Thursday, April 19, 2007

Nothing: Something to Believe In, by Nica Lalli

Sometimes when I review a book, what I want to do -- whether I love it or hate it -- is to shout out my opinion to the world. At other times, I'm more concerned about something a reviewer should always be thinking about: How will other people like the book? Which readers will enjoy it, and who will want to be steered away from it?

Nothing is the second kind of book, because it's a very personal story. So, while I was thinking about what to say about it, I decided to find out a little bit about what other people were saying. I was startled by one press release that said, "Reflective Memoir Puts Female Face on Nonbelief ... The public face of atheism has recently been that of bestselling authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and Daniel Dennett, academic males and vocal critics of religion...." I thought, "What about Lori Lipman Brown, the lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America? She's been getting a lot of press! What about 'celebrity' atheists like Julia Sweeney?" The list could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is, what matters about this book is not that it's written by a woman, but that it's written by an ordinary person -- a member of her local community board and the PTA, someone who could be your next-door neighbor. So many atheists and humanists are silent about their viewpoint that any time someone goes public, it's a revelation.

What will you find in this book? Don't look for a heroic tale of a woman enduring threatening phone calls, and bricks thrown through the living room window, because she had the "nerve" to challenge prayer in her child's school. Neither will you find a story about a journey from faith to Freethought, or a call to activism. Lalli, who was brought up by nonreligious parents, tells a quiet story, offering intimate descriptions of (among other things) how it feels to be different from churchgoing classmates, and what it's like having in-laws who are smugly certain of their moral superiority. Most of her anecdotes reflect the everyday reality of millions of Americans -- usually not very dramatic, but just as important as the stories that make headlines.

The best feature of Nothing is that Lalli does such a good job of describing her emotions at any given time: When she tells the story of something that happened to her at, say, age 5, she includes the kind of details a five-year-old would notice. In that way, she offers some good food for thought to freethinking parents. Her experiences show why it's a good idea for parents to help their children figure out how to deal with peers from religious families, and to tell them more about their own worldviews than Lalli's parents did.

At the close of her introduction, Nica Lalli writes, "I do not pretend to be the voice for all the 'others' [she means other nonreligious Americans], I can only speak for myself. And yet I do hope that my story can add to a productive dialogue ...." She makes a good point here. I don't know how typical her story is of people who have been brought up in nonreligious families, but I do know it's quite different from my own. Some readers will have the pleasure of recognizing experiences very similar to their own, like the reader-reviewer who commented, "So many of Nica's experiences seemed like my own, and I even cried at parts." Others may enjoy reading about a life that's very different from their own. In a manner that reminds me of the old feminist slogan, "The personal is political," Nica Lalli has added a voice to a conversation that needs to include many more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Philip Appleman: "Darwin" and Poems

A couple of weeks ago, one of my kids e-mailed me, asking me to advise a friend of hers who had to write a paper on what Charles Darwin would have thought of abortion. One of my first thoughts was to wonder what he would have thought of feminism, and the feminist belief that women should have control of their own bodies. So, I reached for my trusty Norton Critical Edition Darwin and found just what I needed: excerpts from Evelleen Richards' 1983 article, "Darwin and the Descent of Woman". The article not only describes Darwin's views, but also places them in historical context, partly by telling what contemporary feminist writing he had read.

Published in 2001, this is the third edition of Darwin edited by Philip Appleman, who is not only a scholar deeply familiar with the work of Darwin and his contemporaries, but a poet who has made evolution a theme of such works as Darwin’s Ark. Darwin is a labor of love, still vibrant with Appleman's first, youthful discovery of Darwin's work (described in pages 15-17 of the introduction), and informed by thorough scholarship. In this greatly expanded edition, Appleman presents generous selections from Darwin's original works, as well as a wide selection of essays and excerpts of other writers' works. We learn about the biographical and scientific background of Darwin's pivotal discovery, as well as its "enduring relevance" not only for science, but for social thought, philosophy and ethics, religious life, and literature.
Appleman understands Darwin's works are valuable not only for what they teach us about the way the history of life unfolded -- as if that weren't enough! -- but also for their vital contribution to the development of science as a method for understanding the natural world. The process is an exciting, unfinished story, as Appleman tells first through the writing of thinkers like Lyell and Malthus --whose work Darwin incorporated in his theory-- and then through the writing of his contemporary detractors and defenders.
Appleman brings readers up to date (and leaves us ready for tomorrow's headlines) with selections of later scientists' work on genetics,statistics, systematics, human evolution, and natural selection. Other sections of Darwin include offerings as diverse as an excerpt of The Woman's Bible, by pioneering feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; discussions of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary ethics; and essays on how the advent of evolutionary thought has changed the meaning of tragedy.
Darwin could be used as a course reader; for the rest of us, it likely won't be a book we read straight through, but one to dip into at different times. One reader will seek a solid introduction to a particular topic, another will look for provocative insights. You might want to learn more about punctuated equilibrium, or how one poet "put[s] a contemporary gloss on Darwin's theory of sexual selection". Activists will appreciate Part VIII, a wide ranging discussion of the problems posed by creationism.

Now that I'm writing about Appleman, I can't resist recommending his poetry -- often passionate, sometimes witty, always accessible. In fact, my first introduction to Appleman was by a friend who had discovered his work his poetry. I was giving him a ride to a meeting, and he read aloud "Gertrude”, a wonderfully touching expression of the rage and grief Appleman felt at his mother's death. You can read an excerpt here (scroll down or search on the word "Gertrude").

I was hooked! It's best to let poems speak for themselves, so here are links to "Memo To The 21st Century" and "This Year's Valentine". Let me know if you’re hooked too!