Improbable Destinies

Improbable Destinies coverImprobable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution
Jonathan B. Losos
Riverhead Books (August 8, 2017),  382 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $13.32

It was kind of a synchronistic event that I came across this book. I was driving home from Toastmasters on a Thursday shortly after 1:00 pm listening to my regional NPR station. Normally another program was on at that hour, but for some reason they were broadcasting a segment of All Things Considered. Host Robert Siegel mentioned the name Stephen Jay Gould, of whom he said he was a fan. He then introduced Jonathan Losos, who grew up reading Gould and became a student of his.

I remember Stephen Jay Gould from the 1970’s and 1980’s when I avidly read his column in Natural History magazine as well as his books. Gould was an evolutionary biologist whom we lost way too soon in 2002. He had what were at the time some rather revolutionary theories about evolution. He was one of the first to propose the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, now a widely accepted theory. He was also a proponent of “punctuated equilibrium” which stated that species generally remained stable, except for bursts of rapid change.

In the present book Losos describes his own current work and that of colleagues. Much of evolutionary theory has gone beyond Gould. One popular theory is “convergent evolution” which states “related species are more likely to convergently evolve the same traits when faced with similar selective pressures.” Take the body types of sharks and dolphins for example. The other theory presented here is that evolution can be rapid when environmental circumstances dictate.

At times the deluge of examples became a bit tedious, but in general this was fascinating reading. As Losos tells us near the end of the book, “At the end of the day, we know that evolution is not random or haphazard.”

Days of Awe and Wonder

Days of Awe and Wonder coverDays of Awe and Wonder: How to Be a Christian in the Twenty-first Century
Marcus J. Borg
HarperOne (March 14, 2017), 293 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $10.80

Marcus Borg was one of the great thinkers in the realm of progressive Christianity. We lost him in 2015, far too soon. He wrote a number of books aimed at helping us fit Christianity into a modern framework.

The present volume is an anthology. It contains book excerpts, sermons, lectures, and blog posts. The themes are familiar: the historical Jesus vs. the post-Easter Jesus, reading the Bible without taking it literally, Jesus’s fight against the domination system, and so forth. There is nothing here that you won’t find in his other books.

Strictly speaking, I don’t know that this book was entirely necessary. However, The Christian Century thought it important enough to give it a featured review. And from my perspective, anything that keeps Borg alive in our memories and thinking is a Good Thing.

Good Booty

Good Booty coverGood Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music
Ann Powers
Dey Street Books (sold by HarperCollins Publishers)
August 15, 2017, 453 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.49

One of my guilty pleasures is reading histories of popular culture. Good Booty is such a book. While both “black and white” and “body and soul” of the subtitle form part of the narrative, the book is largely about sex in American music. While you may see reviews of this book stating that it is a rock and roll history, it is far more than that. Powers goes back to the slave population of New Orleans and talks about the suggestive music they supposedly sang in their off hours. She discusses a performer in the early twentieth century whose performance included the words “it’s tight like that.”

For me, the most important part of the book admittedly was the coverage of modern rock, from Elvis on. To get there, however, you have to go through gospel. Powers writes:

quoteGospel gave rock and soul many musical innovations, but its deepest contribution was the conviction that the soul’s erotic fulfillment is a matter of life and death. The same could be said of the blues; but in gospel, there’s more movement and more hope.

In fact she tells us that Elvis was once turned down for membership in a gospel group.

The book is very well researched with copious footnotes. I do love the new Kindle footnote feature that pops the footnote up on the current page rather than taking you to the footnotes at the end of the book or chapter. Very cool.

I thought I saw a couple of glaring errors. In referring to the Carole King hit first made famous by The Shirelles she refers to the song as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”  A little research, however, shows that was in fact the title of the song, even though the lyrics include the word “still.”

However, I think she made one error with respect to Carly Simon. She says the song “Anticipation” was about foreplay. According to Sheila Weller in Girls Like Us, Simon wrote the song when Cat Stevens was three hours late for a planned date.

That small point aside, Good Booty is a fascinating, well-written, thoroughly researched work on popular culture.

Amazon comes through

Amazon Gift CardMy wife knows what to get me for my birthday. This year Terry gave me an Amazon gift card for my birthday back in August. That always works.

But when I went to redeem the gift card several weeks later I ran into problems. I pulled up the tape to get the redeem code and half of the redeem code came up with the tape. That doesn’t work. I submitted a support request to Amazon. They responded saying that they couldn’t find the gift card and to please submit an image of the card. I submitted what you see here. They responded saying that they had updated my account with the gift card balance. And indeed they had.

Thank you, Amazon. All’s well that ends well.

The Outer Beach

The Outer Beach coverThe Outer Beach: A Thousand-Mile Walk on Cape Cod’s Atlantic Shore
Robert Finch
W. W. Norton & Company (May 9, 2017), 328 pages
Kindle edition, $12.99, Amazon Hardcover $17.19

I was looking for a light diversion in my book reading, and this book seemed to fill the bill. It is the compilation of essays that the author has written over decades of a life lived on Cape Cod.

The outer beach is what the locals call the Cape Cod shore. The author has lived there most of his life and the thousand mile reference is his calculation of the number of miles he has walked that beach. Each chapter discusses a particular point on the Cape in a number essays ordered chronologically. The essays go back as far as the 1960’s and are as recent as 2016.

As someone who loves the ocean, I was interested in the differences between his Cape Cod and my Pacific Coast. The main difference I noticed was the erosion threat there is far more severe than it is here. Houses and even lighthouses needed to be moved back to be preserved, or sometimes just let go to the ravages of the sea.

The book was rather on the long side and by the end I had somewhat more of Cape Cod than I really wanted. But that is OK. The book was the diversion that I was looking for and I enjoyed it.

Word by Word

Word by Word coverWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Kory Stamper
Pantheon (March 14, 2017), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.32

I should have been a lexicographer. That was what I thought when I began reading this book. After all, I love words and language. I certainly believe I have “sprachgefühl,” what Stamper say is “a feeling for language.” And I most certainly meet the qualifications:

quoteAt Merriam-Webster, there are only two formal requirements to be a lexicographer: you must have a degree in any field from an accredited four-year college or university, and you must be a native speaker of English.

Stamper says that many people are surprised that a degree in linguistics or English isn’t required. But, she says, “The reality is that a diverse group of drudges will yield better definitions.”

I realized as a made my way through this book, however, that maybe I didn’t want to be a lexicographer. Stamper describes the process she goes through in revising the definition of a word. She may spend weeks on one word. At one point she describes how she put her head down on her desk in frustration.

If you enjoy reading and thinking about words and definitions you will love this book. It is written in a witty, lively manner and is a delight to read. Long before you are finished you will have permanently reinforced in your mind the fact that dictionaries are written by real people sitting in a real office pouring over the evidence of how words are used.

The International Cinema Society

International Cinema Society coverThe International Cinema Society
Craig McLay
Amazon Digital Services (December 5, 2014),  281 pages
Kindle edition $4.99
I received this eBook free in exchange for signing up for the author’s mailing list,
from which I have received nothing to date.

I very much enjoyed the author’s Village Books, and so decided that the price was right when I had the opportunity to read his second book. Like the first book the story is told in the first person by an author who has sold the movie rights to his book. This story, like the first book, takes place in Toronto. However in an amusing passing reference to the first book the narrator tells us that he is not the same person as the narrator of Village Books.

The narrator runs a money-losing online magazine with his best friend since childhood, RT. The narrator has pretty much lost interest in the venture and leaves it to RT, who has brought in an intern, Siobhan, with whom he is physically and emotionally involved. Siobhan’s writing revives interest in the publication, which nonetheless continues to lose money.

So what of the International Cinema Society in the title? The narrator, RT, and their friends get together once a month at someone’s residence to watch a movie of the host’s choice. This becomes the vehicle for exploring the lives of the various characters.

The book moves along at a relatively even pace until the climax, which is much more intense than the rest of the book. As in Village Books, at the end the author gives us a rundown as to where all of the characters have landed, which, as was also the case in Village Books, is mostly on their feet.

The conclusion of the book is something of a surprise, and interestingly leaves the door open for a sequel.

The novel was well worth the price I paid for it. I can’t advise you as to whether it is worth the $4.99 you would need to shell out. I’ll leave that up to you.