Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Hitler (see my latest blog) is a perfect example. Can science explain Hitler's evil? Imagine we look into the child-brain of Hitler and see a complete lack of empathy and a 70% probably of antisocial personality disorder, depending on environmenal triggers. Could we prevent it from happing? That's one thing: science can help predict and prevent. But here's another thing: Does "lack of empathy" really explain what Hitler did? Does that encapsulate his evil? Can psychology explain him by describing the relationship he had with his father? And what about historical explanatoins of Hitler and the Holocaust? Doesn't that count? Not to mention religious accounts of evil, or philosophical ones like Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil"?
Simon Baron-Cohen says enough is enough. We need to understand evil in scientific terms in order to prevent it. Evil is "zero-degrees of empathy," which can be measured in the "empathy circuits" of the brain. Simple as that.
Well, not so simple. There is an emotional side to empathy ("I feel your pain") and a more intellectual, "cognitive" side ("I make it a rule to treat people nice"). Some people have one, some have both, some (Hitler, Ted Bundy) have neither. Emotional is more genetic, cognitive is more learnable. People with autism, for example, have trouble with emotional empathy but not with cognitive empathy. Furthermore, "zero-degrees of empathy" isn't always necessarily bad; people with Aspergers, for example, have a brain that makes them genuis's and musical prodigies (and they can live perfectly moral lives).
Wait a minute. Not so simple, still! There is an attitude of scientific arrogance here, a "step aside centuries of theologians, philosophers, social theorists, Goethe, Stephen King...you had you're fun, now let the men in white lab coats explain everything for you." Yes, science can explain empathy. Yes, it can help to prevent and promote it (doesn't religion do that too?). Science cannot explain the whole concept of empathy or evil anymore than it can explain the whole concept of life, or pain, or death, or joy, or love.
Is that your reaction?
Either way I loved the book and highly recommend it; very readable.
The Science of Evil
This book is not a biography of Hitler; it’s a biography of the biographers of Hitler, it’s a story about the Hitler scholars, an all-you-can-eat buffet of the full gamut of explanations for the murder of 6 to 17 million people (depending on how you count). And by “explanation” we usually mean “whose fault”? Who’s to blame? Germany? Hitler’s one testicle? Judaism? Christianity? God? The Jewish doctor who treated Hitler’s mother with cancer? Nobody? Everybody? The Nazi Party? Abstract Historical Forces? Hitler’s incestuous past, secret Jewish blood, failed artistic striving, political ideology, psychosis? Or do we simply blame Hitler himself?
Take a deep breath. I had to. There is a level of absurdity to all of this. Why do some of these explanations sound ridiculous, narrow and short sighted? We have to remember historians are people too; they can be inaccurate, biased, and nasty. That’s the beauty of this book. It’s gossipy. We see the arrogant scholar, we see scholars tag-teaming and ridiculing each other, personal attacks, fame, red-faced, passionate, proud. Perhaps the competitive atmosphere of academic publishing is really to blame, where everything begins with disagreement instead of compatibility. Chapter 1: everybody is wrong. Chapter 2: I’m right and here’s why. Or, perhaps the historian was right that said there is no explanation for the Holocaust and never will be.
- Where do we draw the line between explanation (“he was crazy”) and culpability (“he was responsible”)?
- Did the Holocaust answer the question: is human nature more bad than good? Can there be “no more poetry” after the Holocaust?
- Is the hatred of Hitler a potentiality in us?
- What does this say about belief in God? Do we find God absent and uncaring or do we find God in the acts of heroism (the other half of the story)?
- Is history driven by abstract historical/socio-political forces, or by individual people?
Complex phenomena have complex explanations, but what really matters is the lessons that history gives us. The old adage “history repeats itself” is the whole point of doing history, in my opinion. Once we learn the patterns of hatred, we can predict them and stop them. How do you get people to hate? You separate them, call them “others,” you use the word “war,” as if to make them “enemies.” You call them “germs” or “cockroaches” or subhuman. You censor. You get rid of the media. Hitler pillaged the Munich Post. You dehumanize them and de-individualize them. Hitler passed a law that made all boy Jews have one name and all girls have another. You use esoteric, secretive, ambiguous language that hides your hatred as something “intellectual.” People eat it up. Hitler did that. So did Heidegger and Nietzsche in a way. You retell history in a way that fits with your hate story against the Jews. Hitler and the Nazis actually staged a fake battle to accomplish this.
If you want to dive into the life of Hitler, try a different biography. If you want to dive into the sea of Hitler scholarship, I recommend this book.
Caution: This blog contains information that just may be too cute for your reading pleasure. If you are disturbed or irritated by anything cute, STOP IMMEDIATELY and avoid any potential future exposure.
Even though I don’t watch much television, one of my favorite shows is Too Cute! on the Animal Planet channel. This program showcases mostly puppies and kittens, (but also occasionally exotic pets), as they are born and develop for the first two to three months of life in various, usually for-profit husbandry households. Each show culminates in the members of the new generation being adopted by their “forever” families. Even though I have watched some episodes numerous times and know that they are slanted toward the “And they lived happily ever after” ending, I still can’t help myself. There’s something about the newborn, no mater what species (well maybe not snakes), that draws me in. Especially so if the producers contrive and manipulate the action to hyper boost the cloyingly sweet “cute quotient.”
But then, a little over one month ago I came upon a book that was “too cute” without the hype. I’m referring to A Little Book of Sloth, written and photographed by Lucy Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society. It documents the activities of the real-life sanctuary of Slothville, located in the wilds of Costa Rica, which is devoted to saving these sleepy-looking, engaging, and mellow creatures. The book features some of the “cutest” inhabitants of Slothville, from the orphan Buttercup to Mateo, Sunshine and Sammy, Ubu, as well as numerous other endearing two and three fingered sloths.
Thanks to a uniquely slow nervous system, sloths are known for their lethargic, unhurried movements. They epitomize a lazy, laid back, and ultra chilled lifestyle. But while sloths may look sluggish, they are also quite acrobatic and have the ability to turn their heads around up to 270 degrees, due to an extra neck vertebrae.
Although they appear to be huggable cuddle-bugs as depicted in this volume, sloths do not make good pets and definitely belong in the wild. In captivity, they require special care. For instance, at the Sanctuary, the sloths are given regular baths in a specifically formulated, green leaf tea solution to keep their skin in good physical condition. They also appreciate hibiscus flowers being part of their standard diet.
But don’t despair at your inability to have one of these creatures hang around your home. You can always visit slothsanctuary.com to help an orphaned sloth in need by making a donation, or go to slothville.com to join the Sloth Appreciation Society.
And don’t forget to check out this book. The pictures alone are adorable, precious and may very well lead to you having an absolutely slothful “too cute” day!
A Little Book of Sloth
Calling all Gatsby fans! If you love the romance, mystery and decadence of The Great Gatsby, then you will be delighted with Starstruck, by Rachel Shukert. This is old Hollywood with screen legends, child stars, intrigue, and enough glitz to bedazzle one and all.
Olympus Studio has an Olympic sized problem, their biggest star, Diana Chesterfield, has gone missing and no one seems to have any answers. While the studio scrambles to find the right spin to put on this mystery, trouble is also brewing for showbiz veteran Gabby Preston and all of the little magic pills that help aid her climb to the top.
In Starstruck, Rachel Shukert has nailed the language, music and essence of the 1930s while spinning a story of deceit, Hollywood magic and teenage dreams. This is a must read if you love old Hollywood. Enjoy!
A new book by Mary Roach is always a treat, and her latest volume is no exception. This weekend I Gulped it down with great pleasure. Previous books have focused on death, sex, the afterlife, and space travel. This time she examines digestion, with all the glee of the 19th century doctor she describes who seemed to take unprofessional pleasure in igniting stomach gases (p227).
My favorite part of this book is getting to know her “favorite snake digestion expert” (p172), who pops up throughout the book with, among other interesting and sometimes gross tidbits, a biological explanation of dragons (p230). If you are familiar with Mary Roach’s work, you are likely a fan, and may already be on the holds list for Gulp. If not, why not grab one of her earlier works and dig in.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is a beautiful novel that artfully weaves together the stories of several women into one shared experience. Set in the wake of World War I, it follows the lives of a group of Japanese women who came to California as picture brides, knowing very little of the men to whom they would be married. Told in the first person plural, the narrative begins with the young women as they traveled across the ocean to start their new lives. Marriage, childbirth, earning a living, raising families, and being part of a community, they all learned to navigate life in this strange place. Eventually, what they came to think of as home was taken away as the Second World War called into question their loyalties. At times heartbreaking, and other times wryly funny, this book seems to be more about what actually happened than any purely factual account could contain. It is an album made up of hundreds of snapshots on a loose time line that brings to life a piece of history that is so often forgotten.
The Buddha in the Attic
The Drop by Michael Connelly is a good classic police work mystery. Detective Harry Bosch who works cold cases has been requested by a councilman to investigate the death of his son. Bosh is also working a cold case. We get a lot of insight to police work and what they have to do to make sure that their case is ready for court and the scrutiny of the defense lawyer. In some ways they spend way too much time on telling the protocols the whys and wherefores of proper police procedure. The two mysteries that Bosh has to solve; one is the councilman’s son is found splat on the concrete and had apparently jumped from the seventh floor of a hotel (or was he pushed or tossed) the other is a twenty year old cold case of a 19 year old female who was raped and murdered. I listened to this as an audio book downloaded from KPL’s overdrive, so flipping a page and scooting ahead through the boring detail parts of police work was not an option but I was kind of glad I was forced to listen. It gave me a better feel for how tedious the plodding along and building a case was and how crucial it was or your work is all for naught as a defense lawyer gets the bad guy off on a technicality. If you like true crime, you might like this. Michael Connelly is a well know famous author and has many other books for you to choose from also.
What makes an Andrew Carnegie? What turns a Scottish immigrant boy, son of a poor weaver, into the most successful man of the 1800’s? He would name five people. His father, the “sweetest nature” he had ever known. And his mother, who respected all religions and lived by the Confucian maxim to “perform the duties in this life well, troubling not about another.” And his wife, “peace and good-will attend her footsteps.” And a librarian named Colonel James Anderson, “bless his name as I write,” who opened a library for working boys:
and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man. Life would be quite intolerable without it…the light of knowledge streamed in. Every day’s toil and even the long hours of night service were lightened by the book which I carried about with me and read in the intervals that could be snatched from duty. (Autobiography, 46).
It is no wonder, then, that Carnegie would give $41 million (today that’s several billions) to establish 1,689 libraries:
It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution…For if one boy in each library district…is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson’s four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain (47).
The Philosopher Philanthropist
Andrew took a trip around the world and learned that the “Great Power” had smiled on all cultures and peoples:
In China I read Confucius; in India, Buddha and the sacred books of the Hindoos; among the Parsees, in Bombay, I studied Zoroaster…I had a philosophy at last. The words of Christ ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’ had a new meaning for me. Not in the past or in the future, but now and here is Heaven within us. All our duties lie in this world and in the present, and trying impatiently to peer into that which lies beyond is as vain as fruitless (206).
When wealthy men become wise they give their wealth to worthy causes: "I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution…Shakespeare had placed his talismanic touch upon the thought… ‘So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough’" (255). And “of all my work of a philanthropic character, my pension fund gives me the highest and noblest return” (279).
Clearly he believed in education, as his money talks: all the libraries, a fund for university professors, for the Tuskegee Institute: “and to know Booker Washington is a rare privilege…No truer, more self-sacrificing hero every lived: a man compounded of all the virtues.”
I recommend reading this biography and his autobiography at the same time.
I roasted it! It’s 10x easier than you think. (1) get a hot air popcorn popper. Yep, that’s right: popcorn popper (got mine from Target); (2) get green beans (got mine from local roastery, also check out sweetmarias.com they seem really good); (3) put 1/3 cup in the popcorn popper, wait 5-8 minutes (listen for the “second crack”); (4) cool beans, grind, and enjoy. Done. (Obviously it’s a bit more complicated…visit sweetmarias.com or youtube for how-to videos). The longer you roast coffee (“dark roast”), the less caffeine.
It’s amazing that every single coffee bean that you see was probably individually picked by someone’s hand (machines aren’t smart enough for them yet). Coffee is born on coffee trees by the equator. The beans are actually found inside little red fruit cherry balls. Coffee beans are the seeds inside the fruit, small green hard beans that smell like spicy bread. It’s hard to imagine why someone roasted them in the first place, but very old civilizations certainly had coffee (there are various theories about how they stumbled on it).
Oh yeah, the biggest question of all: taste. My first batch tasted great and had a distinct smell. Not as good as a fresh cup of Starbucks or Waterstreet, but extremely close. I imagine they will get better. If you are looking to satisfy your do-it-yourself impulse, save some money (about 15-25%), and have the freshest coffee you’ve ever had, I recommend giving it a try. If you don’t like it, perhaps because of the smoke it fills your kitchen with, you’ve only wasted 25 bucks.
Home Coffee Roasting
Some little boys want a family dog, some parents don’t want a family dog. Hal Fenton is one of those boys who desperately wants a dog for a birthday present, but his wealthy parents Donald and Albina do not want one. To pacify their son they rent a dog for the weekend; the Easy Pets Dog Agency in London is just the place. Myron and Mavis Carker, owners of the agency, do it for profit, not for the love of dogs. Kayley is the kind teenage caretaker of the dogs. Kayley finds a mongrel, brings it to the agency, and names him Fleck, and pronounces him a rare breed: a “Tottenham” terrier. The Fentons rent Fleck for the weekend. Fleck and Hal are inseparable, that is, until Albina returns Fleck.
Let the adventure begin! Hal and his pal kidnap the dogs at the agency and begin a journey to his grandparents home near the coast of England, all the while being pursued for the tremendous reward offered by Hal’s parents. The delightful story of Fleck, Otto, the St. Bernard, Li-Chee, the Pekinese, Francine, the poodle, Honey, the rough-haired collie, and even Queen Tilly, the Mexican hairless, is both harrowing and heart-warming. Do they make it to their destination? Read it and find out!
This is the last book written by Eva Ibbotson who passed away in October 2010 at the age of 85.
One Dog and His Boy