Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Panos Karnezis’s The Convent is a different sort of literary pseudo-mystery.  Usually, if there’s a baby in a convent, the focus is on figuring out who the mother is among the nuns.  Karnezis manages to create a story that pulls the focus off that end, making the eventual reveal more honest and enjoyable than a more direct hunt for the mother would be.

The first thing I have to say is that The Convent is beautifully written.  His description has a wonderful quality of being detailed without pushing through the reader’s ability to imagine the location on their own, which I love.  The characters’ behaviors are strongly depicted, their actions at once predictable and surprising.

Karnezis only has us follow a couple of characters throughout the book, which makes the eventual end of the story more interesting.  The Mother Superior, Sister María Inés, is the main character.  She is a complex women, with a sad past that colors her reaction to the sudden appearance of a baby on the doorstep of the convent.  The baby, enclosed in a ventilated suitcase, is seen by her as a sign from God.  Karnezis uses her to explore the lengths to which a person can go due to their beliefs, no matter how misguided.  He does this well, but I also felt that some of her behavior is stretched to the almost-unbelievable, especially her behavior after being attacked by a dog in the yard of the convent.

We occasionally get to see into the mind of Sister Ana, Sister María Inés’ main antagonist.  Her mental state is about as unsettled as the Mother Superior’s, but she seems to have no reason to be so suspicious and mistrustful of almost everyone.  A little more about her background would be wonderful.

The last character we get to know is Bishop Estrada, the man who oversees the convent.  Living far away, he visits occasionally and is a mostly-benevolent presence in the nuns’ lives.  He plays an instrumental role on what happens to the baby.  He is a voice of reason and moderation for the nuns, but is not without his own personal motives.

These characters shape our understanding of the world of the book.  This leads to a surprising climax and interesting denouement, which I rather enjoyed.  The early revelation of the Mother Superior’s secret makes one feel that the story is about her, especially since we follow her so closely.  And, in a way, it is about her and her reaction to the arrival of the child.  But it is the story that is hidden in the end that is truly interesting to me, mostly because it’s about people who struggle to maintain their faith when faced with temptation and how they deal with the consequences.

It’s this story that is infinitely more interesting to me than the increasingly unhinged behavior of Sister María Inés and Sister Ana.  The friction between them, and their actions, feel too extreme to me to make The Convent more than a good story written excellently.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Filed under 3.5/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman

Being a product of a public school education in the late nineties, I have a lamentable lack of knowledge of World War II in the Pacific.  My history classes usually stopped somewhere around the 1920s.  If they didn’t, and actually reached World War II, all we were exposed to was the European theater.  No one in my eighth grade history class knew the leader of Japan during the war, and few even knew that China was to any extent involved.  Thus, I was so happy to find a book that discusses the Pacific theater, and even happier that it’s also about women in the service.

Elizabeth M. Norman starts the book off with some flowery language that seemed, to me, a bit superfluous.  If a word outside the average person’s vocabulary is truly the only one that suits the situation, then, for all means, use it.  In my opinion, though, if a simpler, more easily-understood word will fit the situation well, then that’s the word to use.  There’s no reason to obfuscate the reader.  See?  I just did it there.  Why not use confuse, which gets the point of the sentence across more quickly?  While the book is by no means a fluff read, it’s not a doctoral thesis, either.

Luckily, the vocabulary lesson ends fairly quickly.  Norman shows us the life of the nurses in Manila before the war, a plush existence for people in the armed services.  The rude awakening the American and Philippine troops had once the Japanese began their attack on the islands is depicted rather astutely, reflecting the naive mindset most of the nurses had.

In fact, this is one of the most important points of the book.  The nurses may have been unprepared for the realities of war, but they quickly adapted to most, if not all, the situations they were thrust into.  They treated patients in extreme circumstances, both soldiers when they were still able to have American “hospitals”, and civilians when thrust into civilian internment camps.  Their story is almost incredible when one considers the amount of strength, both physical and mental, it must have taken to live through the conditions they faced, and Norman does a nice job of telling their stories without romanticizing the women.  Sure, they’re devoted and resilient, but they also can be cold, or prone to depression, or controlling, or just plain grumpy.

One other thing about the book bothers me; it’s a personal peeve, I guess.  Norman jumps from person to person within chapters, sections, and even pages.  Due to this, I don’t feel like I got a cohesive image of any one woman; their lives run together for me.  I had to take time to remember salient facts about a particular woman.  I think this could have been made easier for the reader by following particular women for good chunks of the book.  Other readers might like the more eclectic gathering of the women’s accounts, but I found it a little disorienting.

In the end, We Band of Angels provided me with more knowledge on the Pacific front of World War II, and it also gave me something just as valuable — insight as to what it was like to be pioneers in the realm of gender equality.  These women are admirable, and I enjoyed reading about their experiences.

Rating: 4/5.

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On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz’s book, On Aggression, wasn’t what I was expecting at all.  I thought it would be an in-depth look at human aggression, and how it affects humanity in general and small populations in particular.  Instead, what the book is about is Lorenz’s studies of the aggressive behavior of fish and bird species.  While these studies are interesting to read about, and may provide insight into some of the behavior of people, I found it ultimately unsatisfactory in meeting its goal of explaining human aggression.

Let me also say that, had I known about Lorenz’s history with the Nazi party during World War II, I would never have picked the book up.  I felt a little dirty while finishing it after I found out.  I wish I had known beforehand, so I could have avoided the entire thing.

I must say, though, that the sections Lorenz writes about animal behavior were very interesting.  I liked the discussions on how fish behave toward members of their own species depending on whether they have a mate, whether they’re defending a clutch of eggs, and how big they think their territory should be.

Especially interesting to me was the fact that some species depend on color markings to determine whether to attack another fish of their species.  Lorenz talks about coloring a drab female fish with crayons (I’m not sure this is true, or an artifact of imperfect translation) and then reintroducing her to her mate; he attacked her until he realized, most likely through chemical signals, that she was female.  Afterward, he would check invading males to ensure they weren’t female instead.  That’s interesting.

Also interesting was some of Lorenz’s examples of how geese behave toward members of their own families and those of other groups.  It was easy to see how, to a certain extent, those findings might help explain human aggressive behavior and triggers that are in place to protect those familiar to us from our own aggressive impulses.

I do, however, have some issues with Lorenz’s conclusions.  He bases human behavior on animal instincts.  Humans have the ability to reason.  Lorenz himself devotes the last chapter to uniquely human developments — art, humor, science, and medicine.  These are not extensions of some sort of inhibitory drive, in my opinion.  They are conscious, constantly developing attributes of a species that has the capability to make decisions based on more than just whether someone presents to us an aggressive or appeasing stance.

I also have an issue with how Lorenz considered the youth of his day — he complains several times throughout the book about how young adults of the time (which is 1966, in case you’re curious) are aimless, shiftless, and lazy in America.  Well, sure, maybe some of them were.  But others took the mood of the time and did good things, like helping push civil rights forward.  People can’t be painted with such a broad brush, no matter how annoying or frustrating one finds some members of the group.

My last big issue with Lorenz was actually a very small part of the book overall, but was something that bothered me greatly.  He talks in great detail about male homosexual relationships between male geese with considerable insight and compassion.  He then turns around and states that the behavior of the geese is “far less ‘animal’ than that of most human homosexuals, for they seldom if ever copulate or perform substitute actions”.  Ignoring the fact that I’m not sure what he’s referring to as a “substitute action”, my first thought about homosexual geese is that there’s proof of a genetic inclination for some of us to be attracted to individuals of the same sex.  It disgusts me that he could have such a compassionate understanding of geese while considering other humans to be no more than debauched men and women.

Overall, I found Lorenz’s description of animal behavior insightful and informative.  His attempts to connect that behavior to the ways humans act, however, I found lacking in the extreme.  He should have stuck to a simple exploration of aggression and aggression-inhibiting behavior and attributes.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Filed under 2.5/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

Consciousness: An Introduction by Susan Blackmore

Who hasn’t wondered about their awareness, their perception, and their experience of the world around them?  I think it’s a rare person who hasn’t thought about these things from time to time.  In Consciousness: An Introduction, Susan Blackmore presents the views, research, and conclusions the philosophical and scientific communities have developed.  This is a potentially complicated subject, and Blackmore writes with enough clarity to make understanding easy.

Blackmore starts off the book by discussing what, exactly, consciousness is.  She discusses the philosophical history of the idea of an inner self, like René Descartes’ idea that the soul made contact with the body through the pineal gland in the brain.  We are given thought experiments to make us think about what it would be like to have a different experience of the world, and then to be exposed to the world as we experience it.  I found this very interesting because it challenged my perception of what makes up elemental blocks of experience, like color, why we perceive it in that particular way, and whether that is the only valid way to experience it.

Further on, Blackmore discusses the “theater of the mind”, an aspect of consciousness that we all appear to have.  It seems that we can think about things, imagine them, and think about them within ourselves before we take action.  Some think this is an actual construction of the brain, and others think it’s an illusion created solely by physical brain processes.

I, personally, am partial to that second idea.  The simplest answer is usually the right one; why posit a completely separate construction of the brain if consciousness can be folded in as a side-effect of what the brain is already doing?  That makes sense to me.

Another part of the book that I found completely fascinating was the section on artificial intelligence (AI).  Blackmore talks about the research into the field and the controversy about whether machines can actually be considered to have consciousness — is this an attribute that only humans can have because of their unique build, or can machines, if behaving in a way that is indistinguishable from that of a human, also be considered conscious?  My conclusion was that, if it seems to act like it has an inner self, then it’s conscious.  It doesn’t matter what the physical makeup is.  The function is what defines consciousness; the brain does it in one way, and machines do it in another, but the result is the same.  This, I think, is awesome.

I also liked the section on the paranormal.  While remaining respectful (probably more so than I would be capable of), Blackmore explores and debunks most supernatural “evidence” for a soul or inner spirit.  She is, however, more open to things like Buddhism and meditation, which I do think are useful for people who need something to help them feel centered; I just happen to also think that need is determined by some process or chemical balance in the brain, and not by a spiritual component we all have.

The drawbacks to this book are few.  One is that the dichotomy between the “theater of the mind” people and those who think everything is solely a result of brain processes gets dropped in the last half of the book.  I would have liked to see that carried through the entire work.  The other thing, which isn’t Blackmore’s fault, is that it’s a textbook.  There are activities and comprehension questions, which weren’t of interest to me, a person just reading it for pleasure.

Overall, I think I learned a lot.  I now know that I think my sense of consciousness is a product of brain processes, and not of any sort of “ghost in the machine”.  A recommended book for college classes dealing with the topic, and those who are intensely interested in the topic.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Filed under 3.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction