Letting Go of God

August 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

godLetting Go of God by Julia Sweeney

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This book (er … recording, I guess; this is only available on audio, since it’s a recording of her one-woman show, and was never published in print) was name-dropped a couple of times in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I didn’t receive Dawkins’ message as well as I had expected, due to his tone, but I was still interested in reading about others’ experiences with atheism, and I thought hearing about it through comedy would be the way to go. At the very least, I figured Sweeney’s tone wouldn’t be as abrasive as Dawkins’.

I’m so glad I did, because this is such an enlightening piece. Sweeney starts her story at age seven, as an Irish-Catholic girl who enters the so-called “Age of Reason”, when she’s no longer considered a child, and can now be accountable to God for any sins she may commit. From there, she takes us through her life as a Catholic, as a believer, and her life as a rationalist, where she tries to make sense of the God she worships. It’s a fascinating journey, told with equal parts comedy and tragedy, one that involves discussions with Mormons and priests, nuns and hippies, and even a stubborn believer in intelligent design.

Sweeney’s story is intensely personal, as anyone’s story of faith must be. Major events in her life dictate her faith, such as her brother’s painful death from cancer, and she relates those events with the emotion they deserve. Interestingly, when faced with the possibility that there is no God, she finds herself asking questions about those very events, and asking what they meant to her when she removed God from the equation. Some people would view it as pointless suffering; Sweeney viewed it as an impetus to do more in life to prevent those sorts of things from happening to other people. It’s a perspective I’ve never considered, even though part of me has come to that conclusion on my own, just without putting it into those words.

Something else that stood out to me from Sweeney’s story is how religion and faith forces people to look inward, and see the world as a very small place. Once that faith is removed, one looks outward, not just to other people in the world, but beyond, into space, where suddenly everything seems more glorious, more perfect, and more inspiring, even as it humbles us for being such a small part of the cosmic whole. When you look at all of existence as something that was built for us, it’s less impactful than when you look at it as something that developed through the complex building up of happenings that brought us to this point in time. Carl Sagan said something similar in The Demon-Haunted World, but where Sagan gives it to us as something to consider, Sweeney uses it as the point of her own story.

Letting Go of God is an insightful, well-written memoir of faith and identity, told in a charming manner that uses emotion and laughter to carry us through Sweeney’s struggles. More importantly, she tells us her own personal journey, without mixing it up into something that is supposed to be a guide for others, like Dawkins did in The God Delusion. As such, it’s a piece that has value for any listener, atheist or agnostic or Christian or anything else. I can see myself revisiting this work many more times in the future.

Started: August 7, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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The Door into Summer

July 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

doorThe Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein

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I still haven’t read enough Heinlein to be an expert on his fiction, but I’ve read enough of his fiction and people writing about his fiction to know what to expect from his books. There seems to be a divide in his ouevre, separating his juvenile works from his adult works, with the consensus being that his juvenile books represent his best work. The Door into Summer feels like it’s a hybrid of the two; it feels like he’s still writing in his juvenile style, but starting to write for and about adults.

Because it’s Heinlein, you get the standard sexist and anti-government stances, though he hasn’t quite yet reached the point where that’s the point of the book. Unforunately, it also means that the book will feature a male main character in an inappropriate relationship with a female minor who is also related to the main character. I wouldn’t have expected that to be a standard thing in a Heinlein novel, but both Time for the Stars and The Door into Summer have featured such a relationship. In both cases, the relationships are instigated by the minor, but that doesn’t make it any less inappropriate or icky. It’s hard to defend the rest of the book due to this one aspect of it, but it reads so well that I’m going to try.

I read an article by Jo Walton where she noted that no one could write a sentence that compelled you to read the next one like Heinlein, and I get that. The stories are wildly compelling, though I’d be hard pressed to say why. They just work, in an organic kind of way that defies explanation. I’m hesitant to read any of his later works, since I understand they veer off into blatant crazy-man philosophies, but these earlier works make me want to read all of his stuff. I have another audiobook to finish before I begin tackling the rest of his earlier books, but I’m looking forward to reading them.

The later stuff, though? I feel like I’m going to have to ease my way into them.

Started: July 2, 2018
Finished: July 8, 2018

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Time for the Stars

July 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

starsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

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I’m not new to Heinlein, but it’s only been recently when I decided to read more of his work. I recently listened to Sixth Column on audio, and found it to be decent, but nothing spectacular. That one isn’t considered to be one of his juvenile novels, though, and Time for the Stars is. I was surprised with how much I liked this book, though I guess I shouldn’t be; everyone else has known for decades how good a storyteller Heinlein was, so it’s finally time for me to discover him.

Time for the Stars is about a pair of twins, Tom and Pat, who learn they’re psychic after they’re tested for a long-term science experiment. See, speaking psychically happens instantaneously, which makes it easier for communication to take place between Earth and deep-space ships. The two of them are recruited for a space journey to look for other planets to populate, one of them to travel into space, the other to stay at home to receive their messages.

Heinlein captures character and setting well, and the story features an interesting interplay of science and psychology. The story is compelling, namely because of the characters, but it has a strong “What’s going to happen next?” feel to it. Heinlein examines the time dilation that occurs in ships traveling near the speed of light, so as Tom, the space twin, only ages a few years through the story, Pat ages decades. Heinlein’s themes work well, too, especially considering this book was published over sixty years ago. He looks at the bonds of family, and how loving and liking your family are two different things. This being a Heinlein book, it starts off with a strong anti-tax, anti-government angle to it, but luckily that’s not the point of the story.

Of course, the biggest critcism of Heinlein is his view of women. They may be smart, capable, and strong in his stories, but they’re still evaluated first and foremost on their attractiveness. This could be a product of the time in which the story was written (women are also relegated to roles of cooks, caretakers, seamstresses, etc., even on a space ship), but for Heinlein to be progressive in other ways, it’s disheartening to see him be backward in this one.

I’m eager to read the rest of Heinlein’s juvenile works. Oh, OK, I’m interested in reading his non-juvenile books, too, but given how I remember Stranger in a Strange Land as a ponderous, overwrought, male sexual fantasy story, I’m more interested in the juveniles right now.

Started: June 19, 2018
Finished: June 25, 2018

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Sixth Column

July 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixthSixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

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First written in 1941 and then revised in 1949, Sixth Column is a product of its time, and it’s important to keep that in mind while reading it in the 21st century. The bulk of the US’s involvement in WWII makes up a large part of the time in which the story was written, so the idea of the country having been taken over by Pan-Asians was a threat in that time. The perception of Asians at the time would lead to the perception of them that exists in this novel. That being said, it doesn’t handle that threat with any subtlety or grace. If there’s a pejorative word to describe Asians, it’s used in this novel.

Aside from the language, the representation of Asians in the novel is a little disturbing. They’re regarded as savages and animals by the main characters, blue-blooded Americans with the savvy and intelligence to fight back against the invasion of the Red Menace. It’s very much a US-centric, “God Bless America” kind of story, with anyone opposing the country being nothing more than vermin to be exterminated. To be fair, the Pan-Asians have a racist view of White America, but the book is a conservative’s wet dream.

Surprisingly, there’s an interesting story buried beneath the racism and xenophobia. The surviving military regiment (all six of them) take to creating a new religion as a smokescreen for a revolution against the occupying Pan-Asians. Heinlein uses that as a means to make commentary on politics, religion, human nature, and survival, while still pushing through his own agenda about libertarianism and Constitutionalism. I sort of expected that, based on all I’ve heard about Heinlein and his writings. This isn’t my first Heinlein book, but it’s been thirteen years since I’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land, and twenty-three since reading The Puppet Masters.

I listened to this on audiobook, and the narrator did a good job with the reading. He used accents to designate characters so I could differentiate between them, and he presented the story more than he read it. Unfortunately, the voices he used for the Pan-Asian characters were unfortunate in how stereotypical they were. On the one hand, he was capturing the characters in the same way Heinlein wrote them; on the other hand, they sounded offensive. I’m not sure if he could have managed them any other way, but it made me cringe.

Not being familiar enough with Heinlein’s greater body of work, I don’t know how this book compares to them, but I don’t know if I would recommend it. Conservatives would probably love it, but for the wrong reasons. For those looking for a mild skewering of religion (and possibly L. Ron Hubbard, who was a contemporary at the time this was written), though, it’s entertaining. You’ll just have to overlook the more unfortunate aspects of the story.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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Kill Creek

July 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

killKill Creek by Scott Thomas

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I forget how I found out about this book. I have an ebook and an audiobook edition of the title, so there’s a good chance I found them through some deal, but I’m sure the summary of the book didn’t hurt: It’s about four well-known horror authors who agree to spend the night in a reportedly haunted house. What happens may be expected, or it may not. It depends on how well you know your horror fiction.

Kill Creek is a good throwback to ’80s horror. It has the same feel, through its pacing and its characterization, as some of the best horror novels from that time, while also being a more modern story. It also effectively plays with the reader’s expectations. It doesn’t quite go so far as to subvert the genre like The Cabin in the Woods did, but it does change up the sort of story you expect in a similar way that Psycho did. It’s a good plot, with excellent pacing and distinctive characters.

It’s not that well-written of a book, though. The narrative is a bit clunky, the style is a bit tell-y, and Thomas uses some ridiculous similes throughout the book. I was listening to the book in my car, so I couldn’t jot down any of the similes, but I do remember him describing rain running down someone’s collar like “clear, wet snakes”. They were all over the place, too, and they reminded me of The Troop by Nick Cutter, since he also used a ton of similarly overwrought similes. Is this characteristic of modern horror? It’s very distracting, especially when a novel like Alma Katsu’s The Hunger avoids using them, and comes across as a story that may not be better, but it flows more naturally.

Speaking of the audiobook, the narrator, Bernard Setaro Clark, does a fantastic job. He has a different voice for each character, and aside from a southern accent that doesn’t sound authentic, he captures them all well. Plus, he has a proper cadence to his speaking that makes it sound like storytelling or performing instead of someone just reading the text of the story. That kind of narration makes a big difference in me being able to follow the flow of the book.

The book reminded me a bit of The Martian, in that it’s a compelling, engaging plot, even if the story isn’t that well-written. Both books started out as self-published ventures, which is unfortunately evident, but they made it far enough to enter the mainstream, which is a plus for readers who like good stories. Older horror fans who pine for the glory days of the ’80s need to read this ASAP.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 11, 2018

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The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

June 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

demonThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

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In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan examines science by looking at religion and pseudo-science and its effects on how the public views science. He writes about how scientists straddle the fine line between skepticism and wonder — they need that wide-eyed wonder to want to know about things that seem mysterious, but they also need proper skepticism to not fall for the easiest answer. In this book, he advocates for a healthy skepticism, and discusses how it benefits us across all aspects of society.

Published in 1995, the book is still relevant today. Consider this passage:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantative content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Or this one:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

What Sagan is doing isn’t soothsaying; it’s reflecting on history. That it’s relevant today shows that we still haven’t learned from the past. Maybe thinking skeptically and scientifically is a way to remedy that inevitable slide to ignorance. The Demon-Haunted World is one way to engage that healthy skepticism.

Started: March 28, 2018
Finished: April 16, 2018

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Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

May 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dotPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan

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I read something recently about Carl Sagan and atheism. I always suspected he was adamantly atheist, but it turns out that he avoided labeling himself as such. In short, Sagan’s position was that he didn’t have enough evidence to say God didn’t exist, so he couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t. Those close to him said that he was as close to atheist as one could get without using the word, but that he didn’t do so tells us a lot about how he viewed the world — with evidence.

Pale Blue Dot seems, to me, to focus heavily on atheism. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s freely available on the web) strongly suggests it, and Sagan himself dances around the idea that there is no God, even though he never comes straight out and says so. He looks at how our Solar System developed, how life developed on Earth, and how we’ve explored the Solar System, all from a very humanist, look-what-we’ve-accomplished perspective. Most of the book is Sagan explaining how we explored and examined our Solar System, but the first two chapters take a very careful, affirming look at atheism.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the other planets and how we explored them, I found myself missing the historical, philosophical perspective Sagan brought to science through Cosmos. Where there is history to discuss, Sagan does so, but it’s not on as grand of a scale as it is in his most famous book. We learn of the search for life in the Solar System, the highs and lows of discoveries and failures, and the persistence of humanity to want to get the answers to the question, “What’s out there?”

Four years ago, when we landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyamov-Gerasimenko, I said to some co-workers, “Humanity just landed a science lab on a comet traveling over 41,000 miles per hour, over 317,000,000 miles from Earth.” I was excited and inspired, seeing what the combined intellects of so many people from so many different countries could accomplish, and it was probably as close as I’ll ever get to a religious experience. One doesn’t need religion to feel inspiration or affirmation; sometimes we can get it from our major accomplishments. This, I think, is what Sagan is telling us through Pale Blue Dot.

Started: March 16, 2018
Finished: March 28, 2018

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Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher

May 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixSix Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher by Richard P. Feynman

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About twenty years ago, I read Feynman’s two memoirs based on a co-worker’s recommendation. He led an interesting life, enough so that even when he came across as self-serving, it was still hard to resist his anecdotes. Since I’ve started listening to science audiobooks, I figured it would serve me well to listen to some of Feynman’s lectures. Six Easy Pieces seemed like the place to start.

On the one hand, the best way to absorb these lectures is by listening to them. You get to hear Feynman himself, complete with his sense of humor and somewhat irreverent approach to science, and you can hear the sound of the chalk when he sketches something on the blackboard. On the other hand, you discover that Feynman was a very fast talker, and you don’t get to see the sketches he makes on the blackboard. It doesn’t help that the first lecture had deteriorated so much by the time they produced the audiobook that digital recovery was almost impossible, making the audio muddy and difficult to hear.

It’s also interesting to discover just how Feynman sounded. He was articulate and knowledgeable, of course, but he also had a thick New York accent that belies his appearance and background. I think I’m too used to folks like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, people who have worked to develop a public personality as well as a scientific background, to expect that to be how Feynman sounded. I don’t want to say it detracts from the subject matter, but I did get pulled out of the lecture whenever I heard him say “yuman”.

Along with Cosmos and A Brief History of Time, Six Easy Pieces is a classic of scientific literature. It doesn’t delve as deeply into some concepts covered in those books, but since these lectures were from a Physics 101 class, it’s hard to fault Feynman for not going into more detail. Given in 1961, the lectures are dated in some ways, but what makes this book important is seeing how Feynman taught these difficult subjects. He taught them without complexity, giving examples that were easy to understand. Hearing excerpts from those lessons tells us a lot about science and about Feynman himself.

Started: March 12, 2018
Finished: March 15, 2018

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Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook

May 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

lostLost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

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A good five-word summary of this book is: Peter Pan as a sociopath. And it makes perfect sense.

Think about it. He’s impulsive, manipulative, insincere, unreliable, and exhibits superficial charm. He’s also smart and self-centered. Even in the context of the original story, he’s a textbook sociopath. Henry takes this idea and uses it to develop Peter Pan’s origin story, told through the eyes of James, later to become Captain Hook.

The pivotal point of this story is Charlie, a new recruit to the island, and the youngest boy Peter has ever brought to the island. Only five years old, Charlie is adopted by James, who has always served as the protector of the Lost Boys. Their relationship makes Peter jealous, since James is supposed to be Peter’s best friend, and over the course of the book, we see the relationship between Peter and James break down. Along the way, we find out what keeps Peter young, how he meets Tinkerbell, and how Captain Hook came to be Peter’s enemy.

Henry has had good success with translating children’s stories into darker, adult tales, and part of that success is in how well she draws her characters. The main characters here (James and his circle of friends) are convincing, and the relationship they share feels real. Their personalities and challenges carry the story, and it’s them who kept me engaged. Parts of the story didn’t work for me (the origin feels somewhat simplified, and Henry incorporates beings who don’t live on the island in the original work), but overall, it was riveting.

I’ve started listening to nonfiction audiobooks, since I find I can focus on them better than I can audio fiction, but Lost Boy was an exception. I found it on sale, and liked Henry’s Alice books, so I figured it was worth a shot. I’m glad I gave it a try; Lost Boy kept my attention from start to finish.

Started: March 8, 2018
Finished: March 11, 2018

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A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes

May 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

timeA Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen W. Hawking

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I’m not going to lie: I was a little intimidated going in to this book. I had thought about reading it years ago, back when I started to get an understanding of relativity, and I put it off, knowing it was going to be dense and nigh-incomprehensible. Some twenty years later, having listened to two books about astrophysics, I decided to give it a go. As an audiobook.

Surprisingly, the book wasn’t as dense as I expected. I think it helped that I had listened recently to the books by Tyson and Sagan, but I had a pretty good understanding of the concepts Hawking covered in the book. There were a few chapters that eluded me (I think I’m going to need to read a whole book on quantum physics before I get a good grasp of it), but for the most part, I felt comfortable with the content. It was a good mix of familiar and challenging.

I was less impressed with Hawking’s obsession with who won which award, how often he collaborated with his graduate students, and how frequently he disproved other scientists. He comes across as petty and arrogant. I know Hawking is a smart man, and I know he’s accomplished a lot, but I prefer science books that talk about past theories and accomplishments, not the personal tally of the author. Neither Tyson nor Sagan came across that way, despite them both having (and discussing!) their own successes, so it’s definitely a personality thing, not a content thing.

In the later chapters, Hawking focused on his own theories almost exclusively, to the point where it felt like he was jumping to conclusions based on what I thought were some tenuous theories. Granted, I don’t spend all of my time thinking about theoretical physics, but it felt like Hawking was too eager to accept his own theories. As much as he admits changed in as little as ten or twenty years in the field, I would have expected him to show some more skepticism.

Also, the narration of the audiobook was strange, in that it sounded like it was recorded all in one take, without breaks or edits. The narrator stumbled over the pronunctiation of some words, slowed down at some words, as if he were sounding out the word, and there was even one moment where he was supposed to say “sixteen”, but started out saying “nineteen”. I don’t know if the production was pressed for time, or was low budget, or what, but it doesn’t sound professional.

If you’re interested in space and time and the science of both, A Brief History of Time is a book to read. I’m not sure I would recommend it as an audiobook, partly because of the sloppy narration, and partly because the concepts might be better absorbed through reading. If I have to make the choice between this and Cosmos, though, I’d definitely go with Cosmos. Not only is it more approachable, but its scope is also far more interesting.

Started: March 1, 2018
Finished: March 6, 2018

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