Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat – Review

John Gribbin. In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality. 1984; New York: Bantam, 2011. E-book.

In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is one of the more accessible books on quantum physics. Quantum physics, which deal with the properties of subatomic particles, is based on fairly esoteric experiments and somewhat opaque mathematical formulae. Even more than the theory of relativity, it is for the experts. Relativity sort of makes sense. Quantum mechanics does not.

Gribbin explains things pretty well: that many of these subatomic particles are both waves and particles. One could say that they have the properties of both a tiny object and a wave, but they do not necessarily have both properties at the same time. Instead of traditional Newtonian mechanics which are described by fairly clear mathematics, in quantum mechanics “events are governed by probabilities.” (2) Hence the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, there is a 50-50 chance it is dead or alive, but we do not know till we open the box. Indeed, Niels Bohr, one of the pioneers of both relativity and quantum physics said. “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” (5)

Gribbin also points out that atoms are really not those neat little planetary systems that we usually see in chemistry books. The size of the nucleus of an atom is about one hundred thousandth the size of the whole atom. Electrons are even smaller than the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, so atoms are primarily “empty spaces, held together by electric charges.” (32)

Much of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is the history of the main discoveries of quantum mechanics. It seems like just about everyone named in the book has won a Nobel Prize unless they died young. This helps us see how we arrived at where we are and what the different researchers were looking for or what they discovered. One great ironic/paradoxical sentence: “In 1906 J. J. Thomson had received the Nobel Prize for proving that electrons are particles; in 1937 he saw his son awarded the Nobel Prize for proving that electrons are waves. Both father and son were correct, and both awards were fully merited.” (91)

Some connections were made because someone had studied esoteric mathematics in his past. So Max Born discovered some of the strange properties of quanta because he had studied matrices in college. At the time, matrices ere interesting mathematical constructions developed in calculus but had no known practical application. Now they do. As in a matrix the numbers may not be commutative—that is, 3 + 2 might not equal 2 + 3—so it is with properties of certain quanta.

Beyond the scope of this book, this reviewer notes that a little over a hundred years ago mathematicians started playing around with multidimensional geometry. Not that there was any application, but it was an interesting exercise. Now it appears that the relationship between gravity and the atomic and subatomic forces can be explained by mathematical models—as long as there are eleven dimensions.

So Gribbin notes:

Wave mechanics is no more a guide to the reality of the atomic world than matrix mechanics, but unlike matrix mechanics, wave mechanics gives us an illusion [Gribbin’s italics] of something familiar and comfortable. (117)

We have all seen rainbows and ripples on water; these things indicate waves. But “the atomic world is totally different from the everyday world.” (117)

We finally get to the main observation concerning probabilities and particles.

It is a cardinal rule of quantum mechanics that in principle it is impossible to measure certain pairs of properties, including position/momentum, simultaneously. (121)

While this does sort of make sense since quanta are both waves (with motion) and particles (in a position), Gribbin’s conclusion? “There is not absolute truth at the quantum level.” (120)

Even Richard Feynman posited that if one knew enough math, he could predict the future. This reviewer is reminded of Thomasina’s question about free will in Stoppard’s Arcadia: “Is God a Newtonian?” Gribbin denies this. The most we can say is that there is probability, kind of like a weather forecaster. Perhaps, then, this demonstrates the paradox of free will and predestination both being true.

It does appear to illustrate Ivey’s basic argument that the fact that even matter is mostly empty space with tiny spots of mathematical complications proves the existence of a very intelligent artist behind it all. Gribbin, however, does use the self-defeating “no absolutes” argument. In all fairness he admits that he does not know about origins. There might be a God.

Gribbin notes that quantum mechanics explains why the sun shines, when according to “classical theory” it cannot. (Kind of like bees flying…) When he quotes Heisenberg as saying “We cannot know as a matter of principle the present in all its details,” Gribbin states:

This is where quantum theory cuts free from the determinacy of classical ideas. To Newton it would be possible to predict the entire course of the future if we knew the position and momentum of every particle in the universe; to the modern physicist, the idea of such a perfect prediction is meaningless because we cannot even know the position and momentum of even one [Gribbin’s italics] particle precisely. (157)

Gribbin notes perhaps the greatest curiosity about quantum physics, that particles like electrons seem to change their properties or state when they are being observed.

In quantum physics the observer interacts with the system to such an extent that the system cannot be thought of having an independent existence. By choosing to measure position more precisely, we force a particle to develop more uncertainty in its momentum, and vice versa. (160)

If man is made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26), then maybe in some way our intelligence is wired to not only observe nature but to interact with it in ways that we do not yet understand.

Gribbin also notes that a photon travels at the speed of light, “and this means that for a photon time has no meaning.” (190) If that is the case, then this is another reason why the universe may not be as old as some say. We detect distant galaxies that are thirteen to fifteen light years away, so we say that the universe mush be thirteen to fifteen billion years old for the light to reach us. But if photons are timeless, then they do not have to be that old. They could have been born yesterday. Maybe they were… (Starlight and Time has a different explanation that has to do with the universe’s expansion and the effects of gravity on photons.)

This reviewer makes no apology for suggesting a Creator or a young earth, certainly not in reviewing In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Gribbin believes that a way to resolve the paradoxes of quantum physics in a more unusual way: parallel universes—universes that are similar to but not quite identical to ours. This reviewer has come across this hypothesis before, but where is the evidence? Gribbin believes science fiction writers may be ahead of the curve on this one. He names The Man in the High Castle as on such example.

This is really getting wild. Years ago I had a friend who worked in nuclear physics. He said that where he worked (unlike Gribbin, he worked in the corporate world, not academia) most the people believed in some kind of God because they saw the unmistakable design in what they were working with all the time.

To his credit, Gribbin does not bring personal beliefs like these until the last chapter, and he is direct about it. So we get to see the discoveries of the mysteries of quantum physics without much getting in the way other than the mystery itself. He understands that the reader might not see things his way, but he sees his multiverse hypothesis at least as good as any of the others. Also, unlike many scientists in academia, he is not afraid to mention the anthropic principle.

This reviewer recognizes that unless I go back to school, I will never have a completely clear understanding of quantum physics, but In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat is about the best introduction to the subject that I have read.

The Colson Way – Review

Owen Strachan. The Colson Way. Nashville TN: Nelson, 2015. E-book.

The Colson Way’s subtitle reads Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World. The subtitle really sums up the purpose of the book. I recall reading Chuck Colson’s Loving God a number of years ago. At the time Colson was still searching. He had found God and was trying to see how to live for him.

In that book, Colson asked a number of very famous Christian leaders what Jesus meant when He said that the most important commandment was “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” He was really surprised at the simplistic answers most of these people gave him. Clearly, if that is the most important of God’s commandments, it must be something we ought to be living by, not just doing a vague Hebrew or Greek word study on. According to Strachan, Colson would live it.

In this book, Owen Strachan gives an overview of Colson’s life and then shows how we can learn from this. Strachan especially focuses on the way Colson interacted with the culture. After serving time for a Watergate-related crime, Colson began a prison ministry which became Prison Fellowship and its spin-offs including Angel Tree, Justice Fellowship, and the Wilberforce Forum (since Colson’s passing known as the Colson Center for Christian Worldview).

Strachan notes two things about Colson’s approach: (1) He knew—not only believed, but knew—that Jesus changes lives, and (2) he did not wittingly compromise the Gospel in his work. Many times he was challenged for bringing religion to the “public square,” but if Jesus is truly Lord, He is lord of governments as well. I believe the Bible calls Him King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Strachan also notes that there are many ways people can minister in the public square as Colson did. He believes the three most significant problems in our country are at their root moral questions. These three are abortion, the natural family, and religious liberty. Also important are sex trafficking and racial unity. A few years ago I happened to see a film of a Billy Graham crusade in San Francisco from 1958. Even back in the fifties, Graham believed that the two biggest sins Americans faced were sexual immorality and racism. It really has not changed much in sixty years. Indeed, in many cases it has gotten worse.

The Colson Way is direct and clear. Learn from Colson. Work in whatever field God has called you to and bring God’s love to the culture. In some instances the culture will be hostile, but God’s truth is eternal.

The book is very consciously geared to “millennials.” Strachan does this because he fears that many younger Christians do not know who Charles Colson was, what he did, or what he stood for. I think of a former student of mine who was recently challenged by a well-known senator for his orthodox religious beliefs. Who would have thought? Doesn’t the Constitution say there shall be no religious test for public office? Doesn’t the Bill of Rights tell Americans that they are free to live according to their religious beliefs?

We live in an upside-down world. Indeed, it is so upside down that one writer called God’s way the Upside-Down Kingdom because our way of doing things without God is so different, even though it ultimately makes little sense. I am reminded of Acts 17:6 when some of the disciples were accused of “turning the world upside down.” Ah, but who promised that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? It was neither a politician nor a philosopher. (See Matthew 19:30)

The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)

Millennial Christians, read this book. Those of you older and younger, take a look, too. It will be worth it.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street – Review

Karina Yan Glaser. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street. New York: Houghton, 2017. Print.

I have to come out and explicitly affirm that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is not the 1,832nd remake of A Christmas Carol. Yes, it takes place right before Christmas, and the villain of the story is an isolated, curmudgeonly old man. That is the extent of the similarity (unless literary sleuths find subtle hidden allusions that escaped my first reading).

The Vanderbeekers are a lively family of five kids ranging from four to twelve and their two parents and three pets. They have lived in their Harlem brownstone two-floor apartment since the twins (the oldest) were quite young. It sits in a vibrant neighborhood near a branch of the City College of New York (CCNY) and St. Nicholas Park. Mr. Vandebeeker has lived in the area most of his life. Though part of the largest city in the United States, the neighborhood exemplifies an urban village where people know each other.

Suddenly, two weeks before it expires on January 1, their landlord Mr. Beiderman tells the Vanderbeekers that he is not renewing their lease and they will have to move out. A real estate agent is already lining up potential renters to show the apartment to. Oh no, is this a remake of Snively Whiplash coming after the Hardscrabbles because they ain’t got the money fo’ the mortgage on the farm?

We could call Mr. Beiderman Scrooge-ish. Obviously, he is spoiling the family’s Christmas and New Year celebrations. But he does not call Christmas humbug. Indeed, he does not call it anything because the family has never met him. He keeps to himself on the top floor of the building. Even though Mr. Vanderbeeker acts as the building superintendent, he has never seen Mr. Beiderman, either. This recluse has TV dinners delivered to his door, and whenever he needs to talk to Mr. Vanderbeeker, he speaks to him from another room.

The kids have developed a few legends about this unseen eminence grise; for example, he looks like a werewolf. They learn from neighbors that he used to teach Art History at the CCNY campus, but mostly people who knew him react with a look of muted horror and do not say anything. Perhaps there is a little of a Scrooge-inspired cold wind when someone mentions his name.

The kids are fun. The two oldest, the seventh-grade twin girls are Jessie and Isa. Next is the only boy, Oliver. Then comes Hyacinth, and finally four-year-old Laney. Each has a distinct personality and much of the story’s engagement and conflict come from the way the siblings interact. If in this one is reminded of other Christmas stories, if might be Little Women with the four sisters, or perhaps we could call the Vanderbeekers better-behaved Herdmans. (And if you do not know who the Herdmans are in 2017, perhaps you are a Scrooge…)

Besides the story’s main conflict, which becomes for the kids a countdown from December 20 to December 25, the other significant one stems from a misunderstanding. Isa is good friends with Ben, son of the owners of the neighborhood bakery. They have gotten along well all their lives, and Ben, who is a year older, is thinking of asking Isa to the eighth grade formal at their school.

When Isa’s twin Jessie goes to the bakery on a family errand, Ben tells Jessie that he is thinking of asking Isa to the dance. Jessie is not interested in that kind of thing and assumes that her twin feels the same way. After all, they are twins and often do think alike. Jessie tells Ben that Isa would never go.

When Jessie sees how her answer upsets Ben and Isa begins to wonder why Ben is avoiding her, Jessie realizes she has made a mistake. Yes, there is psychological conflict with Jessie, but she also sees that it has caused a conflict between Isa and Ben. But if she tells Isa what she did, then the conflict would be between Jessie and her twin best friend.

There is a lot going on in this family in a mere five days. Every Vanderbeeker child has a plan to try to get Mr. Beiderman to change his mind. None of them seems to be working. When Isa plays a virtuoso violin piece, for example, he angrily tells her to go away. Even little Laney does not understand—everyone else seems to like it when she hugs them. Some of their plans end up taking on a life of their own, far beyond what they imagined.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is tender and fun. Yes, it may be the kind of Christmas story that finds its way onto the Hallmark Channel. But, hey, isn’t that why we like Christmas stories in the first place? They bring a sense of hope as the Messiah did on the first Christmas and a sense that there is till some good will among men.

The House of Unexpected Sisters – Review

Alexander McCall Smith. The House of Unexpected Sisters. New York: Pantheon, 2017. Print. No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories make readers happy—that is well known. The latest of Smith’s low-key Botswanan mysteries is no exception.

Some things never change. Mma Makutsi is still looking for status. While Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to call her co-director of the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency, since Grace Makutsi is overseeing one aspect of a new investigation, she names herself the Chief Investigating Officer.

The main plot centers around Charity who was unfairly dismissed from her job at an office furniture store and warehouse. In the course of looking into Charity’s story, Precious Ramotswe discovers a newspaper account of a Mingie Ramotswe, a nurse who looks enough like Precious to be her sister. Another mystery.

We discover that the owner of the business from which Charity was fired is planning to go into the home furniture business as well and has a plan to eliminate the competition within a year. The main competition is Phuti Ranaphuti’s Double Comfort Furniture Store. Rra Ranaphuti is, of course, Gace Makutsi’s husband.

Charity’s story may not hold water but Grace supports her because she is also a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College and was also treated poorly by (readers can guess…drum roll)—Violet Sephoto. Mma Sephoto lurks in the background of many of these stories as a kind of Moriarty or McCavity.

What is the story? Does Precious Ramotswe have a relative she had never known about? Is Violet Sephoto really trying to make the lives of more people miserable?

Grab a cup of red bush tea and smile.

Tyndale – Review

David Teems. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God and English Voice. Nashville TN: Nelson, 2012. E-book.

One of the best Young Adult books ever written is Scott O’Dell’s The Hawk that Dare Not Hunt by Day. It is a novel about a boy whose father helps smuggle Tyndale Bibles to England in the 1530s. Tyndale is a mystery figure whom the boy and his father may or may not have seen when on the Continent.

Of course, O’Dell wrote fiction. But it is not easy to write much nonfiction about the life of William Tyndale. There is really nothing concrete until his university days at Oxford where he received his M.A. in 1515. A few secondary sources including Foxe’s Acts and Monuments say that Tyndale was from the country in southwestern England between Gloucester and Bristol. From the time he left England in 1524 or thereabouts until his arrest in 1535, about all we know is that he translated the Bible into English and wrote a few other tracts.

This is Teems’ challenge. We really know very little about the man other than from what writings he left behind. Teems does very well with what he has. He makes few direct claims. Instead, he focuses on Tyndale’s impact.

Some years ago when I was putting together history of the Bible in English lessons for a British Literature class I used to teach, I found a reference to a study that said that the Authorized Version (or King James Version) which became the standard Bible in English for 350+ years was based more on the Tyndale Bible than any other translations. Technically, it was supposed to follow the Bishops’ Bible (1580) but Tyndale came in first.

Teems tells us why. Tyndale wrote in what was typical English idiom. He also coined a number of words, but words with common roots so that an ordinary English speaker could understand. Teems tells us many of the words, two stand out: atonement (simply at-one-ment) and Jehovah. Much of Tyndale’s style was not only clear but sounded good. That is the reason that so many of his phrasings would be used in later versions.

Perhaps even more interesting, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice makes a case that without Tyndale’s Bible setting a standard for English writing—at a time when modern English was a “new tongue” and there was precious little published in the language—there would have been no Shakespeare, no Elizabethan Renaissance, no English Literature as we know it.

Teems also tells us a lot about the one-way rivalry between Thomas More and Tyndale. We do know a lot more about More’s life and letters, so he can document this. Even though More had signed Tyndale’s death warrant, More was actually executed before Tyndale was. Teems is quite fair in his treatment of More. Few inquisitors get such understanding in historical records. He notes, for example, that today the Church of England has days set aside for both Tyndale and More.

We know that the first complete Bible in modern English was the Coverdale Bible which came out in 1535 and was actually made legal in 1537. Miles Coverdale was a disciple of Tyndale, and his book is, in effect, the complete Tyndale Bible. After this, and especially after Elizabeth I took the throne, the English became a “people of the book.” Not only were English-speaking people no matter where they settled primarily Protestant, but they were educated in their Bible, and all the arts alluded to it time and time again, even by those who did not believe in its inspiration.

We know little of Tyndale the man, but we know about his work. Teems would have us believe that is just the way Rev. Tyndale would have wanted it.

Great Cloud of Witnesses Speak: Old and New – Review

Matthew Robert Payne. Great Cloud of Witnesses Speak: Old and New. Litchfield IL: Revival Waves of Glory, 2017. E-book.

Great Cloud of Witnesses Speak: Old and New is different from any book I have read for one simple reason. The author says this is a record of conversations that he has had with departed Christians who have returned to earth from heaven to speak with him.

I used to work in a Christian bookstore. I have read testimonies of conversations with angels, of visits to heaven and hell, but never something with this narrative frame. In this volume, Payne interviews Bob Jones (the Kansas City prophet, not the university founder), John Paul Jackson, Madame Guyon, and the two biblical Josephs (of Egypt and of Nazareth).

The conversations are actually pretty straightforward and do not strike the reader as being unorthodox in any way. The Word is our test. Jones and Jackson both frequently quote the Bible. A passage they both emphasize is I John 2:15-17 (“Love not the world…the world is passing away…”) which certainly sounds like something someone in heaven would point to. Both men encourage the reader to seek the eternal and focus on Jesus.

Jackson (a speaker I once heard at a conference in Massachusetts) noted three things that are important in a walk with God: humility, childlike faith, and teachability. That certainly sounds like something a preacher might preach. Do I hear an Amen?

Joseph son of Jacob speaks quite a bit about prophecy and how his personal prophecies and his awareness of God’s love maintained him and gave him favor even in captivity. No doubt such things may have encouraged David as well.

The other Joseph still seems amazed and blessed that was allowed to raise Jesus. He says, “God told him [Jesus] once that he was to respect and honor me because I was chosen to be his father.” He also mentions in passing that he was in “paradise,” then taken to heaven. That reflects a certain biblical interpretation that says the blessed dead went to a pleasant waiting place called paradise until Jesus opened heaven after his death.

The conversation with Madame Guyon, the 18th century French mystic, was mostly about Mr. Payne and his calling. Having never heard of the Australian author until I received this book, I cannot say much other than she also sounded orthodox. It may surprise some readers what one of the figures says about President Trump.

Can this happen? Payne notes that Moses and Elijah appeared to the disciples during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2-3) and that saints who had died appeared in Jerusalem to many people when Jesus rose (Matthew 27:51-53). There is nothing to indicate that Payne was calling upon the dead as Saul did to his own destruction (I Chronicles 10:13-14). Let the reader decide. Certainly I John 2 is well worth meditating on. The Lord is eternal.

Disclosure of Material: We received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the BookCrash.com book review program, which requires an honest, though not necessarily positive, review.

Empires of the Word – Review

Nicholas Ostler. Empires of the Word. New York: Harper, 2010. E-book.

Empires of the Word is a social and political history of languages. By political, I do not mean the political use and misuse of language as we read in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” I mean the socially and politically most significant languages in the world.

Arguably the longest-lasting language may be Aramaic. It began in the Near East and became the language of Syria and Babylon and a kind of lingua franca throughout southwest Asia and to some degree, even Egypt. It is still used as the liturgical language and home language in some Chaldean churches. Ostler believes the only reason that it faded was that it was similar enough to other languages like Hebrew and Arabic that when the Moslem conquest took place in the Middle Ages, it was not a strain to switch from Aramaic to Arabic.

Another Semitic language ranged over the Mediterranean, namely Phoenician. However, people never picked it up except perhaps for trade. Other language groups, notably the Greeks adapted Phoenician alphabetic writing for their own language as did Aramaic, apparently. (Ostler suggests Hebrew also, but the Phoenicians may have picked up their alphabet from ancient Israel. The oldest known alphabetic writing is from an Egyptian turquoise mine written by Hebrew slaves. That significantly predates any known Phoenician writing, though that fact alone is not proof, it is highly suggestive,)

Empires of the Word
notes that the two longest-lasting widely spoken languages both have written pictographic languages rather than alphabetic ones. Both began along rich river valleys somewhat protected by outsiders. When outsiders were successful in either immigrating or conquering, they inevitably took up the local language. These two languages are Egyptian and Chinese. Although the Moslem conquest eventually put an end to Egyptian, the language is still used in the Coptic churches. (If you know anything about the Roman alphabet, you may recognize that Egypt and Copt have the same root.) True, both languages changed over the centuries, but they still remained recognizable as Chinese and Egyptian.

Greek has had an influence well beyond the borders of its homeland. We have both Greek traders and settlers who sailed all over the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Then in the fourth century B.C. there was Alexander who Hellenized much of the known world. By the time of the New Testament, Greek was the lingua franca from India to Spain. It continued as the language of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Caesars until the fall of Byzantium. By then it had influenced Latin and most Slavic languages. Both the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets are variations of the Greek one.

Another empire of the word was the Roman Empire. Languages from Romania to Portugal are variations of Latin today. Ostler tells why the Latin-rooted languages became the standard even in most places where the Germanic tribes later conquered. Indeed, about the only place that Germanic tribes conquered where their language was maintained was the British Isles. The conquest of the Celtic tribes there was sufficient to mean that in most places English became the main tongue.

Ostler, of course, looks at the influence of both Spanish and English in their respective overseas empires. He notes the interesting action-reaction among Spanish settlers and missionaries in relation to the native languages, many of which have disappeared, some of which have survived (most notably in Paraguay). However, just as it is most helpful to know English in the United States, it is usually a sign of upward mobility to know Spanish in most of Latin America and Portuguese in Brazil. Ostler details how these languages fared. He also takes some time discussing the influence of French

In many places English is the second language. Sometimes it is a kind of neutral language that does not have local tribal or regional associations. This is the case in India and some other former British colonies in Africa and Asia. While Dutch was widely spoken in ports throughout South Asia, it never became a national lingua franca mostly because the Dutch themselves helped created Indonesian as a kind of Malay lingua franca through the Dutch Indies.

Ostler notes that there are about six thousand languages spoke in the world today, and half of them have fewer than 5,000 speakers. Nearly a thousand have under a dozen speakers. (A piece of film trivia: The novel Dances with Wolves was set among the Comanches, but when the producers wanted to have a Plains Indian tribe speak their native language on film, they had to go with Sioux speakers since the few Comanche native speakers were all elderly.)

There are also detailed chapters on the status of Russian, before and after the Soviet Union.

Not only was Sanskrit the root language of many South Asian languages, but its alphabet was often adapted for other Asian languages the same way the Phoenician alphabet was adapted for Greek and Latin.

While English is widely spoken and is already a kind of lingua franca, Ostler is unsure if it will maintain its position. While many modern Muslims are learning Arabic, the classical Arabic of the Koran is very different from the numerous dialects of Arabic spoken today. We still have various Empires of the Word around the world.

This book has scope. It was a labor of love that must have taken years. The closest thing this reviewer has read was something by Morris Swadesh years ago. Swadesh was trying to see the interconnectedness of various languages. Ostler is showing the influences and scope of discrete languages. In its own way, Empires of the Word helps us see the big picture.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Review

Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968; New York: Del Rey, 2008. E-book.

I bit. With the new Blade Runner film coming out and Amazon offering this book at a bargain price for a few days, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a book I had always wanted to read. I had seen the original Blade Runner a few years ago and, like most people, got a kick out of the special effects. It had a potentially interesting theme in the background, too.

I liked the book better. Much better.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a gem. It has literary merit. While a few of the characters are similar to the Blade Runner film, the story is quite different. I honestly am not sure how the book’s Soviet-era plot would fare in left-coast Hollywood, but it is much more ingenious than the Blade Runner film plot.

Yes, Rick Deckard is a special policeman who acts as a bounty hunter. Scientists have developed androids that appear to be almost human, though a good bounty hunter with some specialized testing should be able to tell the difference. Apparently though, the sophisticated androids are trying to take over the earth and killing humans, so these specialized bounty hunters must “terminate” them first.

In the book, by the way, the androids are called andys for short. We have to thank Star Wars, I guess, for using the last syllable instead of the first for droids. The film used the term replicant. They are all the same thing.

Nuclear war has devastated the earth. People who were able have left earth to colonize other places in the Solar System. Many species of animals have been wiped out. Even people have been so affected by the nuclear radiation that many are born with low functioning intelligence—known colloquially as chickenheads. The other main character is John R. Isidore, a chickenhead who lives alone in an abandoned apartment complex.

Isidore is a driver for a pet store. Pets are status symbols because so few animals have survived. Many are extinct. Often people buy electric animals manufactured with standards similar to the latest andys so that it looks like they have a live animal. Perhaps this is what inspired Sony with its robot dogs.

Deckard and his wife Iran (yes, he is married, and he stays married) have an electric sheep which most of the neighbors think is real. Bounty hunters get a bonus of a thousand dollars for every andy they terminate, so he is hoping to get a few they are tracking so that he and his wife can afford a live horse.

Two other things we should note in the post-nuclear culture: Mercerism and Buster Friendly. Mercerism is Dick’s answer to Huxley’s soma. Instead of a drug to keep the masses stoned, Mercer (or someone using that name) has invented an electronic device that attaches electrodes to the skull to stimulate the brain emotionally. The relatively petty conflicts that Rick and Iran have are usually over which setting to set their Mercer machine to make them happier.

Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends is a 22-hour a day television show. It mostly consists of Buster telling bad jokes and interviewing a variety of different people. It seems to be popular with many. It really gives meaning to the life of J. R. Isidore, for example. He watches it when he can. Even when he is working, he is usually listening to the show on the radio.

The conflict begins almost immediately as the top bounty hunter in the San Francisco Police Department has been nearly killed by an andy that he mistook for a human. These latest models have been fooling even the experts. It looks like a group of the most sophisticated robots are planning to take over the governments of the world. (In Dick’s future the Soviet Union still exists.) But it is all very subtle. There is no superhero monomachy as in the film, just clever detective work and learning from mistakes.

I am reluctant to give too much away, but Deckard does find himself in an alliance with one of these sophisticated andys, a female figure called Rachel. It appears that the andys think the Soviet-style honey trap can work to bring down their opponents with the help of useful idiots (in this case literal idiots, namely chickenheads). The question then becomes whether or not Deckard can trust Rachel in his work and whether the andys can execute a Soviet-style takeover.

As was the case with The Man in the High Castle, Dick seems to try to either escape or perhaps mock the “pulp fiction” reputation that his works have. In our review of the other novel, we quote a character trying to define what science fiction is and, by implication, that The Man in the High Castle is not sci-fi. Similarly, at one point in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, an undercover Deckard calls himself Frank Merriwell—an athletic hero of early twentieth-century pulp fiction magazines.

Dick is known for presenting speculative fiction more than specifically science fiction: What if…

With The Man in the High Castle, Dick wondered what it would have been like if the Axis had won World War II. In this case, he asks what if androids were that sophisticated? Do they dream? Would they think they were superior to their maker the way that many people have?

And also like some of the Star Trek: Voyager episodes with the Borg, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? confronts us with a second existential question: What does it mean to be human?

It is a little like Genesis and Revelation together.

Splendor of Heart – Review

Robert D. Richardson. Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature. Boston: Godine, 2013. Print.

Splendor of Heart is a sentimental portrait of a famous teacher. Walter Jackson Bate won several prizes for books he wrote, but he was a teacher at heart. This book is a combination of character sketch by a former graduate student who worked closely with Bate for a number of years and an interview conducted in 1986.

An upperclassman said to me, “You’ve got to take Bate.” His course on 18th Century English Prose did not sound that exciting to this English major, but I could tell that the upperclassman meant it. I was glad I took it. When word got around campus that Bate was giving certain lectures such as The Death of Samuel Johnson, the lecture hall would be standing room only.

One lecture that stood out for me was Bate’s account of Joshua Reynolds’ farewell to the Royal Academy. Reynolds knew times were changing. Even though he would not be a part of it, and, indeed would probably not fit into the Romantic movement, he looked ahead with excitement and encouraged the younger artists to do what they had to do. That is the way to go out.

I am even more thankful that I took Bate’s other course open to undergraduates on the history of literary criticism. He put the postmodern fad into perspective, and kept this writer from being sucked into nonsensical discussions of literary criticism. The po-mos had already more or less taken over Duke and Yale, but it would still be a few years before they got a foothold on Harvard.

Ironically, Bate predicted it. His The Burden of the Past and the English Poet predicted a kind of romantic reaction to modernism. I am not sure anyone anticipated the extreme subjectivity of postmodernism, but he was pretty much correct in his prediction. I am not sure that it has done much for poetry, though some po-mo prose has great merit (think David Foster Wallace, Tim O’Brien, or even Jorge Luis Borges).

Anyway, Splendor of Heart shows Bate’s enthusiasm for great art from whatever period. He took annual boat trips to the Dry Salvages, the three small islands off the New Hampshire coast that gave their name to one of Eliot’s Four Quartets. He also enjoyed tooling around the woodland paths near his country home in New Hampshire in an old truck. From the sounds of it, it was probably fortunate that he did not do this on ATVs or motorcycles or I might not have had him as a teacher.

The interview gives a number of specific thoughts about teaching. I think I may have subconsciously imitated some of Bate’s habits when I teach, but I learned one thing that I wish I picked up back in college. Bate said that his lectures were stories (good so far), and that like an epic, he usually begins in medias res. I had not thought of that before, but I have already tried to alter some of my lectures that way.

In 1849 Nathaniel Hawthorne had a Serious Problem. He had been married in 1842 and now had a growing family. He had a comfortable job working for the Bureau of Customs in his hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. He had published a number of short stories; these had earned him some recognition, though not much money. A new president from a different party had been elected, so he was fired from his job. He actually sued to get his job back, but the lawsuit failed. What was he going to do?

Good lectures do tell a story. The root meaning of lecture, after all, is “reading.” What better reading than to tell a story?

This is a short book, just a little over a hundred pages with few words on a page. Anyone who had or who appreciates Bate would get a touch of nostalgia. Even those unfamiliar with him might get some inspiration on how to teach.

Lost Among the Birds – Review

Neil Hayward. Lost Among the Birds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. E-book.

I could not put this book down. Even though I knew the ending, I wanted to see what happened next. Let me explain a little.

Some people like to fish or hunt because when they were kids they went fishing with their fathers. A friend is a NASCAR fan, even though he is from New York, because his dad used to take him to car races when he was young. My father used to take me birding. I pored over bird books and always went looking for birds as a hobby. Neil Hayward’s experience of catching and breaking the Big Year record—which many people thought was unbreakable—is worth sharing and reading about.

The book The Big Year was reviewed on these pages. Hollywood very loosely adapted the book into a film. Even now when I talk to my wife about it, I have to say “the Jack Black character” or the “Owen Wilson character.” Hayward had made a lot of money at a company he helped found. He resigned and was at loose ends, so he began taking some long bird trips away from his Massachusetts home to see some rarities that had been reported.

Hayward was not thinking of a Big Year until at the end of February when he was with some friends talking about what he was doing. Frankly, he was not doing much other than chasing rare birds a couple of times a week. A friend said, “Maybe you should do a big year! I am sure you could beat Owen Wilson!”

Hayward’s initial reaction was “Do I look like a freakin’ idiot?” But he began thinking about it and decided to give it a try.

There was a reason why Hayward was not doing much. He was depressed. Indeed, he had struggled much of his life with depression. He was going to be turning forty in 2013 and not sure about the direction of his life. In his mind, in spite of his business success, everything he tried worked out poorly. He had lost a girlfriend of four years and had started going out with another woman, Gerri, and just assumed that the relationship with her would fail as well. The birds not only gave him something to do, but the Big Year quest gave him a focus with a goal and a time frame for it to happen.

Every now and then, the book begins to get a bit maudlin as Hayward reflects on his personal life, but then there is another bird trip. He is meeting new people, including many people who are well known in the world of birds. (Two whom I know by reputation—one I have met—are Debi Love Shearwater and Brian Patteson.) He notes how helpful other Big Year record holders were, even Sandy Komito, the 1998 record holder, now in his eighties and still out birding whenever he can.

(For what it is worth, Debi Shearwater was loosely played as Annie Auklet by Anjelica Huston in The Big Year movie.)

He is also seeing a lot of different birds. The Internet is more robust than it was in 1998, so he gets alerts about rare birds anywhere in the “legal” ABA Area. The American Birding Association is a group of hobbyists who have set the rules for different bird lists. The Big Year (capital letters) refers to a bird that has shown up in North America north of the USA-Mexico border or within 200 miles of the coast. In other words, Canada and the United States except for Hawaii.

There are around 660 birds that nest or otherwise make this part of the world their home for part of the year. Komito’s Big Year record was 748. Indeed anyone who has a North American Life List (i.e., birds seen in their lifetime) of 700 or more is in rarefied air. This means that to reach the magical Seven Hundred Club, one not only has to see all or nearly all the birds he or she expects to see, but needs to see at least forty or fifty “accidentals”—birds that do not normally come to North America but show up.

This does mean that hard core birders spend time along the Mexican border (Arizona and Texas are especially inviting) tracking down Mexican and Latin American birds that stray north. They also spend more time in Florida looking for strays from the Bahamas and Caribbean. A trip to Newfoundland for European birds that barely make it to North America is necessary. And Hayward was advised to spend as much time as he could in Alaska.

Western Alaska to be specific—that is where Asian birds often stray and even live, for parts of Alaska are not that far from Asia. Once when I was birding in a western state (alas I do not travel that much but once in a while I get away) I ran into a birder from Alaska. I asked her where I should go in Alaska if I wanted to go birding there. She said the Pribilofs, the islands in the Bering Sea near Siberia. That made sense. Nearly all the birds found in eastern or southern Alaska can be found in the lower forty-eight or Canada. But Nome, the Aleutians, and the Bering Sea islands are different because the birds there are different.

For the enthusiast, Hayward does include a list of all the birds he saw and where and when he first saw them. Timing is important as well. Some birds were gifts. He just happened to be in a place where a rare bird showed up. In many cases someone else he was with spotted it first. Others he had to track down into some difficult places including high peaks at the right time of year or mosquito-infested swamps. Some he missed. Some he had to try for several times before he found one.

Lost Among the Birds describes some of the birds in a way that show Hayward’s delight and fascination. His description of the Ivory Gull stands out.

There’s only one gull that’s entirely white, the Ivory Gull. The adult is so white it looks like a soft, albino pigeon. The simple lack of color (except for the yellow-blue bill, black legs, and liquid black eyes) makes it a surprising favorite for those birders who’ve seen one, and the most-wanted bird for those who haven’t.

This is most certainly true. The Ivory Gull is rare below the Arctic Circle, but I had the opportunity to see one that showed up on the Hudson River in New York state. I had snowed that day. Fresh snow was everywhere. But I can honestly say I have never seen such a radiant, pure white as in that gull. It made the snow look dull. There is nothing like it. I will remember it. I also will probably never see one again unless, like Neil Hayward, I visit Point Barrow, Alaska.

Hayward visited Alaska eight times. I lost track of the number of times he went to Arizona and Florida. One elusive duck from the Bahamas he never saw, though one appeared a few times that year in Florida.

Hayward does mention how the speciation of birds has been in a state of flux since the seventies. While it is virtually impossible that a new species of bird will be discovered in North America (occasionally a new one is found in the jungles of Asia or Latin America), ornithologists in recent years have frequently “split” what was a single species into two or more species because of differences in behavior and DNA analysis. Hayward mentions the Sage Sparrow was recently split into two species: the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell’s Sparrow. I found six “new” species that if they had been labeled in 1998 might have changed Komito’s Big Year record. One of the rules, though, is the birds have to have been recognized species in the year that they were seen. One could say it is like basketball records before and after the three-point shot was adopted.

Although it has been rarer in recent years, occasionally birds that were considered separate species are “lumped” into one species. For example, the Oregon Junco and the Slate-Colored Junco used to be treated as separate species. Now they are two of about four or five subspecies of the Dark-Eyed Junco. I noted that one species Hayward saw in 2013, the Thayer’s Gull, is now considered a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. That gull had a short life as a species. Until the eighties, it was considered a subspecies of the Herring Gull. My experience was that even if you saw one, no one believed you. It was doomed as its own species.

What is almost as exciting as the birding in Lost Among the Birds is the year-long recovery from depression. Besides deciding to do a Big Year, Hayward also decided to get some professional help. This, along with the birds and a very patient girlfriend, produces a change that hopefully will last a long time. His struggle may not be as intense as Stacey O’Brien’s fight with cancer recorded in her book about Wesley the Owl, but God’s creation really does have many things to show us if we are willing to explore.