Reading – & Now: 2018

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A love affair with books


"Getting bored in a universe this weird is unacceptable."
exurb1a⩘ , You (Probably) Don't Exist⩘ , Jun 30, 2018

"A nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to distrust it."
– Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets Gen Mgr
   in The Undoing Project⩘  by Michael Lewis, 2016

Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes
The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

I Contain Multitudes by Ed YongNarrated by Charlie Anson

Reading The Hot Zone reminded me about another book I had previously read about the little creatures that surround and permeate us, so I decided to listed to Ed Yong's mind blowing book again. I Contain Multitudes provides a fresh and somewhat startling answer to the age old question "Who am I?" What a truly amazing world we inhabit … and are inhabited by.

HarperAudio, 2016

An interesting related article by Rob Dunn: "The Bacteria Lurking in American Showerheads." The Atlantic, Nov 25, 2018.

Richard Preston, The Hot Zone
A Terrifying True Story

The Hot Zone by Richard PrestonNarrated by Richard M. Davidson

This is one of the most frightening books I've ever come across. I first read it years ago, likely when it first came out in 1995. When the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo began worsening this fall, I thought it might be worthwhile reading again, and found that it is now available as an audiobook.

It retains its title as one of the most frightening books I've ever come across. And I was amazed as the current news events tracked what I was re-reading. In the book, there is a moment when an infected nurse travels to a fairly big city, crossing a horrifying threshold in terms of the danger of spread. The next day, I awoke to news headlines about the current outbreak reaching a city of one million. Toward the end of the book, the author shares the story of how he traveled to a cave suspected to be the source of one of the earliest outbreaks to see if he could find evidence of the virus, perhaps in the bats or other critters that live in or visit the cage. He wrapped himself up in a sort of patched together space suit, and as a reader, I was keenly aware that any mistake he made that breached his suit, like a small cut, could expose him to contact with virus. I was nervous just reading about it! Today, there was a news item about scientists finding the Marburg virus, a cousin of Ebola, in bats in Sierra Leone.

Let's just hope we keep dodging the bullet of a major worldwide outbreak.

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011

Zeyn Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn JoukhadarExquisitely read by Lara Sawalha

I'm so grateful to have come across this book.

"Like the old tales you like," she says, smiling with the good times in her eyes, the times when we had Baba. "You have to weave two stories together to tell them both right." She presses her palms together, then opens them. "Like two hands."

Zeyn Joukhadar is a tremendously talented storyteller. This wondrous book vividly reveals the story of a modern-day Syrian family from the point of view of Nour, the youngest daughter, woven together with the story of Rawiya, a girl who lived 800 years previously. Both girls have recently lost their fathers.

Nour, along with her mother and her two sisters, leave New York City, where Nour was born and raised, to travel to their old home in Homs, Syria. Shortly after they arrive, war breaks out, their home is destroyed, and they are forced to become refugees. The story follows their perilous journey across an often war torn region as they attempt to make their way to Nour's uncle, who lives in Ceuta.

Rawiya leaves her impoverished mother and home, disguises herself as a boy named Rami, and strikes out on her own to find her way in the world. She finds a place as a mapmaker's apprentice, and they set out on an equally perilous journey across the region in order to map it for the first time.

In their unique ways, both girls are gifted and discover within themselves deep wells of strength and courage as they deal with the multitude of challenges they encounter during their travels.

The stories reveal the tremendous beauty of the region, and at the same time, the horrendous ways refugees are treated, as well as the gifts we stand to gain if we open our hearts enough to view them as unique individuals who deserve, at the very least, to be treated with the dignity of fellow human beings.

"There was a time others came to claim our country," Itto says. "We couldn't speak our language or name our children what we wanted. But we held to what our mothers loved. Our heritage. Our stories. They call us Berber, from 'barbarian.' But Amazigh means 'free man.' Did you know this? No one can take our freedom from us. No one can take our land or our names from our hearts."

Shortly after I began this book, I realized I was listening to something special. As I often do in cases like this, I picked up the printed book as well, so I could see how names are spelled, and fully savor some of the exquisite passages I came across. I'm really glad I did because I discovered something delightful that I otherwise would've missed: each part of the book takes place in different countries or places, and those parts are introduced with a lyrical passage in the shape of those countries or places. A beautiful touch.

Introduction to Part 1 of The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2018

Jason A. Ramos, Smokejumper

Smokejumper by Jason A. RamosCowritten by Julian Smith; read by Ned Vaghn

An excellent exploration of the airborne firefighter program in the U.S., interweaving the history of the program, firsthand glimpses into the training and life of a smokejumper, a look at some of the triumphs and tragedies of wildland firefighting, and a concluding discussion about the challenges we'll face as climate change leads to more ferocious and unpredictable fires.

As a society and individually, we owe a debt of gratitude to the firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect us and this beautiful country we live in.

HarperAudio, 2015

Dr. Steven Novella, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe by Dr. Steven NovellaNarrated by the author

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.
– Carl Sagan

Excellent book. Left me wistfully imagining what our society might look like if these concepts were taught in school and became deeply woven into the fabric of our culture.

Covering a comprehensive range of topics, including examples from history and occurring now, the insights are presented with a balance of humor and outrage.

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened.
– Douglas Adams

The book is arranged into these sections:

  1. Core Concepts Every Skeptic Should Know
  2. Adventures in Skepticism
  3. Skepticism and the Media
  4. Death by Pseudoscience
  5. Changing Yourself and the World

I very much appreciate three passages presented in the book's closing pages:

The first rule [of skepticism] is to apply these principles of critical thinking to yourself foremost. Remember, all the cognitive biases, flaws in memory and perception, heuristics, motivated reasoning, the Dunning-Kruger effect—it all applies to you, not just other people. Really let that sink in.

Realize that you will never achieve the goal of ridding yourself of bias and error. All you can do is remain vigilant and work hard to keep them to a minimum. And while you're keeping that light focused inward, recognize that you have sacred cows, ideas that are part of your identity and will cause you emotional pain to change. Rather than try to deny your humanity, embrace it and work with it.

If this book was your introduction to … skepticism, then I hope you found it a valuable and entertaining one. It may have even pissed you off in some sections, and that's good. That means we successfully challenged something you care about, perhaps more than you thought.
   To close out, we'd like to leave you with one final thought: Don't trust us. This might sound strange after reading the book, but the point is, you shouldn't really trust anyone when it comes to empirical knowledge. Think for yourself. If something is important, verify it as best you can.

Hachette Audio, 2018

Hank Green, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank GreenDelightfully narrated by Kristen Sieh (and a little bit by Hank Green, too)

An absolutely remarkable book by the co-creator of CrashCourse, Vlogbrothers, and SciShow. It tells the story of a young woman, April May, who stumbles upon an amazing sculpture on her way home from work late, late one night, and whose life then quickly accelerates into a whirlwind of enormous social media fame with all the challenges and opportunities that brings.

Oh, and it just so happens that she is at the very center of first contact with an otherworldly visitor. All that and her fun, snarky, insightful, and thought-provoking story just started. Knock, knock!

One of those rare books that left me feeling a bit wistful when I realized I had heard the last sentence, wanting a bit more.

Two years later: I was intrigued when I noticed that Hank Green had written a sequel to this book named A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, and quite looked forward to listening to it. Unfortunately, it fell flat for me. I don't at all understand how the title of the sequel relates to the story told, but looking at online reviews, it's apparent that I'm out of step with most reviewers who quite liked the sequel, so maybe I just missed the point. Anyway, I actually was quite grateful when the story finished with about an hour left in the audio file and I realized that the rest was some kind of discussion between Hank Green and Cory Doctorow that I could skip. Fortunately, the original story totally stands on its own as enjoyable and satisfying, without any need for the sequel to be complete experience.

Penguin Audio, 2018,⩘ 

Malcolm Nance, The Plot to Destroy America
How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West

The Plot to Destroy America by Malcolm NanceNarrated by Peter Ganim

"It is a time in American history where one must take a stand. Stand for the founding values of America."

If you find yourself saying, as I have been, "WTF is going on in our country?" … here's some invaluable context in the form of hard hitting, intelligent analysis.

Malcolm Nance is a former naval intelligence counter-terrorism and intelligence officer, and spent 35 years participating in field and combat intelligence activity including both covert and clandestine anti- and counter-terrorism support to national intelligence agencies.

In this powerful, eye-opening, sobering book, he pulls together all the bits and pieces we've been hearing about for the past 2-1/2 years about how Russia, under the direction of Putin, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and is interfering in the current presidency.

   Disinformation is the art of using false or misleading information and injecting it or getting it credited by legitimate and credible sources. The false information must be logical, believable, and acceptable to gain the confidence of the target population of an adversary nation. Like all good lies, the material must be crafted to play to the biases and accepted norms of the target audience, even if the information is horrible or distasteful to others not of that tribe. If the target audience disbelieved the message because it violates the consistency of accepted reality, then the disinformation campaign will be ineffective or fail. However, the accepted reality can be bent so that eventually, as the disinformation campaign plays itself out, a grand lie will be accepted for truth. That is the artistry of disinformation.

He also takes a broader look at how Russia and Putin are trying to interfere in western democracies in general, with details about the efforts they are making in several European countries, in addition to the U.S., and with an especially deep dive into their cyber warfare methods and aims. He further provides the historical context of Soviet/Russian efforts to undermine and splinter the West.

   The Russians incorporated social media into their strategic planning for information warfare. Their strategic doctrine states:

Confrontation between two or more states in the information space to damage the information systems, processes and resources, which are of critical importance, and other structures, to undermine the political, economic and social system, and effect massive brainwashing of the population for destabilizing the society and the state, and also forcing the state to make decisions in the interests of the confronting party.

   Note that the Russians specifically use the words "massive brainwashing" in their armed forces doctrine when discussing social media information warfare. Their propaganda are cyber weapons flooded into the global information dispersal domain (the internet) and flows through the information battle space (news and social media) to influence or change perceptions in the primary target (your mind) or create secondary results in the impact zone (your mobile phone or television). Social media propaganda harnesses human curiosity to make you look closer.

Truly a dangerous time for our country and for democracy.

Hachette, 2018

Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman
Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigations of a Lifetime

Well narrated by the author

In 1978, a young man graduates from the police cadets program and earns a place on the Colorado Springs police force. He's the city's first black police officer. Soon, he advances to a coveted position as an undercover narcotics detective.

Then life, that eternal prankster, presents him with the opportunity to become an undercover member of the Ku Klux Klan, which was then trying to burnish its image under the leadership of David Duke, but in reality was every bit as hate filled, racist, vile, and ridiculous as ever.

Ron Stallworth tell his story of infiltrating the Klan with wry wit and wisdom.

One of the most astonishing scenes is when Stallworth is assigned to be Duke's bodyguard when Duke makes a visit to Colorado Springs. I won't say anything more except that it left me shaking my head in wonderment.

The scene I found most touching is when, shortly afterwards, Stallworth is then assigned to be Reverend Ralph Abernathy's bodyguard during his visit to Colorado Springs. When they're alone together for a short while between events, he has an opportunity to speak privately with Abernathy, and in that exchange, the depth of Stallworth's integrity and compassion shines through.

I must admit that I'm dismayed by our current regression, how far short of the inspiring vision of the sonnet by Emma Lazarus we are falling:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This story reminds that we have faced dire moments before, and have advanced.

Macmillan Audio, 2018

Tommy Orange, There There

There There by Tommy OrangeWell narrated by Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Alma Ceurvo, and Kyla Garcia

In his first book, an extremely gifted young writer, Tommy Orange, breathes life into a vivid cast of characters whose lives tell an important part of the story of Native Americans living in cities, specifically in this case, Oakland.

As he allows each character to reveal their story more deeply in their own unique voice, he slowly draws all of their stories toward a startling intersection. This is not a comfortable story, but at times it sparkles with exhilarating grace.

Orvil mainly listens to powwow music. There's something in the energy of that big booming drum, in the intensity of the singing, like an urgency that feels specifically Indian. He likes the power the sound of a chorus of voices makes too, those high-pitched wailed harmonies, how you can't tell how many singers there are, and how sometimes it sounds like ten singers, sometimes like a hundred. There was even one time, when he was dancing in Opal's room with his eyes closed, when he felt like it was all his ancestors who made it so he could be there dancing and listening to that sound, singing right there in his ears through all those hard years they made it through.

Random House Audio, 2018

Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote
Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote by Oliver BurkemanNicely narrated by the author

When I saw the title of this book, I just laughed and couldn't resist adding it to my reading list expecting, I suppose, to be entertained by snark. Certainly, I wasn't let down, but Burkeman provides much more than some simple sniping at the stupidity of positivity seminars (stupid, that is, except for the facilitators who make a killing off of them).

A couple quotes from the author's website (now offline) sum it up nicely:

For a civilisation so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task.

Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual collection of people—experimental psychologists and Buddhists, terrorism experts, spiritual teachers, business consultants, philosophers—who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. They argue that "positive thinking" and relentless optimism aren't the solution, but part of the problem. And that there is an alternative, "negative path" to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty—those things we spend our lives trying to avoid.

I enjoyed it and found it valuable enough to have listened to it twice already.

See also: Oliver Burkeman's last column: the eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life ⩘ , The Guardian, Sep 4, 2020.

Audible Studios, 2012

Sarah McBride, Tomorrow Will Be Different
Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality

Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBrideNarrated by the author

This is a compelling book on many different levels. First and foremost it is a window into the humanity of Trans people and the struggles they face seeking simple acceptance. As I said in a previous review, imagine how our world would transform if striving for the acceptance of others, no matter how they differ from ourselves, became one of humanity's defining endeavors. Let it be.

Second, it a deeply moving story of personal tragedy and loss as Sarah shares her experience dealing with her husband's cancer diagnosis, the challenges of the treatment, the triumph of his ringing the bell when he finished chemotherapy, the joy of learning that his next test showed him to be cancer free, the devastation when his cancer returned with a vengeance, and then all too quickly, the grace of the manner of his passing.

Third, it is a dramatic glimpse into the world of political activism. I've been so turned off by politics for so many years now that other than voting, I try my best to ignore it. But Sarah, who is currently the national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, shows how political activism can lead to positive change. I'm grateful that there are people like Sarah fighting the good, if difficult, fight.

I know that it can feel like we're almost lost as a country, but we must never forget that even with all of the hate and all of the challenges, no matter who is president, we can continue to change our world for the better. We've done it before and we can do it again.

Random House Audio, 2018

Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee ShetterlyNarrated by Robin Miles

I'm in awe of people who can grasp advanced mathematics, and this book tells the stories of some truly gifted mathematicians and engineers who worked at NACA and its successor NASA. The story focuses on three black women, Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, as well as their peers, as they courageously fought racism and misogyny to make significant contributions to helping the U.S. achieve aeronautical superiority during World War II, and then to help get the U.S. into space and to the moon.

As someone who doesn't understand advanced mathematics very well—just enough to begin to glimpse its universal beauty and elegance, but not well enough to actually decipher or use it—I'm particularly impressed by people like Goble, Jackson, and Vaughan who were able to see deeply enough into the mathematical principles in order to not just solve problems, but to push the very boundaries of mathematics in order to think into existence solutions for never previously encountered challenges. What amazing minds!

Harper Audio, 2016

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. MannNarrated by Bronson Pinchot

Shortly after he held his newborn daughter for the first time, Mann found himself pacing in the visitor lounge in the wee hours of the morning as his wife and daughter slept, thinking about what the world would be like for his daughter when she grew up and found herself living in a world populated by as many as 10 billion people. He wondered how she will find adequate clean water to drink, nutritious food to eat, decent housing, and fulfilling work when so many people are competing for resources.

This led him to research two scientists who have shaped our thinking about how to best deal with increasing population: William Vogt, who in a nutshell argued that we should find ways to reduce our use of resources and our own numbers, and Norman Borlaug, who argued that we should innovate our way to producing enough more resources to meet the increasing needs and wants of an increasing number of people.

Mann is careful to not pick sides; rather, he introduces us to each scientist's life so that we can understand what shaped their approaches, as well as the benefits and costs of each. For example, he explores the groundbreaking green revolution work Borlaug did, at great personal cost, to breed wheat and rice that is more resistant to debilitating diseases and infestations while producing higher yields. The obvious benefit was to help reduce hunger worldwide, while the cost was increased reliance on fertilizers and the need for more irrigation.

   Wizards and prophets are less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum. In theory, they could meet in the middle. One could cut back here à la Vogt and expand over there, Borlaugh-style. Some people believe in doing just that. But the test of a categorization like this one is less whether it is perfect—it is not—than whether it is useful. As a practical matter, the solutions (or putative solutions) to environmental problems have been dominated by one of these approaches or the other. If a government persuades its citizenry to spend huge sums revamping offices, stores, and homes with the high-tech insulation and low-water-use plumbing urged by Prophets, the same citizenry will resist ponying up for Wizards' new-design nuclear plants and monster desalination facilities. People who back Borlaugh and embrace genetically modified, hyper-productive wheat and rice won't follow Vogt and dump their steaks and chops for low-impact veggie burgers.

   Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.
   The conflict between these visions is not between good and evil, but between different ideas of the good life, between ethical orders that give priority to personal liberty and those that give priority to what might be called connection.

Personally, I am appalled at the thought of a world populated with 10 billion people. I cherish nature, sparsely populated areas, quiet places, and starlit skies, and feel claustrophobic and sensorily assaulted even in the nearby small city of only a few hundred thousand people. But we are accelerating towards that future of 10 billion people and I don't see any noteworthy actions towards reducing our use of resources or our numbers, so I don't think we are going to have much of a choice other than to figure out how to deal with it. As bleak to me as the thought of such a densely populated planet is no matter how well innovation solves the crucial challenges, the alternative is utterly terrifying to contemplate.

At least this book has helped me to think about all of this with more clarity.

Random House Audio, 2018

Steve Coll, Ghost Wars and Directorate S

Ghost Wars and Directorate S by Steve CollNarrated by Malcolm Hillgartner

These were difficult books to listen to, but essential and eye opening.

Ghost Wars is subtitled: "The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." [The Soviet invasion occurred in December 1979.]

Directorate S is subtitled: "The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 - 2016."

Steve Coll is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and was an investigative correspondent and then a managing editor for The Washington Post, where he worked for 20 years.

The research for these books is meticulous and thorough, providing readers with a deep insight into these wars that have so completely engulfed the U.S. and much of the world for nearly 40 years now, spreading chaos, instability, and terrorism throughout the region and around the world.

For many Americans and Europeans who have lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after 2001, it is frustrating to hear discourse back home holding that Afghanistan and Pakistan are lands of "warring tribes" or "endless conflicts." The historical record belies such clichés. Independent Afghanistan was impoverished but peaceful and stable, untroubled by radical international violence, for many decades of the twentieth century, prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979. Its several decades of civil war since that invasion have been fueled again and again by outside interference, primarily by Pakistan, but certainly including the United States and Europe, which have remade Afghanistan with billions of dollars in humanitarian and reconstruction aid while simultaneously contributing to its violence, corruption, and instability. And for all of Pakistan's dysfunction, state-sponsored radicalism, and glaring economic inequality, it remains a modernizing nation with a vast, breathtakingly talented middle class and diaspora. If the army and I.S.I. did not misrule Pakistan, in alliance with corrupt political cronies, the country's potential to lift up its own population and contribute positively to the international system might today rival India's. The region's "endless conflicts" are not innate to its history, forms of social organization, or cultures. They are the outgrowth of specific misrule and violent interventions. They reflect political maneuvering, hubristic assumptions, intelligence operations, secret diplomacy, and decision making at the highest levels in Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington that have often been unavailable to the Afghan, Pakistani, American, and international publics.

Penguin Audio, 2011 and 2018

Lori Duron, Raising My Rainbow

Raising My Rainbow by Lori DuronNarrated by the author

A beautiful book about the joys, struggles, delights, and challenges of raising an amazing child who is gender creative in a society that struggles with simple acceptance.


Just imagine how our world would transform if striving for acceptance became one of our defining endeavors. Let it be.

No, I haven't given up hope yet. And stories like Lori's are one of the reasons.

Audible Studios, 2014

Jerry Merritt, A Gift of Time

A Gift of Time by Jerry MerrittPitch perfect narration by Christopher Lane

Micajah "Cager" Fenton is an 80 year old who has grown weary of living … until one evening he comes how to find a giant crater in his yard with a "time glider" in the bottom of it. The time glider looks a bit like an old, beat up shipping container, and it's busted. The traveler in the glider asks for his help repairing it. Being an old engineer with a degree in Physics, he's intrigued, so rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. This rekindles a spark of enthusiasm in life and sets him on an amazing journey.

I read a lot of science fiction … a lifetime addiction. Unfortunately, many stories can be a bit tedious or overwrought, and I often end up speeding up the audio playback to get through them more quickly. Only once in awhile does a story contain a glimmer of a fresh idea, and it's ever rarer that the quality of the story itself lives up to a fresh idea's potential. These are stories I'm in no hurry to finish; they are a sip of good scotch to let linger on the taste buds.

In this tale, Merritt gives us the gift of some fresh ideas wrapped in a story populated with rich characters and vivid adventure. He explores the depths of human experience, the unfolding of humanness in an alien being, and the realization that a human can harbor more than a little alienness deep within. Guess I may want to take a short jump back and savor this one again.

Podium Publishing, 2017

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow by Wendell BerryBeautifully narrated by Paul Michael

I have enjoyed many of the Port Williams books by Wendell Berry. Some, like this one, are made even better by Paul Michael's narration, which suits these stories to a T.

Jayber inhabits his life fully, while always being an observer, even of himself. Through his eyes, we see life unfolding, as well as the way the inexorable forces of modernity change things over the course of his life throughout the twentieth century.

Wendell Berry is a wonderful storyteller, infusing his tales with the humor, tragedy, ignorance, wisdom, clumsiness, and sometimes pure gracefulness that is life.

In those early days on the river I was living one of my happiest times. The visions of my mind filled me from morning to night, and I would go to sleep thinking of what I would do the next day. I had lots of work to do. The house had from time to time been stayed in, but until I came it had never been lived in. It owed its survival to Ernest Finley's good work at the beginning, and to the durability of the wide old yellow poplar boards. But now it required many small repairs. For days and days I was eagerly employed with rule and square and hammer and saw. I patched and repaired and replaced. I added new shelves and cabinets to suit my own notions and needs. None of this was fine work. It was all of used lumber and was crude enough. But it was neat too, all proportioned and placed in a good way. It would be hard to tell you, hard for you to believe, how pleased I was by the new nailheads gleaming in the old boards. I bought lime and a brush and by degrees, moving the furniture here and there, whitewashed the walls inside, which brightened and cheered the place considerably. I built a new privy to replace the one that had floated off in the flood of 1964. I cut back the branches and the saplings that had closed in around the house.
   Every little difference I made seemed a significant change in the world. I would finish a piece of work and then I would stand and look and admire the way it fitted in with everything else. Just sweeping the porch seemed to make the tree limbs spread and hover more gracefully above it. Where a falling limb had poked a hole through a screen, I took a fine wire and stitched on a patch, and then sat a while and looked out the window, feeling that my work had improved the view.
   Everywhere I looked, the prospect was new and interesting. Nowhere I had lived before had been so intimate with the world. A pair of phoebes were nesting under the eaves above the porch. Owls called at night, sometimes right over the roof. I would hear a fish jump and look up to see the circles widening on the water. Sometimes, just sitting and looking, I would see the fish when it jumped. Birds were nesting and singing all around—all kinds of birds, and I began to learn their names. Every tree seemed to be offering itself to the use of the birds. And there was the river itself, flowing or still, muddy or clear, quiet or windblown, steaming on the colder mornings of winter or frozen over, always changing its mood, never feeling exactly the same way twice.…
   I had learned, once, from Uncle Othy how to fish with a trotline. That had been a long time ago, and now I had to learn again from Burley. From that time until now, when the stage of the river has been at all promising, from early spring until late fall, I have usually had a line or two in the river. The river and the garden have been the foundations of my economy here. Of the two I have liked the river best. It is wonderful to have the duty of being on the river the first and last thing every day. I have loved it even in the rain. Sometimes I have loved it most in the rain.
   No matter how much it may be used by towing companies and water companies and commercial fishermen and trappers and the like, the river doesn't belong to the workaday world. And no matter how much it is used by pleasure boaters and water-skiers and the like, it doesn't belong to the vacation world either. It is never concerned, if you can see what I mean. Nothing keeps to its own way more than the river does.
   Another thing: No matter how corrupt and trashy it necessarily must be at times in this modern world, the river is never apart from beauty. Partly, I suppose, this is because it always keeps to its way.
   Sometimes, living right beside it, I forget it. Going about my various tasks, I don't think about it. And then it seems just to flow back into my mind. I stop and look at it. I think of its parallel, never-meeting banks, which yet never part. I think of it lying there in its long hollow, at the foot of all the landscape, a single opening from its springs in the mountains all the way to its mouth. It is a beautiful thought, one of the most beautiful of all thoughts. I think it not in my brain only but in my heart and in all the lengths of my bones.

Counterpoint Press, 2001
Audiobook: Hovel Audio, 2009

Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneWell narrated by Cassandra Campbell

Amazing story about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the most brilliant cryptanalysts ever. The story follows her groundbreaking path from her pioneering work on the new field of radio code decryption during WWI to her cat-and-mouse chase of rum runners for the Coast Guard to her astonishing life-or-death fight against the Germans and Japanese during WWII.

Her tour de force battle against the spies using Enigma machines, just one of her many accomplishments, is an exhilarating tale. What a mind!

Equally as astonishing as her brilliance was the bias she faced as a woman shattering barriers, and the nauseating reactions she received from many short-sighted men of power who weren't intelligent enough to appreciate her formidable talent.

Thank goodness we know this story at last and can pay tribute to this remarkable woman and the work she did to help ensure the survival of the U.S. as it faced some of its most trying battles.

Audiobook: HarperAudio, 2017
Physical book: Dey Street Books, 2017

Follow up: Read an article in The Register this morning explaining how cryptographer Elonka Dunin paid a visit to the Friedman's grave and noticed something interesting: it appears that Elizebeth design a cryptogram that has been hidden in plain sight on the inscription on the tombstone since 1980: Unlocked: The hidden love note on the grave of America's first crypto power-couple⩘ .

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