Reading – & Now 6
A love affair with books
"What are words without a heart beating behind them?"
– Lindsey Drager, The Archive of Alternate Endings
Rudger Bergman, Humankind
Translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore; well narrated by Thomas Judd
This is an important book.
From the opening chapter:
This is a book about a radical idea.
An idea that's long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.
At the same time, it's an idea that's legitimised by virtually every branch of science. One that's corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked.
If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it's an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it's nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you'll never look at the world the same again
So what is this radical idea?
That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
That might make it sound like it's a bit of a soft, touchy-feely book, but it's actually a hard-hitting book that's solidly based in scientific research, debunks a bunch of commonly held beliefs, and offers proof for how we can live better lives and build better communities and societies. There is a positive way forward, and this book provides a roadmap and evidence for how we can dig our way out of the current morass we find ourselves in and strive towards the solid ground of a better future.
A worthwhile read.
Little, Brown & Company, 2020, Downpour⩘
Maria Hinojosa, Once I was You
Narrated by the author
A courageous and inspiring book. Maria Hinojosa shares an intimate view into her life as a groundbreaking journalist who has broken through boundaries and helped bring Latino issues to the forefront even as she struggled to overcome her own insecurities and self doubt.
Her coverage of immigration issues, including the criminal treatment of immigrants seeking asylum by our own government, is essential reading for all of us who love our country and want it to be the best it can be. The title of her book refers to a bewildered little girl she met at an airport who was in the custody of ICE agent, and who Maria spoke with, letting her know she was seen and appreciated. This is perhaps her greatest gift: her ability to see others with compassion and empathy as individuals rather than merely as statistics to be manipulated for profit or political gain.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Todd Shimoda, The Fourth Treasure
Many years ago, I read 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, Algorithms of the Floating World by Todd Shimoda and illlustrated by L. J. C. Shimoda, and was touched and impressed. I usually keep up with creators who touch and impress me, but for some reason, I lost track of the Shimodas. Recently, I was reminded of them, searched for what they've been up to, and ordered their subsequent books. While they all are well written, quirkily interesting, beautifully illustrated, exquisitely made hardbound books, this is the one I most appreciated.
It touched and impressed me the way the first book had. In one way, it's a very ordinary story, but there's something enchanted about it. As with 365 Views of Mt. Fuji, the illustrations are beautiful, and there are notes in the margin that enable the reader to learn more about the art of Shodô, traditional Japanese calligraphy, and even a bit about neuroscience, as the story unfolds. A really lovely book.
The following is one of the illustrations in the book. It isn't traditional calligraphy; rather, it's one of the expressions of a Shodô master who has had a stroke and is expressing himself from within his severely damaged brain, as interpreted by one of his students, a very special student.
Nan A. Talese, 2002
Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents
Well narrated by Lynne Thigpen and Patricia R. Floyd, Sisi Aisha Johnson, and Peter Jay Fernandez
Whoa, powerful story! Originally published in 1993 and 1998, the story is set mainly in the 2020s and 2030s. The first book tells the story of Lauren Oya Olamina, in her own voice; the second continues her story through her journal entries shared with comments by her daughter, Larkin Olamina, who was brutally stolen from Lauren by the Christian America cult, placed with a foster family, and renamed Asha Vere.
The story is eerily prescient, telling today's story of climate change, water shortages, and raging wildfires, and expanding it to explore the possible consequent social upheaval that we may well soon face.
Although bleak and at times terrifying, it is also a story of determination, grit, and optimism, expressing how, in the face of the worst of what humanity is capable of, it's still possible to strive toward creating what is best.
I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as "the Apocalypse" or more commonly, more bitterly, "the Pox" lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.
I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough to know that it is true. I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.
Overall, the Pox has had the effect of an installment-plan World War III.
[Presidential candidate Texas Senator Andrew Steele] Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches. Witches! In 2032! A witch, in their view, tends to be a Moslem, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or, in some parts of the country, a Mormon, a Jehovah's Witness, or even a Catholic. A witch may also be an atheist, a "cultist," or a well-to-do eccentric. Well-to-do eccentrics often have no protectors or much that's worth stealing. And "cultist" is a great catchall term for anyone who fits into no other large category, and yet doesn't quite match Jarret's version of Christianity. Jarret's people have been known to beat or drive out Unitarians, for goodness' sake. Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of "heathen houses of devil-worship," he has a simple answer: "Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again." He's had notable success with this carrot-and-stick approach. Join us and thrive, or whatever happens to you as a result of your own sinful stubbornness is your problem.
And we are Earthseed. We're "that cult," "those strange people in the hills," "those crazy fools who pray to some kind of god of change." We are also, according to some rumors I've heard, "those devil-worshiping hill heathens who take in children. And what do you suppose they do with them?" Never mind that the trade in abducted or orphaned children or children sold by desperate parents goes on all over the country and everyone knows it. No matter. The hint that some cult is taking in children for "questionable purposes" is enough to make some people irrational.
From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING
Choose your leaders
with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward
is to be controlled
by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool
is to be led
by the opportunists
who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
is to offer up
your most precious treasures
to be stolen.
To be led by a liar
is to ask
to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant
is to sell yourself
and those you love
And now we know what happens when a leader is a foolish, lying, thieving coward who strives to be a tyrant.
Recorded Books, 2000 (originally published 1993) Downpour⩘ and
Recorded Books, 2002 (originally published 1998) Downpour⩘
Cover images from the beautiful hardbound editions by Seven Stories Press⩘ , 2019
Related: This news article today reminded me of the spirit expressed by Octavia E. Butler through the character of Lauren Oya Olamina: 19 families buy nearly 97 acres of land in Georgia to create a city safe for Black people⩘ , CNN, Sep 12, 2020. They're going to name their city Freedom, Georgia.
Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
Powerfully narrated by Dominic Hoffman
This debut novel by Ghanaian-American Yaa Gyasi is stunning. The perception and insight she shares of her characters, their places, and the sweep of historical issues she covers suggests decades of astute observation, yet she was in her mid-20s when she wrote and published this book. Obviously, she has inherited and integrated the wisdom of generations of her ancestors.
The story begins with Effia and Esi, two Ghanaian sisters who share the same mother but were born in different villages. Effia marries a white British slave trader and lives a life of privilege, while Esi is captured and sold to the same slave trader, in whose "care" she, like all the others in her position, is treated barbarically before being shipped off to America.
The book is then a series of intertwined short stories that follow the descendants of Effia and Esi in Ghana and America through the generations and up to the recent past. That Yaa Gyasi is able to share so much of this history so vividly in one book has left in me in awe. It is a painful story, yet also reaffirming in how it reveals the strength and endurance of the human spirit in the people we meet through each story—Quey, Ness, James, Kojo, Abena, H, Akua, Willie, Yaw, Sonny, Marjorie, and Marcus—and the multitudes they each represent.
Random House Audio, 2016, Downpour⩘
Jon Meacham, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope
Well narrated by JD Jackson
Compelling. I hadn't expected to be as touched and inspired by this book, by John Lewis's courageous life as I have been.
Jon Meacham quotes John Lewis speaking from the Canterbury Pulpit of the Washington National Cathedral on March 30, 2008, forty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken there (my emphasis):
"If Martin Luther King, Jr., were here today, he would still be saying we are all in this together," he said. "Maybe, just maybe he would say to us today that our forefathers and our foremothers all came here in a different ship to this land, to this great country, but we are all now in the same boat. Maybe in a different ship, but we are all now in the same boat. He would be saying that it doesn't matter whether we are black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American, whether we are Democrats or Republicans or independent, that we are one people. We are one house. We are one family. It doesn't matter, we have to find a way to live together. We have to find a way to understand each other. We have to find a way to make peace with each other."
I couldn't help but think about the racist sitting in the Oval Office right now when I read the following passage:
"George, why are you doing this?" Johnson asked. "You came into office a liberal—you spent all your life trying to do things for the poor. Now, why are you working on this? Why are you off on this Negro thing? You ought to be down there calling for help for Aunt Susie in the nursing home."
"Now, listen, George, don't think about 1968," Johnson said. "Think about 1988. You and me, we'll be dead and gone then, George….What do you want left after you, when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads, 'George Wallace—He Built.' Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, 'George Wallace—He Hated.'"
Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Susan Power, The Grass Dancer
Beautifully narrated by the author
Back in 2004, I was introduced to Susan Power through her book of short stories, Roofwalker, and was quite impressed. I ordered her debut novel, The Grass Dancer, put it on one of my many bookshelves, and then for some reason forgot that it was in my list of books to read. Recently, another author I was reading mentioned being inspired by Susan Power, reminding me of this pending read. Since the the audiobook version was released in the interim, I downloaded it and immersed myself in Susan Power's storytelling.
It was worth the wait. This is a wondrous tale, both earthy and mystical, joyous and tragic, tracing a thread from the present day back through the generations to the story's beginning, then back to present day to weave all the strands together.
Back in 2004, I concluded my review of Roofwalker by writing, "Thank you, Susan Power," and that's the right way to conclude this one, too.
Brilliance Audio, 2009, Downpour⩘
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Narrated by Christopher Dontrell Piper
This is an intense listen, hundreds of years of well researched history compressed into 19 hours of rapid-fire narration.
Almost all of this history is, certainly intentionally, missing from, glossed over, or grossly simplified in our educational curriculum, yet it seems crucial that Americans understand this context if we're ever to come to terms with our deep-rooted racism. If we don't come to terms with it, I don't see how we can ever reach our nation's true potential.
I just listened to a man being interviewed by the BBC at the March on Washington 2020 say, "Change is slow here in America,⩘ " and while this book certainly underscores that, the most impressive thing is the strength and perseverance of people who continue standing up for what is right through centuries of struggle.
I hope Professor Kendi eventually updates the book with a new section that takes us though the period from the election of Obama, where this book ends, through the current day.
Related article: Ibram X. Kendi, Is This the Beginning of the End of American Racism? Donald Trump has revealed the depths of the country's prejudice—and has inadvertently forced a reckoning.⩘ , The Atlantic, Sep 2020 Issue
Novel Audio, 2017, Downpour⩘
Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
Well narrated by Robin Miles
An essential read, eye opening, powerful, chilling, haunting, and inspiring.
What is the difference between racism and casteism? Because caste and race are interwoven in America, it can be hard to separate the two. Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you. For those in the marginalized castes, casteism can mean seeking to keep those on your disfavored rung from gaining on you, to curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serve to keep the structure intact.
Two decades ago, analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. "Race is a social concept, not a scientific one," said J. Craig Venter, the geneticist who ran Celera Genomics when the mapping was completed in 2000. "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.q q Which means that an entire racial caste system, the catalyst of hatreds and civil war, was built on what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu called "an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits," derived from a few of the thousands of genes that make up a human being. "The idea of race," Montagu wrote, "was, in fact, the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior caste."
I was chilled to the bone by the chapter titled The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste, which describes how in the early stages of the Third Reich, the leadership drew inspiration for its racial purity laws from the way the U.S. "managed its marginalized groups and guarded its ruling white citizenry," though some in the Nazi leadership felt the U.S. went too far. I also was chilled to the bone by the descriptions of how the German citizenry and political class complacently allowed Hitler and the Nazis to seize power. Wake up, America!
Hitler had made it to the chancellery in a brokered deal that conservative elites agreed to only because they were convinced they could hold him in check and make use of him for their own political aims. They underestimated his cunning and overestimated his base of support, which had been the very reason they had felt they needed him in the first place. At the height of their power at the polls, the Nazis never pulled the majority they coveted and drew only 38 percent of the vote in the country's last free and fair elections at the onset of their twelve-year reign. The old guard did not foresee, or chose not to see, that his actual mission was "to exploit the methods of democracy to destroy democracy."
By the time they recognized their fatal miscalculation, it was too late. Hitler had risen as an outside agitator, a cult figure enamored of pageantry and rallies with parades of people carrying torches that an observer said looked like "rivers of fire." Hitler saw himself as the voice of the Volk, of their grievances and fears, especially those in the rural districts, as a god-chosen savior, running on instinct. He had never held elected office before.
Our nation needs to understand and own this history; otherwise, we'll never be able to successfully heal and become a better union.
In modern times, the concept of the scapegoat has mutated from merely the bearer of misfortune to the person or group blamed for bringing misfortune.
"This serves to relieve others," wrote the Jungian psychologist Sylvia Brinton Perera, to free "the scapegoaters, of their own responsibilities, and to strengthen the scapegoaters' sense of power and righteousness." In a caste system, whether in the United States or in India or in World War II Germany, the lowest caste performed the unwitting role of diverting society's attention from its structural ills and taking the blame for collective misfortune. It was seen, in fact, as misfortune itself.
Thus the scapegoat unwittingly helps unify the favored castes to be seen as free of blemish as long as there is a visible disfavored group to absorb their sins. "Scapegoating, as it is currently practiced," Perera wrote, "means finding the one or ones who can be identified with evil or wrongdoing, blamed for it and cast out of the community in order to leave the remaining members with a feeling of guiltlessness, atoned (at one)."
A scapegoat caste has become necessary for the collective well-being of the castes above it and the smooth functioning of the caste system. The dominant groups can look to those cast out as the cause of any fate or misfortune, as representing the worst aspects of society. "The scapegoater feels a relief in being lighter," Perera wrote, "without the burden of carrying what is unacceptable to his or her ego ideal, without shadow." The ones above the scapegoat can "stand purified and united with each other, feeling blessed by their God."
In the American South, the designated scapegoat was expelled not to the wilderness but to the margins of society, an attempted near banishment from the human race. Many men and women in the dominant caste blamed the people they enslaved for poor harvests or for meager returns, called the people who worked as many as eighteen hours a day for the enrichment of others lazy, and took out their frustrations on the bodies of those they held captive.
Thank goodness Wilkerson has made these insights and this information so accessible. I wish I had begun learning this foundational knowledge when I was in grade school and high school so that I could've carried this understanding in my heart over these past many decades.
"This is a civilization searching for its humanity," Gary Michael Tartakov, an American scholar of caste, said of this country. "It dehumanized others to build its civilization. Now it needs to find its own."
He saw that the caste system created a smooth path for some and broken-glass shoals for others, that creativity and intellect were not restricted to one group alone. These were the people whose very sight and touch was said to be polluting, and yet here he was sitting across from them, sharing and learning from them. He was the beneficiary of their gifts rather than the other way around, and he came to see what had been lost by one not getting to know the other for his lifetime and all the lifetimes before his.
A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist—in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people's physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy, then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be.
Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals. We need not bristle when those deemed subordinate break free, but rejoice that here may be one more human being who can add their true strengths to humanity.
Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity
Fascinating! Listening to this book is helping me to look at our world, our social world with fresh eyes.
Cooperation is the key to our survival as a species because it increases our evolutionary fitness. But somewhere along the way, "fitness" became synonymous with physical fitness. In the wild, the logic goes, the bigger you are, and the more willing you are to fight, the less others will mess with you and the more successful you will become. You can monopolize the best food, find the most attractive mates, and have the most babies. Arguably, no folk theory of human nature has done more harm—or is more mistaken—than the "survival of the fittest." Over the past century and a half, it has been the basis for social movements, corporate restructuring, and extreme views of the free market. It has been used to argue for the abolition of government, and to judge groups of people as inferior, and then justify the cruelty that results. But to Darwin and modern biologists, "survival of the fittest" refers to something very specific—the ability to survive and leave behind viable offspring. It is not meant to go beyond that.
The idea that the strong and ruthless will survive while the weak perish became cemented in the collective consciousness around the publication of the fifth edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1869, in which he wrote that as a proxy for the term "natural selection," "Survival of the Fittest is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient."
Darwin was constantly impressed with the kindness and cooperation he observed in nature, and he wrote that "those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring." He and many of the biologists who followed him have documented that the ideal way to win at the evolutionary game is to maximize friendliness so that cooperation flourishes.
Hare and Woods explore this concept through history, across species, and with a deep dive into the development of our own species up to nearly the present day. They present a framework within which to view and better understand both our function and dysfunction.
A recent traumatic experience has left me with a tendency toward being withdrawn, suspicious, and distrustful. This book is helping me to rediscover something I once knew, which I now will try to reintegrate into my life:
It is possible to see every stranger as a potential friend.
Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations
Beautifully narrated by Barrie Kreinik
The beautiful Arctic Tern has the longest migration of any animal, traveling from summer in the Arctic to summer in the Antarctic, an annual journey of between 70,000 - 90,000 kilometers (44,000 - 56,000 miles). A medium-sized bird that primarily subsists on fish, they live between 15 - 30 years. Imagine that: in a lifetime, they can travel more the 2.7 million kilometers (1.5 million miles), the equivalent of three roundtrips to the moon!
For all but the most blinkered skeptics, it is obvious the climate change and global warming are accelerating, and that we are experiencing the early stages of the sixth mass extinction, tentatively named the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction. We are seeing the escalating die-off of numerous families of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish due to the degradation of natural habitat.
McConaghy hangs her gripping story on the intersection of the majestic Arctic Tern and mass extinction. Set sometime in the near future when most of the fish in the oceans are already gone, we travel with an intriguing, deeply described and dangerously flawed main character, Franny Stone, as she attempts to travel along with what may well be the final migration of the dwindling Arctic Terns.
Although the story requires the suspension of disbelief in a few places, that tolerance is rewarded with a richly drawn tale of colorful characters living through vivid moments of both quiet solitude and intense drama on a wondrous journey to the end of the world.
I listen to and read a lot of books; some are okay, some are disappointing, and once in awhile, I'm rewarded with soaring treasure.
An Arctic tern protecting nest on Amsterdam island, Svalbard
Image by AWeith - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Macmillan Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha
Well narrated by Cassandra Campbell
A tragic tale, compassionately told. A stark warning to the rest of us of the dangers and consequences of becoming an authoritarian state.
Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Sarah Kendzior, Hiding in Plain Sight
The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America
Read by the author
A bit of a grim book, but important to help make understandable the breadth and depth of the takeover of the U.S. by the kleptocracy, and of the very real possibility we face of descending into an unrestrained autocracy.
The complicity and greed of the global elite seemed the biggest barrier to change. What it both masked and enabled was worse: the rebirth of global fascism. The fringes had not yet become the center—or moved into the White House—but the movement was there. The weaponization of social media by authoritarian states and corporate intelligence agencies like Cambridge Analytica had begun; they were mapping the terrain as we obliviously inhabited it. Protesters were not yet cauterized by the vicious cynicism that dominates political culture today. A nightmarish act of violence was still viewed by most as a nightmarish act of violence; not a meme, not a joke. Now we live in an era when mass shooters livestream their massacres while online forums cheer the body count like it's a video game. This is the architecture of the internet that Lanier warned about, an algorithmic facilitation of cruelty and pain.
Something had broken in how we treated each other. It wasn't about civility or respectability, but about empathy, kindness, and respect.… Mass harassment and threats had exploded online, fueled by misogynist movements like Gamergate and the rise of neo-Nazis—often halting productive discussions and driving participants off social media. Despite pleas from the victims, social media companies did almost nothing to stop it.
The troll epidemic and spread of toxic online culture is not merely a source of anguish for many users, but an ignored national security threat. Throughout 2014, female and nonwhite online activists—and in particular, black women on Twitter—noticed a shift in social media discourse that left them suspicious. In summer 2014, writers Shafiqah Hudson and l'Nasah Crockett launched the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing to expose accounts impersonating black users and making obnoxious political claims. Many of these accounts were later revealed to be Russian troll accounts seeking to map the US political landscape and prepare to influence the 2016 election. Other trolls were right-wing users in the United States linked to the Russian effort: Steve Bannon (then the editor of Breitbart) and Cambridge Analytica were experimenting with social media to see how social groups could be manipulated online for political gain. According to Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, Bannon asked employees to "test messaging around Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian expansion." However, few in power paid attention—in part because social media companies almost never took seriously the most common targets, women of color. Had Twitter taken harassment seriously and investigated the source, this facet of the Russian effort to influence the 2016 election could have been detected early. It took Congress years to identify an intelligence operation that black women pointed out in real time. The systemic racism enabling this willful ignorance put democracy in jeopardy.
In fall 2016, I said to a friend, "I don't know who has it worse—the people who understand what is going to happen, or the people who don't." Her answer was simple: "Neither of them: it's the kids."
Macmillan Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk
How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World
Spoken by the author
When I first became aware of this book, it was available only by ordering it from the continent currently known as Australia, which I did. I very much appreciated the book (see my notes below from earlier this year). When I read that it would be released in an oral edition mid-year, I immediately preordered this edition, intuiting that it would be even more powerful to listen to it. As I heard the first few words spoken by Tyson Yunkaporta, I nodded my head: yes, this is the right way, to sit quietly and let this yarn flow over and through me.
You might join me in paying respects to the people and other beings everywhere who keep the Law of the land:
The Elders and traditional custodians of all the places where this book is written and read.
The Ancestors, the old people from every People now living on the continent currently known as Australia and its islands.
Our nonhuman kin, including the various spiky species around the world, the porcupines and hedgehogs who snuffle in the earth for ants and then do God knows what when we're not looking.
The stories that define our thinking today describe an eternal battle between good and evil springing from an originating act of sin. But these terms are just metaphors for something more difficult to explain, a relatively recent demand that simplicity and order be imposed upon the complexity of creation, a demand sprouting from an ancient seed of narcissism that has flourished due to a new imbalance in human societies.
There is a pattern to the universe and everything in it, and there are knowledge systems and traditions that follow this pattern to maintain balance, to keep the temptations of narcissism in check. But recent traditions have emerged that break down creation systems like a virus, infecting complex patterns with artificial simplicity, exercising a civilizing control over what some see as chaos. The Sumerians started it. The Romans perfected it. The Anglosphere inherited it. The world is now mired in it.
The war between good and evil is in reality an imposition of stupidity and simplicity over wisdom and complexity.
My method for writing incorporates images and story attached to place and relationships, expressed first through cultural and social activity. My table of contents is visual, and it looks like this:
If people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is a joy because it is an act of creation.
HarperAudio, 2020, Downpour⩘
PDF: Sand Talk Supplemental Enhancement PDF⩘
Related video: Tyson Yunkaporta discusses Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World⩘
Related Video: Contact⩘ , a documentary about the last 20 Martu Aboriginal people who lived in the the Warla (Percival Lakes) area of the Western Desert, and the first time they came in contact with Whitefellas, who were tasked with moving them away from their homeland to make way for the crash landing of a rocket that was being tested in 1964. According to the Wikipedia entry about the Martu people⩘ , they "were granted native title to much of their country in 2002, after almost two decades of struggle."
M. R. Carey, The Book of Koli
Very well narrated by Theo Solomon
The past five weeks have been extraordinarily stressful for me. One consequence is that I've had very little time for my favorite pastime: reading, and especially listening to books. I have tried to continue one activity, a daily walk, and most days have managed it. That gives me the opportunity to enjoy at least one hour of listening, and this has been the story I've been listening to for the past couple of weeks. It has been a wonderful escape.
Carey lets the story unfold at a leisurely pace, never rushing the narrative. This gives the listener the space to drop into the main characters, inhabit their post-societal-collapse world, and understand through their experiences their wonder at the few remaining items of technology they have that still remain, some of which are things we take for granted, others which are a bit futuristic.
One of the vivid characters in the story is nature itself, a nature that had been extensively genetically modified by humans prior to the collapse and is now an extremely dangerous force that the remaining humans need to reckon with.
This is the first volume of a trilogy. I look forward to the next book in the series.
I wish publishers made it easier to discover who to credit for cover artwork. This book has a beautiful cover; it would be nice to be able to thank someone.
Orbit, 2020, Downpour⩘
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half
Exquisitely narrated by Shayna Small
A beautifully written, multi-generational story with lusciously vivid characters providing a remarkably clear mirror for this time.
And that was how love worked, wasn't it? A transference leaping onto you if you inched close enough.
Penguin Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Monty Lyman, The Remarkable Life of the Skin
Very well narrated by Matthew Spencer
From the introduction:
Using the skin as a prism, what follows is a look across both time—from ancient history to the future of science—and space—from the elegant tattoos of crocodile-worshippers in Papua New Guinea to the skin changes of sun-worshippers on Miami Beach. It begins by exploring the terrain of the physical skin. Picking out facts from fiction, it addresses questions such as whether our diet affects our skin, what makes our skin age, and how much sunlight is too much? These questions lead into the intriguing hinterland between the skin and the mind, from the pain and pleasure of touch to the effects of stress on the skin. The skin and the mind are intimate friends, and no other organ carries such psychological weight. How our skin is perceived by others—or, perhaps, how we think it is perceived by others—can affect our mental health. The skin is in some ways a book, in which scars, wrinkles and tattoos tell our story and can be read by others, but it is also a screen, a shifting visual display of our internal emotions, whether through subtle facial twitches, blushing or the unwanted eruptions of an underlying physical or psychological condition. The final part of this journey across our outer surface is a look at the skin in a social context. The skin unites us: humans are the only organisms that permanently mark and tattoo the skin in order to communicate with others. It also divides: skin colour and 'defiling' skin diseases have separated societies and changed the course of human history. Human skin has even influenced philosophy, religion and language, with effects that lie far beyond its mere physical form.
And from near the end of this remarkable journey:
The field of physiognomy (literally, 'judging nature', and now completely discredited) claimed that measuring physical characteristics can reveal inner character. Ironically it is the modern study of skin-colour genetics that supports the prevailing scientific and anthropological consensus that all humans are, biologically, one single race.
Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones, I'm Not Dying with You Tonight
Beautifully narrated by Channie Waites and Brittany Pressley
This story is an intimate, boots on the ground (or, in this case, running shoes and designer sandals on the ground), in your face look at race and racism. Vividly told, it provides the opportunity to feel the events deep inside as they unfold explosively around the two girls, Lena and Campbell, who are thrown unexpectedly together, and then must figure out how to work together to survive the night.
Recorded Books, Inc., 2019, Downpour⩘
Robin Diangelo, White Fragility
Narrated by Amy Landon
Diangelo provides an opportunity to take a long, hard look in the mirror and really see what is reflected there, to acknowledge the racism that is baked into every aspect of our lives and our country, into our very image of ourselves. Then she invites us to step up and work on this for the rest of our lives.
Race scholars use the term white supremacy to describe a sociopolitical economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white. This system of structural power privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group.
= = = = = = = = =
This chapter explores what is perhaps the most effective adaptation of racism is recent history: the good/bad binary.…
As African American scholar and filmaker Omowale Akintunde says: "Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them."
The good/bad frame is a false dichotomy. All people hold prejudices, especially across racial lines in a society deeply divided by race. I can be told that everyone is equal by my parents, I can have friends of color, and I may not tell racist jokes. Yet I am still affected by the forces of racism as a member of a society in which racism is the bedrock. I will still be seen as white, treated as white, and experience life as a white person. My identity, personality, interests, and investments will develop from a white perspective. I will have a white worldview and a white frame of reference. In a society in which race clearly matters, our race profoundly shapes us.…
The good/bad binary certainly obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for us to see or understand. Equally problematic is the impact of such a worldview on our actions. If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the "not racist" side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is ot my problem; it doesn't concern me and there is nothing further I need to do. This worldview guarantees that I will not build my skills in thinking critically about racism or use my position to challenge racial inequality.
= = = = = = = = =
Racism is complex and nuanced, and its manifestations are not the same for every group of color. To challenge the ideologies of racism such as individualism and color blindness, we as white people must suspend our perception of ourselves as unique and/or outside race. Exploring our collective racial identity interrupts a key privilege of dominance—the ability to see oneself only as an individual. We need to discuss white people as a group—even if doing so jars us—in order to disrupt our unracialized identities.
= = = = = = = = =
Racism is the norm rather than an aberration. Feedback is key to our ability to recognize and repair our inevitable and often unaware collusion. In recognition of this, I try to follow these guidelines:
- How, where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant—it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it's on me to build my racial stamina.
- Thank you.
The above guidelines rest on the understanding that there is no face to save and the game is up; I know that I have blind spots and unconscious investment in racism. My investments are reinforced every day in mainstream society. I did not set this system up, but it does unfairly benefit me, I do use it to my advantage, and I am responsible for interrupting it. I need to work hard to change my role in this system, but I can't do it alone. This understanding leads me to gratitude when others help me.
= = = = = = = = =
Because racism does not rely solely on individual actors, the racist system is reproduced automatically. To interrupt it, we need to recognize and challenge the norms, structures, and institutions that keep it in place. But because they benefit us, racially inequitable relations are comfortable for most white people. Consequently, if we whites want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have—anger, defensiveness, self-pity, and so forth—in a given cross-racial encounter without first reflecting on what is driving our reactions and how they will affect other people.
Beacon Press , 2018, Downpour⩘
Ivy Pochoda, These Women
Very well narrated by Bahni Turpin and Frankie Corzo; I particularly appreciated the spirited voice Turpin gives to Feelia
A deeply insightful character study of seven women in L.A., wrapped in a serial killer thriller that spans a 20-year period. Pochoda takes her readers deep into the psyche's of Feelia, Lecia, Dorian, Juliana/Jujubee, Anneke, Marella, and Esmerelda/Essie, the fiercely determined and brilliant solver of puzzles who, though callously dismissed by her male colleagues at the police department, doggedly unravels the crime. Pochoda paints just as vivid a character study of the parts of L.A. the story is set in. Leaves me wanting to read more by Pochoda.
HarperAudio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life
How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
Wonderfully narrated by the author
An absolutely extraordinary book. It has changed the way I view our world.
Nature is an event that never stops. As William Bateson, who coined the word genetics, observed, "We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing."
Sheldrake concludes his book nicely:
Fungi might make mushrooms, but first they must unmake something else. Now that this book is made, I can hand it over to fungi to unmake. I'll dampen a copy and seed it with Pleurotus mycelium. When it has eaten its way through the words and pages and endpapers and sprouted oyster mushrooms from the covers, I'll eat them.
There are times when it seems the challenges we are causing—the destruction of our ecosystems, the rampant overuse of harmful synthetic chemicals, our careless acceleration of climate change—are too great to be solved. Then I come across a book like this and find my trust in the ingenuity and goodness of people restored. Perhaps it's too late, but maybe, just maybe there are enough passionate people like those described in Entangled Life to bring life back into balance.
Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Author's website: merlinsheldrake.com⩘
An eye-opening, topic-related film: Fantastic Fungi⩘
A few other topic-related websites:
Paul Stamets' website⩘ and his mushroom and mycelium-focused company: Fungi Perfecti⩘
Hao Jingfang, Vagabonds
Well narrated by Emily Woo Zeller; translated by Ken Liu
I had a mixed reaction to this book, but enough of a positive response that I want to make a note of it. It's a multi-generational story about becoming a multi-planetary species told mainly through the stories of early generations of Martians. The scope is sweeping and the technology described is often interesting. Hao Jingfang can be quite lyrical, taking the time to invite us to view people, places, and events through a lens of perception that is wide open. As much as I often appreciated this, at times I found myself growing impatient and even bored with the pace of the story's unfolding. I'm glad I stayed with the book until the end, but it could've been a bit more crisp.
We have only a few decades, and no matter how we strive to extend it, a lifetime is but a brief flash in the eyes of the gods and eternal cosmos. But that is precisely where the beauty and power of life lies. All of our vitality, our beliefs, our struggles and resistance, our despair—they are endowed with splendor because of our rapid decay. Think about it: a human being flashes like a bolt of lightning, leaving no trace in the darkness. But in that brief window, they can crystalize something out of their simple soul, something that will last far beyond their death, that will reach for eternity. What a fantastical fate! Even to strike a few poses during that brief flash is among the most magnificent phenomena in the universe.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution
An Introduction to Natural Farming
Nicely narrated by David Shih; translated by Larry Korn
A short and quite fascinating listen. While the audiobook was released just a couple years ago, it is based on the book Mr. Fukuoka released in 1975, which in turn was based on experiments in natural farming he began in the late 1930s and that became the focus of his life again beginning in 1947.
His methods are radically different from anything we are used to in our modern society, whether it be the techniques of chemical-based or organic farming.
This image⩘ is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license⩘ .
The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops,
but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.
It is not about how to do this and that.
It is how to not do that counts.
– Masanobu Fukuoka, 1913 - 2008
Audiobook: Tantor Audio, 2017, Downpour⩘
Related video (YouTube): Masanobu Fukuoka Talks About the One Straw Revolution⩘
Related website: One-Straw Revolution⩘
Steven Wright, The Coyotes of Carthage
Well narrated by Glenn Davis
This is an impressive novel, all the more so as it's the author's debut novel. Wright's narrative voice is assured, his insight deeply penetrating.
If you want to get a glimpse of why politics in the U.S. is such a mess, this is a good place to begin gaining an understanding. Hint: it's not an accident. If, on the other hand, you just want an entertaining book to get you through the next day or two of the lock down, then this is a good place to dive in.
Well done, Steven Wright!
HarperAudio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk
Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Fascinating insights into Musk's vision and the way he has tackled head on and reshaped some of the world's most entrenched industries. Musk appears to be phenomenally brilliant, a visionary, compulsively driven, a gambler, and at times almost a bit of a huckster. And he's changing our world.
I found the sections on SpaceX to be the most fascinating parts of the book. The aspect of our current life that I personally find most inspiring is the quest to colonize Mars and become a multi-planetary species. There's nothing more fascinating going on in the technology sphere than the attempt to build and launch the Starship. I sure hope I live long enough to see the first of those take off for the red planet!
It appears that consciousness is a very rare and precious thing, and we should take whatever steps we can to preserve the light of consciousness.
– Elon Musk, Starship Update, Sep 28, 2019
HarperAudio, 2015, Downpour⩘
Kawai Strong Washburn, Sharks in the Time of Saviors
Exquisitely narrated by Jolene Kim, Kaleo Griffith, G. K. Bowen, Tui Asau
A stunningly vivid and beautiful story, at times so lyrical that it simply took my breath away, at other times so raw that I felt like I was getting gut punched.
Washburn lights up the lives of siblings Nainoa, Kaui, and Dean, their parents Malia and Augie, and their place, Hawaii, with a graceful intensity that I can compare only to the experience of witnessing the aurora borealis lighting up the northern sky.
It's only once in a blue moon that I gratefully come across a book like this. After listening to the final passage, I simply sat back and said, "Wow!"
Recorded Books, Inc., 2020, Downpour⩘
Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow
Well narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner
It took me awhile to get into the rhythm of this story, and while it wasn't the best I've come across in this genre, what made it fascinating is its setting, far north in the Sápmi, the territory of the Sámi people, a region spread across Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. For me, it was a real journey of discovery, opening my eyes to a part of the world and a people I hadn't previously known about.
Truc moved to Sweden in 1994 to be with a woman he had met, but soon became acquainted with the Sámi.
It was at this time that I discovered a darker side of Nordic society, one in which certain injustices had continued for decades, thanks to an implicit racism and imperialist attitude—something that one could scarcely imagine surviving in this forward-thinking country. This new awareness influenced my understanding of the Sami from that moment on. I've never viewed them as an exotic folk culture, the way they're often depicted in magazines, but rather as a people at war, equipped with insufficient weapons, and battling for their very existence against a more powerful foe. And in the light of their struggle for survival, it's exasperating for them when they're represented merely as the token indigenous people, wearing brightly colored costumes, tending to Santa's reindeer. Now that I had a deeper insight into their plight, I wanted to share it with the world….
He did extensive research into the culture of the far north, and ended up writing related articles as a correspondent for Le Monde, Libération, and Le Point, as well as creating a television documentary. At one point, he spent two months following the Reindeer Police on their patrols, which is a central element of the story. All of this shows in the vivid picture of place and people he paints in his novel.
The story is centered in Kautokeino Municipality, Norway:
Another key element of the story is an old Sámi drum, likely similar to this one that is displayed in Wikipedia:
Some of the key characters in the story:
- Klemet Nango and Nina Nansen, Raindeer Police
- Nils Ante, Klemet's uncle, Sámi joïk singer
- Johann Henrik, Mattis Labba, Olaf Renson, Sámi Raindeer herders
- Aslak Gaupsara, traditional Sámi Raindeer herder
- Aila, Aslak's wife
- Helmut Juhl, curator of museum of Sámi culture in Kautokeino
- Tomas Mikkelsen, reporter in Kautokeino
- Karl Olsen, farmer, counselor
- Tor Jensen, sheriff
- Rolf Brattsen, policeman
- Berit Kutsi, Sámi, lives next to museum, works for Karl Olsen
- Jonne and Mikkel, Sámi herders who work for Karl Olsen as mechanics
- Henri Mons, French ethnologist
- Andre Racagnal, Frenchman, geologist, prospector
- Anders Sunneborn, forensic pathologist
- Hurri Manker, Sámi academic
- Brian Kallaway, Canadian glaciologist
Grand Central Publishing, 2014, Downpour⩘
Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn
Very well performed by Geoffrey Cantor
Because this is a favorite book, when Edward Norton's film became available in digital format, I gave it a watch. I don't watch many films, even fewer based on books I've read or listened to. While it was a quite good film, I was surprised by just how little it had to do with the story in the book. Norton basically wrote a screenplay based on the main character—Lionel Essrog with his raging Tourette's—and set in the same borough, but otherwise nearly entirely different from Lethem's story.
When the film finished, I decided to give the audiobook another listen to reacquaint myself with the original. Good call. Great story and Geoffrey Cantor definitely poured his heart and soul into the performance.
HarperAudio, 2014, Downpour⩘
Michael Zapata, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau
Well narrated by Coral Peña
A strange and wondrous tale, blending many disparate themes into a coherent, if at times a bit overly detailed tale: the exploitation of colonial rule, the harrowing experiences of migration, the bizarre though possible theory of multiverses, the ugliness of racism, the seemingly random turns each of our paths may take and the chance intersections that can alter our lives, the mind-expanding realms of science fiction, the bioluminescence of our memories of the past.
But beyond that, she explained, beyond history or the mistakes of men, beyond time, which was a great and clever thief, beyond all of that, at the edge of the universe or maybe at the start and end of the universe, there was a soft murmur, a constant breath of beauty, a truth.
Harlequin Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Children of the Land
Well narrated by Tim Andrés Pabon
This book didn't enthrall me the way most of the books that make it onto these pages have, yet it did provide a unique insight into the landscape strewn with anxiety landmines that is the abnormal normalcy of the undocumented immigrant trying to get by in the United States, a place where due process is stacked against them at every turn.
It must've taken extraordinary courage for Castillo to overcome the fear-driven anonymity of his childhood in order to write such an intimately honest memoir.
HarperAudio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt
Well narrated by Yareli Arizmendi
Intrigued by this book's description and by the reviews of a couple of authors I have deeply appreciated and respected—Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez—I preordered this book. I was about a third of the way through it when I became aware of the controversy that erupted around the book.
I set the book aside and took a deeper look at the issues being raised. I read one review that seemed disproportionately angry, a second by a literary critic that seemed snobbishly petty in its partial focus on sentence structures the critic didn't like, and a third that dismissed me, a hypothetical American reader living comfortably in the U.S., in whom empathetic despair would be inspired. These were easy for me to shrug off. Then I came across a letter addressed to Oprah Winfrey by a 138 writers of diverse backgrounds⩘ , including a few I have deeply appreciated and respected—Zeyn Joukhadar, Valeria Luiselli, Tommy Orange, Luis Alberto Urrea, Jose Antonio Vargas—at which point I realized I wanted to consider carefully what they are saying.
First I should mention that while I know who Oprah is, that's about it. I'm aware that she has a book club, but have never considered its choices when choosing the books I read. I don't watch television and simply don't pay much attention to television personalities and their proclamations. At the same time, I understand how influential Oprah is and what a big a deal it is when her club chooses a book. So I read the letter carefully and kept its words in mind as I returned to finish listening to American Dirt.
Obviously, I'm not an expert on immigration and the governmental policies related to it, but I do understand that it's one of the most important challenges we face, one that is likely to become even more crucial as we face the fallout from climate change, and I've been personally disappointed and at times horrified by some of the U.S. government's policies of the past few decades related to immigration. For these reasons, I've read, listened to, and watched a fair amount of what is being shared about the migrant experience, much of it by people who have firsthand experience, and have carefully attempted to understand as well as I can, given my limited, insulated perspective.
With all that in mind, I appreciate what I experienced by listening to American Dirt. Is it accurate in what it portrays? I can't authoritatively judge that, though it doesn't seem to be out of line with everything else I've been exposed to. The violence rings true, as does the anxiety, fear, and exploitation migrants face as they travel across Central America, Mexico, and the U.S., as do the occasional acts of kindness they may experience on their journeys. And I think it's important to remember that the book isn't pretending to be a documentary or a work of non-fiction; it's clearly a novel telling the story of an atypical pair of migrants, a mother and child who come from a comfortable middle-class existence and who, even when forced to flee, have some of those means to draw upon. Is the author telling a story she doesn't have the right to tell because she hasn't experienced it herself firsthand? I don't think so. Again, she is focusing on the fierce bond between a mother and the child she is trying to protect, something I'm guessing the author is capable of imagining quite well. Cummins invested four years in researching and writing this book, and has some personal familiarity with the anxiety of the immigrant experience through her life with her now husband, a man from Ireland who was himself an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. early in their time together.
Do the writers who have asked Oprah to remove American Dirt and the others raising questions about the publication of the book deserve to be heard? Yes, they do. I think they raise some good points, especially related to their frustration and anger with the way the publishing industry handles diversity. However, they also raise arguments that are not as well made. One such the letter makes is this:
As Cummins puts it in the author's note to American Dirt: "At worst, we perceive [migrants] as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings." A painful, central question arises: who is this we imagined by Cummins, who is this them? We, the undersigned, do not see a faceless brown mass. We, ourselves, are not faceless, nor are we voiceless.
A valid point, yet it is invalidated by how they excerpted her words and left out important context. Here's the full paragraph Cummins wrote:
It took me four years to research and write this novel, so I began long before talk about migrant caravans and building a wall entered the national zeitgeist. But even then I was frustrated by the tenor of the public discourse surrounding immigration in this country. The conversation always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns. I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago—and it has gotten exponentially worse since then—were characterized within that public discourse. At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings. People with the agency to make their own decisions, people who can contribute to their own bright futures, and to ours, as so many generations of oft-reviled immigrants have done before them.
A couple paragraphs later—as she is describing the experience of her grandmother, the daughter of a wealthy Puerto Rican family, when she immigrated to the U.S. legally as the wife of a naval officer, yet still faced discrimination, and the impact those stories had on the author's own outlook—she goes on to say:
I'm acutely aware that the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique. I feel this awareness in my spine, in my DNA.
While I found her author's note a bit awkward in places¹, I also think it's an authentic and soulful attempt to share what she went through when deciding whether to write this book and then while writing it. One story she shares is this:
In the early days of my research, before I'd fully convinced myself that I should undertake the telling of this story, I was interviewing a very generous scholar, a remarkable woman who was chair of the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at San Diego State University. Her name is Norma Iglesias Prieto, and I mentioned my doubts to her. I told her I felt compelled, but unqualified, to write this book. She said, "Jeanine. We need as many voices as we can get, telling this story."
In the end, I'm glad I listened to this book. It joins the other books, podcasts, articles, and movies about migration that I've experienced in helping me to better understand, even if only secondhand, the experience of migrants, and to emphasize with what they are going through. This knowledge will continue to impact how I cast my votes as a citizen of the U.S. I hope many more people take the opportunity to read or listen to American Dirt, in addition to some of the many other insightful books, podcasts, articles, and movies related to migration that are available, a few of which I've included in these pages of my personal reflections.
 Update: Some months after I wrote this review, I went back to check something in the Author's Note and was surprised to find it missing from both "my" copies of the eBook and the audiobook. It took me awhile, but I finally found a reference to its removal in an article in the Evening Standard, Jeanine Cummins on American Dirt: 'I wrote the story that was in my heart'⩘ :
Today, she says her biggest regret was writing the "clumsy" author's note at the end of the novel (removed in the second printing) justifying her reasons for writing it. "The first question in those early editorial meetings was always, 'Why did you write this book?' I'd give my answer, but it wasn't enough. They all wanted to understand what my personal connection to the story was, so I felt I had to list some reasons, but that just served to open the door for people to make their criticisms extremely personal instead of about the book."
Macmillan Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl
The Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster
Well narrated by Jacques Roy
Large portions of this book are as harrowing as any thriller. Some of the scenes are horrifying, and many left my skin crawling. It appears to be meticulously researched, and the entire story is thoroughly told. Even though I've paid attention to the Chernobyl disaster story and read many articles about it over the years, this book manages to transform it into a first-person, edge-of-your-seat experience.
Higginbotham also places the Chernobyl disaster in the context of the malaise affecting the entire Soviet Union, and shows how the disaster's reverberations helped speed its eventual demise.
A valuable companion to this book is Elena Filatova's photo diary of her motorcycle rides through the long abandoned region: Kiddofspeed: Ghost Town⩘
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2019, Downpour⩘
Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive
Beautifully narrated by Valeria Luiselli (the wife/mom), Kivlighan de Montebello (the boy), William DeMeritt (the husband/dad), and Maia Enrigue Luiselli (the girl)
The first half of this book was a bit of a struggle for me, though not enough to set the book aside, and I think it was crucial for the set up. The second half, from when the boy begins narrating, is both wonderful and heart wrenching, helping to make intimate the experience of the migration of children that is happening right now. It's even stronger given that for the first part of the book the experience is distant, something we hear about on the news playing on the car radio, via the excerpts being read in the book within a book, Elegies, or from imagining the red dots on a map of failed crossings. Then there's a shift and it's right there in our face: we can feel it, smell it, taste it; its heat burns us up; we feel the hunger pangs, the fear, and also the determination. At the same time, the story in the book Elegies jumps off the pages to become an in-the-present race against death under an unforgiving sun.
A short excerpt from the breathtakingly intense Echo Canyon chapter describing the lost children wandering in the desert, which in the printed book is a single 20-page sentence:
… I realized that what I was saying made no sense, that my brain was just going round and round, empty and full of hot air only, though sometimes when the desert wind came, it cleared my thoughts for a moment, but mostly there was just hot air, dust, rocks, bushes, and light, especially light, so much of it, so much light pouring down from the sky that it was hard to think, hard to see clearly, too, hard to see even the things we knew by name, by heart, names like saguaro, names like mesquite, things like creosote and jojoba bushes, impossible to spot the white heads of teddy bear chollas right in front of our eyes before they clawed out to scratch and prick us, impossible to see the outlines of the organ pipes farther away in the distance until they were right in front of us, everything invisible in that light, almost as invisible as things are by night, so what was it for, all that light, for nothing, because if light had been useful, we wouldn't have got lost inside of it, so lost inside light that we were sure the world around us was slowly fading, becoming unreal, and for a moment it did disappear completely and all that was there was the sound of our mouths breathing thin air, in and out, and the sound of our feet, on and on, and the heat on our foreheads burning out our last good thoughts …
In the audiobook, the Echo Canyon chapter is exquisitely narrated in turns by Kivlighan de Montebello (the boy) and Valeria Luiselli (the wife/mom), their voices seamlessly merging into each other as the story is passed back and forth between them. I've never heard anything like this in an audiobook before.
Random House Audio, 2019, Downpour⩘
Joanna Kavenna, A Field Guide to Reality
Illustrated by Oly Rolfe
I wasn't sure I was going to write about this book, but several days have passed since I finished it and I find myself continuing to think about it, making me realize it has left a strong impression on me.
It's a pretty crazy story. I've read a couple reviewers who have used the word hallucinogenic, which definitely fits. It takes the form of an intellectual scavenger hunt across the ages of ideas born in the Oxford area, focused especially on the understanding of the properties of light. (The epigraph: This book may at times bear some relation to the historical facts … This is invariably coincidental …)
One thing the story makes abundantly clear is how often the great thinkers have been persecuted by the orthodoxy, often the church. And how the great women thinkers were ignored, if not tortured and brutally murdered.
The main character, Eliade Jencks, is smart, down to earth, and sassy, a perfect foil to the cast of snobbish academicians who populate the story. She's also tenacious, following the obscure clues along a challenging journey towards the ultimate treasure left her by a wise old friend, now departed.
One thing I've learned, is not to tell anyone anything. It seems by far the best option. So many people just unwind the whole thing, the moment you ask them a single question. Then you get all this stuff, life detail, well, it's cumbersome, yards and yards of it, mile upon mile, unravelled towards you, until you're stumbling under the weight. So I say as little as possible. Damage limitation. No one can hold you to account, no one can judge you.
riverrun, 2016, signed first
Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk
How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World
Really interesting book. It has inspired me to stop and look at several things from what is, for me, an entirely new perspective, which is something I appreciate.
Granted, there is much that Yunkaporta discusses—or yarns about—that I don't fully understand; how could I coming from my lifelong immersion in a low-context or field-independent print-based culture. But that doesn't diminish the perspective-expanding gift that this book is. Hopefully over time my understanding will expand and more of what Yunkaporta shares in this book will become available to my conscious and subconscious journey through this life.
Every viewpoint is useful and it takes a wide diversity of views for any group to navigate this universe, let alone to act as custodians for it.
The beautiful cover of Sand Talk is based on one of Yunkaporta's wood carvings. He used his carvings and the symbols they contain as touchstones (touchwoods?) for the topics he covers in each chapter.
Sand Talk found its way to me through my online meanderings inspired by Claire G. Coleman's books, Terra Nullius and The Old Lie, both of which also expanded my perspectives. In fact, this book helped me to understand Coleman's books more deeply, and also gave me a fresh insight on the beautiful cover illustration of Terra Nullius.
I ordered Sand Talk from Australia, though I see it is now coming to the U.S. on May 12, 2020, when it'll also be released as an audiobook, which I have preordered. I look forward to revisiting the book in oral form at that time.
Paperback: The Text Publishing Company, 2019
Audiobook: Harper Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Joanna Kavenna, Zed
Well narrated by Elliot Hill
"There will be no further glitches…. That's absolutely guaranteed."
It took me a while to get into this book. In fact, after I had listened to it for a couple of hours, I tuned into another one for a while. Then I found myself reading again and everything seemed so strange, making my mind spin: fake is real, real is fake, people doing crazy things, pretending some semblance of normalcy, wrapping themselves in the assumed dignity of office, yet so batshit insane!
Finally, I closed the online news sites and returned to listening to this book, and then got hooked by its brilliant dive into the insane asylum we're creating, positing what it might be like if we continue just a bit further along our current trajectory, making my mind spin: fake is real, real is fake, people doing crazy things, pretending some semblance of normalcy, wrapping themselves in the assumed dignity of office, yet so batshit insane!
Even though I eventually did get hooked, I have to admit that I found this a quite challenging book. I had to listen really carefully, and still found it quite difficult to keep track of the characters and concepts, so I made myself a key. I'm going to publish it along with this review so I can refer back to it if I listen to the book again, which seems likely.
It is time to call Beetle to account. In the space of just ten years, with its Chinese partner company Băoguăn, it has become the biggest company on our planet and accrued a level of power that threatens us all. It controls our data, watches our every move, warps our democratic discourse, and exerts dominance over our markets and our currencies. Why is there no "techlash"? Because Beetle controls that too! With so much data and power centralized in the hands of a single company, the tech giant has become a serious threat to our basic freedoms and must be broken up.
On the other hand, perhaps Beetle is so dominant because it is the best company, because its users have chosen it? Who could now imagine living without the services of Beetle? Without BeetleBits and Mercury cars? Without Veeps and VIADS? Without ArgusEyes and ANTs to protect us, without the vast benefits of Real Virtuality, without the extraordinary innovations of the Boardroom and the BeetleSpace? BeetleBands have also saved governments billions in health costs and lost days of work, not to mention corporations, by reminding populations to stay healthy. The simple reason Beetle is so huge is that we prefer it to everything else. We should champion the benefits this innovative company has brought to the wider world.
Which side are you on?
"One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams." – Salvador Dalí, as quoted by Scrace Dickens in Zed.
Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Maja Lunde, The End of the Ocean
Translated by Diane Oatley; narrated by Jane Copland and Jean Brassard
Using a story told in two parts, Lunde intimately personalizes the climate crisis in this book that was originally titled, simply, Blue.
In 2019, Signe, a 70-year-old Norwegian from Ringfjorden, a village on the fjord near the Blåfonna glacier, thinks back on her life as she sets sail alone across the ocean, fleeing from a climate action-related crime she committed in defense of the ice and water of her home village. Signe has long seen the climate crisis looming and attempted actions to inspire more people to work to avert it, unfortunately, ineffectually.
In 2041, after their hometown in drought-stricken, war-ravaged, and water-scarce Southern France burns to the ground, David and his daughter, Lou, desperately try to make a temporary life in a refugee camp, where they must also come to terms with the probability that their wife/mother and baby son/brother perished in the fire.
Signe's sea voyage ends near to where the future refugee camp will be located, and the traces of the end of her story eventually touch the lives of David and Lou, rejuvenating them with a few drops of hope.
Lunde is only 44, but still seems to have a fairly good insight into Signe.
Sometimes I forget how I look. After a while you stop caring about your appearance when you live on board a boat, but once in a great while when I see myself in a mirror on land, when the lighting is good, I am startled. Who is she, the person in there? Who in the world is that skinny old biddy?
It is strange—no, surreal, surreal is the word—that I'm one of them, the old people, when I am still so completely myself through and through, the same person I have always been. Whether I am fifteen, thirty-five, or fifty, I am a constant, unchanged mass. Like the person I am in a dream, like a stone, like one-thousand-year-old ice. My age is disconnected from me. Only when I move does its existence become perceptible—then it makes itself known through all its pains, the aching knees, the stiff neck, the grumbling hip.
The cover illustration is beautiful. Unfortunately, I haven't yet been able to find out who to credit for it. There isn't a cover credit that I've been able to find published with the audiobook or ebook. Perhaps the paper versions have one.
Harper Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘
Carl Sagan, Contact
Narrated by Laurel Lefkow
I accidentally came across this audiobook recently, and realized that, while I had watched and enjoyed the movie a couple times, I had never read nor listened to the book itself, even though I had read other books by Sagan. That's unusual for me, as I tend to very much prefer books to films. So I decided to give it a listen. It's a shame that stories so often have to be dumbed down so much when they are translated to film.
Though I shouldn't have been, I was surprised by just how different the story in the book is. It is, as books usually are, deeper and richer than the film. I gained new insights into the thinking of the characters, which I appreciated.
The film does excel in a couple ways. First, the scene of leaving the Earth to the cacophony of audio waves leaving the planet and traveling out into the universe, gradually quieting as we travel further out and into our past, is amazing, vividly illustrating the relationship between time and space. Second, the visuals of the actual journey through the wormholes to visit other regions of space are astonishing, far beyond what I would've been able to imagine had I listened to the book before watching the film.
A final, somewhat disheartening observation: though the audiobook was released more recently, the book itself was published 35 years ago. One way its age shows is that I doubt its dedication would find its way into a book being published today:
For Alexandra, who comes of age with the Millennium. May we leave your generation a world better than the one we were given.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012, Downpour⩘
Jaroslav Kalfař, Spaceman of Bohemia
Very well narrated by Jot Davies
Aha! I read for rare moments like this, when such a book materializes in my universe.
I had traveled through Space, I had seen truths unparalleled, but still, in this Earthly life, I had barely seen anything at all. Something rests in the mortal soul, hungry to feel anything and everything in its own boundless depths. As boundless and ever-expanding as the universe itself.
I also like the way Kalfař begins and finishes his acknowledgements: "I'd like to thank: My country and my people. For their resilience, wisdom, art, food—and their humor in the face of great adversity.… Most importantly, I'd like to thank all readers of books, for keeping the conversation alive across centuries."
Little, Brown & Company, 2017, Downpour⩘