I spent a lot of time this month participating in Nonfiction November, so I thought instead of the usual monthly wrap-up I’d post some mini-reviews instead. These three books address issues related to science, religion, and the intersection of the two. I recommend all three.
The Story of More by Hope Jahren (audio by the author):
Jahren, who also wrote Lab Girl, explains that she was asked by her university to teach a course on climate change. As she researched climate change, she sought ways to make it both meaningful and manageable for college students. For me, this is a terrifying and overwhelming topic, so I appreciated Jahren’s approach, which is comprehensive but also abbreviated. It’s clear she could make a book out of any one chapter in her book, so if you’re looking for depth, this is probably not the right book. Also, Jahren raises a lot of issues but doesn’t really connect them, like overpopulation, GMO crops, and use of electronic devices. But if you’re looking for something that makes a huge topic understandable, I found this book helpful and have already recommended it to others.
The title reflects Jahren’s criticism of the United States, and our culture of always wanting more. We expend disproportionate amounts of energy, food, etc. and despite being warned for years, we have been unwilling to make any serious reductions in our consumption. Jahren’s outlook for the Earth is grim; we have only a small amount of time left to make really big changes, and of course we’ve been going in the opposite direction. We are making cars, appliances, and buildings more energy efficient, but we continue to consume drive more, use more devices, eat more than we need to and waste large amounts of food. The one thing I was heartened by in this book is that COVID-19 may have actually helped us make positive changes, in terms of traveling less and simplifying our lives. But will those changes have a lasting impact? Finally, I appreciated the last chapter in this book which had some helpful suggestions for where we can have the most impact (heating and cooling use the most energy, lights and small appliances not so much).
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (audio by Bahni Turpin):
This will be one of my favorite books of the year, easily. And I was impressed to see Gyasi, a very young writer, grow so much in her second novel (her first is the excellent Homegoing). The main character, Gifty, is conducting neurological research at Stanford University. She comes from Ghanaian parents, and one of the first things we learn about Gifty is that her family used to be four people, and then it was three, and now it’s only two. All she has left is her mother, and her mother is suffering a severe mental crisis and needs her care. I discussed this book in my recent Book Pairing post as a pairing with Beth Macy’s Dopesick, because much of this book focuses on a young woman coming to terms with the loss of her older brother to opioid addiction. As the title suggests, Gyasi focuses on Gifty’s faith, as Gifty struggles to believe in a higher power after enduring so many hardships, and she also struggles to align science and religion. I’m not a religious person, but I found this book so insightful about what it means to have faith, and to lose it. I love reading about main characters who struggle to connect to others emotionally, and I spent this book rooting for Gifty to build a meaningful life for herself. I particularly liked the way Gyasi rolls out the story gradually, and I found everything about this book really moving.
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper:
This was a fascinating memoir about extremism and indoctrination. Phelps-Roper grew up within the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas, a group of about 80 people, mostly members of the Phelps family. The WBC is known primarily for its hate speech towards gay people and its picketing of military funerals. Growing up in this community, absolute obedience was required, or its members would be ostracized from the only family they had ever known. Phelps-Roper describes in detail the WBC’s philosophy and strategies, because she was a leading member from childhood until about 24 years old.
There are things in this book that surprised me, like the fact that family members were all encouraged to go to college and law school. The author’s aunt and mother even defend the WBC before the Supreme Court. Instead of insulating its members from the rest of the world, the children all went to public schools and were encouraged to read and understand popular culture, so they could better argue against it.
At some point, she begins to see contradictions in the church’s teachings, particularly when a group of male church leaders start turning on the women. When she decides to leave the church, she has to leave everything. Her family will never speak to her again, and she has no idea who she’ll be in the “outside world” – a world that hates her. It’s an insightful book about one person’s personal struggle, as well as the inner workings of an extremist group. And while they may be a small group that doesn’t have a lot of influence today, it’s helpful to understand their philosophy as it applies to other extremist groups as well.
Here are the other books I read in November:
I hope you had a good November and a happy Thanksgiving if you celebrated it. On Saturday we spent a day in the shops of Alexandria, buying some early holiday gifts and supporting local small businesses (plus it was really nice out). In December I’ll be taking some time off from work, since I barely took any leave this year. I’ll use some of that time to post my best-of-the-year lists and wrap up my challenges.
I know the holidays will be difficult for a lot of people, especially if you lost someone this year. For myself, I’m appreciating the time to reflect and set goals for the coming year.
Wishing you and your families a happy and safe December.
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