The Very Spring and Root

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

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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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I don’t think anything has been more foundational to my knowledge, goals, awareness of the world, aspirations, achievements, personal character, and individual ideas about what life is and how to approach it, than the simple fact that I never stopped reading as a child.

I was blessed with a family that actively encouraged me to read, as well as extended family and friends who read to me, gave me books freely, and in other ways stoked the fires of imagination. I firmly believe that the best thing anyone and do for him or herself, no matter at what age or station in life, is to always have a book in progress.

The man who doesn’t read has no advantage over the man who can’t.
    Mark Twain

I also like:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.
    Ernest Hemingway

Books, books…

Ok so, today I was “just browsing” and… totally blew through all $100 in B&N gift cards I got from my perpetually generous Great Aunt and Uncle. But! It’s all for a good cause. Among my purchases today, the following three education-related titles:

Also got some Rachael Maddow (Drift) and Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World). Not gonna lie, kind of have a nerdcrush on Rachael, and Carl is always a good thought-provoker (though I don’t always agree with either). Can’t wait to get cracking on these, though perhaps I should pace myself… apparently the pre-reading for BTR is about to start rolling in…

…the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable, not just adequately but well and with grace.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow.

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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Review of “The Sparrow”

The SparrowThe Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and LOVED it. The style is very interesting… it starts from both ends of a 50 year ish story and works towards the middle (climax) with alternating perspectives. From the description of the book, one might be tempted to think that it is a “Christian” book… after a few pages in, this is what I was expecting. I continued only due to the strong recommendation from a fellow sci-fi geek whose tastes overlap with mine often.

The themes are surprisingly accessible, as long as one is even mildly spiritually inclined even in a vague way. It is really more about how our understanding of the human condition and faith in general could and would change upon contact with another sentient species. The construct of the Jesuit worldview is used as as convenient vehicle for this theme, and adds a very interesting perspective that I normally would not consider.

The science is on the hard end (near term accessible technology and propulsion for example). The culture of the new Jana’ata and the Runi species is laid out with decent rigor, though not with a whole lot of depth or backstory (not necessarily a bad thing, just noting it).

Thumbs way up, a very thought-provoking read and well-written too.

He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.

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