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In Which I Argue With A Book

Argue is the right word. I argued with this book–or, to be more specific, the author of this book.

The author in question is Yuval Noah Harari and the book is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. I picked it up at a bookstore during Christmastime. It is one of those books I buy from time to time to keep my wits sharp. I knew the worldview would be different from mine, and that is what I was looking for. The book has 323 pages of actual text, plus a large appendix of notes and an index. Although the material is weighty, it is an easy read written in a dialogue style. He has previously written two other bestsellers titled Sapiens and Homo Deus which I have not read. Unknown

At times it was enjoyable, funny, profound. At other times it was infuriating, depressing, and nonsensical.

What I Really Liked

There are two things I really liked about the book. The first is the opening 150 pages. If I narrowed it down even further, it would be the first 84 pages in which the author analyzes the technological challenges the future holds for human beings. I found this section riveting and spellbinding. Harari opened up ideas and thoughts, particularly about the role of AI in the human experience, I had never previously pondered, and for this I am thankful. In my opinion, the entire book is worth the buy and the read for just this part of the book.

The second thing I really liked about this book is that he devoted an entire chapter to science fiction. That’s right, Harari believes science fiction has a vital role to play in understanding and appropriating our human future. As an author who has a science fiction book he wants to release (Deep Cove Anthology) later this year and whose current WIP is a science fiction novel, this is good news. Now, I do think the author puts too much pressure on science fiction to perform a social good. Literature can only go so far, man. He does have a very interesting take on the movie Inside Out that any Pixar fan should take a look at.

What I Liked

I liked the way this book evoked in me a desire to think and argue with the author. I read it with a pencil nearby, and constantly wrote on the pages. Sometimes I agreed and wrote that, other times I wrote impromptu refutations. I must have sharpened my pencil twenty times. This is why I bought the book, but it far exceeded my expectations. Harari is an intellectual provocateur who takes things to an extreme situation in order to force us to ponder the logics of it. For people like me, this is fun.

What I Didn’t Like

I didn’t like being called a fool. In several places in the book the author portrays anyone who believes in God–whether it is the God of the Bible, Allah, or Thor–as a fool. Harari portrays himself as a strict realist who only looks at the facts, but he deludes himself by shuffling the deck of facts in favor of himself and his worldview. This did not become fully apparent until the last chapter of the book, and it was then that I realized what as going on.

What Surprised Me

There were two surprises. One, Harari holds an odd position in that he is what I would call an Atheist Calvinist. He absolutely does not believe in free-will or choices. For him, everything is determined. His is not just biological determinism that tell us genes determine heart disease and lifespan. It goes much further. He perceives all our choices are made for us by culture, biases, religion, politics, and advertising. You didn’t have a taco for lunch today because you wanted it and you chose to. You and the taco for lunch today because your brain is preconditioned by pressures and stimuli you can’t possibly act against, so therefore, it was predetermined you would eat the taco.

The second surprise was the ending, and I have already alluded to it. Throughout the whole book Harari trashes any kind of spirituality or religious experiences, then in one of the boldest bait and switch moments he finishes by trying to convince the humble reader the key to it all is meditation and getting into contact with your mind as opposed to your brain.

I was very disappointed, and suddenly his anti-God stance made more sense. He is an evangelist for a new kind of faith–a faith not in God, not in self, and not in humanity. Harari peddles a faith in awareness and experience. This is why many of his thoughts are fatalistic.

Final Evaluation

Read this book if you want to be challenged, argue with the author, and think about things from a different perspective. Do not read this book if you are easily offended by other worldviews.

THE GIVER: A BOOK REVIEW

Actually, this is a book review of The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry. There are four books in all, even though most people are only familiar with the first one because it is on many high school reading lists, and also because of the unfortunate movie. I say unfortunate, not because I didn’t like it. I liked it, before I read the book. I liked it because Jeff Bridges is so good in it and the narrative pacing is tight. But after reading the books, I decidedly hated the movie adaption as it seemed to miss most of the main points of the book(s).

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The four books are, in order: The Giver, Finding Blue, Messenger, and Son. I enjoyed them all, but Gathering Blue is the best, by far, of the four. A tiny disclaimer here, I read the bulk of these while on vacation on the sugar white beaches of Destin, Florida underneath a yellow umbrella enjoying the perfect ocean mist. Environment can often dictate how one feels about the art being consumed.

 

What I Really Liked

I really liked the way in which Lois Lowry develops characters. Jonas, Kira, Matty, and Claire are each complex, believable, and likeable adolescents. I really liked that there are two male and two female leads, providing balance to the narrative arc. Jonas is the dominant character, but for my taste Kira is the best character. The opening pages of Gathering Blue provide such a rich description not only of her physical situation but also of her emotional, psychological, sociological, and spiritual condition that one feels as if they’ve known Kira their whole life. At least I did.

Some of the tertiary characters can be shallow at times, or even clichés but I can forgive that because the MC’s are amazing.

There are two other things I really liked, and both are unique to these books. One, I loved the vehement pro-life message woven through the novels. I don’t mean this in a political sense, because Lowry is not writing from a Christian worldview. I mean in the sense that life, in all its stages, is viewed as precious and honored in the book. This life is often viewed as fragile in the midst of a world that would destroy the weak, the unwanted, and the old.

Two, I really liked the almost prophetic nature of the books set against our contemporary times. This is particularly true in Messenger. It was written in 2004–twelve years ago, but there is a major character in that book who acts as a strongman attempting to build a literal wall around the village to keep the flow of migrants/immigrants from coming in. There are other nearly prophetic elements as well regarding the ethics of medicine, redefinition of family units, and many other things.

 

What I liked

I liked the readability of these books. There are four of them, but I read them in the time of a regular novel. The easy reading is  part of the YA nature of the books, but also it is part of Lowry’s clear writing style. She does not use a lot of words when not needed.

I liked the recycling of characters–I try to do this in my own writing and greatly admired it in these books.

I liked the “Question authority” feel of the novels. I have learned that some schools don’t allow these books because they encourage a questioning of authority and, to some extent, rebellion in the face of evil. I like that about these books. Too many people automatically trust “The person in the white lab coat” or the “Guy behind the desk” when in reality these people are often wrong, or worse, manipulative. Experts might be smart, but they also have agendas.

I like the way she uses symbolism, metaphor, and allegory to connect with me as a reader.

 

What I Didn’t Like

There was one part of The Giver Quartet I didn’t like. This is true of almost every book–there is always something that doesn’t settle right with me. The last book, Son, feels too rushed. I actually think Lowry should have written more on Claire’s transformation in a stand alone book, and then wrote a fifth book to finish out the storyline. She jams too much into the last book.

That’s it, that is my only complaint.

Final Evaluation

Loved the books. They are suitable for all ages, but are ideal for young adults. People who enjoy Harry Potter, fantasy, science fiction, character stories, dystopia, and tales of good and evil will enjoy these excellent reads.

A BOOK REVIEW OF “A FALL OF SPARROWS”

Last night I completed A Fall of Sparrows, the debut novel from Paul J. Bennett and published by Athanatos Publishing Group.    It took me a little over a week to read, but a novel of this length I would normally have finished quicker.  Easter got in the way a bit.  I read the Kindle version, which is available for a steal at $4.99.3dfront-trim-small  I would rate the book at PG-13, because of the war violence.  There is no profanity or explicit sexual content.

Synopsis:  In the middle of the American Civil War, a school teacher turned rugged Confederate soldier named Will Seymour has a worldview shifting experience when he encounters a young runaway slave girl named Evaline.  Will becomes Evaline’s protector, committed to the mission of escorting her safely through hostile Confederate territory to the North, where she can continue on her way to true safety in Canada.  Along the way they counter dangers, many adversaries, and battle constant hunger and lack of supplies.

Who Would Like This Book:  People who love historical fiction, literary fiction, nature writing, Civil War enthusiasts, people interested in race relations, idealists, and people who like journey stories.  If you are a fan of The Outlaw Josey Wales, you’d probably like this book.

What I Really Liked About Sparrows:  There is much to like, but four things stand out.  First, Bennett does a great job with his history.  He completely nails the food shortage and scarcity of the Confederate Army, as well as the overall picture of life in Virginia during the war.  Second, sometimes the prose soared to superb heights as he described the natural surroundings.  To me, it felt at times, a little Thoreauish.  Third, Bennett tells a complete story that holds the readers suspense from the first page to the last.  Many first time novelists lose their way in the midst of their story, losing the juice of the original idea.  Bennett avoid this pitfall by sliding the main characters in and out of new dangers and challenges without changing the nature or essence of the story.  Four, I love the idealized way I can read back into the racial and sexual component of the tale.  Even though it is historical, the relationship aspects of it are shockingly contemporary.

What I Found Difficult in Sparrows:  Not much, but there are a couple of things that I didn’t find so pleasing, but these are mostly personal preference issues.  One, Bennett uses dialect for Evaline’s speech.  I’ve worked with dialect in some of my writings in the past, and know how hard it can be to write, but as a reader, I’ve decided I don’t like it.  It distracts from the story instead of adds to it.  Second, I think Will’s transformation from one worldview to another is rushed.  As a reader, I would have liked to spend more time on that process, and I think it would have taken Will, a life long slaver from Georgia, longer to work through that than the couple of pages afforded it in the text.

What I Found Fascinating:  It is obvious to me that Bennett loves firearms.  Some of the most detailed descriptions in the whole book are about the different rifles, guns, pistols, and such that were in play during the Civil War.  Whereas most writers might simply say that, “He loaded his rifle” Bennett gives us a description of the loading action of the individual rifle, its firing mechanism, how the minie ball fired, the color of the smoke, and who in the army might carry that kind of weapon.

I also found the brief epilogue fascinating.  I can’t tell if it is Bennett telling us as the reader that this is essentially a true story, or if it is a part of the story itself.

Final Analysis:  I highly recommend A Fall of Sparrows.

A BOOK REVIEW OF “REBEL YELL” BY S.C. GWYNNE

The actual title of the book is too long to include in the blog title:  Rebel Yell:  The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

This book is not about rocker Billy Idol
This book is not about rocker Billy Idol

How is that for a mouthful of history?

S.C. Gwynne is one of the better writers anywhere, and I have lauded his fantastic Empire of the Summer Moon many times before.  This book is another fantastic journey into the past.  Whether you are a Civil War historian or not, you will appreciate this volume if you love biographies.

The book is mostly chronological, starting with Jackson’s troubled childhood, labors at West Point, heroics in the Mexican-American War, and his career as a professor at VMI.  Gwynne excels, however, when he focuses upon the odd personality and characteristics of Jackson with his near vegan diet of stale bread and water, tendency to sit in the dark alone for hours, physical ailments, and reserved, distant manner.

The dominant, lingering characteristic is Jackson’s religious faith–Presbyterian Calvinism to be specific-and the way it colored everything he said or did.  For me as a modern reader, this is the attribute that is at once the most interesting and disturbing.  His faith seems in direct contradiction to the cause of the South in general, and to the work of killing in specific.  For Lee, war seemed like chess and strategy, whereas Jackson loved battle, killing, violence and death, consecrating it all with his raised hand in prayer on the battlefield.

It also should be noted that Gwynne does a great job as a historian by telling us the events without attempting to rationalize or explain them.  One almost expects the nearly obligatory passages decrying the mindset of Confederate leaders and generals while promising to present the facts in an unbiased way.  Instead, Gwynne simply tells the story of Jackson’s life and exploits in the context of the world Jackson lived in and lets the reader do his or her own analysis of how wrongheaded and doomed the cause was, and had to be.  In the process, he succeeds in casting Jackson as an extraordinary American in a very difficult, and different, time.

There is another delicious bit to this biography, that delights me as a historian.  It shows, in startling detail, how poorly run the Union army was at the beginning of the war.  McClellan, Burnside, Pope, McDowell, and Hooker were all vastly over matched by Jackson and Lee, who did more with fewer resources than was, in many ways, imaginable.  One good Union general, early in the war, would have ended it in 1861 and American history would have been drastically different.  Ironically, it might have been different for the worse, as an early ending to the war would not have, likely, ended the despicable institution of slavery nor humbled the South sufficiently.

If the book has a weakness, it is that Gwynne is not a professional historian of the Civil War, and his description of troop movements, military maneuvers, and battlefield tactics sometimes feel like material he copied from a battlefield monument.  Having said that, his prose is clean and understandable, but not as energetic as the other aspects of the book.  I can easily excuse this, however, because anyone can get lost in the seemingly never-ending flanking attempts of 18th and 19th century battles.

I highly recommend the book for education and enjoyment.

image from dallasnews.com