Monday, April 29, 2013

Divergent


Book: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Description: In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her. (from Amazon.com)

My Thoughts: I read Divergent because it was very highly recommended by a friend, whose recommendations I tend to either love or hate. I was also skeptical because this book is classified as Young Adult lit., and lately I've been growing away from the drama and love triangles and whatnot that I tend to think of when I think of YA books. That said--this book blew me away. It was amazing, and I literally stayed up all night reading it.

I found Divergent to be fast-paced without being only about action. The action helped keep me interested, but what truly caught my attention and kept it was the characters. Tris (the main character) was very cool but also very believable--she was just a normal girl. Her struggles, especially her emotional ones, felt very real (rather than drawn-out and needlessly dramatic). At the same time, Tris was very aware of the fact that her emotions should not be the deciding factor of any of the decisions she made. Instead, she tried to make decisions because they were the right decisions. This is a rare distinction to find in current YA lit.

Four was also super cool. He treated Tris like she was a capable human being, which was nice. I did think their relationship was a bit odd in that they go from being complete strangers to being very, very close in the span of something like two weeks.

I really enjoyed reading this book, but there were some deeper undertones as well. This is a society that's striving for good, even if not everyone in the society is. And yet the virtues that each Faction sees as the best become very all-consuming and the virtues and factions are ultimately bent into something very negative in a lot of ways. 

One complaint? People can't become good fighters in two weeks!

Highly recommended!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate


Finally, to finish up my Earth Week book reviews, I decided to read a book about some really cool, amazing aspect of God's creation. 

Book: Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, and James B. Wood

Description: The visually arresting and often misunderstood octopus has long captured popular imagination. With an alien appearance and an uncanny intellect, this exceptional sea creature has inspired fear in famous lore and legends - from the giant octopus attack in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Ursula the sea witch in The Little Mermaid. Yet its true nature is more wondrous still. After decades of research, the authors reveal a sensitive, curious, and playful animal with remarkable intelligence, an ability to defend itself with camouflage and jet propulsion, an intricate nervous system, and advanced problem-solving abilities. 

In this beautifully photographed book, three leading marine biologists bring readers face to face with these amazingly complex animals that have fascinated scientists for decades. From the molluscan ancestry of today’s octopus to its ingenious anatomy, amazing mating and predatory behaviors, and other-worldly relatives, the authors take readers through the astounding life cycle, uncovering the details of distinctive octopus personalities. With personal narratives, underwater research, stunning closeup photography, and thoughtful guidance for keeping octopuses in captivity, Octopus is the first comprehensive natural history of this smart denizen of the sea. (from Amazon.com)

My Thoughts: This was a fascinating, well-written book. The authors did a great job of describing the world from an octopus's point of view and why what they do what they do--even if it seems weird to us humans. Octopuses are really amazing creatures: beautiful, unique, and intelligent.

I was really surprised by how little we actually know about octopuses. The authors raised more questions than they answered for a lot of the subjects they brought up.

Octopus was aimed at an impressively large audience, from people who know nothing about biology or octopuses to aquarium workers. Although a few technical terms were used, they were always explained; they cited scientific articles for those interested but also always kept their language very normal. 

To finish up: some cool octopus pictures! 

View original image here
View original here

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Collapse


Book: Collapse by Jared Diamond

Description: In Jared Diamond’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel, the author explores how climate change, the population explosion and political discord create the conditions for the collapse of civilization

Environmental damage, climate change, globalization, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of societies around the world, but some found solutions and persisted. As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe, and weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Collapse moves from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana. (from amazon.com)

My thoughts: This book was incredibly thought-provoking. Diamond described various cultures through time, all over the globe, and their responses to problems, both ecological and not. These descriptions really made me think about assumptions and culture, and how these aspects of a society tie into its ecological impact. Many of the cultures Diamond described ultimately failed, often because of short-sightedness of that culture or other cultural values that made them unwilling to accept the solution that would seem obvious to us. Are there solutions to our problems that we are unable or unwilling to see?

I was intrigued by his argument that businesses can't be expected to adopt good environmental policies that will result in them losing profit unless there is consumer or government pressure to do so. (If you think that seems obvious: well, it's not something conservationists discuss much. I suppose it depends on how you feel about businesses: should they do what's right because it's right, or because it's what their customers want? Perhaps the fact that this is an issue at all simply shows how entitled we often feel--I want this product to be everything I want it to be, for no less than such-and-such a price). The other argument that really stuck out was that globalization ultimately means that the earth now is ultimately one gigantic connected system--if the whole thing collapses because of environmental problems, there won't be anywhere for the survivors to go. They'll be stuck with the conditions. (Of course, to some extent that has always been true).

I did have some problems with this book. Before reading it, I heard some claims that Diamond's archaeology, about Easter Island specifically, is not entirely supported by the evidence, and although I didn't look into it before I read the book, it seems that this is true (here is a brief write-up about it on Wikipedia). There were also a few other facts that he cited that I wasn't sure were entirely accurate. 

I wasn't that impressed with his Haiti/Dominican Republic chapter; because both countries are on the same island, Diamond used them as a sort of case study of how societies existing with the same resources and natural conditions but making different choices will end up with very different results. However, at the end of the chapter I found myself unconvinced that the differences between the two countries are only because of their choices.

Another problem I had with Collapse is that Diamond focused too much on the environment solely as related to its benefits for humans; there was not a single mention of wild animals (other than as food sources) before the last chapter, when he mentioned the interconnectivity of all the world's ecosystems as a reason to keep protecting all species--those small species that seem unimportant may affect a species humans are interested in. I realize that to reach and convince a wide audience, an author must convince the reader of why it matters to her or him, but I'm not at all sure that making most of the life on this planet seem unimportant is an effective way to foster conservation efforts.

As you could probably tell from all of my comments above, I didn't agree with everything Diamond argued in Collapse. However, by not agreeing with everything he wrote I was forced to think a lot more about what I thought about the issues and why I didn't agree with him. This book also made me very conscious of everything that I consume--electricity, water, food, things like clothes and paper and gasoline--and how very much I do consume. Ultimately, despite its problems, I found this book thought-provoking and engaging.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Silent Spring


Book: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Published: 1962

Description: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in three serialized excerpts in the New Yorker in June of 1962. The book appeared in September of that year and the outcry that followed its publication forced the banning of DDT and spurred revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water. Carson’s passionate concern for the future of our planet reverberated powerfully throughout the world, and her eloquent book was instrumental in launching the environmental movement. It is without question one of the landmark books of the twentieth century. (from Amazon.com)

My Thoughts: Wow! This was a beautifully written, passionate condemnation of pesticide use. It also addressed the attitude that led to pesticide use: the idea that nature exists solely for humans to shape as they will for their comfort and convenience. Even if the pesticide use has diminished since 1962, the attitude, I would argue, has not gone away.

Silent Spring was well researched, and had good science. But it was also written in a way that was both beautiful and understandable to anyone, with any amount of science background. This book is the ultimate proof that however much scientists know about something and no matter how harmful that something is, they als need someone to tell people about what they've found in a way that can be understood. Carson was that rare person who was both a scientist and capable of writing for the general public. 

Carson also offers multiple viable alternatives to pesticide use, and pointed out that apart from being amazingly toxic to everything and very expensive, pesticides weren't working--insects were gaining resistance! She acknowledged the concerns of the farmers and ranchers, and provided them with alternatives. Her attitude reminded me of the parable of the manager (Luke 16:1-13)--be pragmatic, not just high and mighty!

Silent Spring is a classic in environmental literature that is both condemnatory of the human destruction of the environment and wonderfully written (reading this made me want to read all of Carson's other books). Highly recommended!! 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Sand County Almanac

Book: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold

Published: 1949

Description: First published in 1949 and praised in The New York Times Book Review as "a trenchant book, full of vigor and bite," A Sand County Almanac combines some of the finest nature writing since Thoreau with an outspoken and highly ethical regard for America's relationship to the land. Written with an unparalleled understanding of the ways of nature, the book includes a section on the monthly changes of the Wisconsin countryside; another part that gathers informal pieces written by Leopold over a forty-year period as he traveled through the woodlands of Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona, Sonora, Oregon, Manitoba, and elsewhere; and a final section in which Leopold addresses the philosophical issues involved in wildlife conservation. (from Amazon.com)

My Thoughts: This is a classic of conservation literature. (apparently. I'd never heard of it until I read part of it for a class, which got me wanting to read more.) I must admit that I agree with the label of 'classic.' 

Beautifully written. Leopold's descriptions of the nature around him were beautiful and enchanting. His love and knowledge of nature were palpable, and made me want to do nothing so much as go outside and look around. 

He was very clear in his condemnation of a lot of destruction of natural habitats (I couldn't help wondering what would he think of today's America). Sometimes I found this too didactic, even distracting, but at other times it was thought-provoking and poignant.

As mentioned in the description, A Sand County Almanac is full of a deep concern for ethics. Leopold calls for conservation of nature, not out of any vested interest in man, but simply because all species have the right to survive. He very much acknowledges that humans do and must use the land, but he argues against the modern lifestyle, where people are so separated from the land and the environment that they lose all knowledge of it and respect for it. His concern with ethics is perhaps why this book has remained so popular, and certainly played a part in how much I enjoyed it. It was a joy to read a book written by an author who argued for what he found was right and did not equivocate about it. Instead, Leopold's arguments and writings were guided by his principles.

Magic call for a closer connection with and respect for the land.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day! I hope everyone is celebrating by doing something for the planet not only today, but in their everyday life as well.

To celebrate here I decided to spend the week reviewing several books that are about the Earth and the environment. Firstly, however, I wanted to take today and talk about why I think Earth Day is so important, especially to Christians.

When Christians are discussing the environment, often the first verse that comes up is Genesis 1:28: "God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'" Often Christians use this verse to justify human use of the environment in any way we please, especially when God instructs humans to "subdue" the earth and "rule over" the living creatures.

I would argue against such an interpretation for several reasons. Firstly, God gave humans this command before the Fall. Now, I am in no way saying that God's commands don't apply after the Fall, but I am saying that after the Fall humans became broken, prideful creatures without much of the divine understanding that we previously had. Without our previous connection to God, it is easy for humans to subdue and rule in the wrong way (for instance, humans did not begin eating meat until after the Fall--Genesis 9:1-9). Secondly, just because humans have been given the Earth to use does not mean that it is has been given to us as a possession forever. God is quite clear about that to the Israelites, actually: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine" (Leviticus 25:23) and "The land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and garner their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the Lord" (Leviticus 25:3-4). (This second verse almost establishes the land as a member of God's covenant as well) Clearly if the land does not truly belong to us, we should use it wisely, in a way that does not result in degradation and suffering--and that is not happening now.

God loves His creation, both human and non-human (Psalm 104:27-30, Matthew 10:29). What is more, because it was created by God, it shows His character to any who look at it (Psalm 8:1, Romans 1:20). I see God most clearly in nature and receive inspiration and encouragement from its beauty and amazing complexity. It is inexusable to destroy that creation, especially merely to have yet more stuff that we do not need.

Environmental degradation does not just affect plants and animals. Pollution, ozone depletion, invasive species, habitat degradation and destruction, climate change, and so many other things done by humans threaten both God's glorious creation and the lives and well-being of humans. Pollution causes diseases, including cancer; invasive species and habitat degradation cause species extinctions, cause ecosystems to change their functioning so that less humans, plants, and animals can live on the same amount of land.

That is unacceptable. We are destroying God's creation with everything we do.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Place for Truth


Book: A Place for Truth

Description: Many today pursue knowledge and even wisdom. But what about truth? In an age that disputes whether truth can be universalized beyond one's own personal experience, it seems quaint to speak of finding truth. But whether in the ivory towers of the academy or in the midst of our everyday lives, we continue to seek after the true, the beautiful and the good.

Since its founding at Harvard in 1992, The Veritas Forum has provided a place for the university world to explore the deepest questions of truth and life. What does it mean to be human? Does history have a purpose? Is life meaningful? Can rational people believe in God? Now gathered in one volume are some of The Veritas Forum's most notable presentations, with contributions from Francis Collins, Tim Keller, N. T. Wright, Mary Poplin and more. Volume editor Dallas Willard introduces each presentation, highlighting its significance and putting it in context for us today. Also included are selected question and answer sessions with the speakers from the original forum experiences.

Come eavesdrop on some of today's leading Christian thinkers and their dialogue partners. And consider how truth might find a place in your own life. (from Amazon.com)

My thoughts: This was a fantastic collection of speeches about Christianity. Most of them are designed to be accessible to both Christians and non-Christians, which is great. I enjoyed reading them, and found that they both challenged and encouraged me, but I think they could also be read by a non-Christian. All of the speakers were very open about their own faith and why they believed what they did. I especially enjoyed the wide range of disciplines represented by the speakers, from an astrophysicist to a social scientist to at least one philosopher. Most of the speakers were Biblically arguing for a culturally, socially, scientifically relevant Christianity, which is a wonderful reminder for us Christians of what Christianity should look like and an appeal to seekers and those who are just curious to just think about Christianity and what it claims. (Those that weren't were admitted atheists, brought to speak about the same topic and provide a more balanced debate).

As mentioned in the description, the idea of truth was very important to this book, and the whole first section was dedicated to various lectures about truth and whether it exists. (The sections were Truth, Faith and Science, Atheism, Meaning and Humanity, Christian Worldview, and Social Justice). Obviously I believe that truth does exist, but nonetheless I began reading this book at a time where reading various essays about truth and why people believe in ultimate truth was very helpful for me. The social justice section was also very powerful for me, simply because it expanded much more on how to truly live out your faith and challenged me to think more about what Christianity should truly look like in terms of how it acts towards others.

Highly recommended.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Casual Vacancy


Firstly I'd like to apologize for the unexpectedly long gap in posts, but my exams are finished now!

Also, next week I will have special book reviews to celebrate Earth Day!!

And now...


Book: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

Country: United Kingdom





Description:  When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…. Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. (from Amazon.com)


My Thoughts: I was impressed by this book. It was incredibly well-written, although it had a very distinct style from Harry Potter. It was very gritty: Rowling included lots of details about smells and movements and everyday life, the things that make a story seem real for me, and the characters felt so real. There were a lot of them, and they were hard to keep track of (PAY ATTENTION to who's talking--there were some sudden switches), but Rowling wrote each character very well; each person felt distinct. She also did a fantastic job of making all the characters understandable (although there were a few interesting and notable exceptions).

The Casual Vacancy is definitely a story about the darker side of humanity: affairs, rape, cruelty, apathy and indifference, drugs, lies, politics. It is definitely a critique of a society that abandons part of itself. What the description above doesn't mention is that all of the tension about the council elections center around whether Pagford should continue to fund and maintain a drug rehab clinic and a low-income housing neighborhood.

My favorite character by far were Krystal, who felt SO real to me as I was reading. She was such a struggling, hurting teenager, and reminded me strongly of people I have known. Sukhvinder, another realistically struggling teenager, and Tessa come in a close second. I felt that Tessa was the only character who tried to do the right thing and truly tried to understand the people around her. But she also made some bad decisions in the past and still dealing with them. She actually reminded me a lot of the Biblical David.

Warning: The Casual Vacancy contains lots of sex and swearing. It actually didn't bother me that much, (although I skipped all the sex) because most of it felt very intentional. It was used to create a mood, to continue Rowling's attention to detail, and to help us understand the characters better. It is also worth noting that each character is realistic enough that they are not role models in any sense of the phrase. I therefore highly recommend this book, but only to mature readers who can make their own decisions about the characters and their actions.