Reading – & Now 5
A love affair with books
"I still remember looking forward to learning something new that I hadn't known the day before."
– Henning Mankell, Quicksand, describing a time during which he took a break away from his home base to focus on some uninterrupted book reading.
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, The Map of Salt and Stars
Exquisitely read by Lara Sawalha
I remain so grateful to have come across The Map of Salt and Stars.
I listen to or read a lot of books. A few I don't bother finishing. Many others I find worth finishing even though they aren't exceptional, so I don't mention them here. A few are so good that I'm inspired to write about them here. I rarely read or listen to any books more than once, even among these books I enjoyed the most, and it's even more rare that I write about any book here more than once. Although I listened to this story just a bit more than a year ago, recently I found myself thinking about it and realized I yearned to listen to it again.
As I said the last time I wrote about this book⩘ , Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is a tremendously talented storyteller. She puts the reader directly into the frayed shoes of refugees fleeing their once beautiful, now war-torn homes, through lands where they aren't welcome, toward countries where, increasingly, they are shunned and even reviled. Except for their circumstances, they are often people like us, people with hearts and aspirations, people who show kindness and compassion even as they bleed and suffer. What has happened to our national heart that we so easily turn our backs on others?
In times like these, it's the small people who suffer.
A wonderful story with which to end a year that has been rich with good books.
I think to myself, life draws blood and leaves its jewelry in our skin.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2018, Downpour⩘
Adam Brookes, The Spy's Daughter
Very well narrated by Colin Mace
The Spy's Daughter is the third and concluding thriller of an intertwined set of stories that begins with Night Heron (narrated by Jason Isaacs) and continues with Spy Games (narrated by Richard Coyle). It's the strongest of the three books and can be enjoyed standalone, but it's worth it to listen to all three in succession in order to appreciate the full depth of the complex story.
With his background as a journalist in England and then a foreign correspondent based in Indonesia, China, and the United States who has reported from thirty countries, Brookes imparts a sense of authenticity as his stories deftly combine intriguing character studies, vividly drawn locales around the world, flashes on white-knuckle suspense, and a soul-wrenching study of futility.
Nothing you can do will be definitive. You'll never be certain of the outcome. Real action is never definitive. What counts is what you do with the time and resources allotted to you. Pray it's enough.
Claire G. Coleman, The Old Lie
Very well narrated by Nathalie McLean⩘
This is an important book. For sure, Coleman writes compelling science fiction. But the importance lies in the fact that she uses the genre to tackle big issues from sometimes surprising perspectives, for example, through the eyes of alien invaders or dispossessed earthlings. The issues she explores through these lenses include racism, speciesism, colonialism, the mistreatment of migrants and civilians displaced by war, and the horror of warfare.
Her stories can get a bit grim, but that's because she presents us with an unflinching view of the reality of these issues from the perspective of those most adversely impacted. For example, humans find themselves traveling the stars fighting for a colonial overlord even as their own homeland is appropriated for the pleasure of those overloads while the humans themselves are denied return. Another example is the many species, including humans, who find themselves shunted about like cattle after the warfare devastated the places they had lived, or who are used for medical experiments because they are considered expendable.
Don't look away, there is much to be learned through experiencing the powerful lessons revealed through the harrowing journeys of the characters in this story.
After finishing this book, it's really important to listen to or read the author's note at the end. And then, perhaps, to re-read the book with that in mind … I know I intend to soon. The author's note begins:
This is a work of fiction yet it is influenced deeply by historical events.
Hachette Australia⩘ , 2019
Stuart Russell, Human Compatible
Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control
Narrated by Raphael Corkhill
An interesting overview of the state of Artificial Intelligence development and the challenges we'll face as a species as AI becomes super intelligent, that is, more intelligent than us. Russell does a good job of making this complex problem understandable even to a non-technical reader like myself. While acknowledging the significance of the challenge, he maintains an optimistic attitude and proposes a direction the research can take to make finding a solution possible. That's important because the solution will determine whether we remain relevant.
From the very beginnings of AI, intelligence in machines has been defined in the same way:
Machines are intelligent to the extent that their actions can be expected to achieve their objectives.
Because machines, unlike humans, have no objectives of their own, we give them objectives to achieve. In other words, we build optimizing machines, we feed objectives into them, and off they go.…
Can We Fix It?
The problem is right there in the basic definition of AI. We say that machines are intelligent to the extent that their actions can be expected to achieve their objectives, but we have no reliable way to make sure that their objectives are the same as our objectives.
What if, instead of allowing machines to pursue their objectives, we insist that they pursue our objectives? Such a machine, if it could be designed, would be not just intelligent but also beneficial to humans. So let’s try this:
Machines are beneficial to the extent that their actions can be expected to achieve our objectives.
This is probably what we should have done all along.
There are … multiple layers to the privacy story. First, can a personal assistant really be useful if it knows nothing about you? Probably not. Second, can personal assistants be really useful if they cannot pool information from multiple users to learn more about people in general and people who are similar to you? Probably not. So don't those two things imply that we have to give up our privacy to benefit from AI in our daily lives? No. The reason is that learning algorithms can operate on encrypted data using the techniques of secure multi-party computation so that users can benefit from pooling without compromising privacy in any way. Will software providers adopt privacy preserving technology voluntarily, without legislative encouragement? That remains to be seen. What seems inevitable, however, is that users will trust a personal assistant only if its primary obligation is to the user, rather than to the corporation that produced it. [my emphasis]
The standard model underlying a good deal of twentieth-century technology relies on machinery that optimizes a fixed, exogenously supplied objective. As we have seen, this model is fundamentally flawed. It works only if the objective is guaranteed to be complete and correct, or if the machinery can easily be reset. Neither condition will hold as AI becomes increasingly powerful.
If the exogenously supplied objective can be wrong, then it makes no sense for the machine to act as if it is always correct. Hence my proposal for beneficial machines: machines whose actions can be expected to achieve our objectives. Because these objectives are in us, and not in them, the machines will need to learn more about what we really want from observations of the choices we make and how we make them. Machines designed in this way will defer to humans: they will ask permission; they will act cautiously when guidance is unclear; and they will allow themselves to be switched off.
While these initial results are for a simplified and idealized setting, I believe they will survive the transition to more realistic settings. Already, my colleagues have successfully applied the same approach to practical problems such as self-driving cars interacting with human drivers. For example, self-driving cars are notoriously bad at handling four-way stop signs when it’s not clear who has the right of way. By formulating this as an assistance game, however, the car comes up with a novel solution: it actually backs up a little bit to show that it’s definitely not planning to go first. The human understands this signal and goes ahead, confident that there will be no collision. Obviously, we human experts could have thought of this solution and programmed it into the vehicle, but that’s not what happened; this is a form of communication that the vehicle invented entirely by itself.
Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog
On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder
Exquisitely narrated by Tim Connor
This book sat on one of my bookshelves for many years, so long that I don't even remember the circumstances under which I first acquired it. The other day I was looking through the books on that shelf, came across and pulled it out, and read the foreword.
I have never met an Indian person who didn't somewhere deep inside struggle with anger and sadness at what has happened to their people, and I have never met an honest and aware non-Indian person in American who didn't somewhere deep inside struggle with guilt about what we as a culture have done to the people who inhabited this continent before us. We can like each other, hate each other, feel pity for each other, love each other. But always, somewhere beneath the surface of our personal encounters, this cultural memory is rumbling. A tragedy has taken place on our land, and even though it did not take place on our watch, we are its inheritors, and the earth remembers.
It was time to experience this story. Since I primarily enjoy listening to books these days, I checked to see whether there was an audiobook available and was happy to see one had been released just last year. I downloaded it and entered the story.
It is an intriguing journey, an unflinching retelling of an elder's reflections—sometimes poetically beautiful, other times brutally harsh and not at all easy to face—all while traveling through lands steeped in the story that is being told. It is, above all, an opportunity to look at another way of understanding the history of our peoples, how we first came together and tragically clashed, and perhaps even how we might walk together in a better way toward the future.
Author's Republic, 2018, Downpour⩘
Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius
This is not an easy book to read, but it provides an important closeup view of the horrors of an invasion by a ruthless people, otherwise known as colonialism. The terrors devastate both the invaded, who are enslaved, brutalized, impoverished, and slaughtered, and the invaders, who, even as they reap the financial benefits of the invasion, ultimately lose their very souls because of it.
As powerful as that aspect of the story is, there's a shocking twist in the middle of the book that makes its emotional impact resonate for all of us.
Coleman, a Wirlomin Noongar (Indigenous Australian), drew inspiration for her work from the traditional owners of all the lands, including her Noongar ancestors.
The striking cover design is by Grace West, and is all the more powerful now that I have journeyed into the Australian desert through the pages of this story.
Small Beer Press, 2017
Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Wonderfully read by Richard Matthews
After listening to and thoroughly enjoying Bryson's newest book, The Body, I decided to revisit another of his books that I found wonderful when I first listened to it back in 2007 as I was taking my walks before work each morning, this short history of nearly everything. It's every bit as delightful as I remembered it to be, and it's a powerful reminder to enjoy this moment, because there's no guarantee we'll get another.
We are so used to the notion our own inevitability as life's dominant species that it is hard to grasp that we are here only because of timely extraterrestrial bangs and other random flukes. The one thing we have in common with all other living things is that for nearly four billion years our ancestors have managed to slip through a series of closing doors every time we needed them to. Stephen Jay Gould expressed it succinctly in a well known line: "Humans are here today because our particular line never fractured, never once at any of the billion points that could've erased us from history."
Random House Audio, 2003, Downpour⩘
L.X. Beckett, Gamechanger
Normally, I share only books that have earned my highest degree of appreciation, either because I thoroughly enjoyed them or found them to be significantly worthwhile reads.
While Beckett builds a complex and vivid near-future world in Gamechanger, the story never really hooked me and I found the main characters mostly annoying. The audiobook performance was so overwrought that I switched to the eBook in order to finish the story. I totally dislike Facebook, and find distasteful much of the behavior I see on social media, with the shallow displays of emotion on one hand and the perverse rabidness on the other, so it's understandable that I wasn't attracted to the foundational premise of this story with its tediously endless references to hashtags and @tags (slightly less annoying in the written version), strokes and strikes (like and dislikes), emojis, and social standing. Finally, I found the descriptions of in-game virtual reality fantasy role playing deathly boring.
With so many adverse reactions, why am I sharing this book? For one reason: at one point, I found myself thinking that the story simply lacked any credibility or believability. People, I thought, would never docilely accept such an extreme of surveillance society as is portrayed in this story. Then I read a story in The Globe and Mail about an early draft of Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs "smart city" project in Toronto, which pretty much envisioned exactly such a state of extreme surveillance society, and realized I wanted to share my thoughts about that.
I find it nearly unbelievable that a bunch of supposedly intelligent people would think something like what was envisioned by the Sidewalk Labs team might be a good idea, even at an early brainstorming stage. Then, a few days later, I read that the board of Waterfront Toronto—a corporation funded by the government entities overseeing the possible development—has agreed to give conditional approval to a somewhat watered-down version of that original draft, smaller in scope and with some oversight of data privacy rights. Right … we've seen how well government oversight of privacy rights has gone so far. (Tom Cardoso, Josh O'Kane, "Sidewalk Labs document reveals company’s early vision for data collection, tax powers, criminal justice⩘ ." The Globe and Mail, Oct 31, 2019.)
Of course, the reality is that just such a surveillance environment is being imposed on unwilling participants, as we're seeing in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where China is subjecting the local population to harsh and maximally intrusive surveillance (video: "Life Inside China's Total Surveillance State⩘ ." Wall Street Journal, 2017, via YouTube). But the idea that people might willingly and passively submit to living in such an environment as the Sidewalk Labs project envisions simply blows my mind.
By the way, I've read reviewers tossing out comparisons to Snow Crash and Neuromancer. No way.
Tor Books, 2019
Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants
Nicely read by the author
A fascinating and enjoyable collection of insights, anecdotes, and trivia about every aspect of our bodies, and a nice follow up to A Short History of Nearly Everything.
One interesting takeaway: one of the most often used phrases in the book is along the lines of "but nobody understands why that is."
When I ponder the vast universe, I often think about how full of mystery it is. Now I more fully realize that the same holds true of my own body.
The book concludes, of course, with a chapter about our end. With his typical good humor, Bryson opens the chapter with an anonymous quotation:
It's nice to finish with a laugh.
Penguin Random House Audio, 2019
Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist
Narrated by Ibram X. Kendi
Using his own journey from anti-black racism to anti-white racism and, finally, to antiracism as a backdrop, Kendi passionately explores the realities of racism and the reasons it exists. These are challenging and at times painful ideas to confront, but it is vitally necessary for all of us to try to understand and absorb them.
The final chapter is both the most intimate and the most globally important. In it, Kendi compares racism to his own stage 4 metastatic colon cancer. "I have cancer, the most serious stage. Cancer is likely to kill me. I can survive cancer against all odds. My society has racism, the most serious stage. Racism is likely to kill my society. My society can survive racism against all odds."
Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.
Random House Audio, 2019, Downpour⩘
Edward Snowden, Permanent Record
Narrated by Holter Graham
Because I have followed this story fairly closely over the years in the press (which I continue to respect and appreciate, even as I maintain a skeptical frame of mind), through books like No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald and Facts and Fears by James R. Clapper, and via the documentary film Citizenfour by Laura Poitras and the film Snowden by Oliver Stone, I didn't learn much from Snowden's firsthand account. That said, it was interesting to get a more personal insight into what motivated and motivates him.
I think this is an important topic for everyone to understand as well as possible given the growing ubiquity of surveillance by governments and corporations (and given the often tenuous separation of the two). This is our new reality; the remaining question is whether we want any boundaries, whether any areas of personal privacy should remain sacrosanct. Whether you respect Snowden's actions or consider them traitorous, there's no question that he caused a brighter spotlight to be focused on this issue.
Macmillan Audio, 2019
Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers
What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know
Narrated by the author
After reading or listening to all of Malcolm Gladwell's pervious books and learning a lot from them, I found this one disjointed: the sections jumped from one story to another with only marginal thematic consistency. The author also attempted to modernize his audiobook presentation ("What you're about to hear is a different kind of audiobook … Think of this as an audiobook with the polish of a well-produced podcast.") by injecting live audio of interviews, which were often of poor audio quality; background music, which I found mostly distracting; and interludes of music … the music was fine, if not exactly to my taste (Hell You Talmbout by Janelle Monáe), but suddenly going from listening to calm, quiet narration to loud, percussive music was often jarring.
All those criticisms aside, I learned something valuable from this book related to the ideas of the psychologist Tim Levine, specifically his Truth-Default Theory.
The basic idea of TDT is that when we communicate with other people, we not only tend to believe them, but the thought that maybe we shouldn’t does not even come to mind. This is a good thing for two reasons. First, and most important, the truth-default is needed for communication to function. Second, most people are mostly honest most of the time. But, the truth-default makes us vulnerable to deception.
Gladwell explains: "We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.… We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away."
Gladwell further explains: "That is Levine's point. You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don't have enough doubts about them."
From the Wikipedia article, Truth-default theory△:
As humans, we are not very accurate when detecting lies from the truth. It is thought that we are approximately only fifty to sixty percent capable of detecting deception. With these odds, we hardly have the upperhand on a game of chance at telling whether or not to trust what we are being told. There are several reasons behind why we are incapable of detecting deception, one of the most significant being the fact that not all people show the same tell tale signs when they are lying. It is commonly thought that avoiding eye contact, inability to sit still, nervousness in the voice, etc. are accurate ways to tell that someone is lying. However, someone who is being truthful might partake in these "suspicious" behaviors simply as part of their personal mannerisms. On the other hand, someone who is being deceitful may not show signs of deception at all, thus creating a gap in the capability of humans to detect deceptions.
If I had known about Tim Levine's theory, I might've better enjoyed simply visiting the Truth-Default Theory△ page of his website, or perhaps waiting for the release of his new book on the theory, Duped, which is coming out in November, 2019. Regardless, I'm glad to have gained this important insight, and that alone made my investment of time in this audiobook worthwhile.
Little, Brown & Company, 2019, Downpour⩘
Peter Rock, My Abandonment
Well narrated by Tai Sammons
This is one of those unusual instances when I watched a film and was so deeply touched by it that I decided to read the book it was based on in order to dive a bit more into the story. I was surprised to discover that while much of the film tells the same story as is revealed in the book, the ending diverges sharply, going in a quite different direction.
The book was "inspired by a true story." In both the book and film, the girl who is the focus of the story, who narrates the book—Caroline in the book, Thom in the film—is a fascinating character study, revealing a wonderful strength and depth of individuality, and a clarity of vision as she observes the world around her, both in the woods and city. Both versions of the story are well worth experiencing.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie plays Thom in Leave No Trace
The film—directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Anne Rosellini—adds some extra dimensions to the story: the performances by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who plays Thom, and Ben Foster, who plays her father, are exceptional; the cinematography by Michael McDonough is exquisite; the revealing of the father's PTSD is deeper and fuller; and the inclusion of some wondrously quirky additional characters in the final part of the film is heartwarming. I definitely want to watch this film again someday, which is quite rare for me.
Book: Blackstone Publishing, 2009, Downpour⩘
Film: Leave No Trace, Bleecker Street, 2018
Julia Alvarez, Return to Sender
Beautifully performed by Olivia Preciado and Ozzie Rodriguez
A heartfelt story about immigration told though the voices of a young girl, the daughter of Mexican emigrants working on farm in Vermont, and a young boy, the son of the family that owns the farm. Reflecting the reality on the ground in Vermont at the time the book was written, the story invites readers to immerse themselves in the immediate physical and emotional experiences of those for whom this is daily life.
Although the farm the story takes place on is a beautiful family dairy farm, the story doesn't paint a rosy picture. The farm family is under tremendous stress when the father of the family is seriously injured in a tractor accident, and they must deal with the conflict of being patriotic Americans while at the same time trying to save their farm by doing something illegal. The Mexicans in the story live under constant fear of being discovered, and indeed one of the uncles is captured in an I.C.E. sting and deported, and the mother goes missing for a year on her return trip after returning to Mexico to care for a dying relative. At the same time, both families slowly discover what is special about each other.
This compelling story presents an opportunity to look beyond the divisive political slogans surrounding the issue of immigration, and to experience deeply the hearts of some of those directly involved.
Listening Library, 2010, Downpour⩘
Lindsey Drager, The Archive of Alternate Endings
Over the last few years, my focus has shifted from primarily reading books to listening to audiobooks. When there is a good narrator, I prefer the atmosphere of storytelling that an audiobook can so vividly convey. However, once in awhile I come across a book that intrigues me but isn't available as an audiobook, as is the case here when I initially came across a review of it by Ian Mond in Locus⩘ .
I went ahead and ordered a copy from the publisher, and I'm glad I read it as it touched me deeply. It is at the same time a small book and an immense story. Several themes give the story its continuity—the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel; what happens to oral stories when they are captured on paper; the deep bonds of siblings—as it bounces back and forth across the centuries from 1378 to 2365, providing glimpses into the lives of its characters that coincide with the periodic visit to Earth by Halley's comet. No story has ever made me feel more clearly the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the hatred and ignorance it stirred up in some people, and at the same time, the grace it brought forth in others.
This is a powerful and beautifully written story.
What are words without a heart beating behind them?
Dzanc Books⩘ , 2019
Rob Hart, The Warehouse
Very well narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, with Jason Culp and Karissa Vacker
A thought-provoking and chilling near future thriller, imaging what might happen if today's super-conglomerate consumer addiction dealer continues to grow unabated and frees itself of any meaningful oversight from governments weakened by the devastation of environmental collapse.
Makes me even more glad I've closed my wallet to the Prime consumer cesspool vortex and its many subsidiaries.
Random House Audio, 2019
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil's Highway: A True Story
Beautifully narrated by the author
Dedication: For the dead, and for those who rescue the living
This is the story of the The Wellton 26, a group of migrants who got lost in the desert southeast of Wellton trying to make their way into the United States from Mexico. Fourteen of them died, and many of the survivors now live with debilitating injuries. It's easy to dismiss this as just another case of some nameless aliens who were foolish enough to try to gain illegal entry into the U.S. by crossing a harsh and desolate desert in the heat of summer. But there's more of a story here. They were flesh and blood people, with good reasons to leave their homes and families to undertake the perilous journey (for many, their reasons centered on providing for the families they were leaving behind). They went forward with hopes and aspirations, and persisted with incredible fortitude, courage, and hope in the face of incredible hardship. Beyond that, there's centuries of history; there's local, regional, national, and international politics, quite often foolish or stupid; there are border patrol officers, who were in one way the enemies of the walkers, but who were also their saviors, and who were most often good people doing very difficult work, who faced their own perils as they attempted to save the lives of the walkers. It is a complex story, told carefully and with great sensitivity, a story well worth taking the time to understand better.
And he liked his music, music that was getting bolder and bolder. Even the ranchero stuff was turning outlaw—polkas and ballads sang of the virtues of narcos and Coyotes. The culture had common enemies: oppression, poverty, cops, "the government," the Border Patrol, "La Migra." (Oddly, much border slang made law enforcement feminine: la chota, la placa, la Migra.) Rock songs regularly took the governments of both the United States and Mexico to task, demanding human rights, indigenous rights, political parity, revolution, even ecological responsibility. Like all rock, some songs also enthusiastically advocated smoking pot, getting drunk, and getting laid.
And Jesús and his friends were listening. The banda kids, a terror to the staid fathers of Mexico, were becoming self-educated through a kind of samizdat musical network. Mexican bands, Latin American bands, and even Chicano bands from Los Angeles were throwing down challenges in every genre—pop, rap, techno, metal, el punk. What didn't get on the radio rattled from block-party boom boxes and pirated tapes. Deejays in chichi bars played the rude stuff to the delight of partiers and the indifference of the strippers. Some of the songs were unbelievably bold. The sly cultural warriors of Tijuana No!, for example, released a rousing rap, "Stolen at Gunpoint":
Fuck La Migra,
And the policía!
Fuck John Wayne,
I look up to Pancho Villa!
The chorus cried:
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
Stolen at gunpoint!
We gonna get it back…
Aztlán ("The Place of the Reeds") was the traditional home of the Aztecs, a possibly mythical motherland from which the tribe ventured forth on a one-hundred-year walk. It was a land to the north of Mexico City. Chicanos recognize Aztlán as being in the American southwest, and it came to represent the stomping ground of "La Chicanada," or the entirety of the Hispanic west. The Aztecs (Mexica, pronounced "Meshica," hence, "Chicano") walked south, out of the deserts, on their way to what would become Mexico City. They apparently walked across the Devil's Highway on their way home. We gonna get it back´ In this milieu, it was quite attractive to be a Coyote. You could tell yourself you were a kind of civil rights activist, a young Zapata liberator of the poor and the downtrodden. In short, a revolutionary. Coyote-as-Che. Jesús certainly fed himself these ideas, if his testimony is to be believed.
It was hardly cool. Temperatures had hovered in the low eighties all night. And the deep rock cuts where they had wandered had held the day's heat and radiated all night. By 3:00 A.M. or so—the bug-sign hours—the heat had moved into space and the cool of the stones could set in. The rocks went from oven-hot to feeling about as warm as a human body. This would be the coolest moment for the walkers, though at the time it felt far from chilly. The next few nights would stall at ninety-four or ninety-five, and the days would explode into triple digits.
In the spring, on that Sunday morning, still between Easter and the start of summer, the sunrise was deceptively gentle in its first manifestations. Many mornings in the western desert start like this. An immense stillness, vast as the horizon, yet somehow flat, echoless, leaning against the ear like deafness. It was not as if the sounds of the world had been swallowed by the desert—it was as if the sounds of the world had somehow failed to enter the land.
Perhaps, ultimately, what is so remarkable about the Mexican border is not how many of Them have come across, but how many of Them have not. It is not hard to imagine any one of the Wellton 26 deciding it was time to put a roof on the house, to build a small concrete room for the new baby, to buy furniture for his wife, to feed his family. Their reasons for coming were as simple as that—as were the reasons Mendez says he came. It is important to remember that Mendez himself never intended to be a Coyote—he was settling in on the Mexican side of the border. To hear politicians and talk show hosts tell it, the entire population of Mexico is on its way. We try to put numbers on a story that is, at base, a story of the heart.
Numbers never lie, after all: they simply tell different stories depending on the math of the tellers.
The same facts and figures add up to different sums. The Center for Immigration Studies did a number crunch in 2001, and they came up with the alarming data that each illegal costs the United States money. "The estimated lifetime net fiscal drain (taxes paid minus services used) for the average ilk, ensure that illegal immigrants stay for long periods—thus ensuring some percentage of that $55K+ prophecy comes to fruition.
Several studies have also pointed out that illegal immigrants actually depress wages. They help keep the minimum wage down. This means savings for the managers: Captains of Industry and loyal Dittoheads in the grand cirque du capitalisme are saving money on low wages and cheaper product. That can of peas we eat doesn't cost $9.98, not until the Wobblies get in there and organize a real union. Vicks VapoRub is bottled in Mexico; Big Macs are cooked by Mexicans. Shaving points off both ends.
Although the federal tax figure is decried in some of the reports as minimal—after all, these are poor folks who make $4.50 an hour—it is still worth considering. If there are eight million tonks slaving away in the United States right now (and one of the Mexican pols interviewed for this book crowed, "We have inserted twelve million workers into the United States—it is already Mexico! We have won the war!"), most of those workers pay federal income tax: shaved right off the top. No choice, just like you. They pay state taxes: shaved right off the top. They get tapped for Social Security and FICA. There's a whole lot of shaving going on. If you multiply $4.50 an hour by eight million workers, that would mean there are 36 million taxable dollars being accrued every hour by illegals getting tapped for some percentage by Uncle Sam. Those workers will not receive a refund. State tax? Has the governor of California gotten a new swimming pool lately? How's the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge looking?
Lower wages, cheaper product, unclaimed federal taxes, unclaimed state taxes, unused Social Security. Over a lifetime, does it start to ameliorate the $55K+? What about sales taxes, gas tax, rent? What about Pampers at the local Vons supermarket? Cigarette tax. Beer. Tortillas and BVDs and cable and used cars and speeding tickets and water bills and electric bills and tampons and Trojans and Mars bars. Movie tickets. Running shoes. CDs. Over a lifetime, how much does it add to the American commonwealth?
But they take away our jobs! Interestingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Satistics has reported that by 2008, there will be five million more jobs in the United States than people to do them. This is after the tides of illegals. After the post-Iraq economic doldrums. Even if we vacuum up the homeless and set them to sweeping and frying, we'll have a few million vacancies. Who you gonna call?
UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center (you can hear talk radio hosts protesting already—UCLA! Commie bastards!) released a twenty-first-century study that found that "undocumented immigrants" contributed "at least $300 billion per year to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)." If you put their numbers at a mere 4.5 million, they still add between $154 million and $220 billion, the report says. Researcher Marisol Sanchez told the EFE News Service, apropos of this study, that "although conservative groups claim that undocumented immigrants are a social burden," illegals tend to shy away from seeking social services because they don't want to be deported. Wherefore $55K+?
How many toys. How many phone bills. How much in the poor box at church. How much for pencils, steaks, charcoal, glasses, panties, bras, bikes, skateboards, concerts, Blockbuster, Monistat, Head & Shoulders, Listerine. AOL. Computers. Backpacks. Uniforms. Night school.
What of the Devil's Highway itself, the tormented border in Arizona?
In June 2003, right in the heart and heat of the killing season, Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, released a study. Sooner or later, everyone will release a study. But this one made the Mexican consuls of Arizona happy. No doubt Vicente Fox faxed it to the White House.
Thunderbird learned that Arizona "gets $8 billion in economic impact annually from the relationship" with Mexico. That's profit, not costs. Mexico makes $5.5 billion. Reymundo and his son would have been stunned to know they were dying under a high tide of money. Critics will be stunned to learn that the United States makes more money in the deal than those wily Mexicans.
Thunderbird relates: "Mexican immigrants paid nearly $600 million in federal taxes and sales taxes in 2002… Mexican immigrants use about $250 million in social services such as Medicaid and food stamps… Another $31 million in uncompensated health care.…"
That leaves a profit of $319 million.
Little, Brown & Company, 2011
Peter Watts, Blindsight
Wickedly well narrated by T. Ryder Smith
I read this amazing story a few years ago⩘ . Recently, I came across a reference to its brilliance and decided it might be fun to listen to it. It was! This is one crazy ride of a story. I got more out of this time than the last, and I think I'll likely continue to mine to new insights each new time I read or listen to it. Peter Watts has one fine mind, whether or not that kind of thing is an evolutionary dead end.
Theseus dispatched to investigate Burns-Caulfield Kuiper artefact in the wake of the Firefall event. Mission redirected to Oort after the approach of advance high-gee probes apparently triggered a self-destruct response in the target artefact on 12/02/2084. New destination assigned following rediscovery of an anomalous X-ray torsion flare of possibly intelligent origin in the IAS database, hailing from a previously-undocumented Oasa Emitter (OE-5932).
Recorded Books, 2008, Downpour⩘
Ben Montgomery, Grandma Gatewood's Walk
Narrated by Patrick Lawlor
This book has been sitting in my ebook library for a long time, but I seldom read books anymore, preferring to listen. The other day I came across it again when looking at the audiobook offerings of my local library and decided to give it a try. It was far better than I had thought it would be, interesting, feisty, entertaining, and inspiring.
Beginning in her late 60s and up until her mid 80s, Grandma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail (three times), the Oregon Trail, and thousands of miles more. She did it with the bare necessities, often tennis shoes and small hand-sewn pack, and a minimum of supplies, really little more than a determined attitude and an appreciation of the woods. She set out without much fuss, not even telling her family where she was headed the first time she set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. What a spirit!
Tantor Media, 2014, Downpour⩘
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Narrated by George Guidall
I first read Ursula K. Le Guin as a teenager, when it was dawning on me that I live on the xenophile side of the xenophilia – xenophobia spectrum and naturally found myself attracted to science fiction's stories of wondrous peoples and places … the more different from my own experiences, the better! It has been many years since I've revisited any of her books, so long that I have only the faintest memory of her stories. I ran across a reference to her the other day and realized that it is time to visit her universe again.
As I listened to the very first paragraph of this first book of hers that I decided to revisit, I found myself once again swept away.
I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
This is a story of a fascinating journey, through time, through space, through emotions, through dangers, towards understanding and even love.
"I am glad I have lived to see this," he said. I felt as he did. It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
Follow up: I decided to listen next to The Dispossessed, read by Don Leslie. Whoa, after slogging through a bit more than half of it, I gave up, finding it so incredibly boring. Guess that's the extent of my Ursula K. Le Guin revival.
Recorded Books, 2018 (1969), Downpour⩘
Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
Well narrated by Shayna Small
I knew of Harriet Tubman, but only slightly. My interest in knowing more about her life increased with the recent news about the controversy surrounding when the new currency featuring her image will be released. Then I read a brief overview about her in the article, "44 African Americans Who Shook Up the World⩘ , and decided to find a more complete story about her life.
Catherine Clinton has done an admirable job putting together a vivid portrait of this amazing woman's life and work, from her strength in the face of slavery, to her courageous act of escaping from slavery, to her heroic work assisting others to free themselves from their unjust bondage at great personal peril, to her valiant work on behalf on the Union army to help win the Civil War, to her dedication of her remaining lifetime to helping those less fortunate than herself and to advancing the causes of justice and equality. She is a true American hero.
Little, Brown & Company, 2017, Downpour⩘
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Powerfully narrated by Bill Andrew Quinn
A first-hand account of the immorality of slavery, and of the incredible strength, resilience, and intelligence of human spirit that can overcome such brutality to achieve an exemplary life of dignity, compassion, resistance, and inspiration.
The shame of slavery must be eliminated entirely from the face of the Earth.
Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds, faithfully relying upon the powers of truth, love, and justice for success in my humble efforts, and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause, I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass, Lynn, Massachusetts, April 28, 1845.
Dreamscape Media, 2018
Zachary Mason, Void Star
Skillfully performed by Cassandra Campbell, Tristan Morris, Sean Pratt, and Michael Braun
How to follow up an author of the caliber of Richard Powers? The best way I could think of was to listen again, for the third time, to Zachary Mason's Void Star. I was blown away by this book the first time I listened to it (my original thoughts about it: Void Star by Zachary Mason). With each subsequent listen, aided by my growing familiarity, I have entered the story a bit more deeply. If Mason never writes another novel in this realm of fiction, I'll have nothing to complain about; he will have made a more significant contribution than most. But I sure he hope he does take us on another exploration someday.
Blackstone Audio, 2017
Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark
Wonderfully performed by Morgan Hallett and Michael Braun
As I said just a few reviews ago, over the years, I have read or listened to all of Powers' books, and have been entranced by almost all of them. When many of his older books became available as audiobooks recently, I picked them all up and began a marathon of listening to them. Just as I was finishing the last one I had in my queue, the amazing In the Time of Our Singing, I noticed that one of my favorites had just been released and snapped it up.
I had actually begun re-reading Plowing the Dark (for the third time), since I wanted to revisit the story and it wasn't yet available on audiobook, and was about half way through, but gladly exchanged it for the audiobook when it arrived in order to take a fresh new dive into this amazing story. I've recorded my thoughts about this book twice previously, so won't go into it again, except to say that this is one I hope to have the chance to listen to again someday.
Now I just hope someone releases an audiobook version of his first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which is now the only one of his books to not have an audiobook version.
Recorded Books, 2019 (Note: Recycled the cover from the printed book here, as the audiobook as of yet has only a plain and not very attractive cover.)
Cixin Liu, Three-Body Problem Trilogy
Translated by Ken Liu; Narrated by Luke Daniels and P. J. Ochlan
Previously, I read and/or listened to all three of these books separately. Recently, I heard about the upcoming book, The Redemption of Time, written by Sci-Fi author Baoshu, a super-fan of the Three-Body Problem Trilogy, and published with the assistance of Cixin Liu. That got me thinking about the trilogy again, so I decided to listen to it again in sequence.
What a journey! Cixin Liu is a deftly creative thinker who paints on the canvas of the universe in a vivid array of hues with his brush of imagination.
Macmillan Audio, 2014 - 2016
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
A Story of Justice and Redemption
Narrated by the author
Bryan Stephenson is a person of amazing grace and compassion. As a lawyer and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, he fights to bring justice to wrongly convicted death row inmates. His story is a sobering and troubling look at injustice that plagues our justice system, and an invitation to us to glimpse the humanity of those on death row.
Finally, and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it directed at the undeserving; the people who haven't earned it, who haven't even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.
Random House, 2014
Elizabeth Warren, This Fight Is Our Fight
The Battle to Save America's Middle Class
Narrated by the author
Really respect how passionate, feisty, and, at times, downright angry Warren is. Also admire that she remains optimistic in the face of such overwhelming odds. I think she'd make a great president who could lead our nation in the right direction. Bet she has some of the fat cats on Wall Street a bit concerned.
Macmillan Audio, 2017
Blake Crouch, Recursion
Well narrated by Jon Lindstrom, Abby Craden
Recursion rewards an initial suspension of disbelief with an entertaining, fast-paced, head-spinning yarn. Bouncing from timeline to timeline, the well-drawn main characters race to develop the key technology for good, to exploit it for personal gain, or to prevent it from causing unintended consequences or wreaking widespread havoc.
<rant>This book did a nice job of erasing the disappointment I experienced listening to Neal Stephenson's Fall or Dodge in Hell. I have read/listened to most of Stephenson's books over the years, some multiple times, and have derived a great deal of enjoyment from them, but Fall is one of the most boring books I've ever encountered, made worse by how laboriously long it is. While the first section of the book was somewhat interesting, playfully exploring some captivating concepts, after that, it bogged down-down-down. Because it was written by Stephenson, I kept plodding along, trusting it would get interesting again at some point; no such luck, it remained a tedious slog right up to the last word.</rant>
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker
Wonderfully 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; 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 is 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
With 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
Well 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
Narrated 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
Narrated 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
Aptly 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
Translated 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
Narrated by the author
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 and This America
A History of the United States
Exuberantly 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!
Update: A few months later, I listened to This America: The Case for the Nation written and read by Jill Lepore (Random House Audio, 2019). It's a short listen, less than three hours, but provides a powerful sequel to These Truths, in which she explores the contrast between the ideals of our nation and the ugliness of political nationalism. She provides vivid historical context, but also brings our story up to this moment.
Recorded Books, 2018
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Translated 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.
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Macmillan Audio, 2013
Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
Wonderfully 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
Beautifully 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