Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?If there’s one thing I’ve learned all these years blogging about books it’s the more I enjoyed a book, the harder it is for me to write about it. Writing about books I’m not crazy about it is easy. Heck, just post anything on the blog. On the other hand, writing about great book takes forever. Outstanding books call for outstanding reviews and outstanding reviews aren’t easy to write. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about Frans de Waal’s outstanding book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Let’s just say it’s a book so good I feel out of my league reviewing it.

Had it not been for my book club, I might never have heard of, let alone read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Published in April of 2016, De Waal’s book is a detailed look at the world of animal cognition. Looking at a wide array of animals including primates of all varieties but also birds (especially the highly intelligent corvids like crows and ravens), dolphins, elephants and even octopuses De Waal shows without a doubt the gap, cognitively speaking, between these kinds of animals and humans is surprising narrow. As threatening as this might be to our species’ sense of exceptionalism and primacy, the ongoing research shows us this gap is getting narrower all the time. While many scientists and researchers accept the conclusions of these new findings some do not, instead preferring to redefine the definition of such cognitive processes like problem-solving, tool manufacturing and usage, communication and sense of self. De Wall calls this habit of raising the intellectual bar so humans feel less threatened as “moving the goal posts.” (One of my favorite stories in the book is that of the chimps in the London Zoo who were trained to take tea just like any respectable Brits. The problem was the chimps did such good job having a proper tea Londoners felt threatened. As a response the chimps were taught to be sloppy and careless when having tea.)

De Waal’s book is just as much about human cognition as it is about animal cognition, specifically how we humans strive to measure animal intelligence but frequently in the end our assumptions and prejudices prevent us from getting a truer understanding of how animals use their brains. Borrowing from the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull, according to De Waal if you wanna understand how an animal thinks, you gotta understand that animal’s surrounding world, or umwelt. Don’t assign a bunch of intelligence tests that don’t reflect the reality of an animal’s umwelt. As an example, De Waal talks about attempts to measure elephant cognition, specifically tool making. Researchers gave elephants sticks to see if they would use them as tools to grab out of reach treats. Researchers failed to take into account that elephants prefer not to use their trunks in that fashion, since it prevents them from using their trunks as a smell organ. A more accurate test of elephant tool-making was giving them boxes to stack in order to construct a make-shift step-ladder. By doing so the elephant could reach a high-hanging snack and thus show elephants can be tool-making creatures.

Not only is this an outstanding book, it’s by far one of the best book I read in 2016. Please consider Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? highly recommended.


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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

Tribe: On Homecoming and BelongingOne Sunday morning two decades ago while channel surfing on a cable-less TV I stumbled upon an episode of CBS Sunday Morning. Either out of curiosity or boredom, I found myself drawn into one of the show’s news stories, specifically that of a young up and coming writer enjoying his first taste of literary success after his first book was recently published. The more I watched, the more I started to learn his book told of an unlucky crew of fisherman tragically overwhelmed by a monstrous Atlantic storm.
That book was The Perfect Storm and that young up and coming author was Sebastian Junger. Fast forward 20 years, and even though I own two of his books I’ve never read a word of his stuff. That is until now.
Recently, my book club voted to read his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Why we voted for Tribe is beyond me, although I suspect both the author’s reputation and the book’s short length of 200 pages might have been contributing factors. Luckily for me, I found an available library edition and quickly went to work on it. Because it’s so short I finished it off in no time. Even though Junger’s book didn’t rock my world, it still made for stimulating reading. To me anyway, I saw Tribe as Junger’s opportunity to weigh in on the current state of American society. Taking examples not only from history but also from other fields like psychology, Junger examined the challenges we in America face in trying to maintaining a strong sense of community, as well as keeping the rich and powerful accountable to the rest of us (think of the recent financial crises). Lastly, in a significant portion of the book which to me seemed only marginally related to rest of it, Junger asks how do we in America effectively and compassionately help re-integrate our nation’s war veterans back into society.
I saw the book as a kind of extended op-ed piece. While some book club members railed against it, I thought it was OK and welcomed the authors sermonizing on community, war and accountability. In spite of the book’s shortness, I still managed to learn a thing or two. All the stuff about white settlers preferring to live among Indians, even after being captured was new to me. (Although I suspect Junger might have romanticized things a bit. For a fuller and I suspect more historically accurate handing of this subject I highly recommend Linda Colley’s  Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850.) In discussing the deadly Springhill coal mine collapse in Nova Scotia in 1958, during the course of their underground ordeal different types of leaders emerged among the trapped men. Depending on the circumstances sometimes macho, take-charge kind of leaders would assert their leadership while other times it was the more nurturing and supportive ones.

Again, I saw this as a kind of extended op-ed piece. I found Tribe, both in style and perhaps in purpose reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff like Outliers and David and Goliath. I also found similarities with other books I’ve read, specifically War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, Dark Age Ahead by the late Jane Jacobs, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank and lastly Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future by Neil Postman.

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About Time I Read It: The Pity of It All by Amos Elon

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.

The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.

As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.

When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.

The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.

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Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston

Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic RebelsAfter having great luck with Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox I was on the lookout for other great stuff by or about former Hasidic Jews. When I discovered my public library had an available copy of Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels I didn’t hesitate to get my hands on it. Just like I did with the two above-mentioned memoirs, I whipped through Winston’s Unchosen while thoroughly enjoying it.

Like Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Unchosen is a polyvocal text. The voices heard in Winston’s book are rebellious (believe me, in this context it’s a relative term) Hasidic Jews or those trying to leave the community, many of which are from the highly insular and morally restrictive Satmar sect of New York. Slowly, over a long period of time the book’s author Hella Winston, a nonobservant Jew met got to know some of them as they shared their respective life stories with her.

For a disillusioned Satmar or member of a similar community to up and leave is no easy task. Members have been inculcated from day one with religious beliefs that speak of the group’s divine chosen status contrasted with the moral depravity of the greater world, making integration within the lager Jewish community, to say nothing of secular society in general difficult. In addition, young Hasidim are pressured to marry early in life and produce large families, thus making it a challenge to server those  family relationships and obligations should they want to leave. Lastly, because of the lack of secular education or quality vocational training, members are ill-suited to make it in the outside world. (Males receive roughly the equivalent of a 4th grade education. Everything after that is religious training. Women, since they’re not allowed to study religious topics like the men, ironically, receive a bit more secular eduction. Both sexes are educated in the community’s preferred language of Yiddish, making interaction with the English-speaking world even harder.)

In Winston’s book we meet an interesting array of individuals including a young man who struggles to leave his community but his lack of resources, confidence, English skills and support network make it next to impossible; a religious instructor who’s lost his faith and a young woman striving to start a halfway house for those transitioning out of Hasidism. My favorite Hasid in Winston’s book had to be Steinmetz, an employee at a Hasidic-approved store who spent his off the clock time reading forbidden books at of all places the library of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Like any good rebellious bibliophile I salute Steinmetz and consider him a man after my own heart!

I found all the life stories discussed in Unchosen fascinating and well worth my time. The individuals featured in Winston’s book are complex and multifaceted, with little, if any black and white and mostly shades of gray. No wonder I enjoyed this book.

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaI learned a long time ago when a bartender recommends a book, you follow that recommendation. Last winter, I joined an old buddy of mine for beers at a neighborhood watering hole. As the two of us sat at the bar catching up, he introduced me to the bartender, who in turn happened to be a buddy of his. As the three of us chatted away, I noticed our friendly barkeeper had a copy of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Since I’ve read several of Larson’s books and enjoyed them all, I asked him what he thought of Dead Wake. He spoke highly of Larson’s recent offering, praising both his storytelling and his choice in subject matter. According to our good barkeeper one if the reasons he found the sinking of the Lusitania so fascinating was even though it happened a century ago, it nonetheless occurred during the modern age. Therefore, one can go to You Tube and watch old footage of American and British aristocracy boarding the ship for what would be its last, and sadly disastrous voyage. For me, that was all the recommending I needed to read this book.

But lo and behold, it took one more person to recommend this book to me before I read it. One of my book club buddies upon hearing me mention this book and set out to read it himself. Then, after finishing it and raving about it, I finally grabbed an available copy of my public library and got down to reading it. I’m happy to say just like Larson did with his early books In the Garden of BeastsThe Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm he did not disappoint me.

Perhaps there’s two reasons why Dead Wake works so well as book. One, Larson has a true talent writing about history and making it come alive. Second, in order to help make the past come alive in his writing, he focuses on the significant and fascinating personalities of the day. Not only does this put a human face on history, but it also makes it relatable to readers. Lastly, Larson looks at the Lusitania’s sinking with a panoramic lens, giving us the perspective from not just the British and American authorities but also from that of the German U-boat and its captain Walther Schwieger. But most interesting of all, it’s Larson’s look inside British intelligence and the author’s compelling argument the British military knew the Lusitania was in danger and yet did nothing to warn the ship. With the ocean liner’s sinking one of the major factors that later caused the United States to declare war on German and its allies, one wonders if America was set-up in some way.

Anyway, this is an outstanding book. Don’t be surprised if it ends up making my year-end Best of List. Please consider Dead Wake highly recommended.


Filed under History

Books About Books: The Pope’s Bookbinder by David Mason

The Pope's Book Binder: A MemoirDo any of you for one moment think I could ever resist a book entitled The Pope’s Bookbinder? Of course not. Once I discovered my public library had available copy of this cool sounding book I simply had to get my hands on it. As misleading as the title was, The Pope’s Book Binder did not disappoint me. I mean come on, how could not enjoy a memoir by a Canada’s premier dealer of rare and antique books?
In his memoir 2013, Mason recalls his life-long obsession with books, beginning with his adolescent obsession with cheap paperbacks. The ones that caught Mason’s eye were the ones with tawdry cover art, usually depicting some scantily clad woman or two in a sexy pose. Yielding to his youthful and prurient interests, he finally bought one of these nasty looking little editions. Later that night, as he lay in the bathtub reading it, Mason soon realized much to his disappointment it was not a piece of cheap smut but a copy of I Claudius. But to his surprise he fell in love with what he read, and soon after that reading and books in general. A rebellious but intellectually precocious  young man who loved reading but hated school, Mason dropped out at 15 and fled to Europe. After bumming around the Continent hippy-style he found employment in Spain in a book bindery. It was here he helped bind a high-end volume for the Pope. Returning to his native Canada he was able to broker his love of books and valuable work experience to land a job in the book industry. Eventually, after borrowing seed money from his father his started his own bookshop. From there he would go on to the that nation’s leading bookseller of first editions and rare Canadiana.
The Pope’s Book Binder was a glimpse into a world of books of which I knew little, including rare Canadiana but also foreign bootlegs of English language books. Thanks to the many anecdotes he shares throughout the book, (The Pope’s Bookbinder is nothing but wall to wall anecdotes) I also learned how close-knit and quirky the antiquarian book world tends to be. In a nutshell, it’s chockfull of eccentrics.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff on what it’s like to run a bookstore and all the adventures that go into stocking it. (Remember one of my earlier posts when I mentioned buying cheap books from carts outside the bookstore? According to Mason, those books tend to be leftovers from when a store has purchased a large collection of books from a private party.)
With my love of books about books I had no problem enjoying Mason’s memoir. I have a kind of personal cannon when it comes to books on the rare book trade. From time to time, I find myself recommending The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of BooksA Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict and The House of Twenty Thousand Books  Now, along with all those, I’ll also be recommending David Mason’s The Pope’s Bookbinder. 


December 15, 2016 · 5:15 am

Books About Books: When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War IIBack in April when I reviewed Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East I mentioned how over the years NPR has introduced me to a ton of excellent books. I’m please to report I can add yet another book to that wonderful list. About two years ago Morning Edition interviewed Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II . Listening to her amazing story of America sending books to its soldiers and sailors fighting in WWII entertained and intrigued me. Even though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the Second World War, I had no idea such a literary program existed. After listing to the program I vowed to read When Books Went to War. But instead of running out to read it right away it took me a couple of years and a bit of positive word of mouth from a co-worker before I made an effort to do so. My goodness I’m glad I finally read it. When Books Went to War is a wonderful book.

According to Guptill Manning, America saw the need to get books in the hands of its soldiers even before the nation entered the war. In the year or so preceding Pearl Harbor, America’s leaders saw the handwriting on the wall that war was imminent. As the ranks of the Armed Forces began to swell, these newly drafted men in uniform had few, if any avenues for rest and recreation. Books were soon seen as a solution, but supplies of them on Army, Navy and Marine Corps bases were woefully inadequate. Public book drives ensued but even those weren’t enough to supply the demand. Books needed to be both desirable to read and lightweight, since service men were shipping out to fight around the world. Eventually, America’s sailors and soldiers were supplied with light, cheap and durable (staples were substituted for glue, since glue got eaten by tropical insects) paperbacks. As far as desirable reading material, the gamut ran from ancient classics to popular fiction to history.  And then men couldn’t get enough of them.

Our efforts to supply our troops with books, especially light, portable editions had a lasting impact far beyond the War. It helped fuel America’s love of inexpensive, mass-produced paperbacks. It would also instill a desire to read among the nation’s returning soldiers. Years later, as these men entered colleges across the country thanks to the GI Bill, younger students would complain when these disciplined, studious and in many cases better read classmates excelled academically and as a result drove up the grading curve!

Entertaining, enlightening and a joy to read, this a great book. If you like American history or just books in general this book is for you.  Consider When Books Went to War highly recommend.


Filed under History