Reading – & Now 5

An appetizer:

I still remember looking forward to learning something new that I hadn't known the day before. [Speaking about a period of time during which he took a break away from his home base to focus on some uninterrupted reading of books.]
– Henning Mankell. Quicksand

A love affair with books

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Michelle Obama, Becoming



As first lady, I saw optimism in surprising places.… And it's there always embedded in the hearts of children. Kids wake up each day believing in the goodness of things, in the magic of what might be. They're uncynical believers at their core. We owe it to them to stay strong and keep working to create a more fair and humane world. For them, we need to remain both tough and hopeful, to acknowledge that there's more growing to be done.

Random House Audio, 2018

William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Co-authored by Bryan Mealer; delightfully narrated by Chike Johnson

William Kamkwamba grew up in the small, rural village of Wimbe, Malawi in a farming family that got by at a subsistence level. In 2002, when he was a young teenager, Malawi was hit by a severe drought, and he and his family came close to starving to death. Afterwards, they could no longer afford to send him to secondary school, yet his passion for learning continued to drive him, and his experience with the drought inspired him to focus his creative genius on figuring out how to create windwills from physics books he borrowed from his three-shelf local library, in order to provide his family with electricity and a way to pump water. Scraping together an assortment of parts from the local junkyard and just about anywhere else he could find them, and against all odds, he succeeded.

I read about William years ago, but hadn't come across his book until just recently. It's wonderful to read his whole story, to gain the context of what growing up in Wimbe was like, to become better acquainted with the challenges he faced: grinding poverty, a culture of superstition that often stood opposed to science and education, and a political climate that was often nefarious and corrupt. Understanding this shines a light on how truly remarkable his journey has been.

Now a recent graduate of Dartmouth, William is already an accomplished speaker, giving talks around the world, and is also doing incredible work to help improve life in his family's village and throughout the surrounding Kasungu district. He's also inspiring people everywhere to reach higher.

Related TED talk: How I harnessed the wind.

Harper Audio, 2009

Jill Lepore, These Truths
A History of the United States

These Truths by Jill LeporeExuberantly read by the author

What is this country of ours?

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, frames the question in reference to something Thomas Jefferson wrote when he was participating in writing the Declaration of Independence:

The American Experiment rests on three political ideas—"these truths," Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. "We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable," Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Her book then dives deeply into answering the followup question: How well have we done and how well are we doing in our attempt to create a country based on these truths?

I wish I had been able to listen to this book years ago, as I now enjoy a much better understanding of the unvarnished history of our country. To be honest, I found myself depressed at times. What we are experiencing today is nothing new; in fact, I was amazed to realize that almost the exact same speeches that are being made today and some of the same attacks that are being thrown around were made and thrown around multiple times before in our history, with a similar level of anger, vitriol, and ugliness. At the same time, I found myself feeling hopeful, as we've been through this before and have managed to pull ourselves out of the quagmire. Of course, that doesn't guarantee anything, but at least it opens the door to the possibility.

I appreciate the enthusiasm with which the author narrated her book. She must be an amazing professor. But I also have a criticism: the audiobook is somewhat poorly edited, with lots of repeated passages—presumably because a passage was repeated to correct something, but subsequently the original passage wasn't deleted—and, even worse, the entire epilogue chapter is repeated. Sloppy! I've also read that there are a number of inaccuracies in the book, so it appears the fact checking was a bit lax, though none of the examples I read are serious. In the end, the lapses in editing and fact checking don't detract from what is an otherwise excellent effort to tell the story of our journey as a nation.

The last section of the book is introduced with a quote that I had heard when it was first spoken, but had forgotten. I'm glad to be reminded of it:

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends—honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths.
– Barack Obama, First Inaugural Address, 2009

On a related note, I listened today to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at SXSW 2019. What an amazing person. She continues to inspire me on a regular basis. We're incredibly fortunate that she is a part of our government, bringing some fresh air.

We are capable of so much as a country.
We are capable of so much more than what we are doing right now.
We are capable of everything in the world.
We are capable of saving the planet, of guaranteeing health care as a right, of educating our children through college.
We are capable of establishing all work as dignified, of respecting people's cultures, of having an economy that not only welcomes immigrants but needs immigrants because we are being so productive.
We are capable of all these things!

Recorded Books, 2018

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoTranslated by William Weaver and exquisitely narrated by Sean Barrett, as well as by Nicholas Rowe and Neville Jason

After I read Quicksand earlier this year and appreciating Sean Barrett's narration, I did a search for other books he has narrated and have been listening to a few. One I came across is this book, which I read and enjoyed many years ago. I thought it would be fun to listen to Barrett telling this story, and it was!

Set in an Italian abbey in the year 1327 and featuring an amazing library housed in a labryinth, this is a murder mystery unlike any other I've read. Umberto Eco was a genius (just take a look at his bibliography⩘ ), and when he turned his attention to fiction, he also brought a dash of disciplined madness to the exercise.

The library labryinth
This file is licensed under the
Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Macmillan Audio, 2013

Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon NorthupWonderfully narrated by Louis Gossett Jr.

One of the most harrowing books I've ever read or listened to … and one of the most worthwhile. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Solomon Northup for painting so vividly for us his journey into hell. How is evil like this even possible? And yet it persists around the world even today.

Thanks also to Dr. Sue Eakin for her lifetime of work researching Solomon's story.

Eakin Films & Publishing, 2013

Henning Mankell, Quicksand

Quicksand by Henning MankellBeautifully translated by Laurie Thompson and well narrated by Sean Barrett

I first became acquainted with author Henning Mankell through the series of Swedish television movies based on his books about inspector Kurt Wallander of the Ystad police. I seldom watch television, and on the rare occasions when I do, I mostly find it wanting. But these stories impressed me because of the depth with which they explore the human condition.

They led me to want to learn more about Mankell. I listened to one of his books outside the Wallander series, and was equally impressed. Then I came across Quicksand, which he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer. A good friend of mine is dealing with cancer right now. I also had my own little medical episode last year, far less serious than cancer, but still a wake-up call about our mortality. So I was intrigued by this book, and it didn't disappoint.

I have devoted quite a lot of my life to studying crime and criminal investigations. My view is that evil always has to do with circumstances, and is never something inherited. I have written about crime because it illustrates, more clearly than anything else, the contrasts that form the basis of human life. Everything we do is based on the existence of conflicting forces inside us: between dream and reality, knowledge and illusions, truth and lies, what I want to do and what I actually do, and not least, between myself and the society I live in.

The beauty of Quicksand is that while Mankell shares his emotional rollercoaster ride coming to terms with having cancer, he takes it as an opportunity to explore much more, all the way to the most encompassing question he addresses: what it means to be a human being. He does this grace, insight, compassion, and even a dash of humor.

I was reminded of an aphorism l had read somewhere: "Don't take life so seriously; you won't come out of it alive anyway."

Random House Audiobooks, 2016

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