good science to claim that because experiments designed to prove the existence of God yield non-significant results, these non-significant results prove God doesn't exist. I've had plenty of experiments with non-significant results. If that proves that the opposite is true, then I've made some pretty awesome negative discoveries! I'd better get those published!

The next few weeks have had many letters-to-the-editor about The God Issue. Mainly, they seemed offended by the articles which did not firmly proclaim God's non-existence--few of them had any problems with the article by Stenger. So I laughed when I saw this letter about the article that annoyed me:

Stenger confidently states that prayers have not been shown to have been answered. For some time now, I have been praying for other people’s prayers not to be answered. Could this explain these findings?
                -From Les Hearn; London, UK

I am so thrilled that I’m not the only one who found this article ridiculous!

In his article, Stenger’s main “proof” that God does not exist is that a study to determine whether intercessory prayers help recovery of surgery patients had non-significant data. Like the writer of the letter, I was amused that Stenger came to such strong conclusions based on non-significant data from one study. This is not good science. I was even more amused because the first time I heard about this study was in a book called The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (reviewed here). Beauregard claimed the same exact studies were indicative that God DID exist. He pointed out that there was a (albeit non-significant) data trend, and talked around experimental design and data analysis jargon to make himself sound more convincing. Isn’t it amusing that two scientists find their own personal beliefs so important to them that they take exactly the same study and (unconsciously) twist it to help them prove contradictory points?

Because of human errors exactly like these, I have long felt that science was rather like a religion—perhaps it is impossible for emotional humans to stick rigorously to the scientific method? Here are elements that science has in common with some of the oft-criticised aspects of organized religion:

Indoctrination/faith: scientists start out learning and accepting a set of “facts” laid out by those older and wiser than us (teachers/professors). Sometimes these “facts” are rather difficult to stomach—like an object that can move from point A to point B without moving anywhere in between??? (electron tunneling)

Ideology: Scientists (hopefully unconsciously) twist the experimental design or data analysis in order to fit our personal hypotheses. We ignore or discard data which is contradictory to our hypotheses (usually with a rationalized reason). We see what we want to see. This type of interpretation is unfortunately natural to humans and generally not a purposeful act, but it happens more often than we'd like to admit.

Heretics: Scientists ostracize other people from the scientific community if they suggest a hypothesis or provide data which is contrary to widely accepted (dogmatic) beliefs. These people sometimes turn out to be right, but generally after it’s too late for their ruined careers.

I like to be aware of these issues so that I can avoid falling into traps in my own work. I also think it's a good idea to be cautiously skeptical of dogmatic beliefs, and to accept that perhaps they could be wrong--entirely, or partially. I am also skeptical of models, whether they be quantum physics models or cell signaling models. Although I appreciate the amount of work scientists go through to develop these models, and I also appreciate the fact that these models can accurately predict the physical world most of the time, I think it's good to recognize that these really are just MODELS for the real world. The real world is almost always more complex than we could ever fully predict.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman

2012 Book 72: Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman (5/1/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review
Odd, a boy with a bum leg and an odd personality, runs away from home after his father dies and his mother remarries. In the forest, he finds a fox, a bear, and an eagle, whom he befriends. With these new pals, Odd recaptures Asgard from the Frost Giants. A short and sweet fairy-tale like story.

Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston

2012 Book 71: Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston (5/1/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review 4.5/5 stars
Katrina Katrell suffers under the spiteful eye of her guardian Mrs. Krabone. When Krabby decides to get Katrina a lobotomy to get rid of her wild imagination, she runs away. She find Mortimer Yorgle, who is (unwillingly) on a quest to save the Yorgles of Zorgamazoo who have mysteriously vanished. They team up and have many fun adventures. This book is written entirely in rhyme—reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. It’s the kind of book that really ought to be read aloud. I was lucky enough to get it in audiobook form, which was VERY well read. Some of the rhymes were rather clever, and the book was lighthearted and silly. Very enjoyable!

Dave at Night, by Gail Carson Levine

2012 Book 70: Dave at Night, by Gail Carson Levine (4/30/2012)

Reason for Reading: Because it was there

My Review 3.5/5 stars
When Dave’s father dies, Dave is separated from his brother and sent to an orphanage. Dave finds a way to sneak over the wall of the orphanage and wanders the streets at night, where he meets many interesting characters (both high society and from his own social class). In his adventures at the orphanage and the streets, Dave learns a little bit about himself and what he needs in life, he grows to accept his problems and embrace his gifts. This is a sweet little book.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

2012 Book 69: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (4/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: 12 in 12 group read

My Review 4/5 stars
Despite (or because of) embarrassment about his father’s laziness, Okonkwo works hard to be a respected farmer and warrior in his Nigerian village of Umuofia. When Christian Missionaries bring their strange religion and customs and laws, Okonkwo and his fellow villagers are first amused, then frustrated. In this heart-rending masterpiece, Achebe brings to life a powerful, though flawed, protagonist who fights for what he believes is right.

To Darkness Fled, by Jill Williamson

2012 Book 68: To Darkness Fled, by Jill Williamson (4/28/2012)

Reason for Reading: Second book in a trilogy

My Review 3/5 stars
In this second installment of The Blood of Kings trilogy (first book reviewed here), our heroes Achan and Vrell gather an army with the help of the Old Kingsguard Knights. The romantic tension between Achan and Vrell intensifies. I didn’t feel that this book was as good as the first. The religious message got a bit heavy-handed, and the plot barely moved forward at all. Sure, progress was made, but it was progress that was outlined by Sir Gavin as their “future plans” in the end of the first book. There were only two small plot-thickening events. On the other hand, there was much character development, and the reader becomes very familiar with the setting (i.e. which cities are where, who’s in charge of them, who’s on our side). I was also a little irked by the cliffhanger ending. I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers—I lose my patience with them quickly, especially if the entire series hasn’t been published. Luckily, this series has been published so I was able to start the third (and last) book with only a few grumblings. Despite these shortcomings, I think the story is very good, and the characters are well developed for a young adult novel. I think it may have worked out better had Williamson shortened the trilogy into ONE book, and edited out a lot of stuff. I realize editing is hard, but there’s really only enough plot for one book! Maybe the third book will thicken the plot a bit more, though. :)

Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin

2012 Book 67: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin (4/25/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 4/5 stars
In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin describes how her autism helps her discover how animals perceive the world. She compares an autistic person’s perceptions with animals’ perceptions, and contrasts them with how non-autistic people think. She also gives her own ideas about how domesticated animals can be treated/trained in order to provide them with the best environment possible. Overall, a very interesting book...It changed my perception of how autistic people and animals think.

The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels

2012 Book 66: The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels (4/24/2012)

Reason for Reading Am interested in reading a few of Pagels' books, and I thought this was the best place to start

My Review 4/5 stars
Pagels objectively introduces the subject of the Gnostic Gospels—she describes the history of the texts, some basic differences between Gnostic beliefs and Orthodox beliefs, and then summarizes by saying that Christianity would have developed quite differently (or perhaps even fizzled out like other mystic fad religions) if Gnosticism had survived. She supports neither Orthodoxy or Gnosticism in this book, but provides an objective historian’s view on the two faiths. This is a fantastic introduction to Gnosticism, and it lacks the sensationalism of many Gnostic scholars today. Highly recommended.

Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet

2012 Book 65: Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet (4/22/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 4/5 stars
This is a coming-of-age memoir about a high-functioning autistic savant who also has synesthesia. It is rare for a savant to be as high-functioning as Tammet, therefore this memoir provides a unique and fascinating look into Asperger's, savantism, and synesthesia. It was endearing to watch Tammet metamorphose from an awkward child into a much more secure adult. The story is insightful and inspiring...I imagine it would be especially so for teens with Asperger's who are concerned that they will never be able to function in the "real world."

Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova

2012 Book 64: Left Neglected, by Lisa Genova (4/22/2012)

Reason for Reading: I think brains are pretty fascinating

My Review 4/5 stars
Sarah Nickerson is a type-A mother-of-three who is living the expensive, busy life of Big Business in Boston. Although Sarah always talks on the phone while driving, THIS time she has a terrible accident and ends up with a brain injury. With Left Neglect, Sarah is unaware of the left sides of everything (including herself). With this new disability, she must pick up the pieces of her shattered life-in the process she reconnects with her family. This book was fantastic in a variety of ways. It describes a fascinating neurological condition (Left Neglect) while enveloping the reader in a bittersweet story about family, identity, and disability. Definitely worth reading!

I probably would have enjoyed this book even more had I not OD'd on bittersweet stories this month. I can only stand so much bittersweet. I need to bite into some zombie-slaying action soon!

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

2012 Book 63: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens (4/17/2012)

Reason for Reading: 75ers Group Read (which thread I don't think I ever commented on....)

My Review 4/5 stars
When young David Copperfield's mother dies, his awful stepfather sends him to a workhouse. David runs away to live with an estranged (and very strange) aunt. Much naughty and nice activity continues for a long time. :) I really liked David Copperfield. It was an engaging story, and (as always for Dickens) the characters were all so fascinating and well-developed. I'd say this is one of my favorite Dickens books so far.

The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd

2012 Book 62 The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd (4/16/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 3/5 stars
When Ted and Kat's cousin Salim mysteriously disappears while riding the London Eye they team up to find him. Ted and Kat never got along in the past because Ted has Asperger's Syndrome and is difficult to relate to; however, they discover that a combination of his rational thinking skills and her intuitive action makes them an ideal team. It may be because I've OD'd myself on Autism books this April, but I wasn't overly impressed by this story. I don't regret reading it--it was a cute story, and handled the issue of Ted's Asperger's symptoms well enough. But I didn't feel a strong attachment to the characters. I also felt that the mystery (and the way it was solved at the very, very end) lacked verisimilitude. I understand why the frantic parents didn't listen to what the kids had to say...but I felt that the cops should have given the kids a much more rigorous questioning, considering that the kids were the key witnesses to a rather suspicious event. I felt that the kids endangered themselves unnecessarily when trying to solve the mystery. I prefer it when books develop a plot such that the kids MUST do what they do, rather than it just being reckless behavior. But maybe that's because I didn't have that sort of fearless independence when I was a kid. I would have MADE the adults listen to me, instead. :) But like I said, I think I'm just OD'd on fantastic Autism books right now and so this one just wasn't what I needed at the moment. Final recommendation: read it if it's convenient, but don't rush out to get it.

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

2012 Book 61: Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine (4/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 5/5 stars
Caitlin Ann Smith is a 5th grade girl with Asperger’s Syndrome. When her brother dies in a school shooting, she must find closure. Her brother had been her one friend who could explain to her how she should say and do things without insulting them. Without her brother, she has difficulty comforting her grieving father. This is a heart-rending story but, though it starts out very sad, it comes to a warming conclusion. I know children’s books about grief abound, but this book is special because it also shows readers how children with Asperger’s might seem rude when they are really trying to be helpful. Definitely recommended.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon

2012 Book 60: The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon (4/9/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 4/5 stars
Lou Arrendale is a high-functioning autistic man in a near-future world. When his employer starts to put pressure on him to be one of the first human subjects in a dangerous brain-altering experimental “cure” for autism, he questions what it is to be Lou. Is his autism part of his personality? What does it mean to be “normal?” Are the normals even normal? This book is full of deep questions of identity and categorizing of humans. It is also about mistreatment of disabled people by bigots. In fact, I thought the bigotry was a little over-done to the point of not being realistic…but maybe this is Moon’s idea of what the near future will be like. Or maybe I’m na├»ve. :) This book was very thought-provoking and interesting, though I thought it lacked verisimilitude. And there were three (apparently) independent secondary characters named Bart within a 25 paged interval. Not sure what Moon was trying to say there—maybe she really likes the name Bart. :) Anyway, despite my nit-pickiness, I thought it was quite a good book.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko

2012 Book 59: Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko (4/6/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 5/5 stars
12-year-old Moose Flanagan is angry when his family uproots and moves to Alcatraz island so his father can work as a prison guard. Additionally, he must accept the responsibility of an adult sooner than he wishes because he needs to help his parents take care of his mentally-disabled older sister. I got a few chuckles as Moose tried to adjust to his new responsibilities, new home, and new friends and enemies. The book was both frustrating (because of Moose’s situation) and humorous at the same time. Overall, a light, funny, and meaningful read.

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

2012 Book 58: Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (4/5/2012)

Reason for Reading: Autism Awareness Month

My Review 5/5 stars
17-year-old Marcelo has an Asperser’s-like condition. He has lived a sheltered life until the summer before his senior year of high school, when he is pressured into working at his father’s law firm for a summer. Marcelo learns many “real world” lessons—some sad, some uplifting. This was a wonderful little book. Although I really felt bad for Marcelo when he had to learn some of his life lessons, I also felt that it was good for him to learn these lessons. These mixed feelings of compassion for Marcelo’s situation made this a memorable book. There was one fleeting moment in this book where I felt that Stork had packed perhaps a few too many lessons into too small a space…but other than that the book was perfect.

New Scientist ed. 17Mar - 23Mar 2012
*Neuroscientists are studying the navigation system of mice by looking at how the neurons fire while the mice navigate a virtual reality “maze.” The maze isn’t very complicated yet. :)

*A small amount of alcohol consumption increases people’s speed and accuracy while performing a test which involved linking groups of words with a single concept. This study supports the idea that people who are less focused on a task are better able to make creative connections, as described in the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (a book which I hope to read sometime this year!).

*There was an interview with Noam Chomsky, whose work I have always been fascinated with even though I’ve never read any of his books. :( But this interview made me more eager to get on the ball!

*An article listed a bunch of particles quantum physicists are currently looking for, and briefly described what each one was. Do we really believe all these particles exist? It seems like they make them up to fit some weird mathematical quirk in their wave equations.

*About half of this edition was about “The God Issue.” There were 4 feature-length articles about science and religion and one interview.

-The first article was about Justin Barrett’s theory that humans are born with an instinctive belief in supernatural explanations. This is because we have a tendency to explain events we don’t understand with “agents,” (things that act upon their surroundings). So, for instance, if a ball goes flying through the air, a child will assume that someone acted upon the ball to make it move. This “agent” explanation continues throughout life, but as we get older we tend to explain things with rational thought rather than intuitive thought. Barrett has a book out called Born Believers: The Science of Children’s religious belief which goes into depth about this theory. I’ll probably try to read it sometime.

-The second article was about Ara Norenzayan’s theory that organized religion developed as small hunter-gatherer groups banded together in larger, non-nomadic cities. Hunter-gatherers tend not to have moralistic religions because they are in small groups with which they share many genes (and therefore have genetic push towards altruism). According to Norenzayan, moralistic religions developed when groups of people became so large that each individual was exposed mostly to people who were not related. Since the genetic push for altruism no longer worked in this society, they needed a moralistic (organized) religion to keep people playing nice with one another. This theory is described in a book which is soon to come out The Making of Big Gods, which I will try to read as soon as it’s released.

-The third article was Robert McCauley’s idea that humans are naturally inclined to religion because the intuitive explanation is easier to come by than a rational explanation. Science is more difficult than religion because it requires a rigorous explanation of things that can often not be explained. Theology is kind of like science because it takes religion out of its intuitive state and tries to create rational explanations that often don’t make sense or contradict themselves. His new book is Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.

-The fourth article is by a scientist who seems to think that because science has not proven that God exists that God must not exist. It wasn’t really that interesting to me because it seemed a little meaningless.

-The interview was about Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists which is about why humans need religion and what aspects of religion atheists should try to adapt to their own philosophies in order to benefit from this essential need. I am definitely going to read this book soon, too.

Paradise Lost, by John Milton

For the past year, I've been trying to understand Paradise Lost, by John Milton. My first attempt back in 4/4/2012 was mostly unsuccessful, since I got through the poem, but didn't really understand it. I plan on trying again, this time going through it very slowly and carefully with MUCH deliberation. I will also read some retellings,  criticisms,  and interpretations along the way. This will be a long an bumpy ride. I'm working from three different texts, and one narration: 

The Barnes and Noble Edition, ed. David Hawkes

The introduction in this edition was quite interesting. I have made notes on it here. Plenty of line-by-line footnotes are provided at the bottom of each page - they are helpful for comprehension of Milton's language. There are also more detailed endnotes. These go more deeply into background and context.

If you get this edition, be sure to buy a hard copy and not the ebook, because the end-of-page footnotes are very awkward on the Nook.

The Norton Critical Edition, ed. Gordon Teskey

The text of this book is easiest for reading. Teskey modernized the spelling and punctuation within the limits of Milton's syntax. Teskey says that the punctuation in the original printings shouldn't be assumed to be the poet's intention. At the time of publication, punctuation was the job of copyists and printers, not of poets. Therefore, modernized punctuation allows for greater clarity without losing Milton's original intent. 

Helpful line-by-line footnotes are provided at the bottom of each page. These help with comprehension of Milton's language.

The Riverside Milton, ed. Roy Flannagan

This book includes all of Milton's major works. It has copious footnotes that are very helpful for understanding the background and context.

Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained, narrated by Charloton Griffon

Excellent narration! Highly recommended. Listening to this while reading helped immensely in my comprehension.  It comes with a 2 hour biography of Milton at the beginning. I liked this extra info, but it can be skipped if you don't want to listen to it. 

Additionally, I've got three lectures (or sets of lectures) from The Great Courses that I'm working with:

The Western Literary Canon, Lecture 22; Professor John M Bowers
Why Evil Exists, Lecture 18; Professor Charles Matthews
Life and Writings of John Milton; Professor Seth Lerer

Posts about Paradise Lost
Introduction to my quest to understand
Milton - Epic Evil
The Literary Background of Paradise Lost

Book 1, Lines 1-191 

Supplementary Books on Paradise Lost, Milton, or Historical Background
A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis

Mentions or Retellings of Paradise Lost
The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe
The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe
The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells

Helpful Links
Darkness Visible

Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings

2012 Book 56: Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings (4/3/2012)

Reason for Reading: My friend Alicia wanted me to read the Belgariad

My Review 4/5 stars
Garion lives the life of a simple farm boy until the day a storyteller comes to his village and convinces Garion’s aunt that they must leave immediately. As their quest continues, Garion grows confused and must question everything he ever knew about himself. Why do his aunt and this storyteller seem to have powers that Garion doesn’t believe in? Why do they have such powerful friends? This story of sorcery and adventure begins the Belgariad, an epic fantasy in which Garion must fight against the powers of evil in order to save his world. This book was quite enjoyable. It had fantastic characterization (to the point that I was actually getting angry at characters along with Garion). It had an interesting mystery to it because although I could make an educated guess, I don’t know the plot of the Belgariad so I don’t know exactly where it’s going. Quite a good introduction to the characters, land, and problem-to-be-solved.

Columbine, by Dave Cullen

2012 Book 55: Columbine, by Dave Cullen (3/31/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review 4.5/5stars
Cullen provides an in-depth look at the events leading up to and following the tragic school shooting at Columbine. He fleshes out the personalities of the people involved, especially focusing on the two shooters. He debunks the myths that confounded the Columbine story for years. This is an amazing work of journalism, as well as a moving narrative. Tears came to my eyes several times while reading. My only qualm about this book is that at the very end Cullen provided some gory details that weren’t necessary. I’m not squeamish, but I think providing those details wasn’t necessary to emphasize how tragic the events were, and gore is much more disturbing when you’re thinking about the real people involved. However, this was only a very short section of the book…and I guess journalists will be journalists.

The Land of Silver Apples, by Nancy Farmer

2012 Book 54: The Land of the Silver Apples, by Nancy Farmer (3/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: This is the second book in a trilogy.

My Review 4/5 stars
Jack, the Bard’s apprentice, sets off on a rescue quest when his sister Lucy is kidnapped by Elves. His companions are an unreliable slave/rightful-heir-to-the-throne and a recently freed girl-slave who worships the ground Jack walks on. They meet many magical creatures, re-discover some old friends, and have lots of exciting adventures along the way. I thought this was an excellent sequel to Sea of Trolls. It expanded the mythology of the land while developing the characters already introduced in the first book. I really appreciated the way Farmer handled the three religions that were represented by her characters in this 790AD Britain-based world. She showed the power and beauty of the Pagans as well as the Christians and subtly made the point that they all got their believers where they needed to go—but she did this without forcing the point or lecturing, which is the sign of excellent story-telling! My only quibble about this book is that most of the major plot threads were completed by page 400, leaving 100 pages for the final (and least pressing) plot thread. This is why the book got 4 instead of 5 stars.

The River of Wind, by Kathryn Lasky

2012 Book 53: The River of Wind, by Kathryn Lasky (3/24/2012)

Reason for Reading This is book 13 of the Ga'Hoole series which I've been slogging through for years. Since well before the movie came out! I'm getting close to the final book!

My Review 3.5/5 stars
Coryn, Soren, and the Chaw of Chaws discover a sixth kingdom of owls across the ocean. While they are on a diplomatic envoy, evil war-like owls make trouble back home. This 13th installment of the Ga’Hoole series is cute (like all the others), but I’m afraid some of my enjoyment has ebbed after slogging through so many books. In the first several books the plot got thicker as each book progressed, but that development ended somewhere in the middle. Now, it just seems she throws in something new and something old and mixes it together for another installment. In this book, the “new” is a previously unknown kingdom of owls who live by some Buddhist-like values. The old is spoiler but not really because it’s achingly predictable the shocking return of the evil owl Nyra who just won’t die no matter how many times you kill her. The nice thing about these books is that they’re really short and I’m SO close to the end that I can’t give up now!

Aside Really, though, if you like anthropomorphic children's fantasy, then you would probably enjoy the first 6 of the series. It really should have stopped there, even though I did really appreciate a couple of the books after that.

The Book of Mormon, by Joseph Smith

2012 Book 52: The Book of Mormon, by Joseph Smith (3/22/2012)

Reason for Reading: I like to read scripture books from a variety of religions because I am interested in how they compare and what sort of message they relay. This book was given to me by a couple of Mormon elders who knocked on my door last year. "Elder," by the way, means that they were 20 year old boys who weren't allowed to enter my home without having an older male as an escort because apparently I am a threat to their innocence. Ah! I feel so sophisticated now! The fact that the escorts were meant to protect THEM and not me. ;)

My Review 3/5 stars
Although I think it’s a good idea to educate oneself on other religions (especially those religions which have an undeserved bad reputation), I’m not sure reading the Book of Mormon is the best way to learn about LDS. It was dense, difficult reading. It starts out with some wanderings in foreign lands, then they have lots of wars, then Jesus comes and saves them all, then they have a bunch more wars. Half the sentences begin with “And it came to pass that…” There are some passages of uplifting spirituality, but these passages were few and bogged down by a lot of unexciting depictions of war. Personally, I think the best way to learn about LDS is to talk to some missionaries and THEN (once you’ve gotten a good idea of what the religion is about) read the Book of Mormon if you’re still interested. But that’s just my humble opinion.

Seeds of Rebellion, by Brandon Mull

2012 Book 51: Seeds of Rebellion, by Brandon Mull (3/22/2012)

Reason for Reading: I am a fan of Brandon Mull and have read all his books. I probably wouldn't have finished this book within a week of its release, however, except for the fact that Mull was at my local Barnes and Noble for a signing last Sunday. I really enjoyed meeting him. He's very nice and friendly and we had a lovely conversation until an annoying superior child and his annoying superior mother made it quite clear with their annoying superior sighs and annoying superior noses in the air that I was taking up too much of their time. It was ultra-annoying because if they were in such a rush they should have gotten in line faster. I dawdled specifically so that anyone with a child could get ahead of me in line. They must have WANTED to be last. And, really, our conversation hadn't gone on THAT long. Regardless, I am now a bigger fan of Mull because he's so genuine and approachable.

My Review 5/5 stars
In this second book of the Beyonders series, Jason returns to Lyrian to rescue his friend Rachel and tell her the terrible secret he learned in the first book. They team up with a motley crew of revolutionaries and continue their quest to dethrone the evil emperor. Mull uses his ingenuity to create a truly unique parallel world with creative “fantastical” peoples and creatures. His characters are very human in that they all have weaknesses, but they show amazing strength as well. The story keeps up fascinating descriptions of the peoples and places while keeping the suspense levels high throughout the story. This book was even better than the first in the series, and I look forward to the third (and final) book next year.

Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

2012 Book 50: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (3/20/2012)

Reason for Reading: 12 in 12 group read

My Review 4/5 stars
Kim is an orphaned boy living on the streets of Lahore. When he meets a Buddhist monk who is on a quest to find a healing river, Kim joins the lama as his student and friend. Together they travel, learn lessons, and have adventures. I enjoyed watching Kim grow up in this story, and enjoyed the colorful descriptions of the people Kim and the lama met. However, I’m still trying to figure out what the deeper meaning of this story is. Perhaps time will help.

Vampires Burial and Death, by Paul Barber

2012 Book 49: Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber (3/16/2012)

Reason for Reading: Interest in folklore and popular culture about vampires

My Review 3.5/5 stars
In Vampires, Burial, and Death, Barber differentiates between vampires of folklore and those of popular fiction (with a very strong emphasis on those of folklore). He proposes that the folklore of vampires arose due to people’s fear of dead bodies. He rigorously notes the common traits of folklore vampires (blood at the mouth, bloating, groaning when staked, red face, etc.) and points out that all of these things could occur naturally in a decaying body. The content of this book is very interesting, and Barber’s thesis is quite logical. However, the narrative was a little drier than necessary. I enjoyed learning, but wished it could have been a little more engaging!

Prophet, by R. J. Larson

2012 Book 48: Prophet, by R. J. Larson (3/14/2012)

Reason for Reading: LibraryThing Early Reviewers

My Review: 4/5 stars
Ela Roeh's life is turned upside down when The Infinite asks her to become his prophet. She must leave her family, her country, and everything she knows in order to travel to pass on the Infinite’s message to a foreign king. She shows amazing strength of character when she is embroiled in politics and war. This book is Christian Fiction, and is probably meant for young adults; however, despite Ela’s youth, she has the maturity of an adult. The message can be a bit strong (which is understandable given that it is published in the Christian Fiction market) but it’s not preachy, and the message flows pretty smoothly into the plot. Furthermore, the plot is exciting and intriguing enough to keep me curious about what was going to happen. Overall, I think it was an excellent addition to the Christian Fantasy genre and should be enjoyed by the general fantasy audience as well.

The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

2012 Book 47: The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman (3/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: Interested in the Paradise Lost allegory

My Review: 3/5 stars
Lyra has traveled to a parallel universe, where she meets Will—another traveler of universes. They team up when they find that Lyra’s quest to find out more about dust and Will’s quest to find his missing father are intertwined. This is a difficult book for me to review. The first time I tried to read this book, I gave up about a quarter of the way through because I didn’t like being beat over the head with an anti-religion Message. It really lacked subtly in this book, and I hear it is even more brutal in the third book. However, I decided to give this book another try because I learned that it was a retelling of Paradise Lost, and I was interested in seeing what he did with that. My final conclusion: I still feel that I was being beat over the head with a Message; however, I think Pullman is a VERY creative author. SPOILER ALERT: I was a little off-put by the pointless waste of lives at the end of the book. But perhaps the third book will elucidate the reasons for these deaths.

The Kin, by Peter Dickinson

2012 Book 46: The Kin, by Peter Dickinson (3/11/2012)

Reason for Reading: Wanted to read something prehistorical

My Review 4/5 stars
The Kin was originally written as a series of four short books, but it has been compiled into one book in later editions. It is set in Africa 200,000 years ago. A group of men has recently been ousted from their home by violent strangers, and they are wandering through the desert looking for new Good Places. When they abandon the four very young orphans for their own survival, two older children separate from the group and go back to rescue the little ones. This group of children then has many adventures and meets many strange people in these strange lands. Dickinson knows a lot about Africa and anthropology, making this story creative and interesting. I certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys survival and prehistoric adventures for tweenagers.

A History of the End of the World, Jonathan Kirsch

2012 Book 45: A History of the End of the World, by Jonathan Kirsch (3/10/2012)

Reason for Reading: Out of a vague interest in eschatology. And by that, I mean I'm interested from a sociological point of view why everyone is so fascinated with the end of the world.

My Revew 3.5/5 stars
This book surveys how the Book of Revelation has influenced culture throughout time. It provides a basic idea of how apocalyptic rhetoric has been used and developed with time. However, I didn’t learn much history from this book. In fact, Kirsh mostly assumes that the reader is either familiar with the history or willing to look up the interesting bits elsewhere. It is also very dense, since much of the text is direct quotes or paraphrases from other writers. Kirsch has a strong bias against apocalyptic rhetoric, and his book implies a direct influence of Revelation on pretty much everything bad that has ever happened. Personally, I think the case is over-stated. Apocalyptic rhetoric certainly impacts everyone’s lives in the same way as Shakespearian rhetoric does, but Kirsh implies a more active influence. I had the uneasy feeling that Kirsh was quoting people out of context; and I noticed one time he left important facts out of a historical example, thus misleading the reader. Kirsh also has a distinctly un-Christian leaning (I’m GUESSING he’s a secular Jew), and his views might offend conservative or fundamentalist Christians. Overall, I’m happy I read the book because it provided a broad survey. But I’d like to read others to get a more in-depth look at specifics.

The Surrender Tree, by Margarita Engle

2012 Book 44: The Surrender Tree, by Margarita Engle (3/5/2012)

Reason for Reading: It was there

My Review 4/5 stars
The Surrender Tree is a fictional set of narrative poems by actual historical figures in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain. The storyline was interesting and educational, and I was pleased that I’d taken the time to read this little book.

Shadows: Book of Aleth, by Michael Duncan

2012 Book 43: Shadows: Book of Aleth, Part 1, by Michael Duncan (3/3/2012)

Reason for Reading: This was my book club choice for this month. I am in charge of the discussion for the month so I have no choice but to read it! ;)

My Reveiw 4/5 stars
When Aaron, Captain of the Royal Guard, is given a mission to retrieve a stolen book by any means necessary he doesn’t question his orders. He soon finds that not all is as it seems. He becomes embroiled in the politics of Dwarves, a race of men he believed were fairy tales. He must lead a mission to retrieve the Book of Aleth and to discover the truth. I was pleasantly surprised by this allegorical fantasy of the Christian Fiction genre. The epic fantasy story was original enough to capture my attention and the writing was smooth and enticing. The religious message is present but subtle, which to me is a sign of a good writer. (I hate being beat over the head with a Message.) The book DID end with a cliff-hanger, but I guess I was expecting that based on the term “Part 1” being in the title. So I was only a tiny bit irked. (I think books should have a natural ending…even in series.) Other than that quibble, I was very pleased.

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke

2012 Book 42: Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke (3/2/2012)

Reason for Reading: This book has been on Mt. TBR since my aunt told me I should read it (years ago, of course).

My Review 5/5 stars
When a group of dragons finds out that humans are going to be flooding their valley, Firedrake decides to go on a journey to find the Rim of Heaven—a zone of safety from the invasive humans. He is enigmatically warned by an elderly dragon to “beware the Golden One.” Firedrake sets off with his Brownie friend Sorrel, picking up a human boy (Ben) and a homunculus (Twigleg) along the way. They must defeat “the Golden One” in order to be in safety forever. This was a magical little book for kids. It would be appropriate to read to young kids, and is the reading level of perhaps an 11-13 year old. It’s a fun read for an adult who likes YA lit, too.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 41: A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis (2/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: Wanted to better understand Paradise Lost. I'm not very good at poetry.

My Review: 4/5 stars
In this preface, Lewis first outlines what an epic poem is and what Milton was trying to do with Paradise Lost. Then he discusses his views on how Milton's theology played a role in this epic. Lewis debunks the view that Milton had compassion for Satan. It was a good introduction, which I read before the poem because I thought it might help me comprehend the poem while I'm reading it. It was helpful, though it managed to make me more skeptical that I'll comprehend Paradise Lost.


Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

2012 Book 40: Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver (2/28/2012)

Reason for Reading: Was looking for a redemption theme

My Review: 3/5 stars
Sam Kingston is a mean-girl with everything she needs: popularity, the hunky boyfriend, and popular mean-girl friends. When she dies in a car accident, she is given the chance to live her final day 6 more times. She learns that nobody is exactly what they seem and that everyone is redeemable. I was eager to read this book because I thought it would be an interesting twist on the Groundhog Day theme. However, I didn’t realize that it would be a regurgitation of 80’s and 90’s movies to the point where there were very few truly original scenes. It’s basically Groundhog Day in a mish-mash of high school flicks with other movies worked in. I was actually to the point of looking for the “token black kid” it was so regurgitated (no appearance). So, I was a little disappointed in the author’s skill. On the other hand, many teens (for whom this book is intended) will not have grown up on 80’s and 90’s movies and might find the book quite interesting and original, though very sad. The theme of redemption and everyone’s-the-same-on-the-inside was applaudable. The writing was smooth and engaging, though the beginning was a little irritating because you had to choke through her mean-girl attitude. It’s good for a light read, but it’s not literature.

By Darkness Hid, by Jill Williamson

2012 Book 39: By Darkness Hid, by Jill Williamson (2/27/2012)

Reason for Reading: Was wondering what a Christy Award winner was like. I'm pleased.

My Review: 4/5 stars
Achan has grown up in a medieval-esque village as a lowly stray and his future seems bleak when a head-strong knight illegally begins to train Achan as his squire. The lord of the village is angered, and Achan is punished by having to guard the nasty, abusive prince on a trip to the capital city. While traveling, Achan runs into many difficulties—including Vrell, a rather effeminate “boy” who is actually the prince’s chosen bride-to-be in hiding. Vrell and Achan must learn to trust one another, while at the same time taming their sharpening their blood-voices. This book is Christian young adult fiction, so it has a reasonably subtle religious theme. It is the first book in a trilogy, and it had a cliff-hanger ending, but luckily for me the whole series has been published. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story—even though the characters aren’t perfect and sometimes I wanted to pound them over their heads for their obtuseness, they ARE teenagers after all and are really quite endearing. The book started out slow, but I was really into it after the first 50 or so pages. It was getting really interesting at the end, right when it ended. Ah! Cliffhangers!

The Silver Chair, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 38: The Silver Chair, by C. S. Lewis (2/26/2012)

Reason for Reading: Currently working through the Narnia series in publication order.

My Review: 5/5 stars
Eustace Scrubb ventures back to Narnia with his schoolmate Jill Pole. There they are sent on a mission to rescue Prince Rilian, who has been kidnapped by an evil witch. This is another lovely installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. Very cute.

The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard

2012 Book 37: The Spiritual Brain, by Mario Beauregard (2/24/2012)

Reason for Reading: I'm interested in science vs. medicine debates

My Review: 3/5 stars
Beauregard’s thesis is that mystical/spiritual experiences have effects on the brain that are too complex to be generalized down to a “God Gene,” a “God Switch,” or a section of the brain dedicated to religiosity. His evidence for this thesis is pretty strong—specifically, he summarizes his own neuroscience research with Carmelite nuns. This thesis does not take an entire book to prove, however, so he spends the rest of the book discussing other aspects of spirituality and neuroscience. Problem is, he’s not an exciting writer, so I really can’t remember any of his other points. I don’t recall any objectionable arguments he made…it’s just that the book is rather forgettable. Maybe worth a read if you have a specific interest in the area—but there are better books out there for casual popular reading.