Monday, December 14, 2009
by Katherine Paterson, 1979
I confess, when I was first given an attractively bound little book with “angels” in the title, I cringed inwardly. More sentimental, mass-produced, contrived plots with bad theology? Forgive me, Bob and Ruth, my reading friends, I should have known you better than that. I realized my mistake when I read the back of the book, which told me that Katherine Paterson is the author of Bridge to Terabithia. Oh, this lady can write! Maybe I should re-examine her angels book.
Turns out the stories were written, one a year, for Paterson’s Presbyterian minister husband to read to his congregation at Christmastime. The first year, when the minister requested a story, Paterson went to the library to find one. But she could find only sentimental, contrived plots with bad theology. And she said to herself, “I could do better than this!”
So, expect lots of tragedy lurking round the edges of these nine Christmas stories. Some are quite dark and others are dark and funny, but all take a redemptive turn before the end.
Perhaps because Paterson’s children were small when she was writing them, children appear in all nine stories, and six of the nine feature babies. This made the stories especially poignant, not to mention suspenseful, for the mother that I am. I went through each story hoping nothing bad was going to happen to the baby. Sometimes it did. One story deals with a mother grieving after the stilbirth of her daughter, and one with a Japanese minister whose wife, son and baby were killed (before the story opens) when a bomb hit their house. But no such tragedy takes place “on stage,” so to speak.
Paterson’s fictional children aren’t all little angels, either. Their very immaturity and sin even drive the plot in some of the stories. This, whether it’s tragedy or just immaturity, is a part of the fallen world that Christ came to save.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Perhaps Patricia St. John’s best-known book is Treasures of the Snow. It has been made into a movie. But she has written many excellent books for children. I have read only three of them: Treasures of the Snow, The Secret of Pheasant Cottage, and most recently, Rainbow Garden.
Despite its somewhat namby-pamby-sounding name, and despite the many scenes of beauty within it, Rainbow Garden is not a sentimental book. It’s not about hippy, New-Agey, All-Is-One-style rainbows. In fact the rainbow makes only one appearance, very vivid but very brief, as is the way of rainbows.
Elaine has lived a pampered, but lonely and urban life in London with her mother. Then she is sent to live with a vicar and his family of six children in rural northern Wales – near both the mountains and the sea. In January.
Naturally it’s quite an adjustment. Elaine is not used to being asked to pitch in and do her share of the household chores, as the Owens expect her to do. She is no good at running, throwing snowballs or climbing trees as are the Owen children. One rainy day in the early spring, she looks out the window and notices a very bright rainbow which seems to have its foot behind a stone wall. She quietly leaves the house, runs to the wall, and follows it until she finds a low place where she can scramble over. By the time she does so, the rainbow has vanished. But Elaine has discovered a deserted garden that becomes her place of solace when she needs to get away from the difficulties of her living situation.
Patricia St. John excels at describing scenes of natural beauty in an evocative but not overdone manner. It is clear that she herself loves nature and draws great nourishment from it. And spring in North Wales gives her plenty to describe.
But Elaine is not just being calmed and nourished by nature; she is pursuing a mystery. On her first visit to church with the Owens, she saw an old, ivy-covered gravestone with some words that intrigued her. “In … [indecipherable] … is fulness of joy.” Fulness of joy! … the words stick in Elaine’s mind. She realizes that she longs for fulness of joy. She begins to try to find out where is it is found. She asks Janet, with whom she shares a room. Janet thinks it’s “In heaven is fulness of joy.” But she’s wrong. As Elaine finds out later, the words are from the end of Psalm 16: Thou wilt show me the path of life, and in Thy presence is fulness of joy. This is good news, because she does not have to get into heaven in order to find fulness of joy. She can begin now to discern and follow the path of life.
I cannot remember seeing a verse of Scripture handled so well in a novel. The verse reverberates throughout the story, unfolding gradually and naturally in a way that allows us to feel the mystery, richness and relevance of it, and what a gift it is.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy
published by Atheneum 1982, Beech Tree 1994
Once upon a time, in medieval Baghdad, lived a man who had seven daughters but no son. To his shame, he was therefore known as Abu-al-Banat (Father of Girls). To make matters worse, this man’s brother was blessed with seven sons. Furthermore, Abu-al-Banat was poor, whereas his brother was rich.
Since he had no son, Abu-al-Banat was forced to teach one of his daughters skills that were normally taught only to boys. He taught her to play chess, so that he would have someone to play against. He taught her to read because she wanted to learn so badly. In the evenings, he would sit and talk business with her, although he himself was not a successful businessman. But his daughter had the gift, and although Abu-al-Banat did not know it, by teaching his daughter he had sown the seeds for future good fortune for his family.
I don’t know why it is, but often the times-and-places that were the most unpleasant for the people who lived in them, make the most romantic settings for stories. I love the milieu in which this story is set. I love the way the characters talk to each other, using the vocative: “O my brother,” or “O father of daughters.” I love reading about the caravans and the spice shops. But I know that, especially as a woman, I would have hated to live there. Not all of us are blessed with the remarkable resilience and survival instincts of Abu-al-Banat’s daughter Buran.
Perhaps one thing that makes such a harsh world seem attractive, is that is it not peopled solely with characters who are bound by their culture. In a world in which the social separation between the sexes was extreme, and in which women were therefore considered barely human, we get characters like Abu-al-Banat, who allows his daughter to dress as a boy and go out into the world to seek her fortune; and like the prince, who when he finally figures out that his friend “Nasir” is a woman, feels attracted rather than repelled. For realism’s sake, we also have characters like the prince’s friend Amin, who considers a reading, chess-playing woman a “freak,” and Buran’s mother, who is completely conventional. But the presence of some choice men who can rise above their culture, as Buran rises above hers (without rejecting it or Islam), make this an adventurous, romantic world rather than just a monotonous, oppressive one.
Apparently there have been such men and women in real life as well, for a note at the end of the book says that this novel is “based on a folktale that has been part of the oral tradition of Iraq since the eleventh century.” It is a well-written, absolutely spellbinding story. I don’t know why it isn’t better known.
See a kid's review of the book.
Friday, November 13, 2009
His Dusty Hands
There it stood, near the door,
and if you did not wash just so
you were “not holy” evermore.
A basin of chains.
In He walked, glanced that way,
did not stop to rinse away
the road-dust before He ate.
Ignoring the chains.
The host is shocked, breathing fast:
How could a Teacher walk right past
the holy basin of chains?
Dusty hands yet are clean:
He does not need to wash a thing,
He Himself is purity.
Demonstrating that He can
still please God, though shocking man,
without the ceremonial stand.
Loosing the people’s chains.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
by Elizabeth George Speare, 1958
Connecticut, spring 1687. No one is less suited to be here than Kit Tyler. She grew up in Barbados, used to blue skies, warm seas, a library full of poetry and plays, and all the work done by slaves. Connecticut offers frigid rivers that no one swims in, hard work for everyone from sunup to sundown, and plays are taboo. Practically the only reading material is the Bible (which gets somewhat short shrift in this otherwise excellent book). It also offers some unexpected solaces.
Kit, who had to sell her family’s estate in Barbados to pay off her grandfather’s debts, is as repelled by the harsh and forbidding New Englanders as they are scandalized by her. Nevertheless, her uncle, aunt and cousins welcome her to live with them, and we quickly see that the Puritans in this story are no caricatures. They have varied personalities and complex characters.
This book has everything … tangled love triangles, a dramatic trial scene (guess what kind?), and cameos by historical figures. If, like me, you like to read about the New World colonists when Fall comes around, check out this Newberry Medal winner.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The Associate, by John Grisham, 2009
Say you want to write a satirical novel about the world of giant, high-powered international law firms, where mind-boggling amounts of money are billed every day, corruption and workaholism rule, and Sloth is the only one of the seven deadly sins that is not rampant.
Your problem: how do you find a likeable protagonist? Most people who work in such firms do so voluntarily. They fully subscribe to the philosophy that includes padding their hours, billing expensive lunches to clients, maintaining an insane, sleepless schedule, and scorning everyone who does not do the same. These people will be hard to identify with, at least for the rest of us who actually have time to read novels. So, where do you get a protagonist who works in such a firm, but who will also be a plausible good guy, one you and your readers can root for?
John Grisham solved this problem by making his protagonist an idealistic young law student who wants to use his degree to make the world a better place, but who is blackmailed into applying to a high-powered law firm so that he can steal its secrets for the blackmailer.
Yes, this book has some elements of a “thriller,” but arguably the richer part of it is the satire. Although not really a humor book, the satire sometimes gets funny. For example:
The sound of important papers being extracted crackled from the backseat, and Kyle knew something was being reviewed … After ten minutes of [driving in] in downtown traffic, Kyle was wet under the collar and breathing heavily … He found the lot but it was full, and this caused all manner of cursing in the rear seat. … Doug was stuffing papers back into his briefcase. Bard suddenly had business on the phone. “I don’t care. Any street. And if you can’t find a spot, then just keep making the block. Let us out here.” Kyle cut to the curb, and a horn erupted somewhere behind them. Both lawyers scrambled out of the rear seat. Peckham’s final words were, “Just keep moving, okay. You’ll find something.” Bard managed to tear himself away from his phone conversation long enough to say, “And be careful. It’s my wife’s.” Alone, Kyle eased away and tried to relax. … Every inch of available space was packed with vehicles and motorbikes. An amazing abundance of signs warned against parking near any potential space. Kyle had never noticed so many threatening signs. … At 11:00 a.m., Kyle congratulated himself because he could now bill the client $800 for driving in circles.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
by Gerald S. Hawkins, 1965.
There are no druids in this book, no human sacrifices, no ritual orgies. It is much more interesting than that. If nothing else, after looking at the maps, schematics, and detailed discussion, you will know some hard facts about Stonehenge … its layout, the positions and names of the individual stones and formations.
Hawkins, an astronomer, was not the first to speculate that Stonehenge may have been used as an observatory, but he was the first to demonstrate that and how it was done. He also argues convincingly, but cannot prove, that a lesser-known feature of Stonehenge (the “Aubrey holes”) were used as a “computer” (i.e. a means of keeping track) to predict eclipses down to the day.
“Stonehenge was an observatory” may sound kind of tame. You have to read the book to realize the incredible amount of intelligence, work, and technology that went into setting up this amazing observatory. For example:
• How did they figure out how to position the stones, especially given the notoriously foggy weather on Salisbury Plain, that makes it difficult to observe sun- and moon- rises?
• How did they transport the stones?
• How did they shape the stones, including the niches that kept them from falling off each other?
• How in the world did they position the Heel Stone so that its top lines up with an observor’s view of the horizon, especially since it would settle after being erected?
• How did they know that if they had selected a location much further North or South, the elegant rectangle-within-a-circle that is part of the observatory function of Stonehenge, would have had to be a much less elegant trapezoid?
When you have read all this, you will never again doubt the intelligence of ancient man. After describing the amount of manpower that it would have taken to dig the trench, build the wall, and transport, shape, and set up the stones, and comparing that manpower to the probable population of Britain at the time, Hawkins points out that Stonehenge can be compared without exaggeration to the U.S. space program, in terms of the amount of manpower and resources devoted to it. Not to mention sophistication. Hawkins had to use a computer to unravel the riddle the ancients set him.
This is one of those cases where throwing some light on the mystery makes it more, not less, awe-inspiring.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
by Karen Joy Fowler
Not sure how I should review this book. On the one hand, it was well-written enough and addictive enough to cause me to lose all self-control and read it every free moment until I finished it. On the other, the aftertaste it left me with was mostly bleak, modern, meaningless, the impression of a world surrounded by mean people.
Besides that it was on sale at Costco, I bought it because it’s about the author of a famous mystery series and how her books were entangled with her real life. She had taken a very dear friend and made him into a character in one of her books – the murderer, in fact – and now his daughter is wondering why. The resolution isn’t as satisfying as an Agatha Christie would be, but it is realistic, true to human nature. And after all, Wit’s End is not a murder mystery and doesn’t claim to be.
I liked that the novel is interspersed with excerpts from the (fictional) book in question … and reading these helps you unravel what is going on in the novel. I didn’t like that the excerpts are written in the exact same style as the overall narrative. (Someone else noticed that too. Click here for his also-mixed review.)
The blurbs on the book say things like, “Fowler’s subtle humor glides across these pages.” True. There are lots of clever turns of phrase and a few truly funny moments. However, often it seems that you can see the author is trying to be clever. The chuckles don’t seem to arise as serendipitously as they do in an Alexander McCall Smith. Anyone who thinks Wit’s End is funny ought to read his No. 1 Ladies’ Dective Agency series or his Portugese Irregular Verbs series.
Perhaps the bad aftertaste simply came from the fact that the book is set in modern Santa Cruz, California, with all the social and spiritual bleakness that implies. Sample incident: the herione is reluctantly invited to hang out at a bar with people ten years younger than herself. She goes (reluctantly), gets drunk, and ends up bawling when something reminds her of a loved one she lost. After going home, she gets on the Internet, and finds that one of her drinking buddies has already described this humilitating incident on a blog and made some additional catty comments about her.
Another part of the bad taste, perhaps, was that cults, particularly white supremacist ones, figure big in both the plot of the book and the plots of the fictional books-within-the-book. Cults are unpleasant to think about, and when presented in isolation, instantly create a bad impression of all organized religion.
So that’s it. My takeaway impression is that the book is dark, ironic, and somehow a bit shallow … but to be fair I have to note that it is very addictive, and very true to how people behave in this dark, ironic, somewhat shallow society. According to the review I link to above, The Jane Austen Book Club is much better.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Story and pictures by Ruth Bornstein, 1976
"Once there was a little gorilla, and everybody loved him." This reassuring tale for toddlers will let them know that not only does just about everybody in the great green forest love them, but all those same animals will still love them even when they get big.
It's funny how things come back to you. Almost two years ago, in the middle of the night as I was rocking my newborn son, this story from my own childhood came back to me, slowly, almost word for word. I sat there reciting it to him with tender postpartum tears flowing down my cheeks.
Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, 1971
Having grown up in the church, I’ve heard a lot about Corrie ten Boom. I’d heard many anecdotes from the book, seen the movie, and even read the comic book (in which the scenes and dialogue were faithfully preserved, but unfortunately Corrie and Betsey, who were in their 50’s when they were arrested by the Nazis, look like shapely young Marvel Comics heroines, Corrie with long brown hair and Betsey with a chestnut bun).
Anyway, all that to say, I felt like I knew the story – and it turns out I did know most of it – but I’d never actually read the book. So thank you to whoever dropped off their copy at the used items exchange that I recently picked it up from.
Either Corrie ten Boom or the Sherrills are very good storytellers. The book is simply told, yet so well-written that it goes very fast. The parts you usually hear the most about are those that take place in the concentration camps, but frankly those are the least enjoyable parts of the book. I enjoyed much more the chapters spent with the whole ten Boom family, in their one-room-wide house/watch shop in Haarlem. It gets very interesting when the Nazis invade Holland and the family gets involved in the underground. But if you’ve taken the trouble to read the earlier chapters, you see that their involvement in helping and hiding Jews was a natural outgrowth of the exemplary life they’d already lived for many years. Long before the invasion, Corrie’s father Casper was known as the “Grand Old Man of Haarlem” to whom all kinds of people brought their troubles as well as their broken watches. When his children grew up and two of the four married and moved out, Casper ten Boom welcomed a series of foster children into his home. And this was years before the war.
As I watched this Grand Old Man wisely parent his daughters, do quality work in his watch shop, and then eventually reach out to his entire city, it dawned on me that were it not for Casper ten Boom’s faithful service of his family and his Lord, there would be no Hiding Place. He’s one of those remarkable fathers whose character undergirds an adventure story, like Charles Ingalls in the Little House books. Among other lessons of the Hiding Place, what a difference a good father makes!
Casper ten Boom also provides some unintentional humor in the story, as he never really “gets” some of the rules of the Underground … such as that everyone in the Underground goes by the name Smit.
Those familiar with the story will remember that in the concentration camps, Betsey ten Boom achieved a level of serenity, selflessness and compassion that is truly unbelievable … unless we remember that it was not her, but Jesus giving her the strength to pray for her tormentors, love everyone, and see visions of the future. Corrie, who was also a godly woman but less mystical, with her narration provides the voice of a more “normal person” that the reader can relate to.
The most amazing thing about this story is that it’s true.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I like many things about this film. I like the way Aladdin and Jasmine look; I like the songs; I like the chase sequences. The fact that Aladdin, the street rat, and Jasmine, the princess, both begin the movie feeling “trapped” is appropriate to the setting and the story. (Though Jasmine isn’t nearly as trapped as she should be. How does she get away with refusing suitors? And where are the sultan’s dozen or so other daughters?)
The arrival of the genie is supposed to bring the solution to the lovers’ trapped feeling. But the genie brings problems of his own, for the plot. First of all, there is the annoying pop-culture banter that might be appropriate on a talk show, but that ruins the feel and escapism of the movie. (For me, anyway. Hollywood is something I want to escape from, not to.)
But more serious are the issues with the genie’s magic. Magic, of course, always goes by strict rules, and in fact one of the themes of the film is that the genie is strictly bound by the rules of his nature. But unfortunately, the writers did not stick to this consistently.
When Aladdin asks the genie to “make me a prince!” the genie provides him with clothes, P.R., and an entourage, but Aladdin, predictably, feels like a fraud, and not up to the task of ruling as sultan, which will come with marrying Jasmine. At the end of the film, when Aladdin goes to make his third wish, the genie exclaims, “One bona-fide prince pedigree coming up!” Which raises some big questions. Is the pedigree going to be magical forgery? Or is the genie, in fact, able to change people’s past and their very identity? The latter would be a dangerous concept to introduce. But either way, forgery or changing the past, why didn’t the genie do it in the first place, when Aladdin said, “Make me a prince”?
This leads to the question of how much discretion the genie has over which wishes he grants. On their first meeting, Aladdin tricks the genie into getting him out of the Cave of Wonders, without counting it as a wish. Waiving that requirement appears to be up to the genie, who says, “All right, you baaad boy. But no more freebies!” But later, when Aladdin is unconscious at the bottom of the ocean, the genie desperately tries to get him to “make the wish” to save him, finally taking a pitiful sag of the head as a nod. These incidents seem to seriously undermine the basic premise that the genie is bound by the rules of his nature.
What do you think, fellow story hounds? Do flaws in a book or movie’s plot prevent you from really enjoying it … or can you enjoy it anyway as long as there are compensating factors like great music or action? And what do you think about showing kids movies with holes in the plot?
Monday, August 17, 2009
Still, the collection I'd gathered in our most recent house (above), had some real gems in it. Including the following:
The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy, and Tales of the Long Bow by G.K. Chesterton
The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
Blame It On the Brain? by, I think, Ed White (ironic that I can't remember his name, huh?)
When People Are Big and God Is Small by Edward T. Welch
Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson
Figuring Foreigners Out by Craig Storti
Under the Unpredictable Plant and Leap Over A Wall by Eugene Petersen
the complete Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
... as well as numerous books by P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and Alexander McCall Smith, and hard copies of Credenda/Agenda.
If you meet any of my books wandering the world, be sure they are all excellent reads.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The first ten minutes of the movie make the protagonist a real person, with a history, that you care about. The rest of the film is adventure – with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but lots and lots of real losses as well, including precious parts of the main character’s history. Loss, in fact, is a major theme of this film.
No plot detail is wasted. Sidekicks are not just there to be cute … they play a role. So does every detail in the setup, right down to the tennis balls on the feet of an old man’s walker. Also, look for visual spoofs of Star Wars.
Charity Royall is the smartest, prettiest girl in her tiny Massachusets hamlet. But she can’t shake the shame of knowing that when she was a little girl, she was adopted from The Mountain, where the people “aren’t half human.” When a handsome, well-educated young architect comes to the village to look for old houses, gossip and (eventually) passion fly. By the end of the summer, things will be very different for Charity.
Because of the period in which it was written, Summer may remind modern readers of Jane Austen. However, I found the language a lot easier to understand than in Austen’s books. This might be because it was written some decades later, and because it is set in America, not Britain. It is a fairly short book and goes quickly.
One thing that makes Austen fun (and funny) is the scale of moral and social values from which she writes. Also she never comes right out and says it, it’s clear from the way Austen writes about her characters which ones are behaving well or foolishly, which are ladies and gentlemen and which are not. Often the humor comes from the way the well-bred characters respond to foolishness on the part of others.
Wharton in Summer is just the opposite. One thing that makes the book such a pleasure to read is the nonjudgementalness with which Wharton reports the thoughts, behavior and choices of her characters. Charity is not cultured or well-educated, and almost all her choices are foolish ones. Nevertheless, she is a very sympathetic character and we can always identify with her emotions and actions. Wharton portrays her characters without rosiness, indulgence or sentimentality, but (I think it is not too much to say) with a great deal of grace and love. She has nothing but realistic understanding even for Charity’s alchoholic, sometimes lecherous guardian.
This book could break your heart if you read it as a teenager, especially if you were expecting a classic romantic plot and resolution. It didn’t break mine, because Wharton gives you enough red flags that you can brace yourself for what’s coming. But it has really stayed with me. Might be an excellent book to read with teens.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, 2008
It was in 2006 that I first heard the term “trans fats.” Returning to the U.S. after a four-year absence, we discovered that many food products now boasted they had “none” of something we had never before heard of. A new food baddie had been discovered, or perhaps made up. This constant turnover in nutritional buzzwords is one aspect of a wider phenomenon which Michael Pollan critiques in his book.
Pollan’s basic thesis is that the nutrient-by-nutrient approach to healthy eating has served to confuse consumers by taking nutrition out of the realm of common sense and putting it in the hands of the experts, those scientists who alone can detect the nutrients that are invisible to the naked eye. The same approach has been very profitable to the processed-food industry. If the experts say a nutrient is bad, manufacturers can find a way to remove it from their products. If the experts say a nutrient is good, it can be added to just about anything.
The problem, says Pollan, is that foods are probably greater than the sum of their parts, and certainly greater than the sum of the very limited number of nutrients that have so far been discovered. That’s why taking a supplement that contains vitamin C, vitamin A, and folic acid is not as good for you as eating a carrot. It’s a classic case of scientific reductionism. Reductionism fails again and again, but the modern dream lives on. We keep trying to use our limited knowledge of science to make foods that are better than the plant and animal foods that God causes to grow right out of the ground for us. And of course the foods we make are always much worse than the God-given foods, though sometimes it takes us decades to figure this out. So we spent a generation eating hydrogenated vegetable oils, now known as trans fats, because the experts told us that they were better for us than lard. That's right, lard. Pollan demonstrates that they're actually much worse for us. Than - I must say it again - lard. That was the biggest surprise in the book, for me.
(An interesting side note: part of the blame for Americans’ susceptibility to the notion that basic, natural foods such as meat and cheese could be unqualifiedly bad, can be laid at the door of the church. There has been a strain of asceticism that keeps popping up in the church at various times and places that mistrusts the enjoyment of food, viewing such sensual pleasure as an indulgence of people’s “animal nature.” Its roots lie in the acceptance of the ancient Greek notion that matter is evil and spirit is good. This notion, by the way, is in defiance of the Bible which teaches us that “the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of what we eat or drink” and that “God gives us all things richly to enjoy.” This mistrust of table pleasures goes way back, but it flowered in the modern age in such characters as the Seventh-Day Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, whose contributions to American food faddism Pollan briefly documents [56 – 57]. Just more proof that error in the church can have bizarre, long-term effects in the greater culture.)
Pollan closes his book with some rules of thumb that can be summarized: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants” and include injunctions like “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” So: hooray for steak! Hooray for eggs and fish and chicken! Hooray for milk and yoghurt and real cheese (not “cheese food”)! And double hooray for apples and cantaloupe and peppers and tomatoes and cherries and sweet corn and mangos and squash and carrots and watermelon. And lest you think I am a food puritan, hooray for homemade cake as well.
I read this as a child, really enjoyed it, and a few months ago was delighted to discover a copy of it in my mother and father in law’s library.
Little Georgie rabbit, his Mother and Father, his Uncle Anandas, Porkey the Woodchuck, Willie Fieldmouse, Phewie the Skunk, and all the rest of the animals on the Hill are delighted to hear that new Folks are coming to occupy the empty house and garden. But will they be good Folks, the kind who don’t trap or poison, and who plant lots of delicious vegetables? Will they spoil everything by bringing a dog or a cat? The animal community, not always harmonious, organizes themselves to find out.
If this book were published today, it would probably be called an environmental parable. Fortunately it was called no such thing, and I was free to enjoy it for the simple animal story that it is.
I surprised myself: I liked this book.
Judged by its cover – and, OK, its premise – it’s the last book I would want to pick up. An Esquire editor decides he’s going to obey the Bible as literally as possible for a year. And then write a book about it. The cover of the book features a picture of him posing in front of the NYC skyline, dressed in a Moseslike costume, two small stone tablets in one hand and a latte in the other, eyes rolled crazily skyward. Since I bought the 2008 edition, there are five pages of promotional blurbs in the front, in which the most common word is “funny.” Great. A “funny” book about the Bible, written by a secular journalist as a career stunt. It will surely be annoying and repellant, consisting of mockery, misunderstanding, and boring secularist clichés.
But I was wrong. Jacobs, while he doesn’t become a believer, takes the Bible much more seriously than I expected him to. The following passage is a good example of his attitude:
Day 91 … One of the reasons that I embarked on this experiment was to take legalism to its logical extreme and show that it leads to righteous idiocy. What better way to demonstrate the absurdity of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism? If you actually follow all the rules, you’ll spend your days acting like a crazy person. I still believe that. And I still plan on making a complete fool of myself to get this point across. But as with everything involving religion, my project has become much more complicated. The spiritual journey now takes up far more of my time. My friend Roger was right. It’s not like studying Sumo wrestling in Japan. It’s more like wrestling itself. This opponent of mine is sometimes beautiful, sometimes cruel, sometimes ancient, sometimes crazily relevant. I can’t get a handle on it. (page 119)
Jacobs doesn’t believe in the creation, the flood, the inspiration of the Bible, or the deity of Christ. But he displays none of the dismissive contempt that we’ve come to expect from secularist unbelievers. He is actually interested in the Bible – interested enough to spend a year not just researching it, but, well, doing it.
Most things are best understood when you actually live them. Some things are only understood this way, and this is particularly true of virtue. Jacobs recognizes that behavior can influence feelings and even beliefs. He is willing to be transformed by his experiment, even to the point of believing in God, though he recognizes that the transformation will be limited by his prior beliefs and values. He may be willing to grow a beard, wear a robe, and “stone” strangers in the park, but he will not spank his two-year-old, except once with a Nerf bat. (His son laughs, grabs the bat, and whacks him back with it.)
As Christians, our prior loyalty to Christ severely limits our ability to learn about other belief systems by “living” them. I cannot offer incense to Vishnu, or say “there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet.” I cannot spend a year working for Planned Parenthood. Due to the respective natures of secularism and Judeo-Christianity, Jacobs has more freedom to participate on an experimental basis. It’s fun – and informative – to watch him dive in.
These three delightful lines are just a tiny sample of the chuckles that await anyone who opens Stuff of Thought. Pinker loves jokes, and he keeps them coming. As a linguist, he has a warehouseful.
It was Steve Pinker’s book The Language Instinct that first got me interested in linguistics, and though my memory of that book has faded a bit over the years, I think this book is even more delightful. Pinker loves words (especially verbs), and funny phrases, and he shares this enthusiasm with his readers, making even the most complex linguistic theories and concepts accessible – at least most of the time. (He did lose me a few times.)
Pinker draws examples from arenas in which words matter – “There is nothing ‘mere’ about semantics!” (page 2). By my estimate, his examples are drawn from the following fields (in order of decreasing frequency):
everyday life (including jokes)
Conspicuous by its absence is theology, another field of study in which words matter a great deal and people have killed and died over their meaning. There’s a reason for this. Pinker is concerned with “the relation of words to reality” (page 3), and God is just not real to him. He is hardly mentioned except in the chapter on cursing. God not being real, statements about Him can have little importance.
What is real to Pinker is science. This becomes increasingly obvious as the book progresses. Pinker’s – ‘faith in science’ is too weak a phrase – worship of science first rears its head in the otherwise excellent chapter on metaphor. Pinker writes, “Most practitioners before the modern scientific era, and most purveyors of pseudoscience today, rambunctiously mix their metaphors … Loose and overlapping analogies are also a mark of bad science writing and teaching” (255 – 256). True, but this is also true of bad philosophy and theology, and even, in a different sense, of bad poetry and literature.
Pinker tips his hand when he writes at the top of page 257 that “[the existence of] Legitimate scientific analogies … raise the question of why metaphors should be so useful in the sphere of knowledge where we feel we have the surest grip on the truth.” Later in the same paragraph, he approvingly quotes Richard Boyd: “use of metaphor is one of many devices available to the scientific community to accomplish the task of accommodation of language to the casual structure of the world.” In other words, to accurately describe reality. As if the scientific community were the only people who make a serious effort to do this.
Another consequence of Pinker’s worship of science makes itself felt in the chapter on indirectness and politeness, where Pinker interrupts himself every few paragraphs to speculate on how or why this or that social use of language could have evolved. This becomes quite tedious after a while.
In the last few pages of his book, Pinker addresses the fear of determinism … the fear that the type of thoughts we can think are limited, even prescribed, by language itself. He disagrees with this view – language does not only block us from reality, he says, it can also allow us access to it. I agree with him, because I believe that God designed language as a way for human beings to apprehend truth. Pinker believes it because Science will save the day:
“Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of a liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science. … In higher education, people can be disabused of their fallacies in statistics or evolution … Or they can unlearn their faulty folk economics … In science and engineering, people can dream up analogies to understand their subjects … In the governance of institutions, openness and accountability can be reinforced … This underscores the importance of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it. The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world.” (435 – 439)
Ironically, Pinker has just spent the previous four or so chapters making a convincing case for our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. Through examining our language, he has shown that the way people think about the physical world does not match Newtonian physics, let alone the more recent kinds. The way people think about truth does not match formal logic. And social factors make people say and think things they wouldn’t if truth were their only concern. And furthermore, all these ways of thinking about the world are astonishingly, even delightfully, persistent. Pinker clearly enjoys these discussions of the way the human mind works, and after reading them, one expects him to say, “This is apparently the way people were designed to think. Instead of fighting it, we should accept this as the nature of humanity and see what we can learn from it about man and God.” That is what G.K. Chesterton would say. But Pinker backs off from this and simply asserts that, though it will be hard, we can change these faulty ways of thinking with good scientific education. Good luck, Mr. Pinker. People have been trying that project for about 250 years now, and it has been failing. But I still enjoyed your book.
As a health reference book, I prefer it to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Guide to Your Child’s Symptoms, which we also have. GCS organizes its information in a chart, with symptoms in the left column, a one-sentence description of the possible cause in the middle column, and a short “Action to Take” in the right column. The “Possible Cause” is often a list of different things, and the action to take is often simply “consult your pediatrician.” Whereas YCH is organized according to common diseases and injuries. For each disease, there is a description of the symptoms and characteristics, a cross-reference to similar conditions, an explanation of the cause and of the expected course. It then says under what conditions to call the pediatrician, and gives helpful suggestions for home care. Net result: reading GCS you feel like a blindfolded person being told, “Take two steps ahead. Now one to the left,” whereas YCH lifts the blindfold or at least allows you peek out from underneath it. To be fair I should mention that GCS has illustrations and YCH does not.
On the subject of behavior, I mostly read YCH with fascination, imagining the day when Little D will be going through these stages (for example, toilet training). Many of the methods that are so well explained in YCH sound pretty good, especially in the realm of things such as toilet training that are merely training and do not involve sin in the child. In cases like this, it is nice to have a detailed description of one method of dealing with a certain kind of challenge. If I didn’t have that, I would again feel in the dark, not knowing what to do and terrified that it would be wrong. There is also a method for time-outs described in helpful detail.
However, as with any book, you cannot always trust YCH when it comes to heart issues. For example, one discipline method it recommends is withholding eye contact. According to How to Really Love Your Child, eye contact should never be withheld to communicate disapproval, and I agree.
Another example: its says you should ignore whining, and even certain mild kinds of tantrums. Of course how seriously you take these things depends on the child’s age, but in general I think whining should be addressed. In Don’t Make Me Count To Three, it’s recommended that you treat it as an issue of self-control. “Come back in five minutes and ask for juice with self-control in your voice.”
A third example: it recommends that you not make an issue of it if your teenager rebels in “minor areas” such as: clothing, hairstyle, music, interests (so far so pretty good), friends (!), religion (!!), and philosophy (!!!). On the other hand, what YCH considers “major areas” is: experimentation with drugs, truancy, or stealing. Truly, truancy is much more serious than religion. How can a parent expect to influence the child away from drugs, truancy, and stealing if they cannot teach them a religion and philosophy adequate to it?