Reading – & Now: 2020

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A love affair with books


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

Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Underland by Robert MacfarlaneWell narrated by Matthew Waterson

Macfarlane takes us on an amazing and lyrical journey exploring the world underneath us, from spectacular caves around the world to the root systems of forest trees intertwined and sharing nutrients and chemical messages through mycelium links, from the forgotten and sometimes quite ancient passages beneath cities to the deep ice of ancient glaciers revealing insights into our planet from thousands and even millions of years ago.

He is a courageous adventurer and master storyteller, conjuring descriptions of places with a vividness and poetic reverence that breathed them to life in my imagination and soul. His journeys into these spaces are at times so harrowing that I was left with tingling fingers, at other times so breathtakingly glorious that I was left awed and wistful. He also meets a variety of colorful characters along the way, sharing their uniqueness with intimacy and clarity.

Listening to this book was an altogether exhilarating experience.

Highbridge Audio, 2019,⩘ ; W. W. Norton & Company, 2020,⩘ 

Lauren Redniss, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West

Book cover of Oak Flat by Lauren Redniss showing the title and author's name superimposed over a beautiful illustration of a landscape with the yellow sun in burnt orange sky shining down over deep red mountains, green foothills, and dark blue riverNarrated by Lauren Redniss, Darrell Dennis, Kyla Garcia, Kimberly Guerrero, Hillary Huber, Ann Marie Lee, Elizabeth Liang, Crystle Lightning, Jon Lindstrom, A. Martinez, John H. Mayer, Arthur Morey, Tanis Parenteau

Powerful book. Stirred up a lot of emotions in me including respect for the resilience of the San Carlos Apache tribe, appreciation for the depth of their community as revealed through the descriptions of the Na'ii'ees ceremony, the four day Sunrise Dance, and a sadness I feel deep in my bones for the carelessness and brutality with which we so often treat our planet and its sacred places.

My experience of the book was unique. I love to listen to books; however, this book is filled with illustrations by the author, so I decided to both listen and follow along in the physical book. It was a rich experience. The illustrations have a simplistic quality, almost childlike, yet they radiate vibrancy, adding depth to the experience, bringing even more to life the places and people in the book.

Illustration by Lauren Redniss
Dzil Nchaa Si An

The book is mainly narrated by Redniss, though much of the dialog by the various people who express themselves in the book is shared by various voice actors. For the most part, this adds an interesting depth to the experience, though I found the flow of the book to be somewhat interrupted by the slow and monotonous voice that introduced the name of the person for each bit of dialog, especially when that person had only a few words to say.

In the end, because of the artwork, I'd recommend reading the physical book over listening to the audiobook, or doing what I did.

We live in a time when profits and greed seem to trump all else, including the sacredness of our land, but I certainly hope that Oak Flat doesn't get desecrated by the mining companies and the politicians in their pockets.

Random House Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Random House, 2020,⩘ 

Update: What happens when the most sacred site of your religion is slated to become a copper mine? This activist is trying to stop it⩘ , analysis by Brandon Tensley, CNN, Dec 15, 2022.

   A federal appeals court recently made a seismic announcement: It agreed in November to revisit arguments to protect Oak Flat, sacred Native American land in Arizona that the San Carlos Apache Tribe says would be destroyed by construction of the Resolution Copper Mine.
   In June, a three-judge panel with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made a decision to allow the federal government to proceed with its plans to hand over Oak Flat to a mining company. But a full panel of 9th Circuit judges will now hear the case at a yet-to-be-scheduled date.

Elizabeth Bear, Machine

Machine by Elizabeth BearDeliciously narrated by Adjoa Andoh

A fun romp through the solar system with a wide variety of playfully and vividly imagined species who work together in a vast space station that is the solar system's largest hospital. The main character, the human-based Doctor Jens, works as a rescue doctor, a perilous job she loves and embraces with enthusiasm. She also enjoys to talking philosophy and joking around with the representatives of the many other species she works side by side with, deeply craves a good cup of coffee that she hasn't been able to have for years because the smell so very much disgusts the other-than-humans who inhabit the station with her, and brings a big heart and an optimistic outlook to solving the life or death challenges she, her workmates, and the entire hospital face.

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Gallery / Saga Press, 2020,⩘ 

Stacey Abrams, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America

Our Time Is Now by Stacey AbramsWell narrated by the author

Having seen quite a bit of news about Stacey Abrams over the past few years, and then having watched from afar her involvement in the voter registration work in Georgia, I was curious to learn more about her work. Her book exceeded my expectations, passionately and incisively covering a variety of related topics including voting rights and voter suppression, the census, gerrymandering, the electoral college, and authoritarian populism.

At times, it was difficult to listen, especially when she reveals the depths of depravity of the disgusting campaigns to disenfranchise voters. Yet the overall tone that emerges is one of strength, conviction, perseverance, and even optimism.

You can learn more about the work Stacey Abrams is doing to ensure fair elections and root out voter suppression at⩘ .


To own the power that voting provides, we must be positioned to select and elect leaders who will support our ambitions and clear barriers to our inclusion in opportunity. More important, we must acknowledge and accept that we all practice our own form of identity politics. Every person comes into the public discourse with histories and challenges. The worst political spaces are the ones where voters are told that everyone has the exact same narrative and everyone faces the exact same obstacles. The myth of the self-made man coexists with the stereotype of the welfare queen and the homeless junkie and the Spanish-speaking laborer. When political leaders homogenize our experiences or, worse, reduce them to insults or aberrations, they evade the hard work of understanding whom they represent.
   Identity politics forces those who ask for our support to do their jobs: To understand that the self-made man got zoned into a good school district and received a high-quality education, one that wouldn't have existed if his zip code changed by a digit. To recognize that the woman on welfare with three kids is the product of divorce in a state where she risks losing food stamps if her low-wage job pays her too much. Or that the homeless junkie is an Iraq War veteran who was in the National Guard but lost his job due to multiple deployments and didn't qualify for full VA care. And that the laborer is a migrant farmworker who overstayed his visa to care for his American-born children.
   Single-strand identities do not exist in a household, let alone in a nation. When America is at its best, we acknowledge the complexity of our societies and the complicating reality of how we experience this country—and its obstacles. Yet we never lose sight of the fact that we all want the same thing. We want education. We want economic security. We want health care. Identity politics pushes leaders to understand that because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity, and national origin, people confront obstacles that stem from these identities. Successful leaders who wish to engage the broadest coalition of voters have to demonstrate that they understand that the barriers are not uniform and, moreover, that they have plans to tackle these impediments. The greatest politicians display both of these capacities, and they never forget that the destination—regardless of identity—is the same: safety, security, and opportunity.

Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about our country and our democracy recently, and for the past many years. At times, things appear fairly bleak. I think a lot of people were, like me, hoping for an even stronger repudiation of the racist policies of the outgoing administration. Yet as I shared with a dear friend the other day, when I take a moment to reflect about what we are attempting as a country, I don't know of anywhere else where so many people of so many different races, religious beliefs, creeds, ethnicities, backgrounds, sexual identities and preferences, and political affiliations are even attempting to live together. Though we tend to make some progress, then stumble and fall back, I think most of us want and strive for a better society, one that is more just and inclusive. Admittedly, there is resistance to that idea, but also tremendous resilience and fortitude. I try to keep this always in mind.

This morning, I'm inspired by something Professor Heather Cox Richardson wrote on Nov 22, 2016, after being added to the "Professor Watchlist" to reassure her friends that she "was used to this sort of harassment and it would be okay…."

I do what I do—all the teaching, writing, speeches, and media—because I love America. I am staunchly committed to the principle of human self-determination, and have come to believe that American democracy is the form of government that comes closest to bringing that principle to reality. This nation is not perfect—far from it—but when it is at its best, it has more potential for people of all genders, races, and ethnicities to create their own destinies than any other governmental system. I work to teach people about that system, its great triumphs … and also its hideous failures. We must learn from the past because the miracle of America is that it is always reinventing itself, giving us the potential to remake it, better, every day.

Macmillan Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Henry Holt & Company, 2020,⩘ 

James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Breath by James NestorWell narrated by the author

I learned a lot from this book and found it so interesting that I ended up listening to it twice in a row in order to dive a bit more deeply into some of the finer points. Bits of it are way out there, and there definitely needs to be more peer-reviewed research, but the fundamentals that are discussed are fascinating.

I've become much more aware of my own breathing, especially of breathing through my nose. I've also started doing slow breathing exercises, which I find very relaxing. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Penguin Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Riverhead Books, 2020,⩘ 

Ruby Bridges, This Is Your Time

This Is Your Time by Ruby BridgesNicely narrated by the author

At the age of six, Ruby Bridges was the first black child to integrate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, escorted each day by Federal Marshalls past angry White protestors screaming racist hatred at her, the little girl who was later featured in the famous Norman Rockwell painting.

Yet once she was in the school, she was taught by Barbara Henry, a White woman who Ruby understood was unlike the protestors outside, who showed Ruby her heart, enabling her to love being in school every day, and who taught Ruby that there's "absolutely no way you can look at a person and judge them by the color of their skin … that you have to judge a person by the content of their character."

Her very short book is really a letter to young people based on the experiences of her life and of the lessons of the past sixty years. After hearing her talk about it with Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, I totally wanted to listen to it, too. It's a beautiful and hope-filled letter that I'm very glad to have experienced.

When I think about how great this country could be—America, land of the free, home of the brave—I think about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said about being great: "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.… You only need a heart full of grace."
   Really, it is that love and grace for one another that will heal this world.
   It is that love and grace that will allow us to see one another as brothers and sisters.
   It is that love and grace that will allow us to respect the many ways God has made all of us unique and will allow us to turn our stumbling blocks into stepping-stones.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Delacorte Press, 2020,⩘ 
Related video: Ruby Bridges - Trailblazing as a Child in the Jim Crow South⩘ , The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Nov 10, 2020

Alicia Garza, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart

The Purpose of Power by Alicia GarzaWell narrated by the author

Really appreciate this book, which together with When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele has given me a much deeper understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.

   Most of my adult life, I have been actively engaged in building a movement in this country that transforms everything—a movement that transforms our economy from one that provides profit for some and pain for others; a movement that advances collaboration at home and cooperation around the world that is fair, just, and generative; a movement that upholds our right to participate in every decision that has an impact on our lives and the lives of the people we care for; a movement that brings out the best of who we can be, alone and together. Building that movement is the opposite of the conservative movement that threatens us right now. Their movement results in wealth being concentrated into the hands of a small few, rather than distributed in a way that gives us all a good life. It is based on the subjugation of nonwhite and working people. The conservative consensus is driven by the values of conservative Christianity and deadly economic policy, and it denies the majority access to basic human rights.
   If we are to prevail, if we are to defeat the movement that has taken hold of our country and drives our relationships with the rest of the world, we must go from fragmented, divisive, and narrow to coordinated, collaborative, and broad.

   Controlling the story of who we are and what makes us who we are is an exercise of power—the more people you can get to invest in that story, to make your story their own, the more powerful you become. This is the right's narrative: The story of America is about perseverance, rugged individualism, faith, and hard work. Inside that story are characters who threaten the success of the project, who were never meant to be included in it in the first place: Black people who were brought to this country enslaved and then fought for and won our freedom. Indigenous people who resist genocide and colonization, who refuse to cede their land and their way of life. Women who refuse to serve merely as breeding machines and keepers of the home. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender-variant, gender-nonconforming people who refuse the nuclear family, who refuse binaries like man and woman, gay and straight, who embrace the complexity of who we are and who we are becoming. Immigrants who refuse assimilation. The story is not meant to be challenged, yet it is being challenged each and every day, many times successfully.
   Telling a new story requires that we accept the ways in which norms have changed, lifestyles have changed, and what is possible has changed. As Octavia Butler said, "The only lasting truth is Change." It is fascinating to be in a nation that claims to value innovation and yet is so resistant to change.

A very basic way to understand the patriarchy is that it is a system of power where men and male-bodied people gain power and privilege from the disadvantages that face women and woman-identified people. Fighting the patriarchy does not imply that all men are bad. Acknowledging the unearned power and privilege that men have garnered in this world, at the expense of the well-being and dignity of women and girls, doesn't make you a man-hater. In fact, the patriarchy has nothing to do with (and, frankly, doesn't give a shit about) whether or not you are a good or decent person or whether or not you hate men. Patriarchy is a system of power and privilege. It is not only about a deadly imbalance of power between cisgender men and cisgender women; it is also racialized. When I say patriarchy is racialized, what I mean, quite simply, is that not all patriarchy is created equal. To be racialized means that something is segregated or at least characterized by race. A racialized patriarchy allows white experiences to function as the control or the default for all experiences.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2020,⩘ ; One World, 2020,⩘ 

Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, A Black Women's History of the United States

A Black Women's History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole GrossWell narrated by Janina Edwards

Berry and Gross have provided us with a well researched and important addition to the history of our country. The knowledge and insights this book contains need to be incorporated into school curriculums, and need to become a foundational part of the general understanding of and conversation about who we are as a nation.

Beacon Press, 2020,⩘ ; Beacon Press, 2020,⩘ 

Jess Walter, The Cold Millions

The Cold Millions by Jess WalterVery well narrated by Edoardo Ballerini, Gary Farmer, Marin Ireland, Cassandra Campbell, MacLeod Andrews, Tim Gerard Reynolds, Mike Ortego, Rex Anderson, Charlie Thurston, and Frankie Corzo

Walters tells a vivid story set in his hometown of Spokane, Washington in the late 1800s and early 1900s and based on actual events and people, including the fiesty suffragist and labor activist, 19-year-old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as well as his namesake grandfather.

These times we are currently living through can be overwhelming with so many negative things coming at us simultaneously: global warming, the pandemic, the enormous wealth gap, racial inequality, racism, skyrocketing unemployment, poverty, homelessness, rampant corruption, overtly lying politicians, incredibly ugly political campaigns, massive wildfires burning in the West, and on and on.

In his novel, Walter explores, among other themes, the drastic gap between the rich and regular people, the exploitation of the working class, the yawning political divide, unrelenting police brutality, corruption, spineless politicians, environmental degradation, and even a vast and enormously destructive raging wildfire.

While these parallels don't eliminate my despair, they do provide perspective and perhaps a glimmer of hope, knowing that we have faced times as tough as these previously and have somehow made it through.

   The Great Fire of 1910 (also commonly referred to as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn, or the Devil's Broom fire) was a wildfire in the western United States that burned three million acres (4,700 sq mi; 12,100 km²) in North Idaho and Western Montana, with extensions into Eastern Washington and Southeast British Columbia, in the summer of 1910.…
   The fire burned over two days on the weekend of August 20 – 21, after strong winds caused numerous smaller fires to combine into a firestorm of unprecedented size. It killed 87 people, mostly firefighters, destroyed numerous manmade structures, including several entire towns, and burned more than three million acres of forest.

Great Fire of 1910⩘ ,

Let's hope we are on the cusp of a turn for the better.

Update: I just learned about the Wikipedia: Peshtigo Fire⩘ , which "was a large forest fire on October 8, 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin, United States, including much of the southern half of the Door Peninsula and adjacent parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The largest community in the affected area was Peshtigo, Wisconsin which had a population of approximately 1,700 residents. The fire burned about 1.2 million acres and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, with the number of deaths estimated between 1,500 and 2,500." The reason it is not better known is that it occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, which took about 300 lives, but because it was a city, it has been better remembered.

HarperAudio, 2020,⩘ ; Harper, 2020,⩘ 
Interview with the author by Ari Shapiro, NPR: Echoes Of Today's Unrest Run Through 'The Cold Millions'⩘ 

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Kindred by Octavia E. ButlerPowerfully narrated by Kim Staunton

An important story with a premise I've never before encountered that enables the author to bring a contemporary firsthand witnessing to historical events, giving them an immediacy I could strongly feel.

The story is told by Dana, a modern Black woman who experiences an abrupt and initially unexpected time travel back to the antebellum South when she is called upon to save the life of one of her ancestors, the young, white son of the owner of a plantation where another of her ancestors, a young Black woman works.

Time and again, Dana finds herself abruptly traveling back to save the white son's life and to witness how he changes, becoming more ruthless as he grows older and, eventually, steps into his father's place as the plantation owner. Dana never knows how long she'll be caught there, as she only returns to the current day when her life in imminently threatened. Hours, days, or months pass there, but when she returns, only minutes, hours, or days have passed.

Even though she repeatedly saves the young man's life, during her trips back, she is subjected to forced labor, being hunted, brutal whippings, and attempted rape and murder. Her narrating of her experiences brings these horrors, as well as both the suffering and resilience of the other Black people she encounters, including enslaved and free Black people, into vivid focus. Her bringing of the grievous injuries to her body and spirit back into the current day somehow makes the pain that much more palpable. This is a history we should always remember.

While reading Kindred, I was reminded of the essay by Caroline Randall Williams, You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument⩘ , published in The New York Times on June 26, 2020.

Recorded Books, 1998,⩘ ; Beacon Press, 2004,⩘ 

Cory Doctorow, Attack Surface

Attack Surface by Cory DoctorowWell narrated by Amber Benson

Cory Doctorow is a champion of sane copyright laws, the Creative Commons, and digital rights. He's also a helluva good writer.

This book wraps important themes in a compelling and contemporary story of international intrigue, social unrest, and deeply personal soul searching. It lays bare the human cost of living under, as well as participating in the enabling of mass surveillance.

Our contractor-run military and police states with their politicians so deeply in the pockets of the wealthy elite can feel overwhelming and soul crushing. But this is Cory Doctorow. As I've said before about him, just as in his real-life work, he maintains an attitude of optimism in his novels. Without sugarcoating the immense challenges we face and the difficulty of making progress, he reveals the possibility of ordinary citizens working together to change the most entrenched systems.

Because you know what's more powerful than all the crypto in the world? An accountable process.

Cory also did something awesome with this book: he funded the audiobook via a Kickstarter campaign⩘ . The reason he did this is, as with many things he does, bigger than himself: he's taking on Amazon/Audible's draconian licensing practices. The unfortunate reality is that through their typical avarice, Amazon/Audible now controls 90% of the audiobook market. Through his successful Kickstarter campaign, which earned the support of well over 6,000 backers, Cory wants to begin breaking that stranglehold by showing publishers and other authors that they don't necessarily need to submit to Amazon's domination, that it's possible to publish audiobooks without submitting to Digital Rights Mismanagement. Cory's goal is to be "the pebble that starts the avalanche that changes the face of the mountain."

Cordoc-Co LLC, 2020,⩘ , Craphound⩘ ; Tor Books, 2020,⩘ 

Fareed Zakaria, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed ZakariaWell narrated by the author

An interesting collection of ten longform essays exploring how we might shape our future as we emerge from the pandemic.

The ten lessons, with a bit of additional explanation of the first, since its title is vague:

  1. Buckle Up – It turns out that in any system, of these three characteristics—open, fast, stable—you can have only two. An open and fast system, like the world we live in, will be inherently unstable.
  2. What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government but the Quality
  3. Markets Are Not Enough
  4. People Should Listen to the Experts—and Experts Should Listen to the People
  5. Life Is Digital
  6. Aristotle Was Right—We Are Social Animals
  7. Inequality Will Get Worse
  8. Globalization Is Not Dead
  9. The World Is Becoming Bipolar
  10. Sometimes the Greatest Realists Are the Idealists

My main criticism of the book is that while Zakaria mentions climate change a few times, he does so only in passing ("Climate change is a vast topic that deserves its own books and warnings."). In my opinion, something that is an existential threat and certainly the most crucial challenge we face deserves more coverage.

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020,⩘ ; W. W. Norton & Company, 2020,⩘ 

Carissa Véliz, Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data

Privacy Is Power by Carissa VélizThe audiobook is very well narrated by Emma Gregory

"What kind of society would you like to live in?"

Certainly one of the most important books I've read this year. Available from the U.K. now (Blackwell's⩘ ), and coming to the U.S. in the spring.

Carissa Véliz⩘  is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, and a Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at Hertford College, University of Oxford. In her book, she gives us an illuminating—and chilling—overview of the state of privacy today. She lays bare the barbaric practices of data harvesting and use by the biggest tech companies, as well as the multitude of sometimes quite shady data brokers who vacuum up everything they can about us, and then sell it to just about anybody.

She also discusses how societies can pull the plug on this all too often illicit behavior that impacts all of us, as well as what we can do as individuals to take back some control of our personal data.

U.K.: Transworld, Bantam Press, 2020;
U.S.: Tantor Media, 2021; audiobook: Tantor Audio, 2021 IndieBound⩘ 

See also: Now for sale: Data on your mental health⩘  by Drew Harwell, The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2023.

Some helpful online privacy tools:
Firefox Browser logo, an illustration of a dark orange fox wrapped around a blue Earth globe; click to learn more.   DuckDuckGo Search logo, an illustration of a duck's head wearing a green bowtie against a circular orange background; click to learn more.   Proton Mail symbol for mail, a stylistic purple P surrounded by a square of white emerging from an open purple envelope.   Mullvad VPN logo, an illustration of the head of a mole (a tunneling animal) wearing a yellow hardhat against a circular black background; click to learn more.   Electronic Frontier Foundation Privacy Badger logo, an illustration of the white furred head of a badger with black fur running from the nose, around the eye, to the ear; click to learn more.

Desmond Meade, Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens

Let My People Vote by Desmond MeadePassionately narrated by the author

Inspiring! What an amazing, big-hearted person. Mr. Meade shares the story of how he turned his life around from struggling with addiction, homelessness, and serving time in prison on a felony charge to dedicating his life to the service of others, running a three quarter-way house for recovering addicts like himself, eventually earning his law degree, becoming a voting rights activist and the Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and leading the "successful effort to pass Florida Amendment 4, a 2018 state initiative that restored voting rights to over 1.4 million Floridians with previous felony convictions¹." With optimism and love, he demonstrates why we should always strive to provide opportunities to returning citizens to earn forgiveness and redemption.

   We were going to win based on love and not on hate or fear. And that was going to make victory taste twice as sweet.
   Imagine yourself driving down the major expressway in your community and you come across an accident. There's someone lying on the ground and you decide to stop your car. You get out and you run up to that person.
   Your first question is not going to be, "Who did you vote for, for president?" Your first question is not going to be, "How much money do you make?" Or, "What's your immigration status?" Or, "What's your sexual identity?" Your first question is going to be, "Are you okay? How can I help?"
   Those moments right there are when humanity is great, when our community and our country are great. Those are moments when we can look up and be proud of who we are as Americans. Why do we have to wait for accidents to bring forth our essential humanity? Why can't we strive to act that way every moment of the day?

   Some folks we encountered had been pretty beaten down by the political system. They felt they had been neglected so long that that neglect had turned to hopelessness. I would try to have conversations with those people one person at a time. I told people, "I understand you're angry about what's going on. You already know what you can't do. But what if we took that energy and put it toward something you can do something about?"
   Part of the process was educating people, Black, white, and Brown, who were mad about the political system in this country and talking to them about how they could take their situations and turn them into power.

Love will win the day

Penguin Random House Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Beacon Press, 2020,⩘ 

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors  and Asha BandelePassionately narrated by Patrisse Khan-Cullors

This is a short book, yet it more powerfully presents the current rascist, white supremacist reality that Black Americans must live with each and every day than any other I've read.

America's leaders, our media, and most importantly, our citizens must not tolerate the perpetuation of this screwed up system that allows our citizens to be treated differently—either detrimentally or preferentially—based on the color of our skin.

Black Lives Matter⩘ 

See also: 'I have a lot of resentment': Patrisse Cullors on co-founding Black Lives Matter, the backlash—and why the police must go⩘  by Nesrine Malik, The Guardian, Feb 28, 2022

Macmillan Audio , 2018,⩘ 

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel WilkersonBeautifully narrated by Robin Miles

After I listened to the incredible Caste last month, I was inspired to dive into this, Wilkerson's previous tome.

The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of the migration of nearly six million Black Americans from the South to the Northeast, North, and West through the stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, wife of sharecropper George, who migrated from the Mississippi cotton fields to Chicago in the 1930s; George Swanson Starling, who migrated from the Florida orange groves to New York City in the 1940s, ending up in Harlem; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a talented surgeon who migrated from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

As viewed through the experiences of these three people, the greater story is given an amazing intimacy. We feel their trials and tribulations, struggles and triumphs, glories and tragedies, and their incredible strength and fortitude. For me, this quote from James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son is the best summary:

I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not by the age of puberty been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life. The wonder is not that so many are ruined, but that so many survive.

Brilliance Audio, 2011,⩘ ; Vintage, 2011,⩘ 

Rudger Bergman, Humankind

Humankind by Rudger BergmanTranslated 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,⩘ ; Little Brown and Company, 2020,⩘ 

Maria Hinojosa, Once I was You

Once I Was You by Maria HinojosaNarrated 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,⩘ ; Atria Books, 2020,⩘ 

Todd Shimoda, The Fourth Treasure

The Fourth Treasure by Todd Shimoda

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, yet 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, as the story unfolds, enable the reader to learn more about the art of Shodô, traditional Japanese calligraphy, and even a bit about neuroscience. 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.

Shodô illustration by L. J. C. Shimoda: Speak to me kindly lovely no hiding of feeling

Nan A. Talese, 2002

Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. ButlerWell 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.

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
   into slavery.

And now we know what happens when a leader is a foolish, lying, thieving coward who strives to be a tyrant.

Parable of the Sower: Recorded Books, 2000 (originally published 1993)⩘ 
Parable of the Talents: Recorded Books, 2002 (originally published 1998)⩘ 
Image by Stewart Cauley from the beautiful poster for the hardbound re-release 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

Homegoing by Yaa GyasiPowerfully 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,⩘ ; Knopf Publishing Group, 2016,⩘ 

Jon Meacham, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope

His Truth Is Marching On by Jon MeachamWell 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,⩘ ; Random House, 2020,⩘ 

Susan Power, The Grass Dancer

The Grass Dancer by Susan PowerBeautifully 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,⩘ ; Berkley Books, 1997,⩘ 

Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. KendiNarrated 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,⩘ ; Bold Type Books, 2016,⩘ 

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents

Caste by Isabel WilkersonWell 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,⩘ ; Random House, 2020,⩘ 

Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity

Survival of the Friendliest by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

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,⩘ 

Charlotte McConaghy, Migrations

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghyBeautifully 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.

Arctic term; image by AWeith
An Arctic tern protecting nest on Amsterdam island, Svalbard
Image by AWeith - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Macmillan Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Flatiron Books, 2020,⩘ 

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 and consequences of becoming an authoritarian state.

Random House Audio, 2020,⩘ ; Random House Trade, 2021,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Flatiron Books, 2020,⩘ 

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, a member of the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland, 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,⩘ ; HarperOne, 2020,⩘ 
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 acknowledge someone.

Orbit, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Riverhead Books, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020,⩘ 
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.

Author's website: Kimberly L. Jones⩘ 
See also: How Can We Win⩘ 

Recorded Books, Inc., 2019,⩘ ; Source Books, 2019,⩘ 

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 >

= = = = = = = = =

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:

  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.

= = = = = = = = =

   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,⩘ ; Beacon Press, 2018,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Ecco Press, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Random House, 2020,⩘ 
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,⩘ ; Gallery / Saga Press, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; New York Review of Books, 2009,⩘ 
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,⩘ 

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

Update 2021: Too bad Musk and his teams can't get their "light of consciousness" together enough to create equitable and respectful work environments at SpaceX and Tesla:
SpaceX whistleblowers allege widespread sexual harassment⩘  by Eric Ralph, Teslarati, Dec 14, 2021
Tesla sexual harassment lawsuits multiply as 6 more women sue Musk-led firm⩘  by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica, Dec 15, 2021

HarperAudio, 2015,⩘ ; Ecco Press, 2015,⩘ 


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,⩘ ; MCD, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Grand Central Publishing, 2014,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Vintage, 2000,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Hanover Square Press, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Harper Perennial, 2020,⩘ 

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine CumminsWell 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."

I agree.

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.

[1] 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,⩘ ; Flatiron Books, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Simon & Schuster, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Vintage, 2020,⩘ 

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 by Tyson Yunkaporta, who is a member of the Apalech Clan in far north Queensland. It has inspired me to stop and look at several things from what is, for me, an entirely new perspective, which is something I deeply 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.

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

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,⩘ ; Anchor Books, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Harpervia, 2020,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Gallery Books, 2019,⩘ 

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,⩘ ; Back Bay Books, 2018,⩘ 

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