Reading – & Now 6
A love affair with books
"What are words without a heart beating behind them?"
– Lindsey Drager, The Archive of Alternate Endings
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 was being generated 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 places, 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.
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⩘