Book Review: The Peregrine Returns

The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor RecoveryThe Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of an Urban Raptor Recovery by Mary Hennen with Illustrations by Peggy Macnamara

During a recent visit to Chicago my son Andrew and his wife Jodi stopped by the Field Museum. There they purchased a copy of The Peregrine Returns: The Art and Architecture of Urban Rapture Recovery, written by Mary Hennen and illustrated by Peggy Macnamara. They gave it to me for Christmas. I wish I had a coffee table. I would leave the book there indefinitely.

The Peregrine Returns is an informative, charming, and encouraging book. The writing is spare and clear. If the writer had been a journalist or other professional writer the text could easily have become florid. Instead, Mary Hennen is a scientist employed by the Field Museum, and her concise prose exhibits an unforced affection both for the Peregrine falcon and for Chicago.

Each chapter begins with either a “Scientist Note” or an “Artist Note.” The Scientist Notes are brief vignettes, written in the first person, that discuss personal encounters with the birds and their environments. It is here that we see the affection and dedication of the writer and her team of scientists most clearly. Their joy is demonstrated in one passage that describes allowing young volunteers to give chicks such names as “Banana Peel” and “Marshmallow.”

The “Artist Notes,” written by Peggy Macnamara, are brief lessons on the techniques used in rendering the illustrations. Each of the watercolor illustrations is itself a lesson, as the artist has included lines, circles, arcs, and other geometric features in the paintings to demonstrate some of the techniques used to establish perspective, proportion, and balance. Attempting to further describe features of the illustrations, such as the clever enlargement of details, would not do them justice. At least one online bookseller includes some illustrations in its preview of the contents and it is worth scrolling through the pages to see some of the beautiful paintings.

Peregrine falcons were missing from northern Illinois for many years because of human activity. It is encouraging to see falcons returning to northern Illinois because some of that activity has ceased—the use of DDT has been banned—and because humans have reintroduced the species and taken steps to help the species thrive once again. We as a species can learn about our mistakes, learn from them, and take steps to undo their effects. Where else can we apply this principle to mitigate damage that we have done to our environment or to our relationships with one another

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Book Review: Woe is I

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain EnglishWoe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

This book is recommended reading for a course on Grammar, Mechanics, and Usage for Editors offered by UC Berkeley. Patricia O’Conner’s portfolio and the list of endorsements at the beginning of the book make her work unassailable, at least by the likes of me. Woe is I is, nonetheless, entertaining and enlightening. If you like Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, you will probably like Woe is I, and vice versa.

Beyond its entertainment value, Woe is I is a valuable reference for an editor or writer. It would be helpful if the chapter titles and subtitles, for example “Spellbound: How to Be Letter Perfect,” were a bit less cryptic, but that is a minor quibble. The glossary, bibliography, and index are helpful. Keep a magnifying glass handy for reading the index. I also wish the author had said more about reading good writing to improve one’s own, but that coverage is limited to the last paragraph of the last chapter. Again, a minor complaint.

I don’t think of myself as a grammar nerd, but I might use “shall” instead of “will” when writing or speaking in the first person. More pedantic authorities might say that is good and proper, but O’Connor does not. Subject and verb must agree, but prepositions don’t always need to precede their objects. This is not iconoclasm for its own sake, but in the service of effective communication.

If you find English grammar puzzling or unappealing but would still like to improve your communication skills, reading Woe is I is worth reading and keeping for reference.

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Book Review: Becoming Wise

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of LivingBecoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett is the host of On Being, a weekly program broadcast on NPR stations, including WNYC, where I listen when I have the opportunity. The program is also available as a podcast from On Being’s Web site. From 2003 until 2015 Krista Tippett engaged in conversations with over 400 individuals whose names are listed in the back of the book. Some are people whose names would be familiar to many listeners: Jimmy Carter, Charles Colson, The Dalai Lama, Martin Sheen, Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Barbara Kingsolver, Phil Donahue to name a few. The conversations consist of one-on-one interviews, sometimes in front of a live audience.

In Becoming Wise Krista Tippett conducts the inquiry described in the subtitle by discussing five themes: word, flesh, love, faith, and hope, and expanding those discussions with excerpts from the conversions she has had through those years. The goal of Becoming Wise is not to provide instruction in how or what to think about these themes, although as a journalist the author certainly wants to inform her audience. The goal seems to be to express how wonderful, complex, frustrating, and even heartbreaking human existence can be when viewed through these five lenses.

That description doesn’t really do justice to the book, though. For another perspective, here is Ms Tippett herself expressing near the end of the book what she has experienced in writing it. She has just describe the work of Benedict of Nursia, who set forth a principle for living that, in time, would keep Western civilization alive:

I take courage in this story. Even with all of my resources as a journalist, and my efforts to focus on what is good and wise and nourishing. I probably do not see the small bands of inventive people, the blips of action setting something in motion that will save the world a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Still, I am dazzled by the great good I can discern everywhere out there. I’ve shared a sliver in these pages, just a sliver. I have a heart full. arms full, a mind brimful and bursting with a sense of what is healing us even as I write, even when we don’t know it and haven’t asked for it. And I do mean healing: not curing, not solving, not fixing, but creating the opportunity for deepened life together, for growing more wise and more whole, not just older, not just smarter. (p. 236)

A bit later the author elaborates on the reason for the book and for her pursuit of conversations with the people cited in the book:

Still, all of this begs the question of why a simple, natural, refreshing thing like taking in goodness, wherever and whenever we see it, requires any effort at all–why it needs all these words. There’s a telling social scientific term for people who defy the “realistic” expectations of a simplistic “survival of th—e fittest” understanding of evolved humanity: “positive deviance.” My profession of journalism, which I love, too often covers whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise as a positive deviance. This is a form of reverse moral imagination. Everyone I’ve cited in this book is a positive deviant, easily written off by portenders of doom as an exception to the distasteful human rule. (p. 261)

Both in Becoming Wise and in her work through On Being Krista Tippett practices positive deviance. That is not a bad trait for anyone to cultivate and practice. Anyone reading this review would do well to find a copy of Becoming Wise or listen to some episodes of On Being to learn how we might cultivate positive deviance.

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Book Review: Accidental Saints

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong PeopleAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber was interviewed by Krista Tippett for an episode of On Being that aired on 23 October, 2014 and it was this interview that introduced me to this Lutheran pastor of House for all Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Accidental Saints is a series of stories about some of the folks at HFASS, their pastor, and most importantly the God by whose grace and mercy they are called saints. Other individuals not directly associated with HFASS but whose lives have had an impact on Bolz-Weber are also featured in some chapters.

One of the striking characteristics of Nadia Bolz-Weber and her ministry—and there are many striking characteristics—is her liberal use of profanity. I want to get this out of the way quickly because it features prominently in my desire to read this book. It is shocking, and I still wonder why it must be included. However, I understand that frank and shocking language is the currency of ministry among those who would not find themselves in most American churches. So unlike Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which I cannot recommend enthusiastically to an audience that includes my preteen granddaughter because of the inclusion of profanity, I can unreservedly recommend Accidental Saints to an audience that includes thoughtful, intelligent, Godly, conservative Christians. We may be shocked by the language but we need to get past it to see that there are significant ministry needs and opportunities among those who would not find themselves in most American churches.

The core of the book is the truth that Jesus came to a world that is, and always has been, seriously messed up. All of us are weak, broken, damaged, lame, and inclined to lie, cheat, betray, and steal our way out of the difficulties we face, or to avoid admitting that we are weak, broken, damaged, and lame. Nadia Bolz-Weber owns her own brokenness. It is as inescapable and unerasable as the tattoos on her arms. She is as much in need of redemption and God’s forgiveness as the most unlovable addict or misfit in her congregation.

Accidental Saints is a thoroughly memorable book, but one passage jumped out at me. In Chapter 11, entitled “Parlors,” Bolz-Weber discusses death, funerals, and birth. She points out that even well into the 20th century, when someone died, it was common for the preparation of the body and the viewing or wake to take place in the home. In a commentary on how modern Westerners have turned over activities such as dealing with death to professionals, she includes playing a musical instrument in those activities.

Accidental Saints is a humbling, challenging book that is uplifting and encouraging at the same time. It is especially valuable for those of us in American Christianity who have convinced ourselves that the world needs to conform to our standards of holiness and purity before it can be welcomed into our faith communities. As Bolz-Weber would say, that’s bulls___.

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Book Review: Reading for the Common Good

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods FlourishReading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith

Reading for the Common Good, as the subtitle suggests, is written in part for Christian churches. There is considerable focus on the reading of the Bible and on practices for disciplined reading of the Bible such as Lectio Divina. There is broader application to reading of just about any other form of literature, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Application is also made to reading in other types of community organizations beside churches.

Reading for the Common Good is about more than just what the members of a congregation or community organization are reading themselves individually. Reading in communion and discovering a community’s identity and calling through that reading are central to its thesis. Reading for the Common Good is also about how members of a congregation or community advocate for and facilitate literacy and reading in the neighborhoods where they serve by offering literacy instruction, and even housing lending libraries and book shops.

Reading for the Common Good sets lofty goals for those who choose to make reading a core practice within their community. Reading communally can help us bridge social barriers such as those erected by racism. It can help us address social ills, injustice, and ecological ills. It can even help us build integrity into our political systems and democratic processes. One imagines that if every pastor, politician, and community leader in the United States would encourage their constituents to read together, the problems that beset those communities could be dealt with in the space of a generation. That is the kind of hope that Reading for the Common Good seeks to cultivate.

One doesn’t need to take Christopher Smith’s word for these promises. Every chapter includes multiple quotes from such diverse voices as Allen Ginsberg, Wendell Berry, Neil Gaiman (whose “Why Our Futures Depend on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” is worth a side trip), Peter Senge, Parker Palmer, Thomas Merton, Stephen Fowl and Gregory Jones, Virginia Milhouse, and Walter Brueggemann. Are there more women’s voices that could be heard in making these arguments? Without a doubt. Still, the endnotes point to fine additional reading in subject areas that Smith touches.

Finally, Smith includes two separate reading lists. One is a chapter-by-chapter list specific to the book. The second is a topical list developed by and for Smith’s congregation, Englewood Christian Church of Indianapolis, Indiana. If the reader borrows this book from a public library, photocopy or scan these pages and the endnotes before returning the book!

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Book Review: Silence

SilenceSilence by Shūsaku Endō

This story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan is affecting on many levels. The first is the beauty and economy of the writing and the translation. The darkest parts of the narrative are set in beautiful prose. I was also struck by the affection with which the early narrator and protagonist, Rodrigues, describes the villagers among whom he is living. They exist in the deepest poverty but they provide for and shelter Rodrigues and his companion Garrpa.

Second, the historical details are abundant and helpful and do not get in the way of the story. Rodrigues is based on a historical figure who . Rodrigues and his companions have a goal of finding a second historical figure, Ferreira, who is believed to have apostatized. The lives of the fictional characters revolve around historical figures in the places where those figures lived and moved.

Third, there is Kichijiro, a Judas-Iscariot-meets-Gollum character who follows Rodrigues through the entire story. He elicits as much response from Rodrigues, and such a broad range of response, as any other character or event in the story. He befriends, he connives, he betrays, he survives, he falls and repents again and again. He tests the capacity of Rodrigues to forgive, and in the end he calls out of Rodrigues his true sense of his calling as a priest as he asks Rodrigues to hear his confession and grant absolution.

Fourth is the role of silence. The God who brought Rodrigues to Japan is silent as the persecution of the believers grows. The ocean that brought Rodrigues is silent as well. Is Rodrigues expecting aid from or by way of the ocean?

Fifth is the role of faith and doctrine in the story. The Japanese officials insist that Christianity cannot survive in a pure form in Japan. That’s probably true of Christianity in any time and place. It becomes absorbed into the culture. In my lifetime in the Western hemisphere I’ve seen Jesus visualized as the theist Che Guevara of liberation theology, or as a bandana-wearing hippie of the Jesus-People movement. More recently we’ve seen Jesus arm wrestling a Halloween-costume Satan in a social media meme for some battle or other in our contemporary culture wars. Rodrigues seems to understand that God does not change even though how we see and approach God might.

If you are looking for a beautifully written, thought-provoking, albeit somber book to read this winter, Silence might be a good choice.

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Book Review: Consilience

Consilience: The Unity of KnowledgeConsilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson

In May 2001 Wendell Berry published Life is a Miracle. He wrote it as a response to Consilience, by Edward O. Wilson. Having an affinity for Wendell Berry’s writing, I read Life is a Miracle several years ago. Then this fall I read Alister McGrath’s The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God. McGrath also takes issue with Consilience because of Wilson’s conclusion that ethics and morality can be explained by evolution.

In our current cultural environment many of us carry out our intellectual transactions in the safety of communities of like-minded people. I am as guilty of this as the next person, but since two writers whom I respect took issue with the same book by the same author, I thought I should investigate for myself.

Wilson writes for an educated audience. His writing is, nonetheless, approachable and clear.

The theses with which Berry and McGrath take issue are not hard to find in Consilience. According to Wilson, science is capable of telling us everything we need to know. There is no need for intervention by supernatural forces. All supernatural thinking is “ignorance-based metaphysics” which will retreat “like a vampire before the lifted cross” when presented with “objective truth.” (p. 62)

Of particular interest to theists, specifically Christians who espouse young-earth creation, is Wilson’s take on this doctrine. It must be said that he speaks of the Christian’s God with respect. “Perhaps God did create all organisms,including human beings, in finished form, in one stroke, and maybe it all happened several thousand years ago. But if that is true, He also salted the earth with false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail, and so thoroughly from pole to pole, as to make us conclude first that life evolved, and second that the process took billions of years. Surely Scripture tells us He would not do that. The Prime Mover of the Old and New Testaments is variously loving, magisterial, denying, thunderously angry, and mysterious, but never tricky.” (p, 129–130)

Going farther on the subject of God and God’s involvement in human affairs, Wilson observes “God may exist, He may be delighted in what we are up to on this minor planet, but His fine hand is not needed to explain the biosphere.” (p. 198) It’s interesting that this quote is in a chapter on the social sciences, and in a section on economics.

Wilson uses “empiricism” to refer to a world view that understands the world solely in terms of what is observable. “Transcendentalism” allows the intervention of forces outside of what can be observed with senses extended by technology. “The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct.” (p. 240).

The final chapter, “To What End,” includes what seems to be a summary statement: “What are we? Where do we come from, How show we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltations, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. Still encumbered by precepts based on Iron-Age folk knowledge, it is unable to assimilate the great sweep of the real world now open for examination.” (p. 269) Ouch.

Finally, this: “The legacy of the Enlightenment is the believe that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely. That self-confidence has risen with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, which is being woven into an increasingly full explanatory web of cause and effect.” (p. 297). That speaks of a hubris that has gotten humanity into trouble since its appearance in the biosphere.

I am thankful for E.O. Wilson and for his challenges to the hardened dogmas of fundamentalism. They need to be challenged. I am also grateful for the work of writers such as Wendell Berry and Alister McGrath, who have provided alternative narratives that include the work of a just and loving God.

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Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl is a memoir, an account of Hope Jahren’s progress as a student and then a scientist working in the academy. It is interspersed with lessons on seed germination, soil properties, plant growth, life cycles, and other botany-related subjects.

Hope Jahren—her full name is Anne Hope Jahren—is a scientist and teacher who is passionate about her chosen field. Of course, that can probably be said of many academics, especially those who have channeled their passion into literature that is accessible by laypeople. This book is not only well written and accessible, though, it is laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The description on page 117 of a visit with several students to Monkey Jungle Island, a tourist attraction in Florida is an excellent example. Later in the narrative Jahren describes a cross-country trip by van to a conference in San Francisco and a terrible crash on an icy interstate highway in the mountains of Colorado. One can almost smell the interior of the van at the end of the trip, that vivid is the description.

While humor, effective instructional writing, and great storytelling move the narrative forward, it is also driven by Hope Jahren’s frustration with the deplorable state of research funding, the status of women in the sciences, and the continuing degradation of the environment.

Being a memoir, the point of Lab Girl is not to deliver a seamless account of Hope Jahren’s life. Still, it is a bit startling that there is little to describe the transition from the Hope Jahren of early struggles, who lived day and night in her lab and survived on pizza and Ensure, to the successful academic who is blissfully married to the perfect husband and hopelessly devoted to their child. It is still heartening to know that she was able to make that transition.

It’s also clear from the narrative that there would also be no Hope Jahren, successful academic, were it not for Bill Hagopian, her long-time lab assistant, good friend, confidant, and Dutch uncle. Bill should tell the story from his side.

Lab Girl would merit five stars from this reviewer were it not for one flaw, the unfettered use of profanity. It’s hard to imagine how Jahren was able to recall in detail conversations that included such language fifteen years or more after they took place unless she kept an exhaustive journal. Even if the conversations are accurately recorded, one has to wonder why it is necessary to include language that is still censored by broadcast media in the United States. It would be easy to recommend this book to grandchildren and other young people who might consider careers in the sciences, but the profanity makes that problematic.

In spite of that, this is a great memoir. The time and effort expended in reading it are well invested.

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Book Review: Quantum Physics and Theology

Don’t let the title frighten you. You don’t need to understand quantum physics and you don’t need to have studied theology to enjoy and appreciate Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. Having training or interest in the sciences or theology will enhance your appreciation, but it’s not essential.


I read this book as a part of a group reading and discussion project hosted by Andy Walsh on the Emerging Scholars Network during September and October 2017. He discussed one chapter in each of five weekly articles. There were on-line video chats as well but they were not recorded. His comments will much more valuable to potential readers than any I could add here, so I would suggest that you read his posts.

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Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: Read no further if you have not read it and don’t want the outcome to be revealed.

This was my first conventional novel by Neil Gaiman. I had read The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a graphic novel. Ocean at the End of the Lane is a quick read and hard to put down. The themes of identity, loneliness, and alienation are fairly easy to pick up. The narrator’s being saved from death by another character who dies in the attempt is unexpected and strikes me as being close to Christian in form. In that sense Lettie is a Christ figure, although I’m not sure that’s what the author intended.

What strikes me also is a similarity between this story and the story told in Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories we have benevolent female figures who come to the aid of a child or children in a battle between good and evil. I’d be curious to learn if anyone else reading this review might have drawn the same connection.

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