Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, by Bill McKibben

Wandering HOme: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape, by Bill McKibben
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
ISBN: 1627790209
176 pages, paperback
Published: 1st April 2014
(Originally Publ: 2005)
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In this inspirational essay that blends nature appreciation, travel, and environmental activism, Bill McKibben structures his ruminations around a walking journey he undertook from his present-day home in Vermont as professor at Middlebury College to his former home across the lake in the New York Adirondacks.

Wandering is an apt word to describe the essay, for it is not primarily about details of the actual journey, nor is it particularly about the natural features of the two neighboring regions. While both of these topics are given voice, the walking trek and its environment are really just a narrative backdrop to symbolically contain McKibben’s wandering thoughts and anecdotes. These anecdotes primarily take the form of recounted encounters with other people along McKibben’s route who embody a sort of spirit or cause that he meditates upon, as in the style of a sermon.

Personally I would have enjoyed this more if there had been greater structure to it, if there had been fuller details on the journey and the environment, or a deeper probing of the ecological, social, and political themes that the anecdotes touch upon. However, I acknowledge that isn’t what this work is meant to be, and the brief read that this essay provides is certainly inspirational. Thus, for those who do appreciate this kind of book and have a striking love of nature or environmental activism, you will enjoy it.

While I found Wandering Home to be too cursory overall, I certainly did also find moments of intense beauty and inspiration within it. McKibben’s writing is impassioned and poetic. The passages where he is detailing the environmental qualities of each region are evocative and rich. The meditative quality of the text and its wandering nature probably make this the type of book that isn’t best read in one sitting as I did, or even in the same span of general time. This is more like a resource that could be dipped into during precious reflective times, or a during a moment’s anticipation of going on a similar hike or journey.

If nothing else, Wandering Home serves as a fine, gentle reminder that other types of existence – closer to nature – are possible than the one we may be accustomed with, and perhaps we could each find ways to seek and embrace some aspect of these alternatives.

Three Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program, in exchange for an honest review.

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization, by Jacques Ellul

On Being Rich and Poor: Christianity in a Time of Economic Globalization,
by Jaques Ellul
Translated by Willem H. Vanderburg
Publisher: U. of Toronto Press
ISBN: 1442626267
273 pages, paperback
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

This fascinating volume was not what I initially expected based on the provided summary and the title. It is not a well-developed treatise on the theme of Christianity in an age of economic globalization. At all. Rather than a cohesive whole, it is rather a transcription of separate studies on the books of Amos and James, commentaries with follow-up remarks to questions from Ellul’s audience. Though the theme of rich/poor comes up as one aspect in each study, that particular issue is not necessarily predominant. Additionally, in those sections that do address this theme, Ellul repeatedly points out that richness/poorness should not be understood merely in economic terms. Hence my disappointment with this volume solely consists of how it is being sold. If you are looking for a structured and complete exploration on the subtitle topic, I wouldn’t recommend this.

However, ignoring this subtitle and the emphasis of the blurb, this book is well worth reading, for Ellul’s writing is clear and well-reasoned, and his insights into both Amos and James are substantial, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Rather than an overall focus on economic disparities, what rather unites these texts more strongly and thoroughly is the simple message that God loves, and then consideration of what follows from this in God’s means of connecting with humanity and the rest of Creation.

In this way I found “On Being Rich and Poor” to be in some fashion an Apologetic, something that like Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” sets out to answer some of the common critiques of Christianity by defining what exactly the faith is. Here, Ellul delves into the texts of Amos and of James to clarify his interpretation of the texts and the unity of their messages across the span of the Old to New Testaments and its relation to both Christians and Jews. In contrast to defining Christianity, Ellul instead spends a lot of the text detailing what he thinks these books tell us about what/who God is, and how this is sometimes quite different from popular understandings. In another sense these two commentaries strive to point out the various ways Scripture has been abused through literal readings and ignorance of both historical context and nuances of the original languages.

Although not as ‘sold’, this is a tremendously good and approachable read, and would be ideal as the basis for group or individual Bible studies on Amos and/or on James. In addition, anyone with an interest in theology and interpretations of the Bible could gain valuable insight from Ellul’s thoughts, and it serves as a potentially useful tool for clarifying common misperceptions on the nature and ‘personality’ of God as portrayed by the Biblical authors.

Four Stars out of Five

Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educators, by Stuart Grauer

Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educatiors,
by Stuart Grauer
Publisher: SelectBooks
ISBN: 1590799704
240 pages, paperback
Published February 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

It’s been a little over a week since I finished this book, and am now finally getting to post a review amid the busy flow of teaching this semester. Upon finishing it, and since, I vacillated between what ‘star’ rating I should give this collection of essays. In terms of expectations it was a bit of a disappointment to me, but in terms of judging it solely on what its own being it warrants higher consideration; so I went for the latter.

I expected this to be a collection of essays about “Real Teachers”, stories of different in-class experiences, perhaps even from multiple points of view. In a very broad interpretation it could be considered to be so. But really it is more of a series of reflections, a memoir of sorts, of Grauer’s personal experiences and view. Because Grauer breathes education and allows the subject to intersect all aspects of his existence and interactions, the ‘educational lessons’ and ‘teachers’ he accounts in each essay come from all aspects of experience and position, whether a professor, a Native American high school teacher, a child relative, or the impoverished citizens of rural Mexico. Each chapter memoir focuses on key themes or ideas related to education, both theoretical and practical. They are each personal reflections by Grauer on what he learned from each experience regarding how education can, and perhaps should, proceed.

Within this framework, Grauer accomplishes, above all, inspiration and food for further thought. Nicely, he includes victories, failures, and those educational experiences that fall somewhere in between. Similarly, some chapters are long and assertive in their conclusions, while others are brief and more meditative. While the reader might not agree with all of Grauer’s conclusions and statements, I don’t see that as the point of this book. It is not written to convince: as a memoir, not an ‘academic’ work, it lacks extensive citations to backup all assertions. Instead the point seems to be for Grauer to get the educator thinking more deeply and more holistically about the art of their vocation. And perhaps to recapture some of that passion and joy.

The holistic aspects of education permeate the entire book, echoing the commitment of Grauer to his calling and underscoring the intense personal and deep connections involved in the education process between educator and student and the surrounding physical world and human culture. Being written by Grauer and prominently featuring his own private school, I feared the book would come across as self-serving and boastful. For the most part I didn’t find this to be the case. Most consistently, I found Grauer to be frankly honest and focused on a goal of increased personal learning. While Grauer comes across as particularly ‘liberal’ in the classic sense, the book is not remotely political, and Grauer likewise holds positions and ideas that are profoundly ‘conservative’ as well, all depending on what he has concluded engenders the greatest opportunity for real teaching.

At the end, I don’t actually know if there is a strict definition of what a “real teacher” is to Grauer, much as it is hard for a biologist like myself to come up with a simple one sentence definition of “life”. It would be interesting to read a book by Grauer that focuses more on solutions and firm facts regarding education, rather than relatively vague reflective meditations. But perhaps Grauer’s point is that there are no standardized solutions or universal firm facts of the teaching process, but a complex, adaptive relationship between people who require openness to getting things wrong and learning from one another through missteps.

Four Stars out of Five

Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, by Randy Olson

19419200Don’t Be Such a Scientist:
Talking Substance in an Age of Style
, by Randy Olson
Publisher: Island Press
AISN: B0057QCSL6
216 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2009
Source: NetGalley

The original Star Trek and its reboot delighted in the contrast between the stoic, logical Spock and passionate, instinct-driven Kirk or McCoy. Not long before that, over fifty years ago, C.P. Snow gave his famous lecture on “The Two Cultures” and the divisions between Science and the Arts, providing voice to sentiments that existed long before then. So, the topics of Olson’s book aren’t exactly new. But they are still necessary. Graduate schools continue training scientists to ideally immerse themselves completely into a scientific framework, devoting themselves to their research in the lab and thoughts about their research out of their lab. Little to no emphasis is put on education or communication. Sure, one learns communication of results to fellow scientists, but not to the general public, a completely different beast.

Olson’s book seeks to point out this issue and encourage scientists to pay greater attention to communicating to the world at large. In a series of four parts he waxes on how scientists should not act (too cerebral, too literal-minded, bad storytellers, and too unlikeable), and then closes with a fifth chapter encouraging scientists to take an active role in culture, not unlike Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. The short book is a quick read, and probably could even stand to be shorter for the amount of ideas it conveys. Olson writes very informally, injecting humor throughout. At times that humor works, but at many points it seemed awkwardly forced or inappropriately off-color.

Olson’s major points are that the world is increasingly style-ridden. People aren’t convinced by facts, but by the show. Style has become the new substance. While trying to reverse this and encourage rational, logical thought is important, people are never all going to become ideal scientists, we aren’t Vulcan. Nor should we be. The skills needed for ideal science are not the skills needed for human relationships or communication with the general public. Olson does a very good job convincing the reader of this, but doesn’t offer much in the way forward other than a general directive that scientists need to realize this and adapt or implement public-engaging considerations, as they are most naturally fit.

I find it interesting that what Science communication comes down to is Evangelism, the similarities to religious communication are numerous. Both cases are attempts to translate an understanding of truth to the general public, a public that may be unfamiliar with these understood truths and ignorant about how these are arrived at. Some may argue that science is ‘rational’ and thus ‘truth’, while religion is the reverse, but that is unimportant here. In both case those wanting to convey the information believe they have some sort of truth and want to spread that truth to an audience that at some level may be hostile and skeptical. When scientists act too cerebral, literal-minded, superior, and spout off facts with no story, this is basically the exact same thing as a piss-poor Evangelist who acts too emotional and illogically, reading their Bible as literally and senselessly as possible, an air of moral superiority, and spouting off Bible verses and condemnations.

In that sense, Olson’s arguments in a larger context are more universally applicable on how humans should act to try and communicate anything they have strong opinions about to the general public. Olson bases his recommendations for the infusion of style into the substance of science with stories from his experiences in Hollywood. At times these asides or examples are useful and appropriate, but often they also appear to primarily (or at least equally) be present to promote his own productions and career. Doubtless, these are examples he is most familiar with, and given his scientist/Hollywood background his examples also involve science. Still, it felt self-serving at points and extraneous.

I think more and more younger scientists are aware of the problems in the system of training scientists to be better communicators. But with employment and advancement having NO ties to these factors at all, it is hard to change. One most go above and beyond normal efforts, with no compensation in sight, to teach oneself to be a better communicator of science. And, as Olson points out, risk disdain or jealousy for having done so. Without a change in professional recognition and the demise of scientists who seem to think we should all be like Vulcans devoted in our entire being to science, I can’t see what will change. Olson doesn’t touch on this professional issue much at all other than acknowledging it vaguely exists. Thus, this book may be a good reminder to scientists who already realize the problem, or may further open one’s eyes to the issue, but I’m not sure what audience will be reached beyond that or what change it can affect beyond a preaching to the choir.

Three Stars out of Five

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman

Make Good Art, by Neil Gaiman16240792
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0062266764
80 pages, hardcover
Published May 2013
Source: Goodread’s First-Reads

I had not heard this commencement speech, though it is available to view online. I was just interested in anything Gaiman-related. The book arrived  in the mail and I opened it to look over only, yet found myself sucked in, reading it through rapidly. The content of Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech is a healthy mix of personal stories/insight with familiar advice (à la ‘do what you enjoy’), and is buffered throughout with Gaiman’s typical brilliant humor.

The text of the speech is laid out by graphic designer Chip Kidd. At times the layout breaks up the flow of Gaiman’s thoughts in an odd fashion, or arranges the words in a way that takes a moment or two to decipher, much as in a poem. This translates Gaiman’s speech into Kidd’s interpretation of Gaiman’s speech, which then is further interpreted by how the reader processes the text. On the whole I found this a positive trait, contrary to some other reviews I’ve seen. Kidd’s design produces an interesting and engaging complement to listening to the speech, and allows new discoveries to be made in the message as one goes through it in this new form, even after multiple times. (Which is an important consideration if buying this slim volume) Adding to its value, the book is physically quite sturdy and well-constructed.

I assume this is intended to be a nice ‘gift book’ for people to give to recent graduates. One wonders whether if after a reading or two the book might just sit and gather dust on a shelf. For many it may, but personally I think it is a message one would do well to revisit again through the years. These words are not just for the graduate, but long-before and long-after such an event as well. As someone who isn’t an artist, but rather a scientist, I found it noteworthy that the message is just as appropriate for people in other fields and passions.

Four Stars out of Five