Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: The Universe Within

          In his book "Your Inner Fish", paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin probed some of the deep connections between our bodies and the bodies of distant creatures. As one of the paleontologists that discovered the Tiktaalik, a fishlike creature that lived 375 million years ago and is considered to be at the brink of the transition from the sea to land, Shubin is in a position to offer unique insights about the shared connections found in different species.
          In his book The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, Shubin goes one step further; he examines the world around us and asks how the events of the universe impacted the formation of our own bodies. Humans were not created in a vacuum – there were millions of different factors that lead to our existence. There was a big bang that lead to the formation of different elements that lead to the formation of different galaxies that lead to the formation of different planets that lead to formation of our own planet, which possessed the unique combination of factors able to sustain life. In this book, Shubin traces the timeline of the universe, attempting to show the common history of the events of the universe and human beings.  
          This book was, to be blunt, an ambitious under-taking. I enjoyed “Your Inner Fish” for Shubin’s ability to explain concepts in an engaging manner while also providing a glimpse into the life of a working scientist. These same strengths are also found in “The Universe Within”. However, this was a far-reaching book. I ended up reading it over a course of several weeks, individual chapter by individual chapter. I enjoyed reading the individual chapters – there was a wealth of interesting information, which Shubin explains well – but as an entire book, I felt like the scope of this book was just a little too big and the concepts just a little too distant. 

For more information about this book in the author's own words, I would recommend watching his interview on the Colbert Report

Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: The 19th Wife

         The "19th Wife", by David Ebershoff, is a novel that alternates between the narrative of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, and Jordan Scott, a “lost boy” that was born to a 19th wife in a modern-day polygamous community. 
          Ann Eliza Young was famous for divorcing Brigham Young and then going on to crusade against polygamy. During her crusade, she wrote an autobiography of her life, titled "Wife No 19". In re-writing Ann Eliza Young’s story as a work of fiction, Ebershoff goes one step further by providing the narratives of others, including her family members and Brigham Young. Some of the narratives didn’t come across as authentic – they felt too clean, too self-aware for the rough-hewn pioneer characters they portrayed. Nevertheless, by including these alternative voices, the author created a more nuanced portrayal of 19th-century polygamy.
          The other part of the novel is comprised of the story of Jordan Scott, a lost boy who was kicked out of his polygamous community at the age of fourteen. After fleeing Utah, he returns home when his mother is arrested for his father’s murder. Believing his mother to be innocent, Jordan sets out to uncover the truth. The story that unfolds is a complex narrative of modern-day polygamy, with ties to the original Mormon faith that fostered the practice. The story alternated between the two time periods with relative ease; this was a book that I started reading and couldn’t put down.
          The author did an excellent job at untangling some of the complex emotions that happen when one man is married to multiple women, as well as portraying the religious significance of polygamy in early Mormon history. Overall, this was a very engaging work of historical fiction.

This book has been out a while – I picked up my copy at a used book-store. For history buffs, Ann Eliza Young’s book "Wife No. 19" is also available as an e-bookon Amazon for a reasonable price.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: The Girls From Fourth Ward


“The only thing you can’t repent of is leaving the Church.  Then when you die you go to Outer Darkness.”  Sarah Renfro, from “The Girls From Fourth Ward” by Donna Banta

          In her book, “The Girls From Fourth Ward”, the author Donna Banta draws on the  key strength of fiction - she takes a real-life issue and then twists her characters into the situation in such a way that leaves you thinking “What if”?  What if Mormon theology gets mis-construed in such a fashion?  
          This book is a murder mystery centered around the murder of the Mormon bishop Brent Loomis.  The quandary in this book is the fate of four young Mormon girls, who are determined to achieve the highest level of Heaven.  Since Mormon theology teaches that you can only attain the highest level of Heaven by marrying a Mormon man in the temple - and that polygamy exists in Heaven - these girls are determined to get into Brigham Young University (BYU).  BYU is where all of the high-achieving Mormon boys study and is where the girls have their best shot at finding a suitable mate, so that they can spend eternity as top-tier first wives.  These girls are smart, ambitious, and boxed in by the narrow expectations of life as a Mormon woman.  
          Standing in the girls’ way is Bishop Loomis.  Loomis is, to be frank, the bishop from hell.  Sanctimonious and controlling, he runs his ward with an iron fist.  One of his powers as bishop is deciding whether or not to recommend students for admission to BYU.  He is the roadblock standing in the way of the girls achieving the highest level of salvation.  And so the girls find themselves contemplating the relative nature of sin.  As one of the girls Betsy says, “You can repent of anything, even murder.”  
          The narrative weaves between the Lieutenant Matt Ryan, who transferred to Abbottsville for a quieter life; the four girls of Abbottsville Fourth Ward; as well as an assortment of other peripheral characters.  There were a lot of characters that I recognized, both in myself and in the people around me.  The sweet, naive housewife; the overworked mother of nine; the girl expected to shoulder her mother’s burden; the brainy girl who wishes for the forbidden pleasure of graduate school, her own apartment, and a dog.  Donna describes the everyday details of Mormon life in a way that is very intimate and real.  Reading this book brought back a lot of memories for me; memories of being a Mormon girl frustrated about the narrow future that was ahead of me.  
          This is a excellent book to read if you grew up as a Mormon girl or if you want to understand a little more about the frustrations of life as a Mormon woman.  This is also a fun read, as Donna takes you on a romp through the darker underworld of Mormonism in such a way that you end up laughing and shaking your head at the girls that just won’t break free of their narrow world.

Donna is also the author of the very funny blog Ward Gossip, which features some of the characters portrayed in her book.  

This book is available both in ebook and softcover from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell's.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Sweet Land Of Bigamy

          Helen Motes is, above all, a survivor.  Fatherless and with an alcoholic mother, Helen lived a fractured, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Utah.   As a sixteen-year old girl, she met and married an older man, Larry, a solid respectable Mormon.  Helen’s marriage to Larry represented the stability she never experienced growing up.  But after ten years of marriage, during which Helen is forced to cope with the pain of infertility, Larry leaves for a two-year stint in Iraq, in full defiance of Helen’s fears and wishes.  
           Angry and heart-broken, Helen heads back to her childhood town in hopes of making amends with her alcoholic mother.  While there, she meets and falls in love with an Indian poet, who proposes marriage to her before she even has the chance to explain about her husband.  Her new lover is full of starry-eyed ideals about the world; through his eyes Helen is able to experience the wide-eyed wonder of childhood that she missed out on.  She marries her Indian suitor, expecting to quietly divorce her first husband while her second husband is in India tending to his dying mother.  And so Helen finds herself in the awkward position of being a bigamist - a woman married to two men.  
          Things quickly get very complicated as Helen finds herself unable to sever her emotional attachment to her first husband.  These husbands of hers fill two separate voids in her heart.  She loves the two of them, both in their own unique way.  The plot is original and surprising, with a lot of very unique characters; the people are flawed yet relatable.  The author made the wise decision to tell the story from a variety of different perspectives, rather than sticking to the point of view of one woman trying to decide between the two men that she loves.  By showing us the story through the eyes of many, the reader is drawn into a deeply textured and vivid portrait of a woman trying to make the best of a difficult circumstance.  
           This is a story about cobbling together a life out of broken remnants: a fractured childhood, absentee parents, a marriage of necessity, a marriage of impulse.  The author does not shy away from the difficult moments but handles them with such grace and such affection for her characters that the result is a truly heart-warming story about the ability of people to stick together in spite of their flaws.  

Sweet Land of Bigamy is available in both e-book and hardcover and can be bought at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, as well as your local independent bookstore.  I would also urge you to check out the author's webpage, as she is a fantastic writer - her essay "You Owe Me" was recently selected for the Best American Essays of 2012, and is, without a doubt, the best non-fiction essay I have read in a very long time.