Thoughts on “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger

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I really enjoyed this book and wanted to share it. Wonderful discussions about gendered adaptations and approaches to threat and conflict. Mental illness, and societal as well as evolutionary adaptations we possess for dealing with trauma. And our human need for strong social bonds and meaningful opportunities to come together as one to contribute to, protect, and heal our communities. Thought-provoking, sincere, hopeful, and deeply moving writing (or, in the case of the audiobook version I “read,” listening). Also a decent commentary on the challenges we face in America and other developed Western societies, where we have incredible blessings of health, security, technological advances, and prosperity that also tend to stratify us into social or political classes and isolate us from one another.

There are so many cool things I could talk about with this short book, but I’ll leave the discussion here. I feel greatly enriched by this book, and I’m growing rather fond of Sebastian Junger’s well-researched and thoughtful perspectives of humanity. There’s a lot more potential for good in our natures and tendencies than we often consider, and we humans need one another more than we know.

Highly recommended read!

You can find Tribe here on Audible (read by the author himself): http://www.audible.com/pd/History/Tribe-Audiobook/B01D57FN3I

Or here on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tribe-Homecoming-Belonging-Sebastian-Junger/dp/1455566381.

Review: Sands by Kevin L. Nielsen

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Kevin Nielsen is a friend of mine from LTUE and the Utah writing community. He recently put out a novel, the first in a YA series through a local small press based in Provo called Future House Publishing, and I’ve been eager to pick it up. I loved this book, and I’m very excited to talk about it on the blog today.

In Sands, a young girl named Lhaurel has a stubborn, independent nature that often gets her into trouble when her free spirit clashes with her clan’s strict gender-role traditions. They live in a harsh, sandy desert landscape ruled by chauvinism and volatile inter-clan conflicts. When she commits a desperate act of rebellion–taking up a sword, as a woman, to save her friend’s life–her clan leaves her behind as food fodder for giant sand serpents called “genesauri” (which may or may not have been bioengineered to thwart an enemy of war in the not-so-distant past). An egalitarian clan of mystics has been watching her for many years and rescues her from this terrible fate to train in swordsmanship and break into her own powers. As things progress, it becomes clear that something, or someone, has triggered an early migration of genesauri and may be drawing them toward a barrier of magnetic rock surrounding an oasis that normally repulses them–toward the clans gathering there for refuge. And Lhaurel’s abilities make her something far more powerful and dangerous than what any of the other mystics first anticipated.

Nielsen has created an intriguing magical post-apocalyptic universe through the eyes of a strong female character, beautiful descriptions, well-placed action, and wholesome storytelling. Sands is a delightful adventure. The audiobook narrator, Tanya Eby, was a perfect fit for voicing the characters in this book and wonderful to listen to. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the audio narration, and I highly recommend it!

You can check out Sands here at Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Teens/Sands-Audiobook/B01B8JLXRK

Or here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B012CB4S66

Or here at Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/sands-kevin-l-nielsen/1122630603.

His second book, Storms, is also available here: http://www.amazon.com/Storms-Sharani-Book-Kevin-Nielsen-ebook/dp/B019X32RZU.

Recommended Read: “The Marshmallow Test” By Walter Mischel

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LDS general authority Dieter F. Uchtdorf referenced the self-control studies described in The Marshmallow Test in his talk on patience at a session of General Conference several years ago. When I found out the researcher, Walter Mischel, wrote a book, I was eager to add the audio version to my library and delve into more of the details.

The Marshmallow Test involves the debate of nature vs. nurture in shaping who we are and what we become. How much of our behavior and abilities is driven by pre-wired traits or environmentally imposed conditions, and how does self-control play into our success? Why do some who are wildly successful in the public sphere fail to carry that level of discipline and impulse regulation to other aspects of their lives? Further, how can we take a more active approach as a society to prevent delequency and help individuals who struggle with various impulse-control or mental illness related issues, and how do we raise children who thrive and give back to their communities in their chosen pursuits?

Children appear to develop some blend of two philosophies about their abilities at a young age. They believe that they are good at something because they were born that way, or because external factors converged in their favor (“I’m doing a good job coloring in the lines today because this is a good crayon”). Or they believe that they can become good at something if they work at it and learn how. This book takes into account that environment and genetic predisposition–which are largely outside an individual’s control–play a vital role in childhood development, as well as shaping our personal attitudes and outlook on life from an early age. What we believe about ourselves, our needs, and our abilities has a major impact on what we do.

As sophisticated, socially cooperative creatures, we evolved a primal hot system for survival, and a cognitive cool system for handling long-term social and environmental complexities. The impulsive hot system gives us the adrenaline rush we need to escape predators, rescue our kin, or defend ourselves from others who want to steal from us or cause us harm. We snag food that tastes good when calories might be scarce, we pursue sex when we’re lonely or eager (a mechanism for gratification and passing on our genes), and we seek immediate relief for symptoms of pain rather than treating root causes, and so forth. The cool system gives us the ability to self-distract and distance ourselves from these impulses, to frame them in a broader, strategic, rational context.

Mischel suggests that self-control skills are malleable. His observations bolster a school of thought in which most people can learn greater mastery and rewire their thinking in many areas, including relationships, overcoming addictions, focusing at school, and respecting the laws, rights, and dignities of others. This is given that they have a desire to learn or to change.

Balancing the hot and cool systems is also vital to our well being and success. Engaging the cool system too much can deprive us of zest and motivation, while an easily triggered hot system can lead to rash decision making and physical aliments such as elevated blood pressure. Either can engender anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Being able to put off immediate gratification for greater future rewards also involves trust. If we do not trust that someone is going to come through on future promises, or that a delay in what is immediately available to us is to our benefit, it becomes reasonably impractical to wait to take advantage of some opportunities.

I love this book because Mischel’s research and conclusions ring true to me, and to my own world views on life, biology, and psychology. I highly recommend it. While we don’t get to pick many of our challenges in life, and we can’t control everything we feel, everything the world tell us about ourselves, or the way others respond to us, we can control what we think and do about it. We have the power to make our own choices and to change our minds, and we have a huge impact on how others perceive their own abilities and self-worth through our words and actions. We will grow the more we reach out to each other in constructive ways and strive to exercise our inherent capacity to learn.

You can listen to The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Science-Technology/The-Marshmallow-Test-Audiobook/B00N9E4YWY

Or buy it here on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Marshmallow-Test-Mastering-Self-Control/dp/0316230871.

Thoughts on “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often thought to be a cautionary tale about taking science too far. Yet, there are practically no details of how the monster was created like I might expect to find in a modern work of science fiction. We see Frankenstein collecting body parts (described pretty much just that vaguely), and his emotional reactions to that task. What Frankenstein creates and how he creates it aren’t the main shock value of the story at all. No dead bodies are stuffed with bolts and manually cranked up on a platform by a hunchbacked assistant during a lightning storm. Instead, the cautionary tale seems to have a much more human, rather than technical, implication.

While H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Crichton, and more recent authors and movie producers tend to emphasize a theme of “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should,” that lesson never made sense to me when applied to real science or other things in life. Particularly when I live in a culture that praises concepts like “you can do anything you put your mind to,” “knowledge is power,” and “the sky’s the limit.”

In Shelley’s novel, knowledge is a vice. Or, rather, knowing enough to mess around with something but failing to plan or take responsibility for the unexpected consequences is a vice. It seems that Frankenstein’s utter lack of understanding as to what exactly he had created and how he might deal justly with his creation are what made the story so tragic. If he had known more, if he had explored further and come to understand more fully his creation from the beginning instead of letting it wander away and hoping it would go extinct, it might never have become a monster at all. Nor appeared as one to its creator, whatever “deformities” it possessed. Frankenstein turned away from his thirst for knowledge and understanding too soon. Or, perhaps, he had already turned away from a true and honest pursuit of understanding in favor of his own glory or “ambition” long before his creation came to be.

That probably isn’t what Shelley meant. She lived closer to a time when it was thought some things were not meant to be explored or explained by human minds, though this usually held supernatural connotations as well. And that brings me to the broader and rather powerful lesson that I believe Frankenstein actually presents. It’s about taking anything too far. Frankenstein’s ambition or self-glorification in trying to bring back the dead wasn’t so much “playing God” in the sense of trying to unlock the mysteries of Creation, or explore something interesting that no one has explored before, or gaining mortal power over death. It was, rather, a sort of self-idolatry.

Frankenstein’s thirst for knowledge was not his fatal flaw, then, I would argue. The fatal mistake was elevating his ambitions above and at the expense of things that really, primally mattered: his integrity, his health, his joy, his family, and all loving relationships with other human beings. The monster’s appearance in this story is nebulously described in value-based terms: “hideous,” “uncouth,” “miserable wretch,” etc. That creature is therefore a symbol of human negligence. The consequence, without any sort of intervening Christ figure in the story to restore Frankenstein and all who would be afflicted forever by this one mistake the man could not recompense on his own, whatever his efforts to do so, is that this particular monster born of self-glorification would rob that man of all he held dear. It would leave him miserable, alone, and psychologically damned like unto the monster itself. (Frankenstein’s monster did compare himself to Satan numerous times, so this seems a fitting metaphor).

I loved the milieu descriptions, the characters; and the fact that the character Frankenstein came from a warm, loving, functional family rather than a broken home life (another part of what made the story tragic). Some of the descriptions, particularly of people’s life stories, have that old-fashioned pacing that I find a bit cumbersome (I’m not cut out to enjoy Classics, apparently). But the relationship tension is riveting. The mounting twists of horror are heart-wrenching. Super depressing book, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

I recommend the audio version narrated by Dan Stevens, which you can find here on Audible: http://www.audible.com/pd/Classics/Frankenstein-Audiobook/B00FQRCM9O.