Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton & Company, 2006
Trade Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780393329124

The best-selling author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers now trains her considerable wit and curiosity on the human soul. What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's that—the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?" In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die. She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech. Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves' heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of "ectoplasm" in a Cambridge University archive.

My Thoughts:

In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife Mary Roach investigates what happens after we die with the same entertaining style and humor found in her other books. The subject of life after death is explored in both scientific and unscientific ways. Roach writes, "Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. (pg 12-13)"

Spook includes a bibliography. Subjects explored in the twelve chapters include: reincarnation, searching for the soul with microscopes, how to weigh or see a soul, ectoplasm, mediums, communicating with the dead, electromagnetic fields, searching for ghosts, and near-death experiencers.

Roach approaches the exploration in a random light hearted manner. It's by no means an exhaustive in-depth exploration. Her goal clearly is to entertain the reader while conveying some information on the various topics. "Simply put, this is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith. (pg. 14)"

Of the three books by Roach I've read, Stiff, Packing for Mars, and Spook, I'd have to say that I enjoyed Packing for Mars and Stiff more than Spook. Based on that comparison to other books by Roach, Spook is recommended. New readers will perhaps want to start with one of her other books first while fans will want to read this anyway.


My mother worked hard to instill faith in me. She sent me to catechism classes. She bought me nun paper dolls, as though the meager fun of swapping a Carmelite wimple for a Benedictine chest bib might inspire a taste for devotion. Most memorably, she read the Bible to me. Every night at bedtime, she'd plow through a chapter or two, handing over the book at appropriate moments to show me the color reproductions of parables and miracles: The crumbling walls of Jericho. Jesus walking atop stormy seas with palms upturned. The raising of Lazarus--depicted in my mother's Bible as a sort of Boris Karloff knock-off, wrapped in mummy's rags and rising stiffly from the waist. I could not believe these things had happened, because another god, the god who wore lab glasses and knew how to use a slide rule, wanted to know how, scientifically speaking, these things could be possible. Faith did not take, because Science kept putting it on the spot. opening

Most of the projects that I will be covering have been - or are being - undertaken by science. By that I mean people doing research using scientific methods, preferably at respected universities or institutions. Technology gets a shot, as does the law. I'm not interested in philosophical debates on the soul (probably because I can't understand them). Nor am I going to be relating anecdotal accounts of personal spiritual experiences. Anecdotes are interesting, occasionally riveting, but never are they proof. On the other hand, this is not a debunking book. Skeptics and debunkers provide a needed service in this area, but their work more or less assumes an outcome. I'm trying hard not to make assumptions, not to have an agenda. pg. 14

The deeper you investigate a topic like this, the harder it becomes to stand on unshifting ground. In my experience, the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.
And also, I hold, the more interesting. Will I find the evidence I'm looking for? We'll just see. But I promise you a diverting journey, wherever it is we end up. pg. 18

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Shack

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity by William P. Young
Windblown Media, copyright 2007
Trade paperback, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780964729230

Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack's world forever.

My Thoughts:

In The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity by William P. Young, a man, Mack, is summoned by note to go to the cabin where evidence of the murder of his young daughter was found. When Mack arrives at the cabin he meets the Trinity: God the Father, or "Papa", is depicted as a large African woman; the Holy Spirit is depicted as a small, sprightly Asian woman named Sarayu; God the Son is depicted as a middle-eastern carpenter.

It would be very easy to get worked up about any one of a number of things in the novel but in reality this is just a novel that presupposes to teach its readers some basic truths about Christianity. Taken in this light, it was an interesting book and shed light on one man's very personal journey that lead him to some healing theological  revelations.
I think it is best to look at The Shack as a parable - an allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. In this regard, it is very much like C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, only not as well written. Is it worth reading? Yes, if the topic interests you.


Little distractions, like the ice storm, were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders. Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair and he had somehow become part of it. pg. 24-25

Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to power is to choose to limit oneself - to serve. pg. 106

"Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn't mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don't assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn't depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors." pg. 185

"And remember, I am bigger than your lies. I can work beyond them. But that doesn't make them right and doesn't stop the damage they do or the hurt they cause others." pg. 188

"I already told you that forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established." pg. 225

"Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive....
"Forgiveness does not excuse anything." pg. 226

"What he did was terrible. He caused incredible pain to many. It was wrong, and anger is the right response to something that is so wrong." pg. 227

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
Hardcover, 247 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374153892


In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father—an ardent pacifist—and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision—not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

My Thoughts:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is an epistolary novel, a letter written by John Ames, a 76 year old fourth-generation Congregationalist minister to his seven year old son. It is 1956 and Ames is dying. He wants to leave a letter for his son. He discusses family history and stories of his father and grandfather, reflections and meditations on life, his concern for his family, and the basis for his Christian values.

The relationship between fathers and sons is a central theme in Gilead.  The novel is a letter written to his son. He tells of his grandfather, a militant abolitionist who supported John Brown in Kansas and lost an eye in the Civil War. In contrast, his father was a pacifist. And while Ames was called to the ministry, his brother Edward became an unbeliever. He also talks about his good friend, Presbyterian minister Boughton and his family, especially Boughton's prodigal son and Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson has created a quiet, rich, reflective novel. There is atonement and redemption found in the very human stories Ames writes about for his son. Ultimately they define the faith of his Christian walk and the meaning of his life. Robinson gives Ames a wise, gentle, and, at times, melancholy voice as he writes his letter, which digresses and meanders between topics as easily as an elderly relatives conversation might wander from subject to subject. Ames is an honest narrator who has no reason to write anything but the truth. As he nears the end of his life, he knows that life is never to be taken for granted.

This is truly a stunning novel. The writing is exquisite.
Marilynne Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction and was the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Winner for Gilead.
Very Highly Recommended


I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this-it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then-I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things. opening

That is the main thing I want to tell you, that I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time. I did while I lived, and I do now, too, if that is how things are in the next life. pg. 4

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect a find it, either. pg. 6

Your mother told you I'm writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you? I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at he college and at seminary. pg. 9

My father always preached from notes, and I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. I've never gone back to them to see if they were worth anything, if I actually said anything. Pretty nearly my whole life's work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. I could look through them, maybe find a few I would want you to have. I'm a little afraid of them. I believe I may have worked over them as I did just to keep myself occupied. pg. 18

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. pg. 39

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, copyright 2010
Hardcover, 576 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374158460


Patty and Walter Berglund were the new pioneers of old St. Paul—the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter’s dreams. Together with Walter—environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man—she was doing her small part to build a better world.
But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz—outrĂ© rocker and Walter’s college best friend and rival—still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become “a very different kind of neighbor,” an implacable Fury coming unhinged before the street’s attentive eyes?

My Thoughts:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen examines the lives of Walter and Patty Berglund. After meeting at college in the '70s, Walter and Patty settle in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Patty is a stay-at-home mom while Walter is a socially conscious environmental lawyer.  In the opening chapter "Good Neighbors" we learn right from the start that the Berglund's life is currently not as idyllic as it seems it once was and that there are some major problems. In the rest of the novel Franzen chronicles the details of Walter and Patty's lives, together and separately, as well as the lives of their children and Walter's best friend from college. 

Freedom consists of several intricate narratives. Clearly freedom exists in many forms and the questions that can arise when we assert our personal liberties are a multifaceted theme in the novel. The novel also spans many years, the current events happening during those years, and several locations. Franzen character development is brilliant. Depending upon the point of view and perspective, the actions, motives and thoughts of each character can be interpreted differently, favorably or not, which gives the characters the depth found in real life. They can all be self absorbed and unlikable, but their motives aren't always as clearly defined and delineated. And no matter how hard you try, sometimes things do fall apart because everyone is an individual making their own choices. 

Obviously much has been written about Freedom, which was an anxiously anticipated novel, so I'm not sure how much more my thoughts can add to the discussion. I could point out that I too was anxiously awaiting it's publication - until it became an Oprah book at which point I decided to wait and read it later. This is a prejudice that I freely admit to. I'm pleased I have finally read it and am surprised at the relatively low ratings it has received because I thought it was a wonderfully satisfying novel. Yes, the characters can be unsympathetic, but they were richly developed. Ultimately, through the lives of its characters, Freedom captured an underlying insight into our times. 

Very Highly Recommended


The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds. opening

There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn’t sit well—who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning. pg. 5

...[after] the sudden death and funeral of Mrs. Berglund, that Patty became a very different kind of neighbor, a much more sarcastic neighbor.
“Oh, Connie, yes,” her tune went now, “such a nice little girl, such a quiet little harmless girl, with such a sterling mom. You know, I hear Carol has a new boyfriend, a real studly man, he’s like half her age. Wouldn’t it be terrible if they moved away now, with everything Carol’s done to brighten our lives? And Connie, wow, I’d sure miss her too. Ha ha. So quiet and nice and grateful.”
Patty was looking a mess, gray-faced, poorly slept, underfed. It had taken her an awfully long time to start looking her age, but now at last Merrie Paulsen had been rewarded in her wait for it to happen. pg. 14

You could see her pacing in the alley then, trembling with frustration. She did repeatedly call the police about the noise, and a few times they actually came and had a word with Blake, but they soon got tired of hearing from her and did not come back until the following February, when somebody slashed all four of the beautiful new snow tires on Blake’s F-250 and Blake and Carol directed officers to the next-door neighbor who’d been phoning in so many complaints. This resulted in Patty again going up and down the street, knocking on doors, ranting. “The obvious suspect, right? The mom next door with a couple of teenage kids. Hard-core criminal me, right? Lunatic me! He’s got the biggest, ugliest vehicle on the street, he’s got bumper stickers that offend pretty much anybody who’s not a white supremacist, but, God, what a mystery, who else but me could want to slash his tires?” pg. 20

As word of his insurrection spread, the emotions prevailing among the Ramsey Hill gentry were pity for Walter, anxiety about Patty’s psychological health, and an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude at how normal their own children were—how happy to accept parental largesse, how innocently demanding of help with their homework or their college applications, how compliant in phoning in their afterschool whereabouts, how divulging of their little day-to-day bruisings, how reassuringly predictable in their run-ins with sex and pot and alcohol. The ache emanating from the Berglunds’ house was sui generis. Walter—unaware, you had to hope, of Carol’s blabbing about his night of “losing it”—acknowledged awkwardly to various neighbors that he and Patty had been “fired” as parents and were doing their best not to take it too personally. “He comes over to study sometimes,” Walter said, “but right now he seems more comfortable spending his nights at Carol’s. We’ll see how long that lasts.”
“How’s Patty taking all this?” Seth Paulsen asked him.
“Not well.” pg. 24

“It’s a wonder,” Seth Paulsen remarked to Merrie afterward, “that the two of them are even still together.”
Merrie shook her head. “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.” pg. 26

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Arguing with Idiots

Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe
Threshold Editions, copyright 9/22/2009
Trade Paperback, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781416595014

It happens to all of us: You’re minding your own business, when some idiot* informs you that guns are evil, the Prius will save the planet, or the rich have to finally start paying their fair share of taxes.
Just go away! you think to yourself—but they only get more obnoxious. Your heart rate quickens. You start to sweat. But never fear, for Glenn Beck has stumbled upon the secret formula to winning arguments against people with big mouths and small minds: knowing the facts.
And this book is full of them.
The next time your Idiot Friends tell you how gun control prevents gun violence, you’ll tell them all about England’s handgun ban (see page 53). When they insist that we should copy the UK’s health-care system, you’ll recount the horrifying facts you read on page 244. And the next time you hear how produce prices will skyrocket without illegal workers, you’ll have the perfect rebuttal (from page 139). Armed with the ultimate weapon—the truth—you can now tolerate (and who knows, maybe even enjoy?) your encounters with idiots everywhere!

My Thoughts:

Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe is divided into twelve chapters including: In Defense of Capitalism, The Second Amendment, Education, America's Energy Future, Unions, Illegal Immigration, The Nanny State, Owning a Home, Economics 101, U.S. Presidents, Universal Health Care, and The U.S. Constitution. Each chapter covers a single topic and is packed full of facts. His arguments/replies are well researched. The book includes 25 pages of citations in very small print, something we all know I appreciate and look for, especially in a book of this nature.
In Arguing with Idiots, Beck poses statements, ostensibly spoken by the "idiots," and then responds to them with facts presented in a humorous, and sometimes sarcastic, manner. There are also little side boxes with extra information or "A.D.D. Moments." (Beck has freely discussed his A.D.D. on his show.)
Beck is sometimes looked at as a poster child for the Republican right, but he really is a Libertarian, a fact he would easily agree with. In the end it is highly unlikely that anyone's personal opinions will be changed by Beck's book. Very liberal people who would vehemently disagree with him would never pick it up, which means the reading audience of Arguing with Idiots would be basically composed of believers. 
While I have enjoyed listening to his show in the past, I generally do better handling Beck's personality in small doses. What that meant was that while I liked the book and all the factual information presented as arguments, the sarcasm started to grate on my nerves. That aside, it is well researched and the pages are actually colorful and visually appealing.
Highly Recommended


Like O. J. Simpson, our free-market system seems to be put on trial at regular intervals. People love it until it stops working the way they think it should. Then it becomes the villain.
Wall Street was loved; then it was hated. Alan Greenspan was idolized; then he was demonized. People envied those who flew in private jets; then they despised them. It's amazing how quickly opinions can change, especially when people are looking to blame someone else for their problems.
The truth is that capitalism is neither good nor evil, it just is. Capitalism can't get you a job, a bigger house, or a better retirement -- you have to do all of those things for yourself. But what capitalism can do is foster an environment where those with the will to succeed have a better chance of achieving their dreams.
Do hardworking people still fall through the cracks? Absolutely. Are there peaks and valleys as excesses in markets are worked out over time? No doubt. But I defy anyone to show me another system that has done as much to quickly raise the standard of living and quality of life of a country as capitalism has for America.
You can't, because it doesn't exist. pg. 2-3

This [The Postal Service] might seem like an odd example, but it's actually a great study in how government meddling can prevent an organization from ever reaching its full potential.
In 1971, the "Post Office Department" was turned into a quasi-governmental corporation called the "U.S. Postal Service." The USPS is run by a board of eleven, with nine of those people appointed by the president (meaning they're not exactly independent of the political process).
There are other oddities, too. The USPS receives no government appropriations (good), but they have to adhere to a set of complex regulations that mandate each class of mail pay for itself (bad). They can borrow money by issuing debt (good), but all increases in mailing rates are decided by an independent body called the "Postal Rate Commission" (bad). They don't have to adhere to federal standards on employee pay (good), but they have a federally mandated monopoly on regular mail delivery (bad). pg.13

I'm glad you brought up the Patriot Act, because it's a good example of how the government is always able to expand its power during times of crisis. Our country's under attack! (Please let us eavesdrop on phone calls...) Johnstown is flooded! (Please let us tax alcohol to help the victims...) Our financial system will collapse! (Please let us nationalize a few banks...) And on and on and on.
Despite all of the calls for "more regulation" (which is really just code language for bigger government), we should remember that, once put on the books, regulations are virtually impossible to get rid of. You've heard of archaic "blue laws" before (it's still illegal for anyone 16 or older to yell at an official at a sporting event in Massachusetts) but those same kinds of outdated regulations also apply to business. pg. 21
...the government has no constitutional authority to be in the education business. How does that work for you?
Education is not a federal issue, it's a local and state one - which is exactly how it was treated for over two hundred years. Then, Jimmy Carter came along and, by the slimmest of margins (we're talking about four votes in the House), won approval to create a new ginormous government bureaucracy: the Department of Education (DOE). pg. 63
The victimization thesis says that, whatever our personal failures, shortcomings, and weaknesses, our troubles are caused by anyone and everyone except ourselves. It's not that people don't want to succeed; it's that they can't succeed. The deck is always stacked against us - and if you're poor or black or short or old or handicapped or female or gay or uncoordinated, then don't even bother trying. pg. 189