Friday, February 28, 2014

Best Books of February


Here are the best books that I read this month. The summaries come from Goodreads; the reviews are mine.

 

 

Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy – Jon R. Stone (editor)

The expectation of an end to time and the yearning for a millennial paradise have been recurring themes in Western religious thought. But when we speak of "expectation" of the world's end we are mindful of the fact that generation after generation of millenarians have been disappointed. Their endtime hopes and prophecies have not come true. What happens, one might ask, when prophecies fail? Does failure spell the end of the very movements that embrace such expectations?

The aim of this anthology is to gather together in one volume the essential research from the fields of sociology and psychology that seeks to answer this intriguing question as first raised by Festinger in his 1956 work, "When Prophecy Fails." Cross-cultural and comparative, this collection chronicles forty years of research into failed prophecy and response to the attending cognitive dissonance it produces that is at once timely and informative.




Review: I loved Festinger's When Prophecy Fails, but I was skeptical of his hypothesis that groups respond to the cognitive dissonance caused by a disconfirmed prophecy by increasing proselytizing activity. Based on my own reading, increased proselytizing after a disconfirmed prophecy is fairly unusual. This book examines the other ways that groups respond to disconfirmed prophecy. The essays in this book are a lot dryer and more scientific-sounding than most of the Festinger book, but if you found that book interesting, you might like this one.

 

 

Close Range: Wyoming Stories – Annie Proulx


From the Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling author of The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes comes one of the most celebrated short-story collections of our time.
Annie Proulx's masterful language and fierce love of Wyoming are evident in these breathtaking tales of loneliness, quick violence, and the wrong kinds of love. Each of the stunning portraits in Close Range reveals characters fiercely wrought with precision and grace.
These are stories of desperation and unlikely elation, set in a landscape both stark and magnificent -- by an author writing at the peak of her craft.
 


Review: These stories are realistic, gritty, beautiful, and amazing. Having grown up in Colorado, I was familiar with the setting of this book, but I've never seen it described this well. Annie Proulx has a gift for using language precisely. I can see why she has won so many literary prizes.

All of these stories are about tough Wyoming ranchers. None of the characters are likable, but most of them are fascinating because of their flaws. The most well-known stories in the collection are "The Half-Skinned Steer," which was featured in the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, and "Brokeback Mountain," which became a movie.

"Brokeback Mountain" is the strongest story in the collection. I also liked "The Mud Below" because it seemed more straightforward and less sparsely-written than the other stories. I liked the humor in "The Blood Bay." I had a hard time picking favorite stories because I liked them all. This is one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time.

 

 

Divergent – Veronica Roth


In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
 
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her.
 


Review: This book was entertaining. I stayed up way too late over the last few nights to read it. It's quickly paced with a ton of action, and I was pulled into the plot right away.

While I liked the action, the majority of the book was action and not much else. The characters spent most of the story training for battle, and then they got to put their skills to the test at the end of the book. The pulse-pounding action scenes will keep you reading, but the number of action scenes doesn't leave much room for character development. You can only learn so much about the characters by watching them fight. It took me a really long time to get a sense of Tris's personality. Four is an intriguing character and has a lot of potential, but I don't feel like I know enough about him to care about his relationship with Tris. Most of the other characters seemed like cardboard cutouts who were created just to die. I didn't feel anything for them when they died because I didn't feel like I knew them.

There are similarities between this book and The Hunger Games, especially in the beginning. I didn't like this book as much as I liked The Hunger Games, but I'm still looking forward to reading the next one. I have to know what happens.


~*~

All The Things = 16 books with many more on the way.
I’m currently reading Insurgent by Veronica Roth.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Reading Is (Possibly?) Good For You, Part 2

 
Last week, I wrote about a scientific study that shows that reading can cause changes in the brain that last at least five days after finishing a book. This week, I have a list of other ways that reading may improve your health and your life. There are scientific studies to back up many of the things on this list.

1.      Reading improves your memory.

2.      It helps you learn new information.

3.      It allows you to experience things that you might not otherwise experience.

4.      It keeps your brain active.

5.      It can help prevent Alzheimer’s.

6.      It uses parts of the brain that may not be used in day-to-day activities.

7.      It encourages you to think about things that you wouldn’t otherwise think about.

8.      Reading to your children helps you bond with them.

9.      Reading to your children makes them more intelligent.

10.  Reading to your children improves their communication skills.

11.  Reading to your children can improve their math skills.

12.  Reading to your children can help increase their attention span.

13.  Reading to your children can give them a lifelong love of reading.

14.  Reading makes you more empathetic.

15.  It improves your writing skills.

16.  It improves your communication skills.

17.  It improves your reading comprehension.

18.  It improves your spelling, grammar, and vocabulary.

19.  It exercises your imagination.

20.  It increases your problem-solving skills.

21.  It helps you put problems in perspective.

22.  It can inspire you.

23.  It can excite you.

24.  It can encourage you to get involved with a cause.

25.  It allows you to “see” places that you may never visit.

26.  It gives you something to talk about with others.

27.  It brings people together (fandoms).

28.  It can help you make friends.

29.  It improves your analytical-thinking skills.

30.  It makes you more creative.

31.  It provides comfort.

32.  It can distract you while you exercise.

33.  Self-help books teach you how to make important changes to your life.

34.  It can help you get ahead in your career or your relationships.

35.  It can make you more comfortable with uncertainty.

36.  It reduces stress.

37.  It reduces anxiety.

38.  It helps you sleep by reducing stress and anxiety.

39.  It helps you spot patterns and cause-effect situations.

40.  It reduces boredom.

41.  It can decrease feelings of loneliness.

42.  It lets you get away from your life by “escaping” to somewhere else.

43.  It can distract you from pain or sickness.

44.  People who read are more likely to be civically and culturally involved with their community.

45.  It helps you cope with past and current experiences.

46.  It makes you sexier—intelligence is sexy.

47.  People who read are more likely to accurately interoperate the body language of others.

48.  People who read are more open-minded.

49.  People who read are more likely to think problems through instead of making snap decisions.

50.  It’s fun.


There are 50 reasons that reading may be good for you. So, go read. Improve your health.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reading Is (Possibly?) Good For You, Part 1


 
Over the last few months, I’ve been hearing a lot about a study done at Emory University in Atlanta about the effects that reading has on the brain. For the study, neuroscientists gave 21 volunteers an fMRI for 30 minutes a day for 19 days. The fMRI is a scanner that allows the researchers to see which parts of the brain are active. The volunteers read a chapter of the novel Pompeii by Robert Harris before each brain scan. The volunteers were also scanned five days before starting the novel and five days after finishing it. The scans showed increased activity in two neural networks after the volunteers read the first chapter, and that increased activity lasted through the rest of the experiment, including the scan five days after finishing the book. The regions of the brain that showed increased activity were a region that is used for language and understanding other people’s perspectives and a region used for controlling the body and responding to touch.

The media immediately pounced on this study and claimed that it shows that reading improves your brain. While I agree that reading is good for you, I don’t think that this study shows that reading improves the brain. In my opinion, there are too many unknowns to make that claim.

First, in the fMRI, the volunteers were told to rest with their eyes closed. Who knows what was happening in their minds during this time. They had to be thinking, or feeling, or reacting to something while lying in a scanner for 30 minutes, right? Even when a person is resting, their brain is still active.

The study doesn’t say much about the participants. I’ve found a few news articles that say that they were students, so if that’s correct, I assume that they must read often. Would the study’s results vary depending on how often the volunteers read?

There was no control group in this experiment, so we don’t know how the brains of people who didn’t read the book compare to the brains of the people who did.

Brains are changing all the time. As far as I know, brains adapt to cope with the environment and the tasks that are demanded of them. Are the changes that were seen in this study really that significant if brains change all the time?

Finally, the study only looked at the volunteers' brains for five days after finishing the novel. How long do the changes in the brain last? Can the changes be considered an improvement if they’re not permanent?

For me, this study creates more questions than answers. Does reading improve the brain? Possibly. For more information, including a link to the study, check out the awesome article in Wired magazine. The author has many of the same questions that I do, and he comes closer to answering them than I do. 

~*~
Next week, I’ll list the other ways that reading is (possibly) good for you.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why I’m Not Mad At J.K. Rowling



Seven years after the publication of the final Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling is having second thoughts about how the series ended. In an interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland magazine, Rowling says, “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” She goes on to say, “I know, I'm sorry, I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I'm absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people's hearts by saying this? I hope not.”

Judging by the comments on the news articles about this interview, a lot of Harry Potter fans are heartbroken. Some fans have said that they can’t ignore any statements that the author makes about the books, and they don’t think that it’s fair for her to “take back” events that happened in the books. Some fans think that it taints their memories of reading and loving the books. Other fans have even accused the author of doing this for publicity. Obviously, the relationships in the books are a big deal to a lot of readers.

For me, the relationships were not the most interesting parts of the books. I cared more about how Harry would destroy the horcruxes and whether Snape was more loyal to Dumbledore or Voldemort. The romances were just one of the many, many subplots. They weren’t something that I spent much time thinking about.  So, I’m not mad at J.K. Rowling for saying that she might have handled the romances differently.

I have met so many authors who refuse to read their own book after the book has been published because they’re worried that they’ll see something in it that they'll want to change. I have gone to readings where authors have read updated or rewritten versions of published stories because they are no longer happy with the published version.

For example, in the appendix to Dave Eggers’s bestselling book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers writes, “Many times, when I was reading the book aloud at this or that bookstore, some word choice or passage appalled me to a point where I’d have to stop, mid-sentence, and furiously cross out the offending words, much to the amusement of the attendees, who thought I was kidding.”

While talking about his first novel, Carrie, Stephen King said, “I'm not saying that Carrie is shit, and I'm not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect, it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom."

Why do authors say these things about their books? Because books are art, and art is never “done.” There’s always something that can be changed or enhanced. Also, ideally, a writer should get better at writing as their career progresses. A writer should always be experimenting, learning, and figuring out what works best for them and their stories.

J.K. Rowling is having second thoughts about the Harry Potter series because she is a different person than she was when she wrote it. She has grown, changed, and learned. That’s why I don’t have a problem with her admitting that maybe Hermione shouldn’t have ended up with Ron.