Reading – & Now 7
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
Nicola Griffith, Ammonite
Colorfully 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
Translated 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
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, Libro.fm⩘
Barack Obama, A Promised Land
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
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."