Reading – & Now 5

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A love affair with books

An appetizer: "I still remember looking forward to learning something new that I hadn't known the day before."
– Henning Mankell. Quicksand. (Speaking about a time during which he took a break away from his home base to focus on some uninterrupted book reading.)

Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

The Echo Maker by Richard PowersWonderfully narrated by Bernadette Dunne

At a certain point, my experience of my love affair with books morphed from reading to listening. A good storyteller sharing a beautiful performance of a story, as Dunne does with this one, adds a powerful dimension to my journey through a book. It's a much different experience than reading, equally fulfilling. At times as I'm listening, when I find myself moved into a heightened state of awareness by a particular passage, I'll even pause to listen agin, or even pick up the written version of the book to re-read it and let the image burn even more brightly in my consciousness.

Over the years, I have read, or listened to, all of Powers' books, and have been entranced by almost all of them. (Strangely, I didn't like his latest, widely acclaimed, and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Overstory, as much; I didn't feel empathy with the characters and overall found the story too bleak.)

I originally read The Echo Maker in 2007, soon after it was published, and was deeply moved by it. Recently, I noticed that many of Powers' older books have been newly released as audiobooks, and decided to take a new journey through all of them. For most, enough time has passed that much of their stories are fresh, and that certainly was the case with this one. The thing about audiobooks is that the narration can make or break the experience. Fortunately, most of these newly released audiobooks have good or, as in the case of this one, very good narrators. (Unfortunately, the narration of The Gold Bug Variations, one of my favorite books by Powers, fell short; I'll have to re-read that one again someday to recover my appreciation of that story.)

This multi-faceted story, enhanced by Dunne's narration, hooked me from the first page. It is an exhilarating tale, a deep meditation on consciousness, the complexity of human relationships, and fragility of our relationship to the natural world we inhabit and all too often entirely destroy.

I hope I have the chance to listen to this book again in a few years. Next time, I'll listen even more slowly, with more breaks to savor its insights.

All her life, she has secretly suspected that everything you learn to want, everything you really own, gets taken from you. Now she knows why: nothing is your own.

I won't go any more deeply into this reflection; instead, here's my link to my previous reflection: The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (Book reviews - 2007)

Blackstone Audio, 2017; originally published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006

James R. Clapper, Facts and Fears
Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence

Facts and Fears by James R. ClapperWith Trey Brown; narrated by Mark Bramhall

I found this book after I listened to another book that was narrated by Mark Bramhall and appreciated his effort, and then looked through the list of other books he has narrated.

Clapper served as the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI)—the top U.S. intelligence officer and President Obama's senior intelligence advisor—from 2010 until 2017, capping a career that spanned more than 50 years, well into his 70s.

Frankly, I was skeptical. I was familiar, at a civilian level, with many of the events he discusses in the book having not only lived through them, but also from having read books like Power Wars: Inside Obama's Post-9/11 Presidency by Charlie Savage, The Back Channel by William J. Burns, The 9/11 Report by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, and No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald, as well as having watched the documentary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras. I figured it would be worth it to gain insight into an insider's perspective on these events. And it was. That's not to say I totally buy into his point of view. I don't. I found myself thinking on a few occasions, "Well, he sure glossed over that." However, I ended up understanding that he tackled a series of incredibly challenging jobs in service to our country, and always attempted to do what he considered right.

The most important passage in the book for me was one in which he discusses an address President Obama gave explaining changes he had ordered related to reforming the way the U.S. intelligence agencies conduct surveillance of U.S. citizens. I was incredibly busy with a project at work when that happened, so didn't pay as careful attention to it at the time as it warrants. I appreciate the opportunity to revisit it and understand those reforms better.

On January 17, 2014, President Obama addressed the nation to discuss the results of the Intelligence Community review he'd ordered and some changes he was making. I was in the audience in the auditorium at the Justice Department—a location specifically chosen to emphasize the importance of oversight and the rule of law—when the president both delivered a rousing defense of the Intelligence Community and described specific steps for reforming how we did business, aimed at regaining the trust of the American public. He began by saying that he'd come into office skeptical of intelligence overreach, and as president he'd put additional protections and oversight procedures on programs that could feasibly be abused. But he clarified:

What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale, not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review and nothing that I have learned since indicated that our Intelligence Community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic, the men and women of the Intelligence Community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They're not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails. When mistakes are made—which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise—they correct those mistakes, laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends.

I later said publicly that President Obama understood where his intelligence came from better than any of his recent predecessors—even George H. W. Bush, who had served as CIA director for almost a year. I just wished he'd gained that understanding for a better reason. The president continued:

If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we might not fully understand for years to come.

He said that "regardless of how we got here, though," we had serious work ahead of us "to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections our ideals and our Constitution require." He laid out a series of major reforms in quick succession. First was "a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities both at home and abroad," which in many ways provided that we treat ordinary foreign citizens with the same protections we had for Americans—something no other nation on earth would consider. Second was putting concrete programs in place "to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons," particularly regarding the Section 702 foreign intelligence program and the Section 215 metadata program. Third, he asked the attorney general and me to "place additional restrictions on the government's ability to retain, search, and use in criminal cases communications between Americans and foreign citizens incidentally collected under Section 702." Fourth, he placed time limits on the secrecy of court warrants known as "national security letters," under which a suspected terrorist or foreign spy is investigated or surveilled without being notified. Fifth and last, he addressed the controversial Section 215, beginning with why it had come into existence, after "one of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaida safe house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States."

He noted that his "review group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused," but that he believed "critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives," and that while the courts and Congress did exert oversight, "it has never been subject to vigorous public debate." He then made an announcement that shocked many people: "For all these reasons, I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata."

The new program, embodied in the USA Freedom Act, took another year and a half to pass in Congress, but it required telecommunications companies to hold their own data and the IC to obtain a warrant referencing a specific threat in order to be able to access the companies' records. In practice, this wasn't significantly different from what we'd been doing, but people seemed to trust the commercial providers holding and protecting their data more than they trusted the US government to do so. President Obama concluded his speech with this thought:

It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard. And I'll admit the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating. No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account. But let's remember, we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity. As the nation that developed the internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment, not government control. Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.

As he should have, Clapper returns many times throughout the book to the fundamental question of how we, as a nation, balance our desire for individual privacy against our desire for security. At times, he seems surprised that people don't trust the intelligence agencies more. One thing I think gets lost in this debate is that this isn't just about the government intelligence agencies. Individual citizens today are under constant attack by corporations who, feigning benevolence ("better search results," "more helpful apps," blah, blah, blah) surveil us in so many different ways, most of which are done in a manner lacking transparency, and without our express permission. Our personal data gets dissected, shared, sold, and resold, so that in the end, a careless data broker halfway around the world can lose our data to criminals or adversarial governments with no regulatory consequence, putting us all at risk. Or our data is just plain stolen directly from the corporations surveilling us, sometimes by criminals or adversarial governments using tools and methods that were leaked from the very agencies whose mission it is to protect us. And all of this happens over and over on a painfully regular basis (to understand how regularly, just keep an eye on a website like have i been pwned?). Here's what I wrote about this in my review of Power Wars:

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this book is the reinforcement of something I've been long feeling: a disappointment that so much of what is happening today is done without the check and balance of real, public debate. Decisions are being made in government about how we wage war and surveil ourselves…, and decisions are being made by corporations about how big data is collected on us and how the corporations themselves are regulated (even though that seems like an oxymoron). Much of this is happening with little or no transparency, lacking the kind of robust debate and oversight that I think there should be from our elected governing bodies.

Despite all of this, I appreciate that Clapper wrote this book, and definitely found it a worthwhile read.

Penguin Audio, 2018

Kameron Hurley, The Light Brigade

The Light Brigade by Kameron HurleyWell narrated by Cara Gee, Jackie Sanders

What a ride! This near-future, speculative fiction story really kept me on my toes working to figure out the inventive timeline the colorful characters were dealing with as they fought their way through a war that at first seemed straight forward and even honorable, but then slowly was revealed to be a sham perpetrated on the people of earth by nefarious corporations.

Speaking of corporations, I appreciate the exercise the author tackles imagining where the increasing power being ceded to corporations by the government today might well lead in the not-too-distant future. It reminds me of an excellent book I read some years ago, Gain by Richard Powers, and I was very happy to see that an audiobook edition of that book was recently released. I'm definitely going to revisit that story soon. [ Follow-up: Just listened to the recently released audiobook version of Gain, which is well narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers. One line jumped out: "Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility." Original review ]

Just yesterday, I read a related news article that left left me a bit stunned and saddened, but not entirely surprised: "Report: 26 States Now Ban or Restrict Community Broadband" by Karl Bode, Motherboard, Apr 18, 2019. How is it that politicians think it is okay to so blatantly trample the rights of their constituents in favor of toadying to the profit-mad corporations? #brokendemocracy

Simon & Schuster, 2019

Preet Bharara, Doing Justice

A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law

Doing Justice by Preet BhararaNarrated by Preet

I had high expectations for this book, having become familiar with Preet's thoughtful and fair-minded insightfulness through his excellent podcast, Stay Tuned with Preet. My expectations were fully met.

Rather than dryly explaining what it means to be doing justice, Preet shares anecdotes from his career with us, making his points with the intimate immediacy of a masterful storyteller. He does more than leave us thinking about justice, he invites us to feel what it is, why it is so important, and what it can offer us when done right.

Sometimes we forget the victims. Sometimes we doubt them. Sometimes we judge them. But ultimately, the system is supposed to serve them and give them their day in court, consistent with the requirements of justice.

You may not be a practicing litigator, but you have dealt with judges or judge-like figures your whole life. You might have come across actual judges if you've faced a traffic infraction, gone through a divorce, or had a “small claim.” If you've been arrested or sued or if you've sued someone else, you've dealt with the looming presence of a judge. But judges are everywhere. The teacher who decides a punishment in school; the boss who adjudicates a personnel matter; the executive who chooses someone to promote; the parent who settles a dispute between siblings. Also the referee in soccer and the umpire in baseball. These are all judges. If you've ever engaged in competition or work or sport, you've dealt with some kind of judge. We have all been judged, and we have all sat in judgment.

Random House Audio, 2019

Nigel Warburton A Little History of Philosophy

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel WarburtonNarrated by Kris Dyer

When I enjoy a narrator, I look through other books they've performed to see if there might be something I'd like to listen to. I thoroughly enjoyed Dyer's performance of The Man Who Died, which led me to this book.

It's a brief overview of some of the main philosophers throughout recorded history. I found it interesting, though it's as long a listen on the subject as I could've tolerated. It did leave pondering a few ideas, which is as much as I can ask from any book I read.

Audible Studios, 2018

William J. Burns, The Back Channel
A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal

The Back Channel by William J. BurnsAptly narrated by Mark Bramhall

I came across a description of this book randomly, glanced at it, moved on, and then backpedaled and looked at it again. I realized I had never understood how diplomacy works and thought it might be interesting to gain some insight, though I fully expected that I might be bored.

Instead, I was engaged by this memoir by Burns and found it well worth my time. That's not to say that I was encouraged by the current state of affairs described in the book, but at least I was left in a somewhat hopeful frame of mind by his final chapters, in which he discusses the means by which disciplined professional diplomacy could regain its position as a primary and valuable tool to forge partnerships and find solutions in this complex and messy world we live in.

Random House Audio, 2019

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died

The Man Who Died by Antti TuomainenTranslated by David Hackston and wickedly narrated by Kris Dyer

Devilishly delightful and deviously deadly Helsinki noir. A fun listen.

Audible Studios, 2017

Michelle Obama, Becoming

Becoming

Wow!

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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