Improving Habits (Most of the Time)

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday LivesBetter Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The short version: this book has good research and good ideas, but imperfect execution.

I think that a lot of the things Ms Rubin articulates are both informative and useful. Framing the question of habits in terms of identity and personality can be a huge boost in learning how to develop good habits and eliminate bad ones. She also deals extensively with good strategies to improve in this area. There’s even a quiz in the back that can help guide your thinking, so that you know where you fall and figure out which route will be most beneficial to you.

I also think, however, that this book will be most effective for the group Ms Rubin terms “Upholders.” Upholders, in short, are those who set goals for themselves and stick to them without much prompting or questioning. Ms Rubin admits that she herself is an Upholder, and I think that “Tendency” bleeds through the book in more places than she points out. In several places, she sets up a standard of behavior that fits the Upholder mold, but won’t necessarily work for the other Tendencies. In fairness, she often works hard to make sure that all groups are fairly represented–but even so, there are a few sections that fell short.

In fact, much of the book fits Ms Rubin’s style (which makes sense; it’s her book), not only in her Tendency but in the other areas of self-knowledge (detailed in the first section of the book). This is great for anyone who is of a similar style, but can be tiresome for those of us who differ.

I also question the validity of the Four Tendencies framework, in no small part because I’m not a “Questioner” at heart. Forced into a category, I’m probably an “Obliger,” but in the Four Tendencies quiz, I got an almost equal number of affirmed statements in each Tendency (Questioner and Obliger were tied, a little bit ahead of Upholder and Rebel, which were also tied). The other personality traits are set up as dichotomies, which are frequently prone to being incomplete pictures of an issue.

Having said that, I may very well be more than a couple standard deviations from the norm, so perhaps only a few others will have this problem.

The only other thing that bothered me (and it will likely not bother most people) is the agnostic approach Ms Rubin took to her sources. She goes, in short order, from praising the Rule of St. Benedict to praising Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (a series, if you’re unfamiliar with it, designed explicitly as an atheist response to the Chronicles of Narnia, which ends with the protagonists killing God). Perhaps her broad-spectrum approach, from East Asian religions to Western Catholicism, is a “seeds of truth” mentality at work, but it came across as cafeteria philosophy.

I think this book is worth reading, especially if you struggle with bad habits or want fervently to develop good habits–but as with many books aimed at helping yourself, you need to take the information with a grain of salt. Some things may be helpful as you try to improve your habits–and some things won’t fly. Again, in fairness, Ms Rubin says as much on at least one occasion.

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A Rationalist Reviews a Mystic: What Could Go Wrong?

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book took me a really long time to read. It’s not especially dense or complex (although it does get convoluted in some places). The real problem was that, for most of the book, I had little to no common ground with the author’s experience. I kept putting the book down and only decided to finish it in 2016’s Lenten season (which I did not even do, ultimately, missing Easter by about a week).

The reason for this disconnect between me and St. Teresa is this: I’m a fairly practical person. I’m not prone to much in the way of spiritual experience, which has the upside of making my faith pretty rational, and the downside of making it pretty unemotional. So while I readily admit that mysticism is a valid Christian experience for some people–like Teresa of Ávila–it’s not something I have any significant experience with.

So if, like me, you’re looking to read this book as a guide to deepening your faith, it may prove a non-starter if you’re not already open to a more mystical faith.

With that starting caveat, let me present the positives and negatives to this book. (Keep in mind that my negatives may not mean much for you mystics out there.)

Two parts of this book struck me as very good: First, on page 116 of my edition, Teresa provides and important perspective and reminder during the dry periods of our faith. The Lord gives us dry spells as a reminder, she writes, to make us realize that all the good things we have come from Him, which endears us to Him all the more and brings us closer in communion with His will. Too often, we feel abandoned during such times, as though He has left us to suffer to no purpose and with no end, but rather, His distance calls out to us and brings us to pursue Him all the more.

Second, on page 133, Teresa gives us a glimpse of the pain of condemnation, not caused by the torments of hell, but by the sight of our Lord: “I can tell you truly that, wicked as I am, I have never feared the torments of hell, for they seem nothing by comparison with the thought of the wrath which the damned will see in the Lord’s eyes–those eyes so lovely and tender and benign.” That image struck me deeply; God is Love so completely, and in His love, the wretchedness I have done brings forth from His tender eyes such wrath as I cannot imagine. This is a tremendous example of perfect contrition.

A third point works in Teresa’s favor, by my reading, but less well than these first two. Throughout the book, Teresa generally recognizes the philosophical principles of personhood in a way that many people (especially ancient Gnostics and modern pseudo-philosophers) fail to grasp: we are not embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, but a full combination of soul, spirit, and body. The only problem I have with her representation of this is that the parts seem almost divested of one another; a spirit or a soul acting separately from the other, without impact on the body, as if she were sharp enough to divide joints and marrow (Hebrews 4). But this is a small complaint.

Now for my negative points.

Teresa seems to have a general disdain for priests, especially as confessors. At one point (p100) she does laud “learned confessors,” but in general terms (p99, p115) she seems to think very little of what a confessor can offer to someone who is striving to improve his relationship with God–possibly because her confessors frequently were much less mystical than she, and being not mystical, they worried about mystical experiences, since (especially from an outside perspective) it seems very easy to misjudge things mystical as demonic (or vice versa). At any rate, I thought the opinion of priests that came through this text was pretty negative, and I didn’t like it.

Reading this book would have been so, so, so much easier if she had only used the first person when talking about herself. The translators and editors were always quick to point out when the subject of Teresa’s stories was actually herself, usually through reference to her other works, though she denies it at least once (p112). The real issue is that Teresa’s prose (presumably in the original Spanish, though it may be purely a translation problem) becomes so convoluted and twisted that reading it becomes a chore–when she could have shortened the paragraph by ten lines and simplified the whole of it by saying, “I said or thought or did such and such.” It was as though the entire book was spent saying, “Oh, not me! I’m… asking for a friend.”

Frequently, Teresa will comment on how unqualified she is to be writing this book. From a rational perspective, I agreed with her repeatedly. Her grasp of Scripture was even troubling, as accustomed as I am to writers like Augustine and Aquinas, whose references are often spot-on. She waffles constantly, and in several places says things like, “Someone said this in the Bible, I think.” And if she does guess, she has almost equal chances to be right or wrong about it. Raised a Bible-believing Protestant, I instantly doubt any spiritual advisor who doesn’t know his Scriptures.

On a related note, at one point, she claims that there is no greater love than when Jesus prayed for his disciples’ union with God (p154); the translator even used that phrasing (“I do not know what greater love there can be than this”). This flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own use of that phrase in John 15 (and her assertion is not helped by the fact that she does not know where in Scripture Jesus prayed this prayer).

The last thing that bugged me enough to mention was her position on marriage. Granted, most of those who are in celibate vocations, especially in Church history (I’m looking at you, St. Jerome), have negative opinions of marriage, but Teresa’s bothered me at the time. In describing the spiritual journey from isolated sinner to Christian united with Christ, she made an analogy to matrimony (the same analogy that St. Paul made outright in Ephesians 5, and numerous saints and popes have made since), but describes it in shallow terms. It is only “a rough comparison,” but she can find no better; the “spiritual joys and consolations given by the Lord are a thousand leagues removed from those experienced in marriage.” Perhaps I am overreacting, but the Church has vocations to marriage even more than to the priesthood and to holy orders, and with good reason: the grace and joy that accompany the sacrament of Matrimony are no meager things. Even so, I may be reacting too harshly; Catholic favor toward married life has taken a long time to come to fruition, and I cannot blame Teresa too much for being a product of her time.

All in all, this is an important work that may be beneficial to some, but to me–and to perhaps to others of primarily rational faith–it provided little direction or comfort.

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The Funny Martian

Spoilers follow!
The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. But before I get into why it’s amazing, let me quickly detail why it’s imperfect.

1. It started on the Internet. That’s not an automatic negative mark, and it’s probably the weakest black mark I have against it, but knowing that this was originally written Dickens-style on a blog made some of its flaws more obvious, including a few grammatical errors common to the casual intellectual marketplace of the Internet and the staccato progression that sometimes accompanies updates on a schedule (don’t worry, I thought the same thing of Dickens, on occasion).

2. Audience targeting. It’s never made entirely clear why Mark Watney (the eponymous character and frequent narrator) assumes that his mission logs will be browsed by laypersons, but it makes perfect sense for a novel of this sort. For the most part, Mr. Weir manages to work this out fairly well, with minimal intrusion, but once in a while, I read something and thought, “That only makes sense if your reader is completely unrelated to NASA/the probable first reader of your mission logs.”

3. My own nit-pickiness. (This issue continues for several paragraphs below.) I don’t care for cuss words (the fourth word of the novel is the F-word), but frankly, in this book more than others, it makes a lot of sense. The guy had just discovered he was abandoned on Mars and likely to die. If ever there’s a time to cuss… it’s then.

At one point, early in the book, Mr. Weir describes the ion drives of the primary interplanetary vessel, explaining that they “accelerate constantly the whole way there.” My first thought was, “If you accelerate the whole way there, how do you stop?” This even becomes a plot point later in the novel, and frankly, it seems like an oversight here. I briefly looked into ion engines for a story of my own, and they have potential, but you have to start decelerating about halfway there (unless you have some other engines for stopping). (Granted, “deceleration” in scientific terms is just “acceleration” in the other direction, but that would still mean an odd maneuver, like turning the ship around and switching the engines on the other direction to slow you down. Some sci-fi sources solve this by having engines on both ends of the ship, which makes a lot of sense to me, but ends up pretty ugly and probably expensive. There’s no friction to stop ships in space, after all.)

Also, weird random moments. Two-thirds of the way through or so, we hear Teddy (head of NASA) telling Annie (media relations) to excuse Mitch (mission commander) for his impertinent attitude, because men-testosterone-some-weird-nonsense. Meanwhile, Annie has been cussing like a sailor with a bad attitude since we met her, and seems the least likely of all the characters in the novel to be offended by someone flying off the handle. It’s kind of a baffling moment, but it passes quickly.

4. Heavy-handed pedantry. It lasts for all of a page (the last one in the book), but it ties into the least believable part of the novel: how everyone in the world bands together and spends millions of dollars in an effort to save one guy. I just don’t quite buy it. The way it’s presented for most of the novel, I can buy, if only because a few individuals might be able to pull this off, but there’s a notable lack of people saying, “Well, that sucks, but I guess he’s just going to die now. It’s just too expensive to do anything about it.” Because it’s fiction, I’m happy to aim for the happy ending, but to suggest there’s no antagonism toward this “save one guy in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars” plan? None at all? That’s a little strange. And then for Watney to come back on for a page to talk about how inherently good people are is just too heavy-handed a conclusion.

And that’s pretty much all I have to complain about this novel. It may seem like a lot, but I’m being highly critical (more than usual), because I was really hoping a novel with this kind of success could be easily achieved (Mr. Weir is both more intelligent and a better writer than I am, so I punish him by saying mildly unkind things about his debut novel). There was an awful lot to like (hence the five stars), but it’s not a guaranteed delight. For example, it is–first and foremost–a survival thriller. If you’re at all like my wife, and you get insanely stressed out when fictional characters might die, this is not the book for you. The “everyone might die” scenario is pretty much on the table until the last page. Which I enjoyed. But you might not.

I also like math. I didn’t study math, but given, oh, two or three more chances to go to college, I totally would. It’s right up there with computer science and physics for “most delightful college degrees I didn’t get.” This book has a lot of math. It’s frequently made accessible to the layperson (see “audience targeting” above), so it doesn’t interrupt the flow, but math and science are pretty much the bread and butter of this novel. I have heard it said that “The Martian” is like a full-length story just like that bit in Apollo 13 when the NASA guys get in a room and try to figure out how to make the square peg fit in the round hole; I find that an entertainingly accurate summation.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Weir does what almost no other author does: he makes me laugh. Most “comedic” books, even the vaunted Terry Pratchett, leave me saying, “Yep, that’s funny,” but not actually laughing. Perhaps (probably?) aided by his first-person perspective, Mr. Weir accomplishes genuine comedic timing, and delivers time and again with humor that I find delightful. (It may not be your style. Lots of sarcasm, and a little absurdity. It’s perfect.)

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I intend to. Given the content and style of the book, and that the film stars Matt Damon, I imagine that the film is a combination of Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away, minus Tom Hanks.

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Sense v. Friction

When Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough QuestionsWhen Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough Questions by Ray Guarendi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a helpful, if limited, little book. It is short and very easy to read, and it may contain precisely the wisdom you need in your familial troubles. At the same time, much of it seems very common-sense, especially if you’ve listened to Dr. Ray’s radio show before.

And ultimately, that’s what this book is: reading Dr. Ray’s radio show, complete with humorous asides and distracted parentheticals. And that can be delightful and helpful and informative, but ultimately, the radio show works better because Dr. Ray is able to address specifics with his callers, whereas we (the listeners) glean that which is generally applicable. In this book, Dr. Ray condenses his comments to only that which is generally applicable, losing much of the helpful specificity.

And much like a radio show, this book lacks a lot of integrated context. In one answer, Dr. Ray will reference earlier answers; that, combined with undecipherable chapter titles, shows we should read this book from beginning to end. But then Dr. Ray will repeat something he wrote two pages earlier–not just reference it, but repeat it word-for-word–and the reader must wonder whether he is reading this book incorrectly. Finally, the book ends without the slightest conclusion; whether or not these writings could be summarized isn’t clear, but we can’t know, because Dr. Ray doesn’t try. Once he runs out of questions, he runs out of pages, and we’re done. So if you need a specific question answered, it could be very useful–provided you can figure out which title relates to the question you want to ask.

Now, when I say that this book is “common sense,” I must acknowledge that such sense is not at all common–I mean only that I knew much of it beforehand, and it probably does not take Dr. Ray’s psychology degrees to figure it out. But many people have questions along these lines, and for all their intellect and wisdom, cannot come up with the answers Dr. Ray provides. And it may be that, in times of struggle and strife, I shall forget these answers and wonder troubling questions to myself, and I shall need this reminder. For that reason alone, I intend to keep this book.

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Clever Titles That Inform Even without Lampshading Them

It’s a good thing I don’t book-blog pseudo-professionally, or I’d be in trouble for taking this long to read another book and review it. Of course, I finished this one last month sometime, but even so, reading has fallen by the wayside in the business of life. I’m going to try to pick it up again, though, because I just got a bunch of books for my birthday. Huzzah.

The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1)The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book some time ago, but never quite got around to writing a review. I hope I shall do it justice with retrospect alone.

It is difficult to say enough about the brilliance of Asimov’s work. He always entertains, and his science fiction always provokes thought experiments and the examination of curiosities. The characters of Elijah “Lije” Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are compelling, each in their own way.

Lije has a tenacity that is appropriate to his profession, but (at first) lacks the ingenuity and pattern-discovery that we typically associate with a detective; this comes in time, but not before tilting at every windmill he passes in an effort to solve the case, resolve his fears, and return to a normal (somewhat humdrum) life, without all the wildness of human-like robots and politically-charged murder and conspiracies and the idea that Earthmen should recolonize space. This gives us a glimpse of the distant future Asimov has imagined: what sort of cultural changes might drive men to stay in their caves of steel and avoid the warmth of the sun and the taste of fresh air? What economic and social changes would there be? And how would a man fit into that world, especially a man concerned with finding justice? Would he even be so concerned?

R. Daneel neatly strikes that balance between human and inhuman; he is human enough for us to enjoy his presence (narrowly avoiding the uncanny valley), but rigid enough in his programming that we still see him as the outsider. I think the description provided in the story of Daneel’s programming fits him to a T–a robot designed to blend into human society and study human behavior, provided with an additional bit of “justice” code, where “justice” is defined as adhering to the law of the land. He is, at one and the same time, our “outsider,” who is so foreign that Baley spends much of the book despising him, but also our “straight man.” Everything in Baley’s world that is topsy-turvy from our own, we see it analyzed and organized and categorized through Daneel’s eyes. This builds Asimov’s world without info-dumping, while also avoiding the oh-so-tired trope of the “doe-eyed innocent” who has to have everything explained to him.

“The Caves of Steel” wasn’t the perfect book, though. Like all science fiction, it eventually becomes outdated, and the possibility of realizing the world imagined becomes less, and we start to wonder how applicable these warnings (and hopings) could even be applied to our lives. “Caves” is not so far gone as all that, but I still think its commentary had much more impact in the 1950s than it does today. Industrialism and pure productivity and dedication to labor and urbanization and all those things coming off the second World War have faded in the minds of many today; they still linger, here and there, but not so pervasively, I think (not that I was there).

I will say that I found Baley’s tilting at windmills tiresome after a while, but I feel the same when watching cop shows and the like; “How do these cops get away with accusing everyone and their mother of the same murder? Is this the ‘shotgun’ approach to getting confessions? ‘Yell at everyone, and someone will crack’? Or is it ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’?” Informative of his character and Asimov’s world, yes; indicative of a good “whodunit,” not so much.

At any rate, a very good read, with some reasonably expected drawbacks. I will read the sequel (The Naked Sun) eventually, but I just got a pile of books for my birthday, and Asimov isn’t going anywhere.

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