Tuesday, November 24, 2015

If anyone asks, just lie

I've been listening to a lot of audio YA lately and I'd like to recommend a book.  Here's the problem: I can't really say much about it without spoiling it.  It's called We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.  I guess I can tell you that the main character's name is Cadence and she goes by Cady.  She comes from a very wealthy East Coast family, and spends summers on her grandfather's island off the Massachusetts coast.  Something happened a couple years earlier... but I don't want to say much about that.  The ending is kind of a surprise and it reminded me a lot of... no, I can't say that, either.  Ummm...

Well, I guess I'll just say it was a very popular YA book last year and most people either loved it or hated it.  I liked it, although the way the suspense is drawn out was kind of uncomfortable.  But I quickly became hooked and couldn't stop listening.  The Los Angeles Times said it was "a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help."  If all that vagueness sounds remotely interesting to you, I strongly suggest you not go looking for much information – the Times article is pretty good but too many reviews have spoilers, which you'll want to avoid if you hope to enjoy the book.  Profanity was much less than some books I've read lately.

Another interesting YA book, although I'm not so sure how much I'd recommend it, was Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King.  It's about Lucky Linderman, a smallish fifteen-year old who seems to be a favorite target of the town bully, Nader McMillan.  He tries to tell adults about the bullying, but no one really listens.  He gets in trouble when his school project tries to survey students on how they would commit suicide if they were considering it.  His parents are concerned but disconnected – his dad withdraws into work and cooking while his mom swims more and more laps at the community pool – and even school counselors give him a hard time.  Lucky's only escape is in his dreams when he visits his grandfather who never returned from the Vietnam War.

First of all, my lukewarm endorsement of the book is due to the profanity and crassness, which is pretty bad (and disappointing to hear coming from the reader, Kirby Heyborne, whom I really like).  Also, some characters and a few situations felt overly cliché, and most of the adults are buttheads, but that's typical of much YA fiction.  But, it's also a very compelling story and I couldn't stop listening.  Lucky draws the reader's sympathy without being self-pitying – King does a very good job in that regard.  It's an interesting story about the regular problems of adolescence for a mostly timid kid, but overlaid with the POW/MIA issue and just a touch of magical realism in his dreams.  And I actually kind of liked it. 

So, for what it's worth, those are my recommendations – with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Foul-mouthed kids

I've always loved to read, but while I was finishing up my degrees – mostly part-time at night – all I had time for is what teachers assigned me to read.  So, when I finished school and could read what I wanted, I read a lot of bestseller stuff I'd missed like Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Dean Koontz.  And, of course, Stephen King.

Stephen King is the guy responsible for many of the horror movies probably since before I was a teenager, either directly or indirectly.  And (even though most of the movies are pretty bad) he can be an amazing storyteller!  Books like The Dark Half and Needful Things still creep me out, and there's few things scarier than Pennywise the Clown.  The problem – for me, anyway – is the vulgarity and profanity; it's pretty far beyond 'over-the-top.'  In his On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft – which is one of my favorite books – he says that's what makes a story authentic.  And I know some people talk that way and aren't bothered by it.  But I am.  I don't talk that way.  Most people I associate with don't talk that way, at least not around me.  And it feels degrading and even burdensome to hear or read, and that's why I haven't read a SK novel in over fifteen years.  Well... until now.

Probably my favorite SK book-turned-movie is "Stand By Me."  It's not a horror movie, although the language and the theme were still enough to get it an R rating.  It's from a novella called The Body and tells the story of four 12 year old friends growing up in Maine who find out about a dead body – a kid their age named Ray Brower who went missing.  Apparently, he got hit by a train, and the four friends go on a camping trip to see his body.  They have some juvenile and half-formed ideas that they'll get their pictures in the paper and be heroes, but the story is mostly about their relationships, problems, and the journey. 

And it's an incredible story if you were once a boy and appreciate a somewhat nostalgic setting.  Something about it just resonates – the friendships, the thoughts and ideas, the quest – and makes for a very compelling story.  Of course, there's the language, which is beyond coarse (and a stupid "Chico" story that I didn't quite follow how it was necessary to the larger story – probably just tacked in to add length).  But I remember how boys are, and I might have deserved having my mouth washed out on a few occasions.  But I'd guess somewhere around 95% of the foul language could have been cut and still gotten the message across.  Stephen King would no doubt disagree, but he and I can disagree on that point.

Still, if you can overlook that, it's a darn good story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The price of progress?

(I haven't posted much over the last several months because I've been so busy! If you're a personal friend, you know why. But I'm going to try posting regularly again, and this is one I've had written for a couple of years and rewritten numerous times. It's not perfect, but it's already been waiting too long, so...)

Evolution isn't something I've spent a lot of time studying.  I thoroughly enjoyed Guns, Germs, and Steel – which touches on it to some degree – but honestly, it's a topic that makes me a little uneasy.  As a religious person who enjoys science, I can't deny that the two often seem to be at odds.  But while there are things I can't fully reconcile, the condescending attitude most science writers use toward religion bothers me, and it does nothing to further constructive discussion.

That's where Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a little different.  Not only does he not bash religion, but he frequently quotes scriptures when explaining ideas.  This is not to say that he has written a religious book or that he ignores science in favor of a "creationism" viewpoint, however – it's still a science book, it just doesn't bash the religious viewpoint.  The first half is essentially an overview of the prevailing theories of evolution since our paths diverged from primates, but with a focus on the evolution of the human body.  Lieberman discusses how things like walking upright and head shape and speech likely evolved and why, and what advantages each conferred.  He explains what the earliest humans may have been like and why they may have made the leap to agriculture – and the agricultural revolution seems to be when many of the present day maladies that afflict us first began.  On the grander scale, famines and epidemic diseases all seem to have their roots in the changes that began once agriculture allowed for larger communities and a different lifestyle than our bodies were evolved for.  But the second half of the book looks at some of the more specific health challenges that have been caused by these "evolutionary mismatches," such as Type 2 diabetes, cavities, and flat feet, and how they affect us today.

Basically, the premise is that even though people today are living longer lives than in the past, we aren't necessarily healthier than hunter/gatherers were.  Lieberman believes it is important to look at our bodies from an evolutionary viewpoint in order to understand why we suffer from diseases that didn't plague our ancient ancestors – and the reason isn't always simply because of age.

Honestly, I found the book to be clear and well-explained.  Lieberman makes sense of an oftentimes murky and contentious topic and explains the background behind the current beliefs about evolution.  And it makes a lot of sense, both as he explains evolution and how it affects our bodies given the world we live in today.  It's not a perfect book: Lieberman has a tendency to be repetitive and pessimistic, and occasionally seems to make overstatements.  But on the whole I thought it was a worthwhile (if sometimes long) read. 

As for reconciling religion and science, I have faith that someday it will all make sense and that much hasn't yet been 'revealed.'  We may find that our understanding of the Creation story in The Bible is incomplete or not entirely accurate, and I am certain that our scientific knowledge will continue to evolve, bringing us closer to the truth.  In the meantime, I'll hold on to my faith in both religion and science.  (I received an advance copy of this book from Amazon Vine.)