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A love affair with books (2021)


"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic." – Carl Sagan, Cosmos, "The Persistence of Memory" episode

Georgina Lawton, Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth About Where I Belong

Raceless by Georgina LawtonNarrated by the author

The fundamental exploration in this story is fascinating and enlightening: a young, obviously mixed-race woman's search for her authentic identity, after having been raised in a white family as a white child in order that her parents could attempt to entirely avoid the uncomfortable reality of an affair that led to her conception.

While some of the topics covered weren't of much interest to me—sorry, but while I understand the importance to the author, my attention simply tuned out during the in-depth exploration of hair care products—the core topics covered have helped me understand better the challenges that people of color face in our white-influenced world. Of particular importance for me is the distinction between living from a Color Blind versus Color Conscious perspective.

The way the obvious truth has been ignored in my family, and in the families of many other people I've met, epitomizes our collective British attitude to discussing race. We don't want to name our differences in case we cause offense, so instead we ignore them entirely in the hope that they either will go away or we can simply overlook them. But as I know too well, this tactic is no good for anyone who lives with the baggage and beauty of a minority identity. It fails to grant us the breathing room to express ourselves fully, scrubbing us out and encouraging us to cut off vital and fascinating parts of ourselves in order to fit in. When white people are forced to confront race after years of self-imposed ignorance or denial, there is defensiveness or anger, simply because those who are white have functioned as the normative touchstone for all of humanity, and have not lived with race in the same way as non-whites and are, in effect, raceless.

Georgina Lawton's emotional honesty and insightful intelligence give her story a depth and breadth that provide valuable lessons for all of us to experience.

HarperAudio, 2021, Downpour⩘ 

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619 – 2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. Blain

Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. BlainBeautifully narrated by a full cast; full list of contributors & and cast of narrators⩘ 

From the publisher:

Four Hundred Souls is a unique one-volume "community" history of African Americans. The editors, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, have assembled ninety brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that four-hundred-year span.

The story begins in 1619—a year before the Mayflower—when the White Lion disgorges "some 20-and-odd Negroes" onto the shores of Virginia, inaugurating the African presence in what would become the United States. It takes us to the present, when African Americans, descendants of those on the White Lion and a thousand other routes to this country, continue a journey defined by inhuman oppression, visionary struggles, stunning achievements, and millions of ordinary lives passing through extraordinary history.

This is an immense, important, and impactful work, sweeping in scope, while also incredibly intimate in the sharing of insights by the scores of contributors into each of the five-year periods addressed between 1619 and 2019. I learned so much from listening to these essays and poems, which led me to deeply feel a range of emotions, including astonishment, horror, shame, sadness, fury, hope, awe, appreciation, inspiration, and gratitude. Our world is richer for this compilation.

1739 – 1744: The Stono Rebellion by Wesley Lowery
   Our historical record, we know, is subjective. Not every account is written down. The distinction between equity and injustice, riot and uprising, hinges on whose hand holds the pen. So often, it seems, our history is hiding from us, preventing the possibility that we dare look back and tell the truth—afraid of what doing so may require of us now.

1839 – 1844: Racial Passing by Allyson Hobbs
   We can only imagine the conversation that George and Rebecca Latimer shared as they lay in the hold of the ship for nine hours during their flight from Norfolk. Maybe they pictured their lives as free people. Maybe they talked about their dreams for their child and touched Rebecca’s growing stomach. Maybe they worried that George’s disguise as a white man might fail. Maybe they did not speak a word to each other. What we do know is that these two souls believed deeply in their humanity, and that they risked everything for it to be recognized.

Conclusion: Our Ancestors' Wildest Dreams by Keisha N. Blain
   The task ahead is not an easy one. But we can help chart out a path that leads us all to a better future—the kind of future that will more closely resemble our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

When I was young, I had an optimistic outlook about the potential for our shared future. I hoped—in fact, I felt it was inevitable—that we would advance towards a world community that embraced justice and equality, a world of more casual racial intermingling, a community that celebrated the richness of our diversity. Over the years, I've been sorely disappointed by the slowness of our progress and have felt increasingly disillusioned that we have not grown more, grown together, grown towards a deeper understanding of the preciousness of life, all life, on this delicate planet we share. Frankly, I was shattered by the regression I witnessed over these past few years. Yet somehow I haven't entirely lost my optimism. It seems that what I had hoped for and even expected as inevitable as a young person won't come to fruition in my lifetime, but I hope we do yet manage to achieve it as a world community at some point in our shared future. My optimism is strengthened when I read something like this thought from the Acknowledgments section of this book:

To all my family and friends, I learn love from you each day, and I strive to love you each day—as I do the Black community, as I do the American community, as I do the human community.
– Ibram X. Kendi, October 2020

Penguin Random House Audio, 2021,⩘ 

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Neuromancer by William GibsonNarrated by Robertson Dean

As I do once in a while, I recently wandered through my years of notes about books I've read to search for any I felt enticed to revisit. This was one I found. I first read this well before I began keeping notes, and have revisited it from time to time. It remains a fun journey.

It's nearly forty years since Gibson penned the future in this book, and we're just now on the cusp of some of the key elements he imagined: advanced AI, implanted enhancements, governmental collapses and the ascendency of multinationals, playgrounds for the wealthy orbiting above. It will be interesting to see how these emerge over the coming couple of decades and to compare the reality (if it still can be described that way) that emerges with what Gibson spun into being.

Penguin Audio, 2011 (originally published 1984), Downpour⩘ 

Ben Montgomery, A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben MontgomeryWell narrated by Zeno Robinson

While I occasionally found myself a bit impatient with the writing in this book, the story itself impacted me deeply and I find myself still thinking about it days after I finished listening.

It's one thing to read about lynchings and mob violence in the historical record, and another entirely to have a close up and intimate view into the horror of the actual events, the way the violence impacts the lives of the impacted survivors, and the sorry way the perpetrators attempt to excuse or escape responsibility for their actions.

There are, of course, direct lines between the event described in this story and what continues to shake up our nation today.

Little, Brown & Company, 2021, Downpour⩘ 
See also: Grandma Gatewood's Walk by Ben Montgomery

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas AdamsWickedly well narrated by Stephen Fry

Once in awhile, I need to take a break from all the anguishing stuff going on right now with a lighthearted and laughter-filled book.

I remember the first time I took a ride on the Heart of Gold, perhaps 35 years ago. Sitting on the bank of a beautiful creek on a sunny afternoon, feverishly turning the pages and at times laughing out loud manically, I was a bit worried that the people passing by would think I was insane!

Douglas Adams certainly gave a gift to us, and Stephen Fry's narration is a treat that nicely matches the story's madness. So long and thanks for all the laughs.

Random House Audio , 2005 (originally a 1978 radio drama; published as a book in 1979), Downpour⩘ 

Katie Mack, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

The End of Everything by Katie MackWell narrated by Gabra Zackman, with an introduction by Katie Mack

Every once in awhile, I tackle a book like this. The science is mostly over my head, but I enjoy the glimpses I get, and hope that over time, my knowledge may increase so that I can grasp more of the principles discussed.

Mack's presentation is fluid, entertaining, and even at times nicely snarky. That said, there is a lot in this book that I simply don't get, starting from the fundamental discussion of the big bang, which probably wasn't an explosion, as well as the concept that the universe was infinitesimally small when it began expanding, yet there was no outside that it was expanding into, and the expansion wasn't really starting from a single point, rather was expanding everywhere at once. Or that no matter where you are in the observable universe, everything is expanding away from you as if you were in the center, and as if there were no edge to the universe. All of that just hurts my brain and I simply can't begin to visualize it.

(I actually paused the book at that point and spent a fair bit of time doing some online searches to read more about that and to watch some videos addressing it, but didn't get any closer to having clarity about it. It's like trying to visualize the fifth dimension, something I simply haven't been able to grasp … yet.)

Still, it's a fun ride, especially gaining some insight into how physicists and cosmologists are trying to figure out our weird universe.

Some years ago, I heard a radio report about vacuum decay, which, though highly unlikely, could begin at any point and any moment, completely destroying the universe without us having any advance warning since the effect would expand at the speed of light. For some time after hearing that report, I could find no further reference to the phenomena and couldn't even locate the original news report. I began to doubt my sanity, but then mentioned it to a friend who also had heard the report. Whew! I eventually did find more information about it, and slowly began to at least partially understand the … theory? speculation? So by the time I got to the chapter in this book that discusses it as one of the possible ways the universe may end, I was able to follow along fairly well, which suggests to me that reading or paying attention to things that are beyond my current level of knowledge may well be worthwhile. Well, I mean, if it's worthwhile better understanding how the universe might end … at any moment … without any advance warning.

What a bizarre and wonderful journey we are on!

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ 

Brandon Hobson, The Removed

The Removed by Brandon HobsonWell narrated by Gary Farmer , Shaun Taylor-Corbett , DeLanna Studi , Katie Rich , and Christopher Salazar

A remarkable story about a modern-day Cherokee family dealing with two deeply intimate tragedies: the loss of a young son/brother to an unwarranted police shooting fifteen years previously, and the horror of the Trail of Tears, which ripped apart the lives of their ancestors several generations previously.

Told in the voices of the family members, as well as through an ancestor's spirit voice, the story reveals how the two tragedies are deeply personally felt, forever changing the trajectories of each person's life. It's important to understand that our history continues to shape our daily lives. This book is a vivid reminder of that.

HarperCollins, 2021, Downpour⩘ 

Louise Carey, Inscape:
The Truth Is Just a Matter of Perspective

Inscape by Louise CareyWell narrated by Helen Keeley

As a lifelong Sci-Fi fan, I keep an eye out for debut novels in the genre. Sometimes, this means that I end up reading books that aren't quite prime time. For example, recently I read one so overfull of ridiculously silly similes that at times I literally was rolling my eyes, shaking my head, and even laughing out loud.

Occasionally, however, this exploration of new authors is well rewarded, as in this case. Inscape, the first volume in an expected trilogy, is a vivid exploration of a future of city states controlled by corporate interests and filled with pervasive surveillance, advanced mind-control technology, intrigue, subterfuge, and double-cross. The worldbuilding is rich, the characters well drawn, and the storyline broad enough to create plenty of room for the unfolding of the two more volumes to come.

Kudos to Louise Carey for this intelligently written debut.

Gollancz, 2021,⩘ 

James Comey, Saving Justice:
Truth, Transparency, and Trust

Saving Justice by James ComeyNarrated by the author

I'm a bit surprised that I ended up listening to this book, but I stumbled across a short interview⩘  by Stephen Colbert in which he mentioned a recent 4-hour TV miniseries, The Comey Rule⩘ , based on Comey's previous book, A Higher Loyalty. Intrigued by Colbert's comments, I decided to watch the miniseries.

I found the show a bit uneven, but it did provide some insights into what happened before and just after the 2016 election, and left me curious about this new book.

It's a short book, and a lot of it wasn't that interesting to me, but it was worth listening to for the section towards the end in which Comey discusses his thoughts about what happened to the Department of Justice after he was fired, especially with regards to the behavior of Attorney General Barr. I had been stunned, in a bad way, by many of Barr's actions, and appreciated Comey's dissection of those actions, explaining how Barr failed the Department of Justice and the American people.

Macmillan Audio , 2021, Downpour⩘ 

Followup: On Saturday morning, Jan 23, I read a comment about the Department of Justice written by historian Professor Heather Cox Richardson⩘  that stunned me, again in a bad way:

   It turns out that, in the last, desperate days of his attempt to keep his grip on the presidency, Trump plotted with a lawyer in the Department of Justice, Jeffrey Clark, to oust the acting attorney general. The plan was to replace Jeffrey A. Rosen, who replaced Attorney General William Barr when he left on December 23, with Clark himself. Clark would then press Trump's attacks on the election results.
   A story by Katie Benner in the New York Times⩘  explains that as soon as Rosen replaced Barr, Trump began to pressure Rosen to challenge the election results, appoint special counsels to investigate disproven voter fraud, and look into irregularities in the Dominion voting machines (Dominion is now suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation). Rosen refused. He told Trump the Justice Department had found no evidence of anything that would have changed the election results.
   Trump complained about Rosen and moved to replace him with Clark, who promised to stop Congress from counting the certified Electoral College votes on January 6. This struggle came to a crisis on Sunday, January 3, 2021, when the news broke that Trump had called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to pressure him to “find” the votes Trump needed to win the state. That evening, the senior officials at the Department of Justice agreed to resign as a group if Trump put Clark in as the new acting attorney general.
   The vow that the leaders of the Department of Justice would quit if Trump tried to demote Rosen and put Clark in his place made Trump back off from his plan to pervert the Department of Justice. Three days later, rioters stormed the Capitol.

Nicola Griffith, Ammonite

Ammonite by Nicola GriffithColorfully narrated by Gabra Zackman

What if a long time ago humans attempted to colonize a strange, though seemingly habitable planet, only to be struck by a virus that killed all of the men and many of the women? What if the women who survived being struck by the virus were then enhanced by it, including gaining the ability of parthenogenetic reproduction? What if many generations later, humans returned to attempt a new conquest of the planet, this time under the auspices of a company testing a vaccine against the virus that might enable the new group of colonists to exploit the planet's resources while threatening the very existence of the descendants of the original group who had acclimated to the virus?

The answers to these questions are explored in this vividly colorful, intelligently thoughtful story of survival and the intriguing possibilities beyond mere survival.

Perhaps she should not be asking who she was, but rather of what she was a part.

Tantor Audio, 2020 (originally published by Del Rey, 1992), Downpour⩘ 

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X

Cover of the original Japanese edition of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo HigashinoTranslated by Alexander O. Smith, narrated by David Pittu

The most important character in this curious novel is Professor Dr. Manabu Yukawa, a physicist who is given the nickname Detective Galileo by his friend, Shunpei Kusanagi, the actual police detective who is investigating the murder the story revolves around. Yukawa solves the "impossible puzzle" coverup story.

The original novel (the cover of which I used here) won several highly regarded awards in Japan including the Naoki Prize and the Honkaku Mystery Award, and the English translation also was nominated for an Edgar.

It certainly was a relief to temporarily distract myself from the insanity of early January with a story that demanded a fair bit of focus to unravel its many twists.

MacMillan Audio, 2011 (originally published by Bungeishunjū, 2005), Downpour⩘ 

Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels

Cover image from The Soul of America by Jon Meacham
Well narrated by Fred Sanders with an introduction by the author

This is a valuable book to listen to as we live through the craziness that is occurring during the first weeks of 2021. The historical insights Meacham shares help provide perspective as the loser of the election rants in a stark raving mad manner—egged on by the incredibly irresponsible comments and actions of his enablers—and tries to reverse the legitimate outcome of the election.

While the past is no guarantee for how the future will unfold, we can at least draw strength from knowing our democracy has faced similarly serious challenges previously, and sanity eventually prevailed. As Meacham's title for his introduction to the book encourages, it's a good time "To hope rather than to fear":

   This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable. In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground. In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story—or, worse, moves us backward—then those who witness, protest, and resist must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day. Progress in American life, as we will see, has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants, and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.
   There's a natural tendency in American political life to think that things were always better in the past. The passions of previous years fade, to be inevitably replaced by the passions of the present. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and in the maelstrom of the moment many of us seek comfort in imagining that once there was a Camelot—without quite remembering that the Arthurian legend itself was about a court riven by ambition and infidelity. One point of this book is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception.
   With countries as with individuals, a sense of proportion is essential. All has seemed lost before, only to give way, after decades of gloom, to light. And that is in large measure because, in the battle between the impulses of good and of evil in the American soul, what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive. To speak of a soul at all—either of a person or of country—can seem speculative and gauzy. Yet belief in the existence of an immanent collection of convictions, dispositions, and sensitivities that shape character and inform conduct is ancient and perennial.
   There is a rich history of discussion of what the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, writing in 1944, called the American Creed: devotion to principles of liberty, of self-government, and of equal opportunity for all regardless of race, gender, religion, or nation of origin. Echoing Myrdal, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, "The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins…. The American Creed envisages a nation composed of individuals making their own choices and accountable to themselves, not a nation based on inviolable ethnic communities…. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together."

In conclusion, Meacham shares this:

   The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle. And the only way to come to that understanding is by knowing the history that's shaped us.

   History—which is all we have to go on—suggests that a president's vices and his virtues matter enormously, for politics is a human, not a clinical, undertaking. So, too, do the vices and virtues of the people at large, for leadership is the art of the possible, and possibility is determined by whether generosity can triumph over selfishness in the American soul. It's easy to be cynical about, and dismissive of, such a view. But if natives and newcomers alike can live up to the American idea of inclusion, then our best instincts will carry the day against our worst.

"We make our own history." – Eleanor Roosevelt.

Random House Audio, 2018,⩘ 

Barack Obama, A Promised Land
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

A Promised Land by Barack Obama Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

David W. Blight's expansive biography of Frederick Douglass had been on my list of books to listen to for some time during the latter part of 2020, the next step of my ongoing exploration of the life of Douglass. I hadn't intend to read Barack Obama's presidential memoir until a reviewer recommended listening to Obama narrate it rather than reading it. I listened to a sample and added it to my list, too.

As the post-election insanity unfolded, including the shameful racist maneuvers of the losing candidate to disqualify the legitimate votes of majority POC districts, it seemed a valuable time to gain a deeper understanding of the good fights that Douglass and Obama fought, so I began listening to the two books, interweaving an hour or two of both each day over the weeks leading to the end of 2020.

They are lengthy books, together more than 66 hours of oratory, so they informed my days to the end of the year, through the painful-to-witness, increasingly insane machinations of the losing candidate to subvert the democracy and freedoms that both Douglass and Obama worked so hard for.

Listening to these two stories, narrated in the calm and sonorous voices of Barack Obama and Prentice Onayemi, provided me with an invaluable perspective with which to deal with the madness I watched unfolding each day. Politics is an ugly, bare-knuckled fight that typically turns my stomach. Both Obama and Douglass experienced the ugliest rounds of this fight, yet somehow they both maintained a sense of optimism throughout, not letting defeats slow their efforts, and garnering renewed strength from each win, which Obama describes as "one more step toward a better country." How they did that is beyond me, but it helped me to not despair too much as I watched our country flounder in the mud.

It seems to me that we have come very close to losing our democracy over these past couple of months and, indeed, over the past four years, and that we are far from being out of danger.

I hope the optimism shared by Obama and Douglass is warranted.

From Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom:

He urged Liberty men to remember that a vote could seldom represent all of one's moral convictions. Sounding like a veteran politician, he offered a "rule" for action: "The voter ought to see to it that his vote shall secure the highest good possible, at the same time that it does no harm."

A Promised Land, Random House Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ 
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster Audio , 2018, Downpour⩘ 

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