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Archive for the ‘Current (After 1999)’ Category

The Distance Between Us is a young reader’s edition of an adult memoir by Reyna Grande. Her memoir weaves the universal story of a family’s resolve to reach their goal against all odds. By the same token, her memoir raises the question of how much should one be willing to sacrifice to obtain the impossible dream? The Distance Between Us also makes clear how arduous the road to a better life can be, while at times also offering hope and inspiration.

Reyna grew up in a poverty-stricken area of Mexico and her family’s goal was to have their own home. Unfortunately, her Papi couldn’t find a job in the weak Mexican economy. For that reason, he’d left two years ago for the United States. All that Reyna had as a child to remember him by was a glass-framed photo. Now her Mami is also readying herself to flee across the border so that she too might help earn money and the family could more quickly build a house in Mexico. Being left behind was hard enough for Reyna and her siblings, but little could anyone have imagined exactly how much more painful their lives would become. Reyna’s grandparents took care of her and her siblings, but only from a sense of duty, and so the children regularly starved, outgrew their clothes, and lived in squalor. That was only the start of the misery. When their mother eventually returned, she brought with her the news that their father wasn’t going to return: they had divorced. Never again was life the same, for their mother now acted as if burdened by her children, instead of sheltering them with love. When their father eventually smuggled them into the United States with him, he controlled their every move. He feared deportation, but also believed that his children owed it to him to invest their entire being into toiling for success. For a time, life was as miserable or more than it had been in Mexico.

After Reyna graduated college, married, and became an author, she couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifices had been worth it. Sure, from the moment, she’d settled into the United States, Reyna lived in an apartment instead of shack with one room. There were glass windows, solid walls, carpeted floors, and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. Surrounding her were paved streets instead of dirt roads, and lawns with lush green grass and flowers of all kinds. In contrast to the stores in Mexico, Kmart was the biggest store she’d ever shopped at. For the first time, she got to see the ocean. If the family got sick with even a simple toothache, they could see a doctor and get treated. Despite the embarrassment over her struggles to fit into an English-speaking environment, there were so many more opportunities. Such as a good education. And a well-paying job. Yet the cost to getting these had been very high. Not only had her parents divorced, but her father had become abusive and her mother had kept the youngest sibling with her, and the children had become rebellious. Each family member would have to answer for themselves the question of whether the price had been worth it, just as we all need to decide how much we’re willing to lose for what we most wish for.

In her forward, Reyna Grande expressed the desire that her book would bring more awareness to the controversial subject and would encourage readers to not let anything keep them from becoming the person they want to be. Although The Distance Between Us tells a story as much about poverty as it does immigration, it should serve as encouragement to press on when life gets tough.

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.

extraordinaryExtra Ordinary is a delightful debut novel about friendship. The main character of Pansy, who is quiet and fearful but also exuberant and determined, won my affection. I also admire the author, Miriam Spitzer Franklin, for creating a sweet but realistic story about disabilities. Just as what lies at the end of Pansy’s year isn’t exactly what she had expected, so I too was surprised at plot twists in Extra Ordinary, and both are good things.

But there are also those children who persevere despite challenges, always accept the differences in others, and are full of spirit and heart. I wanted to write about a girl who considered herself average, and didn’t realize her own gifts that made her extraordinary.

–Miriam Spitzer Franklin, An Interview with Miriam Spitzer Franklin

I relate to Pansy. Until fifth grade, Pansy had allowed her fears to rule her decisions. Consequently, she’d already piled up a heap of broken promises to her best friend. The last of them had led to a major fight, the last that two girls would have. You see, the summer that two were to attend camp, Anna developed meningitis and became intellectually disabled. At the start of fifth grade, Pansy learned that Anna would have a surgery that maybe would heal her. Or so she thought. And this belief led Pansy to decide fix her broken promises. Not only would she cut her hair as promised, but she would learn to roller skate, and to take on all the other challenges that Anna would have. Some of them are funny such as brushing off the fact she accidentally wore misshapen shoes. Some are inspiring such as Pansy giving up weekends to pile up points in the class reading competition. I too have often allowed fear of the opinions of others, the unknown, and even plain hard work deter me from a goal. Through her awkwardness and failures, but also her courage and successes, Pansy learns that venturing out of her comfort zone can lead to new friends and experiences. It can also give her the confidence to speak up for others. And thus, while I never felt as if the author were leading my hand and teaching me the lesson of being brave, Pansy served an endearing example of how to live an extraordinary live.

Having seen and read numerous stories about characters with special needs, there’s a part of me that both expects and braces for that miraculous end. We naturally all root for the main character, and so part of me wanted Anna to acknowledge Pansy’s efforts to change. I also wished for Pansy’s sake that Anna would make a full and speedy recovery after her surgery. In all honesty, however, part of me also was ready to be disappointed if those things happened. After all, I’ve taught students with special needs for over ten years, and I know that the improvements are sometimes miniscule at best. Certainly, none of them could hope that a surgery would suddenly remove their disabilities. And so, I felt happy to see Pansy and Anna’s brother struggle with hopes and doubts all at the same time as they anticipated the surgery. I also view the end as a satisfying one.

First-time novels tend to have missteps. I saw one definite blunder. In chapter four, Pansy is wearing kneepads during her skate in a park. In chapter seven, she complains that her knees are stiff from her falls, but she’s found a solution: kneepads! Please do correct if I’m wrong, but wasn’t she already aware of that solution? The other error might not really be one. When Pansy’s new best friend is introduced, the description of her suggests that she’s your typical snobby, pretty, rich girl but instead her sidekick is. Even if I simply misinterpreted, I’d still have preferred Pansy’s new clique to have been average girls.

Those few little flaws certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying an extraordinary reading experience. I’d taken a break these past few months from reading books for young people. Extra Ordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin reminds me of why I’d been such a fan of children’s literature.

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.


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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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