Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Why the Church is as True as the Gospel by Eugene England

This didn't do much for me. Sorry.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr

Luca Turin, apparently, proved that the prevailing theory for how smell works was wrong. But academic researchers who were not interested in seeing their life's work consigned to the dustbin were not impressed. Professional researchers (i.e., perfume company hacks) were not interested in getting laid off.

So no one believed him. And that's why Chandler Burr calls this a scientific morality tale about the failure of a new idea to take hold because of political and financial pressures.

Not being a scientist, I'm not sure what to believe. But when Burr claims that every major olfaction scientist that he interviewed told him that Turin's work was bunk but, no, they hadn't actually read his paper and they weren't going to because they were too busy, well, it doesn't sound for the anti-Turin camp.

An odd and fascinating book-highly recommended.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hearts Petals ed. by Mary Jane Woodger

I enjoyed reading the letters that President McKay sent to his wife. However, I thought many poor decisions were made in the presentation of the letters: everything from using endnotes instead of footnote to an almost-imposssible-to-read font to not providing necessary background information. Still, these letters are worth reading.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Home-Alone America by Mary Eberstadt

I was prepared to like this book; why shouldn't I like something that justifies my lifestyle choices? But while I agree wholeheartedly with Eberstadt's thesis (specifically, that children who have absent fathers or mothers who work long hours are at a higher risk for all sorts of dangers), her book is terrible, terrible, terrible! I'm tempted to go line by line for the sheer joy of the smackdown; such horribly-argued rhetoric deserves to be dismantled. However, it would take a long time and this book just isn't worth it. I'll let one example speak for literally every single page of this book.

Eberstadt begins with a lengthy explanation of why children in day care have more illnesses than other children. (No one doubts this.) Then she mentions the argument that these early illnesses may be justifiable because they result in the child having fewer illnesses down the room. She dismisses this in one sentence as poor justification. No real reason given.

But this deserves more. What is the data? Do 60 childhood colds prevent one teenage cold? Does one childhood cold prevent 60 teenage ones? What about complications? In any case, is it justifiable to injure little children to prevent harm later on? What effect do the childhood illnesses have on working mothers? These are important questions that Eberstadt doesn't answer.

I only continued reading for the same reason that people gape at trainwrecks: I couldn't really believe how bad it was. I'm sad that such an important argument was mangled in Eberstadt's hands: her holely rhetoric has done the cause more harm than good.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Parenting Breakthrough by Merilee Boyack

You just gotta love any book that has a picture of a seven-year-old boy cleaning a toilet on the cover.

Merrilee Browne Boyack’s new book The Parenting Breakthrough: A Real-Life Plan to Teach Your Kids to Work, Save Money, and Be Truly Independent focuses on teaching real-life skills, particularly those relating to personal finance. I probably don’t need to say that many LDS parents seem to be doing a poor job in this department. I’ve been in the home of an LDS teen who, despite not having a job, had fifty-one (yes, I counted) Clinique lipsticks on the bathroom counter. I’ve known returned missionaries who have been tempted to steal toilet paper rolls from the Institute building because of the financial pressure caused by credit card debt. So I’m pleased that Boyack, a mother of four almost-grown sons and an estate attorney with a degree in Finance, has put together a plan for teaching basic personal management skills to kids.

Her idea is simple but profound. In a nutshell, here it is: sit down with your spouse and write a list of all of the skills necessary for independent living. Then, assign each task to an age and be sure that your child learns that skill at that age. She provides a sample chart in the book, and while I’d quibble with some of her specifics (What’s the point of teaching a nine-year-old to pump gas? And don’t wait until sixteen to teach a child how to understand advertising!), the idea is sound and should prevent the proverbial scene of a mother teaching her son to iron the night before he leaves for the MTC. She write, “the real problem with doing everything ourselves is that we end up always doing everything ourselves. And our children don’t grow up; they just get bigger.”

Boyack’s emphasis on training children to be self-sufficient also provides an important theoretical underpinning to counter the tendency for LDS moms to want to do everything for their children as a mark of their devotion. That alone makes this a worthwhile read for anyone who is buffeted on one side by the current push toward hypermothering and the sad current in LDS culture to be the perfect Mormon mom, evidenced by having a countless multitude of startched, shiny, smily–and did I mention quiet–kids in the pew next to you. Boyack strongly argues that it is better to have self-sufficient, long-haired, and fiscally responsible kids than to present the perfect public image by having assembled the children yourself. Her story of allowing her three-year-old to make a PB & J on the floor while the other memberd of the Relief Society Presidency (whom she’d nicknamed Martha Stewart I and Martha Stewart II) watched in horror is a worthy tale indeed.

In addition to strongly making the point that parents should teach their children the basics of independent living, she provides practical hints for accomplishing this. I can’t wait until my sons are a little older. The first time one of them lusts over a big-ticket item, I’m going to suggest that he take out a loan from the First National Bank of Smith. We’ll follow Boyack’s suggestion and agree to a contract with a 20% interest rate and collateral. When my sweet boy falls behind in his payments, I’ll sell his collateral on ebay. I’d rather he learn that lesson on a 300$ stereo as a teen than a 30,000$ car when he’s trying to support a family. She has lots of creative suggestions for teaching personal financial responsibility to teens.

I also appreciated her gender-neutral approach to teaching children: she emphasizes that both sons and daughters need to think about the impact that their career choices will have on their familes and that both need to learn to save. (I sometimes feel that this is only emphasized for the young men for their missions.) She earns high marks in my book for castigating a father who didn’t want to teach his daughter how to change the oil in her car. She also recommends that fathers teach some ‘girl things’ and mothers some ‘guy things.’

But when Boyack covers spirituality and discipline, the book loses its luster. While her information is good, there’s nothing that’s new if you’ve read a few of the more popular parenting books. Because the previous chapters do cover topics that are rarely discussed and have innovative suggestions, it makes these ones all the more disappointing by contrast. And I object to her ‘because I’m the Mom, that’s why’ approach; I’ve had quite a bit of success with children obeying freely when they understand the reason behind my request.

I have to admit that I found her chummy tone offputting at times. She introduces herself this way:

I’m also an attorney. I heard that–you just went, “euuwww.” I knew you would. But I run my law practice part-time from my home, and in the meantime I do lots of stuff just like you. I’m not a psychologist or anything like that.

I’m not entirely sure what tone I want a parenting book to take: I don’t want to hear the disembodied voice of unquestionable authority, but I don’t want to be chatting on the playground, either. Boyack veers a little too much to the latter, but it isn’t insufferable. Where her tone does get her into trouble, however, is where it allows cruel humor. Sometimes she’s spot-on (I won’t try to recount the story of the woman who dabbed at her tears in sacrament meeting with a feminine hygeine product; you’ll need to read that one for yourself for full effect, but I will tell you that I admire anyone who describes a large fight erupting during Family Home Evening as “the activity portion of our home evening"), but other times it borders on the blasphemous (I don’t think the Lord does anything to us for “sheer entertainment effect"). At its worst, it mocks:

Another preparation tactic is as follows: We see people doing horrendously menial work (like holding up a sign on the road for construction workers) and we say, “Gee, no one could make him go to college!”

For someone who is very, very convincing when she writes about the ability of parents to shape their children’s behaviors, she seems unaware of the message that this type of comment will send her children. (How much better it would be if she handed her kid the classifieds and said, “Pretend you have a GED and are looking for a job. What can you do and how much will you make? Now pretend you have an MS in Electrical Engineering. What jobs are available and how much will you make?")

Despite the flaws, the practical suggestions for teaching personal responsibility make this book a worthwhile read for LDS parents who want their children to move out of the basement someday.

Cross-posted from Times and Seasons

Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz

Horwitz cleverly merges the story of Captain Cook's three unbelievable voyages of discovery with the tale of his own recreation of the trip. Captain Cook did unfathomable things and Horwitz has fun comparing Cook's adventures with his own. This is the best kind of history and travelogue. Highly recommended.

The Book: A History of the Bible

I should warn potential readers: there’s a real danger that you will drool on the pages of Christopher de Hamel’s new book.

While some parts are a little ponderous, you won’t drool because you’ve fallen asleep. There’s enough good trivia (the scribes creating Hebrew Bibles circumvented the prohibition on illustrations by drawing pictures using miniscule text instead of lines) and excellent one-liners ("The Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God may be the most important unreadable book in the world.” and “Sparke takes immodest pleasure in adding that when the Royalist armies beseiged Worcester in 1642, Ash hid his illicit fortune down the privy and, in trying to dig out his money some weeks later, was overcome by the smell and died.") interspersed to keep you well awake. You’ll drool over the pictures.

Luscious, oversized photographs of every step of the Bible’s history–from pages of the Dead Sea Scrolls to richly illuminated medieval manuscripts, to rather optimistic translations of the Bible into Hindustani and Mohawk to (my personal favorite) a modern illuminated manuscript that’s still a work in progress. The gold used to highlight the lines in Jesus’ genealogy in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel appears to transcend the page it is on–and the page of this book. It took my breath away.

Perhaps what I most appreciated about this book was its effort to trace the history of the Bible as a book, not (as is more commonly done) as a source of theology. De Hamel only takes the occasional foray into philosphical issues, and these are interesting.

There’s no reference to Mormons or Mormonism here, but there are some interesting ideas for the Saints to chew on:

(1) De Hamel’s comments on the reception of the Latin edition of the Bible translated by Jerome (known as the Vulgate) provide an interesting data point for comparison with the LDS Church’s use of the KJV:

It is a curious fact that at many stages in the Bible’s history, contemporary translations into current languages have often been regarded with unease. The words of the Old Latin translation, by contrast, must by Jerome’s time have sounded archaic, and therefore seemed to many people to be more fitting for a biblical text. It is interesting that the Vulgate never really gained acceptance until its language too began to seem archaic. In the period when its supporters defended it most fanatically, the late Middle Ages, it was obsolete.

(2) De Hamel notes that the initial reaction by many Bible-believing people to modern finds of ancient texts was one of some hesitancy: there was a real fear that the Dead Sea Scrolls would suggest that in the first century, the Old Testament was a very different book. But as de Hamel explains:

Anxious believers can be enormously reassured by the almost exact similarity between even the earliest of the biblical papyri from Egypt and the text as it has survived during its descent through countless scriptoria and printing shops of Europe. . . .No significant variations or deliberate falsifications have ever been found to shake public confidence in the Bible as a whole.

While not delegitimating Joseph Smith’s famous statement about “designing priests and corrupt scribes” or the Book of Mormon’s note that many “plain and precious” parts were removed, it does call the Saints to carefully consider what might have changed–and when.

(3) One cannot so much as flip through this book without being in awe of the efforts that were put into not only transmitting the Bible, but making it a work of beauty. I wonder if there is room for any such thing in the LDS Church. I only know of a few efforts to go beyond the standard-issue scriptures of the Church (see here and here) and both leave a lot to be desired. Should there be an illuminated Book of Mormon? Would it be of any worth to the Saints? How else might art and scripture merge?

You have to admire De Hamel, who spent a quarter century as head of the Western Manuscripts department at Sotheby’s in London, for taking on a project so huge that it is beyond the purview of any one scholar. While it is perhaps unfair, then, to expect him to have mastered all of the relevant literature on 3000 years of Bible transmission, I do note that on the one point where I feel competent to evaluate his work, he’s off the mark. Here’s de Hamel discussing a manuscript of the Gospels found in the early twentieth century:

The text of Saint Mark includes one verse not apparently recorded elsewhere. Between Mark 16:14 and 16:15, Christ adds a statement that the reign of the Devil is over and that fearful things are about to happen to those sinners whom Christ came to save, and for whom he has prepared spiritual and incorruptible glory in heaven. The style and context of the verse suggests the real possibility that this may indeed be an authentic lost sentence from the Gospel.

The problem here is that most scholars regard Mark 16:8 as the original ending of the Gospel, with Mark 16:9-20 as a later addition. This makes the contention that his newfound verse is original rather problematic. (Perhaps de Hamel meant that it was an original verse, once found elsewhere in the manuscript. But that isn’t the plain sense of his words.)

Aside from that slight slip and the ocassional dry passage, this is a wonderful book. I recommend the text for anyone who wants to know how we ended up with fifteen hundred pages in fake leather and I recommend the illustrations for everyone.

Cross-posted at Times and Seasons.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

An American Life by Ronald Reagan

I really wanted a biography, not an autobiography, of Reagan, but I couldn't find one. I did enjoy reading this. All of those phrases from my childhood--Iran-Contra, Grenada, Lebanan, Achille Lauro, sandinistas, arms-for-hostages, the Faukland Islands--now have some meaning. Of course, I realize that I only got Reagan's side. And while I did enjoy this, he doesn't get very many points for self-reflection; this autobio is much more 'journalistic' in tone. And a better editor would have cut the lengthy back-and-forth missives between him and Soviet leaders: they were boring. Slightly recommended.

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