The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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book reviews

Review of “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In terms of interest, the plot is little better than decent. Also, the characters are fairly flat. Why five stars you may ask? Sheer force of ideas — in quantity and quality. Anathem exemplifies one of my favorite roles of science fiction as a genre: to play with the possible and to spur highly intelligent imagination.

This is a difficult book to review without spoilers, and I’m not going to even try. However, Though knowledge thereof is not necessary to understanding the book, I can recommend Anathem highly if you enjoy any of the following subjects: mathematics (particularly geometry and topology), quantum physics (particularly the many-worlds / world-branching hypotheses), Latin, the structure of religious orders, hierarchies of thought, philosophy, metaphysics, the sociology of religion, cycles in history, individual spirituality, and/or political intrigue.

I think it is destined to enter the canon of Great Science Fiction Novels That Any Self-Respecting Fan Should Have At Least Read.

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Review of “Green Grass, Running Water” by Thomas King

Green Grass, Running WaterGreen Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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Review of “The Big Sleep”, by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.”

Raymond Chandler is the fedora-topped man’s man answer to the trashy romance novel. Full of hard-biting dialogue, dark alleyways and fiery lithe blondes, concealed pistols, racketeers, and cheap cigarette smoke — The Big Sleep is detective pulp noir at its finest. Bonus points if you put on some swanky, slow-paced brass music in the background.

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. I was part of that nastiness now.

Set up on the beach or pour yourself a glass of cheap whiskey and indulge in night of suspense, with zero pretense of being anything close to high-brow literature. Guaranteed to be as ridiculously overdone as the metaphors filling every page.

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Review of “’78”, by Bill Reynolds

'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City‘78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City by Bill Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Reynolds dives into far more than a great baseball game in this account of the 1978 American League East playoff game between the Red Sox and the Damnyankees. Here baseball in Fenway Park is placed in the context of the racial, social, and economic divisions ravaging Boston at the time. Reynolds tells the tale of a city struggling to reconcile a view of itself as an enlightened center of civilization against the ugly hatred and violence that was daily tearing Boston apart during the bussing era of school integration. Underneath it all, we see more than racial questions — the story of a suburban elite sacrificing the futures of inner city children like checker pieces, playing the suspicions of the city’s poorest (Blacks and Irish) against each other for the sake of politics.

‘78 seems well-written but poorly edited. The juxtaposition of jumping between a play-by-play of the baseball game itself and the zoomed-out view of the contemporary context is not managed well, and the overall impression becomes one of disorganization. Similes and metaphors are sometimes repeated often enough to get tiresome. The chapters feel less like parts of a whole and more like individual columns pasted together.

Despite my criticisms, I did find it to be an enjoyable read. I was repeatedly brought into the historical foundations for many of the modern fractures I will have to confront myself as a future teacher in Boston’s urban neighborhood schools. I liked getting a look into the past of the Red Sox certainly; but I think more importantly I have taken away a more thoughtful view of the present state of the city.

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Review of “The Courage to Teach”

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life [With CDROM]The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life [With CDROM] by Parker J. Palmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More a philosophy of inner being than a manual for teaching, this is an absolutely wonderful read for anyone working in a field that involves the intersection of people and ideas (which in theory should be everybody). It does get a little esoteric and, well, new-agey. But despite this the overall message is positive, relevant, and engaging.

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Review of “Cannery Row” by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When life isn’t repetitive for the characters in Cannery Row, it is brutish, short, and/or filled with arbitrary misfortunes for which there is no one really to legitimately blame. You know, kind of like life. Most have no idea how to deal with it, so they mostly don’t. Yet they still manage to find happiness in companionship, simple living, and embracing who they are at heart. Cannery Row is an important parable that highlights how, though the System doesn’t give a damn about the common man nor does an indifferent universe give a damn about mankind, we all do still have each other. So we might as well cherish what we have and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

A quick read, and it gave me a great sense of the feeling of the real Cannery Row in Monterey, where I bought and read the book.

Oh yeah, and I guess it won the Nobel Prize for Literature or something.

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Review of “Why Evolution Is True”

Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clear, understandable, irrefutable. I have long believed in evolution by natural selection in the same sense that I believe nearly all scientific explanations. That is, I am inclined to trust scientists in their own field of expertise, even if I don’t fully understand the particulars, so long as the overall principle makes sense. Just as I wouldn’t expect a psychologist to tell me how I do or do not know how to design a propulsion system, I would certainly not presume to second-guess her evaluation of the pilot’s mental condition upon landing though I know little about the details of clinical flight psychology.

Now, finally, I understand the concrete evidence and solid reasoning that makes evolution by natural selection one of the most well-established and rigorously proven scientific theories we have. I am not a biologist, nor do I keep up with the field on a regular basis, yet Jerry Coyne was able to very clearly make his points without loss of either specificity or generality, and they were conveyed in a manner which satisfied my engineer-brain’s desire for rigor and logic.

I did think that Coyne’s defense of Darwinian evolution could have been accomplished quite successfully without the occasional barbs directed at creationists. Today’s culture wars being what they are, I can understand the reasoning for putting such offhand snipes in the book, but to me the argument stands on its own and needs no such undue provocation. To his credit, Coyne does make sure to point out at several points in the book that evolution explains the origin of species, including our own, not the origin of life. Further, he refutes the claim that acceptance of evolution by natural selection means a rejection of morality, God, spirituality, or human meaning. He is also frank about where the unsolved mysteries are, and what particular details and consequences of evolution remain subjects of open research.

All in all, a fantastic read and among the best works of scientific writing for the masses that I have come across. I recommend it for anyone looking to learn more about a scientific fact that has been unfortunately politicized and demonized by those who interpret their worldview to be threatened.

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