Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, author Frans de Waal discusses animal intelligence. In the prologue, he stresses that he won’t provide a comprehensive overview of evolutionary cognition, but rather he’ll pick and choose from discoveries in the field over the recent decades. His specialty is primates and as such so his focus, but de Waal also refers to studies of birds, dogs, whales, and other mammals. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, was the February selection of the online Companion Animal Psychology Book Club, formed in the fall of 2016 by Zazie Todd. For this review, I’m taking a different approach by sharing highlights of the discussion by some of the three-hundred members.

Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular pastime to cognitive science, but I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded. All it has done is make us measure animals by human standards. It seems highly unfair to ask if a squirrel can count to ten if that’s not what a squirrel’s life is about…. We don’t need echolocation to orient ourselves in the dark; nor do we need to correct for the refraction of light between air and water as archerfish do when shooting droplets at insects above the surface. There are lots of wonderful cognitive adaptations out there that we don’t have or need. That’s why ranking cognition on a singular dimension is a pointless exercise.

To start the discussion of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Todd asked, “How did you find the first couple of chapters? Which animal stories or anecdotes particularly got your attention, and why?” In general, everyone agreed that there were so many fascinating tales, it was difficult to pick just one example. A few favorites were:

  • Elephants and mirrors: Researchers conducted tests to evaluate whether an animal recognizes its own reflection. Some elephants did!
  • Chimps and distinguishing faces: At one time, scientists declared humans unique since we were better at recognizing faces than primates were. A later study proved the opposite when it used not human faces but primate faces.
  • Cats and cages: One experiment concluded that cats rubbed against a cage latch to escape and obtain a fish as a reward. A later experiment concluded instead that the cats only needed the presence of friendly people to encourage them to rub, which is a way of greeting among cats.
  • Wasps and moved pinecones: Before wasps go out to hunt for a bee they’ve buried, they make a brief orientation flight to memorize the location of their burrows. One researcher put objects around their nest to see what information they used, as well as to trick them into looking at the wrong spots.

These examples and others led to a discussion of the concept of unwelt, or looking at the world from an animal’s point of view. One reader pointed out that we “tend to compare other animals with us and then describe their abilities in terms of lack, as in ‘dogs have the cognitive abilities of human toddlers but nothing more’, which doesn’t tell us an awful lot about dogs’ unique abilities, some of which we don’t share.” Another reader noted that it’s easier to “assume an animal lacks skill rather than asking, ‘Are our methods valid?’.” Many readers felt the first couple of chapters were more of a human story than one about animal cognition.

The next two chapters focused on specific aspects of animal intelligence. For chapter three, Todd asked: “What did you think of the studies of tool use? Did it affect how you think about animals, especially primates?” One reader expressed fascination with the expectation that most species would be incapable of using tools, even though the more studies scientists conduct the more it seems other species can and do use tools. De Waal wrote about crows in the Southwest Pacific that will spontaneously alter branches until they have a little wooden hook to fish grubs out of crevices. He also described real-life rooks that, akin to the crow in Aesop’s fable, successfully solved a floating worm puzzle by using pebbles to raise the water level in the tube. This chapter wasn’t without its controversy, with some readers debating the “risk to animal welfare if we assume cognitive abilities which are comparable to that of humans”.

For chapter four, Todd referred to a quote from de Waal and asked what ones thought about it: “You won’t often hear me say something like this, but I consider us the only linguistic species.” Initially, responses focused on the concept of language. Answers ranged from “If we mean the ability to communicate in symbolic language, then we are likely to be the only linguistic species” to “there are so many others forms of communication”. More than one reader recognized that animals do well at interpreting body language. There was also an acknowledgement that there are unknowns in communication, such as how elephants use rumbles to speak to one another, and so many animals may very well indeed have some sort of language. Then there were the more flippant remarks such as, “No doubt language is important to humans, which must be the reason we so doggedly try to teach other animals to “speak” and use this as a sign of intelligence” or “All we’ve shown (when we proof animals to ‘speak” is that other animals can pick up foreign languages.”

Todd followed-up with another question, ”What did you think when he said it caused an incident when he told people he doesn’t have a voice telling him right from wrong? Do you have such a voice?” This led to a brief discussion about morality, but mostly to a comparison of how that inner voice appears to individuals. For some it’s a feeling, while for others it’s words or pictures or a combination of both.

If cognition’s basic features derive from gradual descent with modification, then notions of leaps, bounds, and sparks are out of order. Instead of a gap, we face a gently sloping beach created by the steady pounding of millions of waves. Even if human intellect is higher up on the beach, it was shaped by the same forces battering the same shore.

In the remaining chapters, de Waal goes back and forth between discussing specific aspects of animal intelligence and the generalities of cognitive evolution. Todd posed three more questions, one about the social life of animals, one about whether there is a cognitive gap between animals and humans, and the last a catch-all question. By now though, the discussion had started to dwindle. Not everyone agreed with de Wall, and one reader contended, “As an archaeologist, I found his blanket statements about what other disciplines think about humans to be a bit … well, wrong? Archaeology and anthropology are social sciences, and I’m sure when I was in school there wasn’t a wall around human thinking or biology….” As this quote shows, some involved in the discussion had studied extensively studied social sciences of some form. As such, they were familiar with at least a few of the ideas presented. They also had the ability to discern some of what was truth and what wasn’t. Neither was the case for me, and I suspect several of the other readers, and this may have also led to the drop in conversation.

Do check Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? out from the library. While the content proved heavy reading for an unscientific person like myself, de Waal did give me renewed respect for animals. It also inspired several conversations between my husband and me. We debated what might happen if society were to view animals as smart as humans, but just in different ways. Would we so casually destroy the homes of wild animals? Would we so inhumanely treat farm animals? Would we so easily view domesticated animals as disposable? The implications are endless, making de Waal’s book an important read.

Some books introduce a new approach to old ideas and as such challenge one to grow. Other books reinforce ideas that one already adheres to and in doing so reassure one in their beliefs. The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright successfully did both for me.

What did Jesus mean when he said the kingdom of God is at hand? Or to put it another way, what did the average Galilean villager hear when a young prophet strode into town and announced that Israel’s God was now at last becoming king?–N.T. Wright

A scholar investigating the life of Jesus, N.T. Wright contends that Christians have much to learn from a historical study of Jesus. He encourages readers to imagine themselves back into the world of the Old Testament as perceived by Jews or into the world that Jesus lived in and spoke to. The Jews had been living under foreign rule and were waiting for salvation from God. They had three options: One, they could separate themselves from the world and bide their time until they received direction from God; Two, they could align themselves with political leaders, build fancy buildings, and hope that God would approve; Three, they could pray, sharpen swords, and then fight a holy war. Into this world came Jesus, who suggested a fourth model: the kingdom of God at hand. Wright argues that the parables of Jesus weren’t just a commentary on heaven as Christians take them today, but also intended for his Jewish audience. For example, the parable of the sower isn’t simply about how many people hear the gospel but then don’t listen. It’s instead about what God simultaneously judging Israel for idolatry while also calling Israel to renew itself in God.

So what? How do we move from a detailed, historical reconstruction of this Jesus, living in the world of the first century, to our own world with its very different contours and agendas?–N.T. Wright

The more I read of Challenge of Jesus, the more I wondered how Wright would apply the historical Jesus to the modern-day Christian. Wright explains that although the Crucifixion would have devastated the hopes of the Old Testament Jew for a king, the real story of God was never about Israel beating up everyone and taking control. Instead it was always the story of God redeeming Israel and the world. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are beginning the task of being God-image bearers in a new creation. When they ate of the forbidden fruit, everything changed. But Jesus reversed the story. Jesus brought a new order, one in which those who accept Him are ambassadors and witnesses.

The Challenge of Jesus was heavy-going and dense. I had to reread sections and I know that there are still parts I’m trying to grasp. Yet I’m reviewing Wright’s book, because it inspired me to want to learn more about the historical context of the Bible and the gospel.

bookofjoeFor dog lovers, The Book of Joe is quirky little book with lots of personality. It’s written by Vincent Price of Hollywood fame who starred as a villain in dozens of macabre horror films. Far from being scary, however, The Book of Joe is a light-hearted and humorous account of Price’s life with pets.

An orange-brown-black haired mutt who came into an empty moment in Price’s life is the star of this memoir. Price referred to him as “all dog”. At one moment, Joe could dutifully put up with hauling and yanking of a five-year-old boy (Price’s son), and in another moment Joe would eat shoes and fetch empty cans and cartons from the garbage. Joe also had a tremendous sense of responsibility to the humans he loved, while at the same time no lack of playboy when it came to the female dogs. Joe had other contradictory traits too. For example, Price tells about Joe’s stubborn refusal to use a dog door. “Four months of pushing, shoving, pulling … nothing worked. Then one day he bored of the silly game and used the dog door.” The Book of Joe will regularly put a smile on your face!

Not all is perfect about this unusual and touching book. For instance, it falls into the trope that a dog always dies in a dog book. Price gets the cliché out-of-the-way in the first chapter by putting it in the first chapter, but I’m not sure that it’s any better than having it at the end. Spoiler Alert…. At least the dog who dies isn’t our hero Joe! Then there’s the numerous digressions that Price makes, some which are about other pets, but some are simply about his personal life. I do admit though that these ramblings grew on me and added to the endearing flavor of the book. Finally, there’s some mature content in this otherwise family friendly story.

For older readers, The Book of Joe is a quick and entertaining read that they should appreciate. It’s enhanced by line-drawings and witty remarks. The memoir has been out-of-print for years, but now is being reissued with a portion of the proceeds going to the Fund for Animals, a network of animal sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centers.

makingbiscuitsShow of hands please. Who thinks cats are aloof and lazy? If you answered yes, you’ve fallen for the stereotype that I held before a cat named Lucy came into my life. If you answered no, you’ve learned like me that cats are full of affection and fun. The latter is the idea behind Makin’ Biscuits, a collection of insights and anecdotes by Deborah Barnes about “weird cat habits and the even weirder habits of the humans who love them”.

My angel cat, Lucy, was very particular when it came to beverages. She liked milk, but there were rules. It couldn’t be straight from the jug—it could only be room temperature milk from a bowl with cereal in it. But she’d also only drink it after the cereal was completely gone!–My submission for the chapter, “Are You Going to Eat That?”

Makin’ Biscuits is a 36-chapter tribute to cats. Barnes starts each chapter with an overview wherein she chats about the theme and then hones in on a few personal experiences. For example, in the chapter entitled Cats in Toyland, Barnes admits that there probably isn’t a toy she hasn’t brought for her cats. One however is particularly unusual, that of a string bean. Her cat Jazmine likes to watch Barnes cut fresh ones and, if Barnes ever slows down, Jazmine will grab a stem and run off with it. Barnes dedicates the middle of each chapter to multiple anecdotes from cat owners from across the North America. Some of those cat owners are famous such as Vanna White, heavily involved in advocacy such as founders of various rescues, or simply average pet owners like me. Barnes wraps up each chapter with points to ponder. For example, in the chapter mentioned above, Barnes stresses how important toys and play are to the health and well-being of cats. She recommends cat owners schedule daily time to play with their cat(s), names a few popular toys, and warns against strings. With her book, Barnes wanted to explore the feline mindset, but also to make a difference in cat overpopulation by showing readers what great companions can be. It’d be hard to read this delightful book and still feel cats are aloof and lazy.

After my beloved cat, Lucy, died I made a vow not to leave my other cats, Cinder and Rainy, home alone if I didn’t have to. Loving them so much, I wanted to spend as much time with them as I could. I know how fleeting time can be with our precious pets. So now when my husband Andy and I go to visit Andy’s parents every week (they live six blocks away), rather than keep Cinder and Rainy at home, we crate them up and bring them too! They’re put on flexi-leashes to give them unrestricted freedom, and they like being included in the excursions. Andy and I also bring them for special holiday visits and, if it’s Christmas, Cinder and Rainy will get gifts too!–My submission for the chapter, “Home for the Holidays”

Makin’ Biscuits is also a 250-page labor of love. Each chapter has a whimsical title and more than one illustrative photo. The commentary by Barnes is supported by over twenty-five sources of research. Then there’s the endless submissions that Barnes had to comb through. To obtain these submissions, Barnes put out an open call on her blog and on social media sites for cat lovers. In the end, received so many stories that to include all of them would have required her to write the next “War and Peace”. Add to all this the fact that Barnes, like many authors, had to juggle a work and family life to compile Making Biscuits. For her though, the labor of love will be worth it if it encourages more people to join help bring about the dream of ending cat overpopulation. Right now, there are over 40 million homeless cats in the United States alone. That’s why we need more and more cat owners to speak up and educate the world about how amazing cats are.

When I first heard that two of my stories had been accepted to Makin’ Biscuits, I immediately ordered five signed copies. Since reading my own personal copy, I’ve added more friends to my life who would enjoy Making Biscuits. My advice to you then is to simply plan on buying several copies to share.

In less than a month, Brene Brown’s books have changed how I view myself, how I handle mistakes, and how I communicate. Far from being your average how-to manuals, they’re research-based and story-filled guides to a whole new way to think. If you’ve ever struggled with shame, imperfection, and/or relationships, Brown’s New York’s bestsellers will change your life.

gifts-of-imperfectionThe Gifts of Imperfection is a guide to a wholehearted life. The first five chapters provide the research and philosophy behind the book, while the remaining ten chapters provide ten guideposts to the wholehearted life. What’s a wholehearted life? It’s about being real in the very truest sense, the way that the Velveteen Rabbit was. It’s about putting oneself out there, being vulnerable and honest, while also finding belonging and love.

According to Brown, being wholehearted is a process or a journey that will take our entire life. There are obstacles we’ll face, and we’ll need to regularly dig deep in ourselves to overcome them, but there are also tools we can use. One obstacle is shame. Everyone faces it, but few want to admit it. In fact, Brown once attended a conference where she was told beforehand not to talk about shame but to focus on the positive. Yet Brown believes that unless we talk about shame, and about the other obstacles that we encounter to wholehearted living, we’ll never move forward. One of the tools is love. Achieving love isn’t about fitting in, which is being who we think everyone wants us to be. Instead love comes when we find people with whom we belong or who accept us just as we are. This is how we become truly real.

Brown provides ten guidelines to the wholehearted life. I won’t cover them all, but instead will just share a few highlights. One guidepost is authenticity. This involves letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we really are. It’s not giving into the belief that we’ll never be smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, but instead allowing ourselves to be imperfect. Another guidepost is compassion, to which the key is letting go of perfectionism. The latter is not about striving to be your best or about self-improvement. Instead perfection rises from feeling shame about oneself and, as such, it’s self-destructive. Incidentally, shame and guilt are not the same. The first means feeling one is bad; the second means feeling something you did was bad. The difference is important. A third guidepost is creativity. This involves letting go of comparison. The latter is a thief of happiness, because it leaves us feeling that we must be like everyone else just better. We all have our own gifts, but we often choose not to use them, thinking that we don’t measure up to others. To find meaning in our lives, we need to use our unique gifts…. As you can see, all of these guideposts interconnect. They’re all about learning about to being okay with who we truly are, which is flawed but special individuals.

the-daring-wayDaring Greatly is a second guide to the wholehearted life. In the preface, Brown quotes from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech called Citizenship in the Republic, where he contends that it’s not the critic who counts but the man who is in the arena. Brown goes on to point out that being perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. For that reason, contrary to popular thought, vulnerability is not weakness and uncertainly is not an optional risk.

Brown believes that we must let our true selves be seen. In her introduction, she summarizes how she tried the “good girl, perfect-perform-please, clove-smoking poet, angry activist, corporate climber, and out of control party girl” routines. None of them worked, because every was built on the premise of keeping everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy. Instead Brown advocates learning to handle mistakes, become shame resilient, and show up.

Brown next dedicates five lengthy chapters to the concept of daring greatly. If you’ve read any of her other books, some of the material will be familiar, but there’s also plenty of new information to ponder. For example, while revisiting the concept of vulnerability, Brown contends that vulnerability is neither good or bad. To feel is to be vulnerable. She then explores how we embrace vulnerability. For one thing, it’s not about sharing everything of our lives with others. Instead it’s about allowing ourselves to ask for help and to give help to those whom we’ve learned to trust. For another thing, it’s not about numbing ourselves to the bad. This is impossible to do. When we shut out the dark, we also shut out the light. While revisiting shame, Brown argues that unless we accept that we all have shame and that we all struggle, we will believe there’s something wrong with us and act on those beliefs. The consequences of believing we are bad are numerous such as we stop being willing to try new things or we always find ourselves being defensive over our actions. Finally, as she revisits the concept of joy, she notes that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to accept, because it comes and goes, and so we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The problem is this won’t stop the bad things from happening in our lives but it will stop us from enjoying life. The solution is to dare greatly.

rising-strongRising Strong is a third guide to the wholehearted life. It’s also the book where Brown most discusses her theory that we’re wired to tell stories to make sense of our lives. The first five chapters lay the foundation for her call for ones to rise strong and to rumble, while the last five give examples of rumbles.

Early on, Brown shares a personal story about a day at a lake with her husband, where the two almost ended up in a fight. She felt he wasn’t giving her enough attention and began to tell stories to herself of all the reasons why he no longer loved her. Then she caught herself and instead engaged in an honest conversation about how they were both feeling that day at the lake. Using this story, she next shares an interview of hers with Pixar, where she asked about their successful storytelling technique. It’s one that breaks a script into three parts, with Act 1 being the call to an adventure and Act 3 being the hero’s successful rise to the challenge. In the middle is Act 3, where the hero finds out how bad things will get. The middle is also the part of a situation that most of us want to skip. Still using her lake story, Brown now turns to Joseph Campbell’s writing about all of us being on a hero’s journey. Brown contends that we either walk into a story by attempting to deal with our emotions in the middle act or we live outside a story by “hustling” for our worthiness. Brown calls for us to get honest about what we’re really feeling and why, which in turn will help us to rise from hurt and to live a more authentic life.

Rising Strong contains the most real-life examples of whole-hearted people than any of her other books. Some stories are about others. For example, there’s one of a business leader who made a bad decision. He had to decide whether to ignore, deflect, or accept the blame. In a moment of “rising strong,” he choose to apologize for his mistake. He also made suggestions of how the company could survive the mess he had created. Other stories are drawn from Brown’s personal background. For example, she told of allowing others to dictate to her the emphasis of her first book and how to garner sales. In not being true to her own principles, she allowed the book to become a flop. That wasn’t a mistake she made again. A lot of Brown’s stories emphasize accepting the emotions we feel, figuring out how to most kindly act in negative situations, but also holding ourselves and others accountable for actions.

I still have one more book by Brown to read. It’s called I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). That summarizes how I feel about all of her books. I thought it was just me who struggled with shame, imperfection, and/or relationships. But it isn’t. Even better is the fact that her books offer also guidelines to overcome all of these obstacles. Finally, Brown Brown’s books appeal to me because they’re solidly founded on research, while also being quick reads due to how many anecdotes she shares. Brown’s books were informative and pleasurable to read!

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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs



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