Book Review: Enlightenment Now

I stumble on books in a lot of ways—including, apparently, The New Yorker.  I don’t actually read it, but I occasionally encounter an article online.  Somewhere I found an article discussing Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker.  It made the book sound intriguing enough that I picked it up—though it may have led me astray a little too!

The New Yorker article gave me the impression this was a book about how, contrary to the popular view, the world (society, the human experience) is in fact improving.  Considering how often the news cycle makes me feel the exact opposite–yes, please, I’d like to hear that argument!  And that part of Enlightenment Now was very good–but I’m not sure that’s actually what Pinker intended his book to be about.

The book opens with, as wasn’t too shocking because of the title, a discussion on the history of the enlightenment and enlightenment values.  Not fascinating, to be honest, but engaging enough.  Then he got into the section The New Yorker wrote about, and made a pretty compelling case.  In brief, taking the long view (over a few decades, perhaps a couple of centuries), life expectancy has increased, poverty has decreased, diet is improved, health is improved, democracy has spread, literacy has increased, violence has fallen, civil rights have increased, standard of living has risen…and all by huge margins.

Now, that’s taking the global view, and Pinker is careful to note that he’s not saying any of these problems have gone away, and that there isn’t still poverty and disease and violence–but looking at the numbers, on a global scale, the world is a better place than it was even 50 years ago.  It’s hard for us living it to get that perspective. Continue reading “Book Review: Enlightenment Now”

Book Review: The World’s Religions

I’ve heard it said that we all carry more knowledge than was contained in the Library of Alexandria in our pockets all the time—by way of the internet, of course.  And there’s more information in any local library than even the most studious scholar would have been able to access a few centuries ago.  I’m sure it’s true—but it doesn’t usually feel that way.  However—the other day I was poking rather idly through the library’s book sale table, and encountered The World’s Religions by Huston Smith.  And now I rather feel as though I bought the collected wisdom of the world for a dollar on a random Tuesday.

I’ve heard of The World’s Religions for years, actually read a chapter (the Christianity one) in a college class, but never got around to reading the full book.  It’s excellent.  With a chapter (some of them very long) on each of the major world religions, Smith puts together a compelling collection of the world’s wisdom traditions.  He explains doctrine and major features of each religion, but I feel like he approached it from the angle of what each of these religions has to say about the big questions—how to live your life, what life’s purpose is, how to live in harmony with others.  Basically, how all these different cultures have made sense of the world through their religious traditions. Continue reading “Book Review: The World’s Religions”

Mini-Monday: Thor: Ragnarok

I may have confessed this before but, at the risk of harming my geek cred, I’m not much into Marvel.  I watched the first movie of several of their franchises, and didn’t feel inclined to continue.  Although I make exceptions for Dr. Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy.  And now, as it turns out, Thor: Ragnarok.

I came late to this one, but I finally watched Ragnarok last month.  From the trailer and the reports of people I knew who watched it, this seemed to be a funnier Marvel one than most–and it was!  Which is a bit odd considering the titular event is the end of the world…  In brief, the goddess Hela is released on Asgard, the Norse gods’ home realm, and Thor and Loki have to work together to top her–but wind up exiled to a kind of cosmic junk heap in the process.  Where, oddly enough, they bump into the Incredible Hulk.  As one does.

I knew this was going to be a better movie as soon as it started demonstrating a willingness to poke fun at itself.  Early on Thor confronts a giant flame demon whose name I can’t remember, and tries to carry on a conversation while rotating around hanging from a chain.  Weird, I know.  But it’s really funny as flame demon tries to rant about his fiery vengeance and Thor keeps asking him to pause because he’s rotated around out of sight.  The movie kept up a similar kind of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Thor himself was a lot funnier than I remembered from previous encounters.

It also helped that we had a fairly small cast, with the action centering around Thor, Loki and the Hulk, with Hela (an unrecognizable Cate Blanchett!)  It gave a decent amount of time to showcase each character, their arc and their relationships with each other.  Much better than ensemble casts of a dozen where barely any character gets seen.

So, from a non-Marvel fan, Thor: Ragnarok gets my approval as a funny, entertaining superhero flick!

Mini-Monday: Hello, Universe and Invincible Louisa

I’m getting down to the end of my Newbery Medal reading challenge, with just two more to go!  Today I thought I’d say a few words on the most recent two I read, from very different time periods but both pretty good.

Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (2017)

The most recent Newbery winner, this tells the story of a handful of kids who share a neighborhood: Virgil, whose family calls him “Turtle” because they think he needs to come out of his shell; Valencia, brave, nature-loving and deaf; Kaori, who believes emphatically in her own psychic abilities, and Chet, neighborhood bully.  Their paths intersect one afternoon when Virgil goes missing.

This is a great one for my diversity challenge, as Virgil is Filipino and Kaori is Japanese, and both cultures are very much present and important for the characters.  All three of our heroic characters are different from the norm in their own ways, and they grow through the book to appreciate both themselves and each other.  There’s some tragedy at the center of the book, but a mostly light-hearted tone, especially around Kaori and her younger sister. Continue reading “Mini-Monday: Hello, Universe and Invincible Louisa”

Book Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

I recently reread the Austenland duology, which put me in the spirit for some of the real thing.  I’ve reread a fair amount of Jane Austen in the not too distant past, but it had been a long time for Persuasion, so I decided to listen to the audiobook.

Persuasion follows the story of Anne Elliot, who is seven-and-twenty and unmarried (horror!)  In her youth, she loved a sailor, Captain Wentworth, but was persuaded it was an unwise match.  She gave him up, but misses him still.  Now he’s back in England, a wealthy and successful man, but seems quite cold to her when they begin to move in the same social circles.

This is the main plot thread, but Persuasion is full of family dramas involving Anne’s two rather unlikable sisters, foolish father, and host of in-laws.  This book is so very Austen, in that for whole stretches not a great deal happens besides going for walks and having intensive debates about relative ranks in social circles.  It’s an interesting social study, and the soothing kind of book where you know nothing very bad is going to happen–despite a life-threatening injury to one character, and financial crises of others.

Anne is a bit of a puzzle to me.  She’s unfailingly kind and sensible, with a genius for putting up with other people’s foibles and still liking them (in the case of her sisters, for example).  She’s not as witty as Elizabeth Bennet, but also not quite so self-effacing as Fanny Price (who I actually like, though I believe I’m a minority!)  I got frustrated with her at times though, I think because I brought modern sensibilities to a very different social setting.  Anne encounters Captain Wentworth–misses him–wonders how he feels about her–and does nothing!  But I imagine there was nothing much for a well-bred young lady of the time to do, and perhaps Austen’s original readers would have taken that for granted. Continue reading “Book Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen”

Book Review: Jane Unlimited

I don’t often pick books up at random anymore, but I chanced to see an interesting title at the library the other day.  It turned out to be an excellent find: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore.

Nineteen-year-old Jane is an orphan who recently lost her beloved Aunt Magnolia, who raised her.  Jane is unmoored and drifting when she bumps into Kiran, an old acquaintance, who on a whim invites Jane to come to Tu Reviens.  This is Kiran’s family estate, a mansion on a private island.  Jane doesn’t want to go, but her Aunt Magnolia made her promise to accept an invitation to Tu Reviens if it ever came.  It proves to be a mansion full of mysteries, and every person there has secrets.  Jane soon finds herself at a crossroads, a seemingly insignificant moment when she can choose which mystery to pursue.  Jane only can see one choice–at a time–but the reader gets to see what happens as each choice takes her down a completely different path, dividing the bulk of the book into five sections, each exploring a different direction.

This is a masterfully created book, and as a writer I am genuinely in awe at how Cashore pulled this off.  Each section of the book follows its own story, but it’s clear that all the elements from each section are happening in all of them–Jane just has different information, or sees different pieces.  Later sections still have references relevant to earlier ones, and early ones have clues that aren’t explained until later ones.  It’s incredible.

Equally as fun, I realized as I went through the book that each section is a different genre: mystery, spy thriller, horror, science fiction, and fantasy.  Each one is beautifully done, both for its genre and as part of a larger, cohesive whole.  The horror section was suitably horrifying, and the sci fi story added a little bit of meta explanation for the book’s structure–sort of. Continue reading “Book Review: Jane Unlimited”

Mini-Monday: A Tale of Two Cities

I am happy to report that I seem to have cracked the secret to a more satisfying relationship with Mr. Charles Dickens—audiobooks.  I’ve always wanted to like Mr. Dickens, the quintessential British author, but he’s always felt so slow.  I don’t exactly mean the pacing is slow, but somehow it has always taken me far longer to read one of his books than it seems like it should.  But due to a recent move my commute has expanded, and it seemed like the perfect time to make another attempt on Mr. Dickens.  And so far, a successful one!

At the time of writing this, I am almost done with A Tale of Two Cities, and feel confident enough to make a positive report.  I can still tell sometimes that Dickens was (or at least feels like he was) paid by the word—I knew “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times” and heard it with a minor thrill, but no one ever told me he followed it with a dozen or so “it was this and it was that,” probably six more than needed!!  But an audiobook just keeps rolling along, and whatever was slowing me doesn’t seem to be in effect.

Two Cities does begin a bit slowly, but it picks up its speed, particularly once the French Revolution breaks, and becomes much more dramatic and exciting than I might have expected—but then, it is the French revolution.  This book really feels like a kind of melding of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, as so much reminds me of Les Miserables.  And there’s a scene of the mob sharpening their weapons to kill the prisoners that is stunningly vivid and terrifying.  I genuinely did not know Dickens had that in him!

I’m not quite to the famous last lines yet, and it adds some suspense to see if my guess on who says them is correct—so no spoilers, please!

So far, so good on the Dickens experiment.  It may be this book, but I hope it’s the audio, as I plan to try another one soon!