Tag Archives: religion

The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.

Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.

Part 1: Journeys of Belief

Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.

The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.

Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.

I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.

Part 2: The Biology of Belief

This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.

Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen

This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.

Part 4: Belief in Things Seen

I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?

Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton

Evangeline Walton’s books about the Isle of the Mighty are a magical read.  She based her stories on the Mabinogi, a set of myths and legends written sometime in the twelfth century, and her language use fits with the timing of the original.  She has a gift for word usage that makes her stories seem otherworldly — as, indeed, several of them are.  I liked some better than others, but they are, in all, a good set of fantastical literature.

Prince of Annwn

Prince of Annwn is probably my favorite of the four books included in the tetralogy.  In it, Pwyll, a rather boastful prince in the land of Dyved, sets out early for a hunt.  He gets separated from his companions in a wood that seems to become thicker and thicker.  All of a sudden, there’s a clearing, and Pwyll encourages his hounds to take some of the kill another man’s dogs are feeding on.  They shy away from doing so, and here’s where Pwyll should have finally realized that maybe the clearing was more than just a normal clearing.  But no.  He forces his dogs to take some of the kill, and then death shows up.

Death, whose name is Arawn, calls Pwyll out on his bad behavior.  He then admits that he set up Pwyll to arrive in the clearing without his companions, for only Pwyll can defeat Havgan, the death of the east.  Pwyll and Arawn become as brothers, and Pwyll takes on the other’s likeness in order to hide and trick Havgan and his army.  On his way he faces great obstacles, which make this story.  Some of the things Pwyll experiences in the land of the dead seem like they could come out of Stephen King, and that’s great.  There’s lots of gore and suspense, which I was surprised to find in a book with a rather flowery language.  It’s just fantastic.

The Children of Llyr

The Children of Llyr, more than the other books, is a tale of warning about change from one culture to another.  This really does weave amongst all four books, but it seems most prominent in this one.  Llyr’s children number four sons: Bran, Manawyddan, Evnissyen, and Nissyen.  He also had one daughter, Branwen.  After Llyr’s death, Bran, well-known for his strength and wisdom, receives a request from the King of Ireland — the hand of his sister as his wife.

Bran’s people didn’t do the wife thing, and so this had to be mulled over.  Unfortunately, Bran forgot to ask his brother Evnissyen to the council.  Evnissyen spends the rest of the book trying to cause problems for everyone.  For Branwen, however, her main problem was caused by her brother’s decision to let her go to Ireland.  She was abandoned by her husband and mistreated as a slave; when she managed to get word back to her brother, it sparked war.

The main moral of this story is that marriage is dangerous.  It puts women in a subordinate position to men and leaves them to their whims.  I thought the story was interesting, but not as good as the first.

The Song of Rhiannon

Here, we meet up with Pryderi, the son of Pwyll.  His true paternity is actually hidden from him, for it was Manawyddan who fathered him with Rhiannon, who was considered a hard-won consort for Pwyll.  After the war in the second book, Manawyddan went with Pryderi to his home of Dyved and, with Pryderi and his wife Kigva, made a new life.

Unfortunately, some holy stones were taken out of the land of Dyved by a rival of Pryderi’s, which caused everyone save those four to disappear from the land.  They had to leave Dyved and work to earn their keep.  Also to their bad luck, they did finer work than the other craftsmen in town, and they were constantly being forced to leave a location.  Through all this, Pryderi and Rhiannon disappear, leaving Manawyddan to wander and set up house with Kigva.  Eventually, though, the story ends happily.  I liked The Song of Rhiannon for its fairy tale leanings.  I thought it very much in the style of Grimm’s fairy tales, and that pleased me.

The Island of the Mighty

This is truly the masterpiece of the four books.  It centers upon Gwydion, the nephew of Mâth, the wisest of all druids.  He causes some mischief when he steals pigs from Pryderi, eventually killing him for them.  Mâth punishes him for it, forcing him to live as various beasts for three years.  We then get to follow Gwydion in his struggles against his sister, Arianrrhod.  He tricks her into proclaiming her virginity — which she lacks, and Mâth punishes her by causing the premature birth of two children from the seed of the man she had lain with.

While the story follows Gwydion and his rearing of his resulting nephew, Llew, it is really Arianrrhod who drives the story.  She loathes the existence of her child and places serious obstacles in his way, which Gwydion gets around using guile.  I think the moral here is that she’s a miserable woman because she took on the morals of the new way, and then when she was found out became bitter.

Overall, I really enjoyed all the books, but probably the first one the best.  If you’re in the mood for some well-written, well-researched folklore, I highly recommend The Mabinogion Tetralogy.

Rating: 4/5.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing.  We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task.  I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day.  It’s just that good.

A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe.  People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed.  The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it.  The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion.  The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness.  And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.

The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things.  The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague.  But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her.  She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.

Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one.  Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better.  Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin.  Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction.  These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.

This lack of unity hurts them.  Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task.  They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.

On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins.  The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans.  No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics.  Except for the one on Grass.  The Arbai remains there are ripped apart.  Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.

Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places.  Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly.  It’s a marvelous story.  I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end.  It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great.  I like to be surprised when I read!

Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions.  So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.

Rating: 5/5.

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Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Having read The Curse of Chalion, the first in the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold, I expected that Paladin of Souls would be a continuation of the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, or, perhaps, of the new rulers of Chalion.  What it is, instead, is the story of Ista, the mother of Iselle, the current female ruler of Chalion-Ibra.  It is a surprising, and rewarding, turn of subjects, yet still provides the reader with the best of what The Curse of Chalion offered, as well:  a sturdy and compelling fantasy that asks the reader to think through its mysteries and confront real philosophical questions.

Ista, a woman who used to be under the grip of a familial curse released a couple of years ago, chafes under the constant watch of her ladies-in-waiting, her brother, her counselor … everyone in her home treats her with kid gloves and doesn’t allow her any leeway, despite her return to relatively normal behavior.  Determined to extract herself from this oppressive environment, she takes on a pilgrimage to the capital city to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and her grandchild.  Added to the façade is her claim to wish to perform pilgrimage on the way to pray for a son for Iselle while secretly pleading for absolution for a former heinous deed.

Of course, things don’t go as planned.  What fun would a fantasy novel be if everything were easy and simple?  Instead of having a Mother’s dedicat, Ista receives dy Cabon, a man dedicated to the Bastard instead.  Her party is small and is attacked by foreign forces — they are split up, with some ending up in Porifors.  There, Ista finds that she is thrust back into the world of the gods, re-granted second sight and entrusted by the tricky Bastard how to best help in a situation desperate in ways both physical and spiritual.

To me, Bujold’s writing is almost perfect.  Her understanding of people and their reactions, and the ways she chooses to depict them, are spot-on.  The dangerous parts are exciting, the mysteries contained within are challenging but approachable, and her exploration of fate and what it would mean to have something like a constrained free will is very interesting indeed.

Especially compelling to me was the fact that the heroine, Ista, is not a high-spirited young lady.  She’s middle-aged, used to being thought of as mad, and, quite frankly, is ruthlessly efficient in what she does.  She’s not your typical fantasy heroine, and I like that very much.  She has experience with the gods and doesn’t want to have more, necessarily, but is thrust into it anyway.  Seeing the advantage she has been granted, she uses it.  She’s a thinker, as well, which endears her to me.

But perhaps the best part about her journey is a comment Ista’s character makes toward the end of the book to a man she has restored and who doubts his ability to start afresh:  “‘I offer you an honorable new beginning.  I do not guarantee its ending.  Attempts fail, but not as certainly as tasks never attempted.'”  This resonates with me for a number of reasons.  I think it’s the most honest piece of advice I’ve seen in a book in a while.

Paladin of Souls is simply a beautiful book.  Ista is a character of character — she has struggles with herself as to what the right thing to do is, but once she’s figured it out, she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of performing her duty.  An awesome role model whose tale is masterfully told, and whose story is worth reading.

Rating: 5/5.

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Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion, the first book in the Hyperion Cantos series by Dan Simmons, is simply brilliant.  It has all the normal features of a science-fiction book, yet Simmons manages to give the reader more than that — he flexes his writing muscles and provides a book that melds literary traditions to create a work that is beyond a “mere” piece of genre fiction.

The book starts out with the beginning of pilgrimage to Hyperion, a planet at the edge of the system of worlds underneath the interplanetary governing body Hegemony’s reach.  No one seems particularly happy to be going; after all, the creature-god they are going to appease will most likely just kill them all.  This doesn’t make for the happiest of groups, but they manage to get along well enough without real violence.  In fact, it is suggested that they spend their evenings telling each other their stories.

This is part of Simmons’ particular cleverness — he has incorporated the basic structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  Each man or woman tells his or her story, and how they are connected to Hyperion and its bloody Shrike, an inhuman killer made of both flesh and metal.  The creature has a church dedicated to him, the locals fear and have a mythology that revolves around him, and these pilgrimages typically don’t go well for those who partake.  Thus it is comforting for our seven travelers to hear everyone’s stories and to attempt to connect them together.

Our first story, that of the priest, is a standard sci-fi horror story of a foreigner put into a culture he does not understand until it’s too late.  The second, that of the military man, was also horrific, but in a different way — it’s an almost-sad tale of a man allowing his loneliness to lead to the release of both lust and bloodlust — and to becoming, for a time, the tool of the Shrike.  The third story, that of the poet, is disturbing in its candor in disclosing the mind of a madman.  He needs the Shrike in a way that others in the group find abhorrent.

The fourth tale, about the Wandering Jew, is sad — it’s a family and medical drama that is both touching and desperate.  The fifth, that of the pilot who brought them in, is mysteriously absent.  This is because the man is mysteriously absent.  The sixth story is a detective story through-and-through, very well-crafted and very well-told.  The seventh and last one, that of the consul, exposes the most about why events have turned out the way they have.

I just love the structure of this book.  There’s the Chaucer element, but the material about their actual voyage is also fantastic.  There are power struggles, the interactions of the people fit the characters they expose through their stories, and the actual trip is interesting, instead of being a mere vehicle for the pilgrims’ stories.

I’m happy that there are more books to read in the series.  Simmons has proven to me how inventive and effective a writer he can be, and I can’t wait to read another of his works.

Rating: 5/5.

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