Reading – & Now 6

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A love affair with books

An appetizer:

"What are words without a heart beating behind them?"
– Lindsey Drager, The Archive of Alternate Endings

Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha

Eat the Buddha by Barbara DemickWell narrated by Cassandra Campbell

A tragic tale, compassionately told. A stark warning to the rest of us of the dangers 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

Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah KendziorRead 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

Sand Talk (oral edition) by Tyson YunkaportaSpoken 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:

Table of contents fo Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

   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⩘ 

M. R. Carey, The Book of Koli

The Book of Koli by M. R. CareyVery 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

The Vanishing Half by Brit BennettExquisitely 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

The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty LymanVery well narrated by Matthew Spencer

Utterly fascinating.

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.

Tantor Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ 
Related video: Wound Healing Time Lapse by Kolo⩘ 

Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones, I'm Not Dying with You Tonight

I'm Not Dying with You Tonight by Gilly Segal and Kimberly JonesBeautifully 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

White Fragility by Robin DiangeloNarrated 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.

More context >

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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.

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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.

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   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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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   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

These Women by Ivy PochodaVery 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

Entangled Life by Merlin SheldrakeWonderfully 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.

Photo of an oyster mushroom unmaking the author's book
Image from author's website⩘ 

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:⩘ 
An eye-opening, topic-related film: Fantastic Fungi⩘ 
A few other topic-related websites:
Ecovative Design⩘ 
Paul Stamets' website⩘  and his mushroom and mycelium-focused company: Fungi Perfecti⩘ 

Hao Jingfang, Vagabonds

Vagabonds by Hao JingfangWell 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.

Character notes >

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ 

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution
An Introduction to Natural Farming

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu FukuokaNicely 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.

Masanobu Fukuoka
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

The Coyotes of Carthage by Steven WrightWell 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

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

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 SpaceXOpen in new tab regular 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 StarshipOpen in new tab regular. 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 UpdateOpen in new tab regular, Sep 28, 2019

HarperAudio, 2015, Downpour⩘ 

Kawai Strong Washburn, Sharks in the Time of Saviors

Sharks in the Time of Saviors< by Kawai Strong WashburnExquisitely 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

Forty Days without Shadow by Olivier TrucWell 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, NorwayOpen in new tab regular:

Kautokeino Municipality, Norway

Another key element of the story is an old Sámi drum, likely similar to this one that is displayed in Wikipedia:

Sámi shaman from Meråker, Nord-Trøndelag with his drum
Copper carving depicting
a Sámi shaman from Meråker, Nord-Trøndelag with his drum
(meavrresgárri / gievrie). 1767.Open in new tab regular

Some of the key characters in the story:

Grand Central Publishing, 2014, Downpour⩘ 

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan LethemVery 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

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael ZapataWell 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

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez CastilloWell 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⩘ 

Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl
The Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam HigginbothamWell 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

Lost Children Archive by Valeria LuiselliBeautifully 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

A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna KavennaIllustrated 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

Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

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.

More >

Paperback: The Text Publishing Company, 2019
Audiobook: Harper Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ 

Joanna Kavenna, Zed

Zed by Joanna KavennaWell 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.

Key >

Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ 

Maja Lunde, The End of the Ocean

The End of the Ocean of Maja LundeTranslated 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

Contact by Carl SaganNarrated 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

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav KalfařVery 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⩘ 

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