Reading – & Now: 2021
A love affair with books
"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
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, with Eric Swanson, Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom
Narrated by Feodor Chin
A nice way to finish a year that has had more than its share of stressful change!
I first learned about Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche earlier this year through his book In Love with the World⩘ , which explores a period in his life when he left the safety net of his regular practice and teaching in monasteries to spend a few years living anonymously on the streets, facing the risks, uncertainties, and challenges entailed by that in order to deepen his meditation. Astonishing.
In this book, he shares the why and how about a few different meditation practices with clear, simple, step-by-step instructions, as well as examples of how these techniques have been applied to his own life and the lives of people he has met.
I enjoy his approach. While he's undoubtedly advanced in his practices, he also exudes an aura of ordinariness, as well as a joyous outlook that includes much spontaneous laughter. He's a companion on the path, a friend generously sharing what he has learned with other travelers and providing encouragement, regardless of where we are on our own journeys.
Penguin Random House Audio, 2009, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Harmony, 2010, Bookshop.org⩘
Related videos: Joyful Wisdom – A Teaching From Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche⩘ ; Happiest Man on Earth⩘
Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail
Translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington; well narrated by Timothy Andrés Pabon
Óscar Martínez is an award-winning Salvadoran investigative journalist and writer for elfaro⩘ . From the article about the book on Wikipedia⩘ : "He spent a year travelling with the migrants across Mexico along with a crew of photographers and filmmakers and made eight trips aboard the freight trains on the El tren de la muerte [the train of death]."
Incredible reporting. Martínez traveled with migrants from the southernmost reaches of Mexico, across terrain made incredibly treacherous by natural physical challenges as well as the predatory actions of gangs, law enforcement, the army, kidnappers, and narco traffickers, to the towns and terrain along the border wall of the U.S. and the Rio Grande river separating the two countries.
Along the way, in addition to interviewing the migrants themselves and gaining firsthand experience of their journeys, he courageously interviewed police and army members, politicians, gang members, migrant shelter workers, and townspeople. This is the real story, the background behind novels like American Dirt. It's an incredibly gripping account, and devastatingly sad. It's amazing that any migrants make it to the U.S. Considering the large numbers that actually do make it, the numbers who attempt the trip must be staggering.
For the most part, the migrants appear to be fully aware of the very real dangers of the journey, the possibility of grievous harm, rape, kidnapping, and even death. That so many still try speaks to the horrendous conditions they are fleeing. In light of that, a large amount of compassion and empathy is certainly warranted. I don't mean that to imply that I think our immigration policies shouldn't be enforced; rather, I think more enlightened policies are needed that better address the underlying conditions. Our current policies are primarily focused on treating the symptom, undocumented migration, rather than the underlying diseases causing it. That seems to me to be shortsighted, ill-advised, and inhumane.
Casey Michel, American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World's Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History
Well narrated by Joe Dwyer
Whew! How to describe this book? Infuriating, exasperating, disgusting, demoralizing … and ultimately, in the very final chapter, even inspiring and a tiny bit hopeful. Certainly a very important book.
Michel has done an amazing job of peeling back the layers of secrecy to expose how the U.S. has become the hub of international money laundering thanks to states like Delaware, New Jersey, Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota that enacted laws allowing kleptocrats from around the world to hide their ill-gotten gains in U.S. institutions, as well as loopholes in U.S. law that exempt the sources of money invested in large swaths of U.S. assets (real estate, luxury cars, art sold via auction houses, etc.) from any meaningful legal scrutiny.
Our democracy is certainly being corroded by all this dirty money, and is in very real and imminent danger of rotting beyond repair.
Interestingly, as I was listening to this book and feeling somewhat discouraged—after all, Joe Biden was for many years the U.S. Senator from Delaware—I saw the following editorial by The Washington Post Editorial Board: Opinion: The Biden administration gets serious on fighting corruption⩘ , Dec 12, 2021.
Who knows, maybe our country will be able to claw its way out of this cesspool of corruption we're currently drowning in.
Author's website: Casey Michel⩘
Excerpt: From a related post by Professor Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, Dec 26, 2021⩘ :
In June , Biden declared the fight against corruption a core US national security interest. "Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself," he wrote. "But by effectively preventing and countering corruption and demonstrating the advantages of transparent and accountable governance, we can secure a critical advantage for the United States and other democracies."
In early December , two days before the Biden administration hosted the Summit for Democracy, a gathering of 110 countries to consider ways to strengthen democracy, it announced a comprehensive strategy for countering corruption. The plan pulls together the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce, along with the US Agency for International Development, to expose global financial shenanigans, hold corrupt actors to account, and protect journalists who dig into stories of corruption.
Antti Tuomainen, The Rabbit Factor
Translated by David Hackston; pitch perfectly narrated by David Thorpe
Antti Tuomainen writes Nordic Noir in a totally unique manner by mixing in a good measure of comedic absurdity, yet somehow his novels come off feeling more realistic than many of the darkly atmospheric and often gruesome novels from other authors in the genre.
The Rabbit Factor displays frequent flashes of brilliance. The main character is an absolutely sincere actuary who just wants everything to be logical and tidy even as he is thrown into increasingly insane situations. The passages skewering modern corporate management parlance are pure poetic madness. Yet somehow amidst all the comical chaos, the story also maintains a slowly building and thoroughly menacing tension. A highly entertaining listen.
Isis Publishing Ltd, 2021; Orenda Books, 2021, Bookshop.org⩘
Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land
Beautifully narrated by Marin Ireland, with the Cloud Cuckoo Land fable snippets at the chapter beginnings performed by Simon Jones
What an astonishing listen.
Rooted in a love of books and libraries, it shares the stories of five main characters spread across three timeframes:
- In Constantinople in the mid 1400s, a young orphan, Anna, a clever girl who has learned to read, shares an ancient Greek tale with her ailing sister to keep her calm during the siege of their city. Outside the walls, Omeir, a shunned village boy who has been conscripted into the besieging army, tends his beloved oxen and yearns for home.
- In Lakeport Idaho in 2020, Zeno, an aging Korean War veteran, teaches a group of children an ancient Greek tale. Seymour, a sensitive and troubled teenager whose closest companion is an endangered owl who he has named Trustyfriend, is angered by the environmental destruction he experiences happening around him and yearns for a way to strike back.
- In the not-too-distant future, Konstance, a young girl who was born on a generation ship that is traveling away from the ecologically imperiled Earth toward a new home, becomes entranced with an ancient Greek tale her father told her, even as she tries to come to terms with a journey that will not reach its destination in her lifetime.
Their stories are woven together around that ancient Greek tale, the story of Aethon, who embarks on a magical, bumbling journey to try to find the fabled Cloud Cuckoo Land. The way all their lives are intertwined around the tale and across the centuries is in turns both heart-wrenching and heartwarming.
It's a fairly long book, but it totally entranced me; as I arrived at the final sentences, I found myself wishing I could travel on with the characters much further.
A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.
I don't often re-read or re-listen to books, but I definitely hope to revisit this one again someday.
Zephyr Teachout, Break 'Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money
Well narrated by the author, with a foreword by Bernie Sanders narrated by Matt Godfrey
I had thought I knew a fair bit about how monopolistic power is degrading our country, but Teachout's book has made me aware of just how far the tentacles of the "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity" (as Matt Taibbi so vividly put it) reach into every nook and cranny of our lives.
When the interests of government and business are fused in the interest of surveillance, what becomes of the individual who wants to speak her mind freely, think out loud, wander without being tracked, investigate the world without fearing private or public retaliation?
Teachout dissects a range of the damage that monopolistic power is causing, to farmers, our free press, healthcare, the funeral industry, the fight for racial equality, workers' wages, our justice system, and even our very government.
Journalism isn't dying a natural death, [Jim Rich, former editor in chief of the Daily News] said, nor is the internet killing journalism. This is neither suicide nor old age. Journalism is getting killed. "Murdered," he said. "Poisoned," he said. "Choked." Facebook and Google are "thieves," he said. "Thugs. Mafia." He wants to be clear that the murderers are Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin and Larry Page. And the people responsible for letting this happen are the politicians who refuse to enforce ancient antitrust principles.
She underscores how monopolistic control is destroying even the basic fundamental freedom and dignity of individuals.
Every human being deserves at least a minimum of freedom in her personal and professional life. If the structure of an economy denies people the dignity of meaningful choice—both in matters moral and in those of personal expression—they may lash out, or they may curl inward, disappear, and disengage. If you have no power, anger can give you the feeling of being able to change something; and disengagement means you don't have to face the lack of your power. The ability to choose—or not choose—is necessary for a moral life, and it isn't just located at the polling booth or in community life; it is a state of being responsible and powerful that must exist to some degree in every part of life.… For [economist Friedrich] Hayek, choice in the commercial sphere enables morality. He wrote, "It is only where the individual has choice, and its inherent responsibility, that he has occasion to affirm existing values, to contribute to further growth, and to earn moral merit."
Finally, she reminds us that we have the choice to work for a better future for ourselves individually and for our nation as a whole by vigorously enforcing existing antitrust laws and enacting new ones.
Most of this book is about what happens when markets are so concentrated and dysfunctional that monopolies overtake politics and courts and schools, crush people's spirits, inflame racism, create more poverty and inequality, destroy journalism, and elevate a few men (and even fewer women) to powerful, unaccountable positions governing us. Obviously, it is urgent that we stop this trend, using antitrust, among other tools. But we should aim our sights higher than just creating not-terrible markets; we should seek to enable markets that are actually part of our freedom, spaces for creativity, compassion, and warmth. Anti-monopolism is … an essential component of a free society.
The basic dream of America is the fight against illegitimate power. Money is not a legitimate source of political power. Race is not a legitimate source of political power. The only source of legitimate power over others—the power to imprison, the power to tax, the power to make decisions—flows from we the people.…
We face a major fork in the road right now on the way to that American dream. We can continue down a path of corporate concentration, gradually ceding authority over our lives to a few hundred individuals, or we can rise up to break those companies apart, and then, with power appropriately distributed, begin the ongoing, endless, but beautiful, human, moral work of self-governance by free people.
Update: The day after I finished Break 'Em Up, I came across the following two articles:
- Apple's frontline employees are struggling to survive: The company's hourly workers say conditions are untenable. Does Apple care?⩘ by Zoe Schiffer, The Verge, Dec 2, 2021
- Amazon charges sellers fees that are high enough to offset losses from Prime, a new report says: The report says Amazon made $121 billion this year alone from the fees it charges sellers⩘ by Kim Lyons, The Verge, Dec 3, 2021
Tiya Miles, All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Well narrated by Janina Edwards
Tiya Alicia Miles is a Professor of History at Harvard University and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. By using a unique historical artifact as her touchstone, she has documented a wide range of aspects related to the horrors of slavery, and more importantly, of the love and powerful endurance of enslaved women as revealed in the ways they cared for their children in the face of unimaginable brutality and the callous disregard with which enslavers tore their families apart.
From the Ashley's Sack⩘ Wikipedia article:
Ashley's Sack is a mid-1800s cloth sack featuring an embroidered text that recounts the slave sale of a nine-year-old girl named Ashley and the parting gift of the sack by her mother, Rose. The sack is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Rose filled the sack with a dress, braid of her hair, pecans, and "my love always". The gift was likely passed down to Ashley's granddaughter, Ruth (Jones) Middleton, who embroidered their story on to the sack in 1921.
Ashley's Sack was purchased for $20 at a flea market in Nashville in the early 2000s. Alarmed by the embroidered story of a slave sale separating a mother and her daughter, the woman who purchased the sack did an Internet search for "slavery" and "Middleton" and then gifted the sack to Middleton Place.… While still owned by Middleton Place, the sack is on long-term loan to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International⩘ license.
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Jill Lepore, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future
Narrated by the author
After listening to Dave Egger's The Every with its focus on the manipulation of data, this book caught my eye. I had not previously heard of the Simulmatics Corporation, and apparently most people haven't, but they were a significant player in the birth and growing pains of Big Data before they collapsed in bankruptcy and disappeared off the radar. I guess you could say they helped make today's Big Data shitstorm a reality.
However, the story Lepore tells is much larger, a history of several major aspects of the period between the early 1950s until nearly the present, including U.S. politics, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the male-dominated and sexist 1950s, the social unrest of the 1960s, the painfully slow march towards better racial equality, psychological warfare, the growth of data-driven reporting, and much more. It was amusing—and also dispiriting when compared to the present complacency—to hear about how the U.S. public responded with extreme suspicion and a loud uproar to the first use of data to manipulate, umm, shape a political campaign (by JFK) and influence voters compared to how the general public today passively cedes control to massive data-driven manipulation in all spheres of life.
Lepore has done deep research and shares a compelling history. She is, as I have previously experienced, an enthusiastic narrator, though I find that her voice can become a bit rushed and shrill when she is reading quotes, and there are a lot of them in this book. Once again, the editing could've been a bit better to prevent obvious errors, for example, a reference to a presidential candidate winning "54 states" (Johnson vs. Goldwater, 1964). But these issues don't detract from the overall value of the book as a historical record of an obscure but important series of events that have helped shape who we have become as a society and nation today, for better and worse.
"What does it take for people to recognize a dystopia?"
Chibundu Onuzo, Sankofa
Beautifully narrated by Sara Powell
Intriguing story intimately exploring a range of issues including racism in England, the beauty and struggles of an imagined West African county, the corruption and vulnerability of power, the sacredness of the mother-daughter bond, and the ties of family.
The cover illustration, one of the most beautiful I've seen this year, features the symbol of the mythical Sankofa bird. From Wikipedia⩘ :
Sankofa (pronounced SAHN-koh-fah) is a word in the Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana that translates to "retrieve" (literally "go back and get"; san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to fetch, to seek and take) and also refers to the Bono Adinkra symbol represented either with a stylized heart shape or by a bird with its head turned backwards while its feet face forward carrying a precious egg in its mouth. Sankofa is often associated with the proverb, "Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi," or "Sankofa w'onkyir" which translates as: "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." It implores for Africans to reach back into ancient history for traditions and customs that have been left behind.
Hervé Le Tellier, The Anomaly
Translated by Adriana Hunter; well narrated by Dominic Hoffman
And when I say you are dreaming,
I am dreaming, too.
I found it helpful to have a list of the main characters to refer to as I was listening: The Anomaly (novel): Characters⩘
Dave Eggers, The Every
or At Last, a Sense of Order or The Final Days of Free Will or Limitless Choice Is Killing the World
Mischievously well narrated by Dion Graham
An exploration of Big Tech and, more importantly, people's reaction to its activities that is at times humorously satiric and at other times bone-chillingly frightening at it imagines where things might go in the near future.
From what I've personally seen of Silicone Valley, Eggers starts with a very realistic foundation of how things work in the Big Tech companies, then exaggerates things just enough to make obvious the foibles and groupthink of the people who proclaim with great enthusiasm their corporate mantras, which are typically along the lines of "making the world a better place," while at the same time their products and services tear our society apart and degrade our personal freedoms.
The story of the field trip to see the elephant seals is a brilliant exposé.
Andri Snær Magnason, On Time and Water
Translated by Lytton Smith; well narrated by Graham Halstead
"If you're a writer and don't feel the need to write about these issues, you simply don't grasp the science or the seriousness of the matter. Anyone who understands what's at stake would not prioritize anything else."
– Wolfgang Lucht, professor and scientist from the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany, speaking to the author
This is certainly the most important book I've read or listened to this year. It's also one of the most bone-chillingly frightening books, while ultimately also being hopeful and inspirational.
The oil becomes CO2, an invisible, odorless gas. But when it comes to the natural world, nothing gets used up; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The oil burns but doesn't vanish, doesn't diminish; quite the contrary. One ton of oil turns into 2.3 tons of CO2.…
I pump gas into my car; I could just as well fill it with data, the liter counts rolling down the screen along with the price. But the price isn't accurate: I pay for the cost of pumping the oil out of the ground and I pay for the company's profits but I do not pay for the consequences of putting all this CO2 into the atmosphere or for the 400,000 square kilometers of land that could sink underwater this century. Someone has to pay to remove all this CO2, either by planting billions of trees or by inventing new technologies on a massive scale to recapture the CO2 from the atmosphere. Not paying is not an option. If we don't, future generations will have to pay with Earth's biosphere and with their lives along the way.
One of the strengths of the book, the "On Time" bit of it, is that Magnason shares intimate stories across generations of the lives of his family, from his grandparents to his children, and to their possible grandchildren when they are the age of his grandparents. In this way, he shows how closely related we are in time, from before CO2 was understood to be an issue, to our present moment on the cusp of global disaster, to when we will have either solved this life-or-death challenge, or will be totally subsumed by it.
Using prose that is at times lyrical and at other times devastatingly dire, Magnason makes clear what precious beauty is at risk, how imminent the challenge we face is, and what the stakes are, while never giving up hope in our ability to come together and meet this moment.
It's easy to slip into hopelessness, irony, apathy. Compare imagining a solution to global warming to having to envision flying a jumbo jet in 1905, a cure for AIDS in 1985, a trip to the moon in 1940. Extinguishing the fires is our major task. Turning away from the black sun and its fossilized black deposits, reconnecting with the Earth and the glowing sun above our heads: that's this generation's role and the role of our children. The stakes? Life on Earth—their lives.
I have no other alternative than to believe a solution is possible. But for it to be so, people must crave a solution as passionately as they craved to fly, to cure AIDS, and to get to the moon.
This is a vital book, a vivid wake-up call for all of us.
The time of greatest change is upon us.
Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock
Very well narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
It was important for me to keep in mind that this is a novel. The story builds upon the very real climate crisis foundation we are experiencing and the way it is likely to get exponentially worse over the coming years. That dose of reality made it easy for me to occasionally forget this was a novel, and I would at times grow skeptical of some of the turns the story was taking, before reminding myself that it is a novel and I could allow myself to just just sit back and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it is! A combination of very colorful characters, interesting events playing out around the world, and realistic technology advances that place the story slightly in the future kept me engaged and interested.
Jorge Cham & Daniel Whiteson, Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe
Narrated by the authors
If you've ever asked questions like:
- Where did the universe come from?
- Will time ever stop?
- Do we live in a computer simulation?
- Can we turn Mars into Earth?
then this is a fun book to read or listen to. Jorge and Daniel tackle them from the perspective of cutting edge physics, but make it understandable to rest of us, and throw in a bit of corny humor to lighten it along the way. Quite a ride!
If you get a bit addicted, they also have a podcast:
Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe⩘
Louise Erdrich, The Sentence
Well narrated by the author
Over the years, my life has been enriched time and again by Louise Erdrich's novels. Since I got hooked by Love Medicine in the early 80s, I always sit up and take notice when I see that a new book of hers is on the way. They often end being among my most favorite books.
That said, I have to admit that I had a challenging time getting into The Sentence. Then, in the second half, it knocked me off my feet. The story, set in Minneapolis (the stomping grounds of my youth), is centered around Erdrich's real-life bookstore, Birchbark Books⩘ . It opens shortly before the pandemic kicked everyone in the teeth, and shares the bewilderment of those first months when we were all trying to figure out what the heck was happening better than anything else I've read about that experience so far. George Floyd's murder and the Black Lives Matter protests that erupt then propel the story into an even more urgent gear.
While those events, which have become worldwide stories, continue to be woven into the very fabric of the story, the main focus is on the hearts and souls of a richly drawn small group of local characters: Tookie, who works at Birchbark Books, her husband Pollux, their daughter Hetta and her newborn son, as well as some of the family of folks who work at Birchbark Books or who are current or past customers, including one particular passed customer who remains current. They are a community of individuals, each of whom is both ordinary and exceptional. Through their unique talents and flaws, they share a deeply heart-touching and soul-searching tale with us.
From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.
– Sun Yung Shin quoted in The Sentence, from Unbearable Splendor (winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for poetry)
Kudos to our independent community bookstores; they make our lives richer.
Related interview with the author: Louise Erdrich's 'The Sentence' explores racial tensions in a divided Minneapolis⩘ , PBS News Hour, Nov 5, 2021
Eiji Yoshikawa, Musashi
Translated by Charles S. Terry; well narrated by Brian Nishii
From Wikipedia.org⩘ : "Miyamoto Musashi (1584 – 13 June 1645), also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke or, by his Buddhist name, Niten Dōraku, was a Japanese swordsman, philosopher, strategist, writer and rōnin [a samurai who is not in the service of a feudal lord]. Musashi, as he was often simply known, became renowned through stories of his unique double-bladed swordsmanship and undefeated record in his 61 duels. He is considered a Kensei, a sword-saint of Japan. He was the founder of the Niten Ichi-ryū, or Nito Ichi-ryū, style of swordsmanship, and in his final years authored The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho) and Dokkōdō (The Path of Aloneness)."
Although only loosely based on Musashi's life, the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa is a masterful work in itself, providing a fascinating and colorful glimpse into the life and times of Musashi. When I read the novel many years ago, this line stood out for me from among its more than 1,000 pages, and did again as I listened to it now:
In an instant, the island was as quiet and still as it had ever been. Only the rustle of the pines and the swaying grasses mocked the frailty and impermanence of mankind.
From Musashi's Dokkōdō (The Path of Aloneness)⩘ , the 21 precepts:
- Accept everything just the way it is.
- Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
- Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.
- Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
- Be detached from desire your whole life long.
- Do not regret what you have done.
- Never be jealous.
- Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.
- Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself or others.
- Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.
- In all things have no preferences.
- Be indifferent to where you live.
- Do not pursue the taste of good food.
- Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
- Do not act following customary beliefs.
- Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.
- Do not fear death.
- Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
- Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.
- You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honour.
- Never stray from the way.
Some of the main characters:
- Takezō, Musashi's original name before Lord Ikeda and Takuan changed it
- Matahachi, Takezō's companion
- Miyamoto, hometown of Takezō and Matahachi
- Akemi and Okō, daughter and mother at farmhouse
- Otsū, Matahachi's bethrothed
- Osugi and Uncle Gon, Matahachi's relatives
- Takuan, itinerant monk
- Ogin, Takezō's sister
Ai Weiwei, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows
Translated by Allan H. Barr; well narrated by David Shih
"Autocracy fears art."
Ai Weiwei was inspired to write this as a way of sharing his memories with his son, but he ends up giving all of us the gift of a look into his life and his father's life. His father was a renowned poet who was caught up in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and later tumult, and was exiled for lengthy periods accompanied by Ai Weiwei. Through this, we get an idea of what motivates his art and social activism, as well as a glimpse of what China has gone through over the past 100 years.
The result is a powerful story of individual courage in the face of power.
One thing Ai Weiwei addresses is the danger of censorship and self censorship, as well as of acquiescence to censorship, both by those being censured and by others. We see this clearly in evidence today in the way the West is bowing to the demands coming from China that Western individuals and companies censure themselves, for example, when a sports franchise loses access to Chinese markets because a player has exercised their freedom of speech in a way that Chinese authorities don't like. We all lose when we allow this to happen to ourselves.
I recommend watching the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry⩘ alongside reading this book, as it provides an intimate dive into some of the key events discussed in this book, including the attempt by Chinese authorities to silence him through arrest, 81 days of detention, and the threat of lengthy imprisonment.
Freedom is a pretty strange thing. Once you've experienced it, it remains in your heart, and no one can take it away. Then, as an individual, you can be more powerful than a whole country.
Shi Nai'an and Luo Guanzhong, Outlaws of the Marsh
Translated by Sidney Shapiro
Outlaws of the Marsh, which takes place in the Northern Song Dynasty in the early 1100s during the reign of the emperor Huizong, was written in the 1300s and is considered one of the great classic novels of China.
I came across this novel many years ago when I was doing a bit of research after finishing another classic novel of China. I ended up getting the 3-volume set translated by Sidney Shapiro. It's a long story, 1600 pages of small print; however, Shapiro's translation is quite readable.
Books in hand, I continued to research and came across something else quite fascinating. At that time, I also was curious about Mahjong, and found a beautiful set. The individual pieces are hand carved and painted on cow bone mounted on bamboo, and they are based on this book, which is also known by the literal translation of its title, The Water Margin. I found the set at Yellow Mountain Imports⩘ , and as they say in their description: "It's the story of the bandit Song Jiang and his 36 companions and is filled with intrigue, deception, and bluff—the perfect subtext for a mahjong game."
Okay, now a little confession: I haven't actually read this book yet. When I first acquired it, I began it, then got really busy with work and other things, so set it aside. During all the subsequent years, I've kept the books and Mahjong set together under an end table, thinking that I'll return to it someday. Once in awhile, I pick up the books or open the box to take a look at the paintings on the tiles, but it hasn't yet been the right moment to dive into the story.
So why am I posting this reflection? Because I want to make note of a couple things I've learned along the way.
In the past several years, I've been mainly listening to audiobooks. I'm pretty passionate about books, so I listen to a lot of them. In fact, I often listen to two or three at a time: I'll listen to a more contemplative or meditative book while I'm enjoying my morning walk, then switch to another book when I have time to listen during the rest of the day, and sometimes even jump into a third that's a bit more entertaining or relaxing for the evening hours.
Right now, one of the books I'm listening to is Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which I'm really enjoying (but at more than 53 hours in length, it's going to take some time to finish it!). Miyamoto Musashi was alive in the 1500s, so not quite as far back as the characters in Outlaws of the Marsh, but the story reminded me of the adventures of Song Jiang and his cohorts, and it occurred to me that I should check whether an audiobook edition of Outlaws was ever released.
There hasn't been yet, but I did come across the Water Margins podcast by John Zhu⩘ , which is his somewhat snarky re-telling of the story, loosely based on the Shapiro translation. It's a pretty amazing undertaking, a passion project that he produces in his spare time. As of November 1, 2021, he's up to episode 112! Another fascinating aspect is that each episode features unique cover art. I couldn't find credits for the artwork, though I'm guessing he's creating it. Here are the first three covers:
In the Water Margins podcast Introduction episode⩘ , John Zhu shares this insight:
There's a famous painting from the Northern Song Dynasty, called Along the River during the Qing Ming Festival.… This painting was a literal panorama of daily life during the Song Dynasty. It's only about 10 inches tall but 207 inches wide. It depicts life in a prosperous Chinese city, which most people believe to be the Song capital. What's fascinating about this painting is the many layers of intricate details it contains. There are large scenes made up of dozens of mini vignettes. In all, the painting contains 814 humans, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 28 boats, 20 vehicles, 8 sedan chairs, and 170 trees.
To me, one of the most interesting things about the Water Margin is that it provides a kind of a literary equivalent to this painting. As you progress through the novel, a vivid picture of life in all levels of society during this time is unrolled before your eyes. Sure, the story has emperors and courtiers and wealthy aristocrats and elites. But there are also rank-and-file soldiers, low-level cops, pickpockets, merchants, blacksmiths, butchers, brewers, shopkeepers, innkeepers, restaurateurs, professors, farmers, hunters, monks, priests, scribes, singing girls, fishermen, and many many more. Seemingly every profession makes an appearance somewhere in this book, and we are presented with a vibrant portrait of life from the Song Dynasty, or at least as it was conceived some 200 years later. That alone is one of the major reasons I want to do this podcast.
Here's one segment from that more than 17-foot-long painting:
Along the River during the Qingming Festival⩘
generally attributed to the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145)
There's a lot of interesting information about this painting at the China Online Museum⩘ . As a bonus, if you click on the frame introduced as "The Original Painting," you can scan through the entire scroll. (There's also a "Qing Court Version" that's hundreds of years younger and thus a bit brighter.)
My curiosity about Outlaws of the Marsh is now even more piqued, so I'll likely dive in before too long has passed. If it's as good as I suspect it to be, I'll be returning to these pages to write about it again.
Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 1995 (1980)
Erica Cirino, Thicker than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis
Very well narrated by Angie Kane
An essential read.
Science writer, author, and artist Cirino says in her Thicker than Water⩘ intro video: "We need change. We need a change in values, we need a change in systems, we need a change in the way we relate to one another and this planet we call home."
This is a beautifully written, at times even lyrical book, that is also as frightening as anything I've ever read, though it concludes on a positive note as Cirino shares a variety of solutions that we all can strive for.
She covers a wide range of related topics: the massive amounts of plastics in our oceans, the sources of that pollution, the manipulations of the industries the make and profit from plastics, as well as the aforementioned variety of possible solutions.
The most frightening chapters for me are those in which she talks about the poisonously toxic microplastic particles, microbeads, and nanoplastic particles that are now found everywhere, including in us.
The chemical bonds that are forged to create plastic never break apart, so when plastic breaks down, it just gets smaller, but retains it toxic dangerousness. Here are two excerpts that drive that point home:
Those chemicals commonly adhering to microplastic particles in the ocean include pesticides, such as dichlorodiphenyltricholoethan (DDT), which has been banned worldwide except in cases of controlling insect-borne epidemic diseases like malaria. Other toxins that adhere to microplastic include industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were used for myriad purposes, including additives to anti-fouling ship-bottom paint until most nations around the world—including much of the European Union, and the US—prohibited most of its uses. Both DDT and PCBs are toxins known to cause adverse health effects in people and wildlife through direct exposure routes such an inhalation and ingestion. These and many other manmade toxins now found in nature are classified as "persistent organic pollutants" (or POPs), possessing a chemical structure resisting degradation, allowing for long-term retention and circulation in the environment. And so POPs have the ability to poison continuously, penetrating various and multiple levels of the living world before being converted into related chemical byproducts (called metabolites, which are usually also toxic).
While silicone exposure is linked to immune system problems, as well as certain cancers, PFAS [perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances] are considered much more dangerous—and are thus a chief concern among public health experts today. PFAS chemicals, a class of more than five thousand man-made compounds containing some constellation of carbon and fluorine, have been manufactured about as long as plastic has. The bonds holding PFAS molecules together, like those that bind plastic molecules, are tight. In fact, they are bound so tightly that they do not degrade once created and instead accumulate increasingly in our bodies and the environment over time. That's why PFAS and nicknamed "forever chemicals."
A little flourine, in the form of flouride, is fine—even necessary—for our bodies to function. Exposure to elemental flourine, however, can sicken us, harming bones, teeth, kidneys, nerves, and muscles; causing cancer; as well as impairing the way our hormones regulate our metablolisms and immune systems, causing obesity, early onset puberty, and reproductive issues. That PFAS persist in the environment and our bodies, rather than break down, puts us at risk of such poisoning. Analyses of blood samples drawn from humans and nonhuman animals (including polar bears, seals, and beluga whales living in the remote Arctic) suggest it's likely that most, if not all, living being on Earth carry PFAS and a slew of other man-made chemicals in their bodies. We are exposed in the the products we buy, air we breathe, soil we sow, food we eat, water we drink, and wombs from which we are born.
This is the legacy of industry, and the products it makes and sells to us.
This is a book we all need to read. And after reading it, we all need to begin taking action to reduce and hopefully one day end the scourge of plastic.
Author's website: EricaCirino.com⩘
See also: How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled⩘
How Bad Are Plastics for the Environment, Really?⩘ by Rebecca Altman, The Atlantic, Jan 3, 2022
Nathaniel Ian Miller, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven
Pitch perfect narration by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
This story, mainly set in the 1920s – 1940s, is about the fictional character Sven Ormson, also known as Stockholm Sven, but is loosely inspired by the life of a real person who isn't identified by name by Miller for privacy reasons.
There is only a faint outline known or suspected to be known of the real person's life. It is thought that he really was a miner in the far northern reaches of Europe who was caught in an avalanche-triggered mine cave-in that greatly disfigured him, that he went on to be a solitary trapper in the Arctic Circle region, and that he built a ramshackle hut that is still standing today.
The summary description of the story of the life of Sven—and the real person that inspired his character—sounds harrowing and frankly bleak. When the book's unusual cover first caught my eye and led me to its brief description, I quickly dismissed it as a story I wasn't inspired to listen to. But then I began to see rave reviews for the book, so I took a deeper look and eventually decided to give it a try. Really glad I did. While the story does explore harsh events that take place in an even harsher environment, it is a fascinating and captivating tale with a great depth of spirit and richly-drawn characters.
Certainly this story is among the very best I have enjoyed this year, and I can pay it my highest compliment in that I plan to return for another listen someday.
Miller likely found inspiration for this story during his 2012 expeditionary residency-at-sea with The Artic Circle⩘ . The following photo from the time of Miller's residency-at-sea depicts a hut that inspired the ones Stockholm Sven built and lived in during the course of the story.
Photo taken by the author during The Arctic Circle expeditionary residency-at-sea, 2012
Author's website: Nathaniel Ian Miller⩘
Elsa Sjunneson, Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman's Fight to End Ableism
Narrated by the author
I deeply appreciate books like this that help me to understand our world a bit better, and that hopefully help me figure out how to make a better contribution to the creating of our world.
The term "ableism" was new to me, though once I began to understand it's definition and how it affects our world, I understood that it's a destructive force I've witnessed my entire life. It needs to be ended.
Radiation poisoning is what happens to your body when you have been exposed to the entirely invisible, extremely dangerous force of nuclear fallout. Most people are exposed to it because they have survived a nuclear attack, or because they work in an environment that has experienced fallout. Some people have lived on properties with high radiation levels without even knowing it.
Because radiation is invisible, there's no way to protect yourself from it. You don't even know it's hurting you until one day, you find yourself with nausea, open wounds, fevers, and more.
Ableism is like radiation in a nuclear plant—it's a constant. Always there. A deadly and invisible force. If you don't have protection from it, it will destroy you from the inside out.
To experience our world from Elsa Sjunneson's snarky perspective is a gift.
The world is changing so fast now. It's hard to write nonfiction in the middle of a vastly changing society, but this has been my story, and it's true, and it's real. I hope it changes something, just a little.
Her story has certainly touched me.
Author's website: Elsa Sjunneson: Snark-Land⩘
Douglas W. Tallamy, Nature's Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard
Narrated by Adam Barr
Tallamy presents compelling arguments for an idea he calls a "Homegrown National Park":
What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland. How big is twenty million acres? It's bigger than the combined areas of the Everglades, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Canyonlands, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Badlands, Olympic, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Denali, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. If we restore the ecosystem function of these twenty million acres, we can create this country's largest park system. It gives me the shivers just to write about it. Because so much of this park will be created at our homes, I suggest we call it Homegrown National Park.
To be honest, both the author and narrator irritated me at times; the author because he makes some sweeping pronouncements for which, in my opinion, he failed to present sufficient evidence or citations; the narrator because his tone struck me as a bit pretentious. However, the message of the book is both strong and important enough for me to overlook these irritations and acknowledge that I appreciate both the goal and the urgent need for us to act.
In short, we no longer have the right to ignore the stewardship responsibilities attached to land ownership. Our privately owned land and the ecosystems upon it are essential to everyone's well-being, not just our own. Abusing land anywhere has negative ramifications for people everywhere. unesco, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, designates biosphere reserves as places of ecological significance. But clearly this is misleading, for all places have ecological significance, not just the few places we have not yet destroyed. In short, gardening in the traditional sense is optional, but earth stewardship is not.
These ideas, these hopes, and these dreams didn't come to [Aldo] Leopold overnight; they came from a lifetime of thoughtful observation, reflection, and informal experimentation. In 1935, his family bought a degraded tract of land in the Central Sand Plains of eastern Wisconsin. Once a poorly managed farm, the eighty acres were barren scrub that supported little life when the family bought it. Leopold built a small summer home he fondly called "the shack," and for the next thirteen years the family restored the ecological integrity of their tiny piece of the world. Through trial and error, they learned how to bring life back to their land by rebuilding prairie, savannah, and marshland where it had once been. Leopold painstakingly recorded the rapid return of the wild things he loved and was so encouraged by the success of the restoration that he wrote his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, with hopes of inspiring a new land ethic that would transform how people viewed and interacted with nature (1949). He viewed conservation as a state of harmony between people and land and foreshadowed the concept of environmental sustainability when he stated, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."
[T]o save a lot of species effectively, we must save areas that best support those species, such as tropical forests (both wet and dry forests), much of the African plains, scrublands of southwest Australia, important parts of all major biomes, and half of the fishable ocean. Echoing Leopold's mantra, [E.O.] Wilson reminds us that "the biosphere does not belong to us; we belong to it" (2017). If we continue to ignore the health of the earth, we are dooming ourselves.
The book presents these suggestions for some ways we can begin:
- Shrink our lawns
- Remove invasive species
- Plant keystone genera
- Be generous with planting abundance and diversity
- Plant for specialist pollinators
- Network with neighbors
- Build a conservation hardscape
- Create caterpillar pupation sites under trees
- Do not spray or fertilize
- Educate our neighborhood civic associations
A worthwhile read. Now let's get to work!
Peter Englund, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
Narrated by David Stifel
Englund brings history to life by telling the overall story of World War I through sharing the experiences of twenty individuals who recorded their daily life during those years in diaries.
In my opinion, this is how history should be more often told, by revealing the impact of events on ordinary people: civilians losing loved ones and their homes, soldiers trying to stay alive in the trenches and dying during assaults, junior officers struggling to lead, volunteer nurses doing their best in the face of mass casualties and massive wounds, mothers fleeing with their scared and hungry children, individual acts of courage too often lost in the toxic fog.
My cast of characters has been chosen with a view to providing an all-round picture of the First World War, both as an event and as an experience. Many different actors could, of course, have played a part, for vast quantities of letters, journals and memoirs are preserved from the war years. The book is structured as it stands quite simply because I wanted to depict the war as an individual experience, to go beyond the usual historical and sociological categories, and also beyond the usual narrative forms in which, at best, people such as these appear as no more than tiny specks of light, flickering by in the grand historical sweep.
Although most of the twenty will be involved in dramatic and dreadful events, my focus remains primarily on the everyday aspects of the war. For this is, in a sense, a work of anti-history, an attempt to deconstruct this utterly epoch-making event into its smallest, most basic component—the individual, and his or her experiences.
During the time I was listening to The Beauty and the Sorrow, I took a break to watch the excellent 2017 film Journey's End⩘ , which follows the lives of British soldiers in trenches near Aisne in 1918 over a period of six days, while they await an expected major offensive by the Germans.
The cinematography is amazing, presenting a vividly intimate view of the horrendous frontline life that is discussed in sections of the book, and especially of both the physical and emotional damage it inflicts on the individuals involved.
Jarrett Adams, Redeeming Justice: From Defendant to Defender, My Fight for Equity on Both Sides of a Broken System
Beautifully narrated by the author
One of the most compelling and inspiring stories I've ever come across. Jarrett Adams story is one of incredible perseverance in the face of unbelievable—yet at the same time, all too common—injustice at the hands of our shamefully flawed justice system. After losing a decade of his life to a wrongful conviction for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Adams did not become bitter or vengeful; instead, he devoted all his energy to becoming a lawyer so that he could dedicate his life to helping others in similar circumstances.
During the period I was listening to this book, I also watched the recently released documentary, Just Mercy⩘ about the work of civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative⩘ , which advocates for death-row inmates and a fair criminal justice system. Like Redeeming Justice, it is a deeply compelling story (see my review from a couple years ago of the audiobook⩘ ), which the film brings vividly to life.
I also read a very good interview of Mr. Stevenson: The author of Just Mercy says we've made talking about race political—and that has to change⩘ by Joe Heim, Washington Post, Mar 16, 2021. One excerpt struck me particularly strongly:
We've never really engaged in reckoning, in my judgment. In part because enslaved Black people had to focus on freedom. They had to focus on winning their basic human right of autonomy and dignity. And then Black people who were being lynched had to focus on security. Many of them fled to the North and West just to create an environment where they weren't going to be threatened and menaced with lawless lynching on any given day. And then we had to focus on basic civil rights, the right to education, the right to vote. And in many ways, we're just entering a period of American history where there is the capacity to engage in the sort of reckoning that I'm talking about, the kind of truth-telling that I'm talking about, because there has to be some of these basic conditions to exist before that can happen.
We are fortunate to have people like Jarrett Adams and Bryan Stevenson fighting to fix our justice system.
Cathy O'Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction
Well narrated by the author
Eye opening. I learned about this book after seeing mathematician and data scientist Cathy O'Neil's excellent contributions to the documentary, The Social Dilemma⩘ .
Here she presents essential knowledge for helping us understand and navigate the big data-saturated modern world, as well as to be aware of the negative power of algorithms and how they can trap people into undesirable outcomes, and even cause and accelerate that kind of destruction. These insights also help explain why a social media platform like Facebook has become such a colossal dumpster fire causing enormous damage to our society.
Richard Powers, Bewilderment
Well narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
May all sentient beings be free from needless suffering.
Richard Powers is at the top of his form with this breathtakingly bittersweet story about the exquisite wonder of this planet we are so carelessly squandering. The final sentences are as beautiful as anything I've ever read.
Ryka Aoki, Light From Uncommon Stars
Beautifully narrated by Cindy Kay
What a fresh, delightful, insightful, refined and raw book! It combines science fiction, fantasy, and gritty reality into a story that swept me away into aspects of life with which I have no firsthand experience, something I deeply appreciate. At times, I learned and laughed; at other times, my heart totally ached.
How dare someone interrupt talent like this!
I don't often choose books that are described as having fantasy elements, but a wonderful BookPage review by Thane Tierney⩘ caught my eye and thankfully convinced me to dive in.
Here's a snippet from an answer Ryka Aoki gave in an interview in Den of Geek⩘ :
I think this book might resonate with readers because we all hold seeming contradictions. In the book, Shizuka Satomi mentions how great pieces of music contain such different-sounding sections and movements. And, as music reflects the soul, doesn't that say something about us, and our own shifting arrays of motifs and counterpoints?
In my case, being of Japanese descent, and being queer, and being trans, means that I play a lot of different things to a lot of different worlds. Yet working toward true acceptance and love of self can be like composing your own sonata—you're striving to express and share your entire music. The person who I am with my family lives in a different world than the person who teaches English and Critical Thinking. And that person seems very different from the writer, or the martial artist.
And yet, I don't feel fragmented. I feel pretty whole.
And so, when I wrote Light from Uncommon Stars, I always had faith that it would work out, somehow—because I worked out, somehow.
Ryka Aoki is an amazing person, an author of poetry and novels, musician and composer, professor of English at Santa Monica College, and a judo black belt instructor. You can learn more about her via her website⩘ .
Alec Ross, The Raging 2020s: Companies, Countries, People—and the Fight for Our Future
Well narrated by the author
A thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of the crises we are facing us as we navigate the 2020s and beyond by dissecting what is wrong … and right with each of the three key pillars of the social contract: government, business, and citizens.
The book takes deep dives into:
Business – especially the costs of shareholder capitalism versus the promise of stakeholder capitalism.
Government – with a focus on the issue of the ceding of power from governments to companies, with the result that billions of people are now more governed by companies than governments.
Citizens and their labor – in particular the stagnancy of organized labor and the cost of that to the social contract.
Taxes – a penetrating discussion of the limits of global politics and the hugely negative impact of the broken international tax system.
The geography of change – a sobering look at what is at stake in the contest for power between closed and open systems.
We will see … how all these issues that seem to have nothing to do with one another are inextricably linked, as are the solutions to make it all work better. I'll bring forward different perspectives from a range of public thinkers and figures. My hope is that you agree with some and disagree with others, but that they help you think beyond our current crisis.
The book concludes with a discussion of what we will need to do to meet the challenges of our present and future, including the key reforms that are critical:
- Replace shareholder capitalism with stakeholder capitalism
- Reform the international tax system
- Expand safety nets that meet the reality of work in the 21st century system
- Push now for the transition to clean energy
I'm grateful to thinkers like Alex Ross who can stare directly into the volcanic turmoil of crises of this magnitude and yet are able to maintain an optimistic, can-do attitude about finding solutions.
Nadia Hashimi, Sparks Like Stars
Well narrated by Mozhan Marnò
A beautifully written, complex, and vividly touching story following the life of Sitara, beginning in 1978, when as a young girl she experiences firsthand the coup that killed President Sardar Daoud and his family as well as her entire family. Amidst the chaos of the coup, she narrowly escapes from the palace, finding sanctuary with an American diplomat who eventually adopts her. The story then jumps to nearly the present day when Sitara takes a break from her immersive career as a surgeon in New York City to return to Kabul to try to find some closure with the tragedy of her lost family.
At times harrowing, haunting, and hopeful, Hashimi's book personalizes one aspect of the upheaval experienced by Afghans during the recent decades.
Craig Whitlock & The Washington Post, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War
Narrated by Dan Bittner
This is a really good book … and I hated it. Basically, it's the inside story of years of failures and lying. Our boots-on-the-ground soldiers were incredibly courageous and paid a high price; in too many cases, the ultimate price. But our government, military, and civilian contractor leaders knowingly and repeatedly misled us for most of the time we've been fighting this war.
Prolonging the war would've been a mistake. At the same time (and without in any way impugning the courage of those on the ground who facilitated the mass evacuation), the collapse of the Afghan government, military, and police forces and the utter evacuation chaos we witnessed when we finally pulled out in August 2021 were destined to happen, and likely would've happened had we withdrawn at any point after the first couple of years.
This is an important book that I highly recommend, but be prepared to have a severe stomach ache while reading it.
Colin Kahl & Thomas Wright, Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order
Narrated by Robert Petkoff
An in-depth review of how the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded so far both here in the U.S. and around the world by two of our nation's leading national security experts.
There's no question that the world botched its response to this pandemic, costing millions of lives, overwhelming health systems, upending political stability, crashing economies, and fraying international cooperation.
The only question now is: will we learn anything from all of this upheaval? The author's provide the necessary insights into how things unfolded behind the scenes and what went wrong (and in a very few cases, right), concluding with some ideas about how the world can learn from this.
I think the book is an excellent source for anyone seeking to understand the pandemic better, though I think they are perhaps overly optimistic regarding how the world might respond in future based on this horrible experience.
Kaouther Adimi, Our Riches
Translated from the French by Chris Andrews
A short novel with a big heart and a somewhat tortured soul. Adimi explores the life and times of Edmond Charlot, the original proprietor of the bookstore Les Vraies Richesses, The True Riches, in Algiers, at 2b Rue Hamani, formerly known as Rue Charras, with the motto "One who reads is worth two who don't," and eventually also the moving force behind the publishing house Éditions Charlot and an influential presence in the Algerian and French literary scene. It is essentially about Charlot's lifelong passion for books.
The story, which is based upon meticulous research but mixes in made-up elements, begins in the 1930s and travels with Charlot through all of the upheavals in Algiers and in Paris through to the present time. Although short, it presents a vivid and at times harrowing glimpse into both the turmoil in Algiers and the struggles inherent in being a bookseller and publisher, especially during WWII and its aftermath, and the Algerian war. A touching little book about books.
Masande Ntshanga, Triangulum
A quite unusual story that's a bit like being in a hazy dream mixing elements of the life of a brilliant but troubled older teen girl growing up in apartheid infected South Africa, her older self living in an overtly corporate surveillance state where she works for one of the snooping corporations, and a journey into an environmentally devastated near future where she meets extraterrestrials that have been monitoring humans and measuring their destabilizing influence on the rest of the universe.
Part mystery, part sci-fi, part everyday life, and all of it an exploration of the unraveling of society, the book left me somewhat bewildered when I was finished. Yet days later I found myself still thinking about it, realizing that it had touched me more deeply than I had at first thought. I always feel fortunate when I've encountered a story like this that stretches my boundaries.
John Gibney, A Short History of Ireland, 1500-2000
Well narrated by Gerard Doyle
Recently, I read a series of related novels set in Ireland during The Troubles. I thought they were pretty good, but I realized I had little context with which to judge the authenticity of their setting and background. So when I was wandering through all the audiobooks narrated by Gerard Doyle and noticed this one, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a little bit.
While definitely short considering the span of time covered and how much has happened, the book did give me a better understanding of what Ireland has gone through and how much her people have suffered through the centuries. Amazing that they have come through all of that tumult with their spirit intact.
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
Very well narrated by Gerard Doyle
Once in awhile, after enjoying the narration of a book, I search for other books by that narrator, which is how I stumbled across this one.
Surprisingly, even though I enjoy science fiction and have read or listened to many sci-fi titles during my lifetime, I had never previously come across Alfred Besters. I learned that he is best known today for this book, though a previous title, Demolition Man, which I'll listen to soon, won the inaugural Hugo Award for best Science Fiction novel in 1953.
The Stars My Destination, which has been voted Best Science Fiction Novel of All Time multiple times, is filled with novel ideas, interesting characters, and futuristic settings. It's quite astonishing that a book more than 65 years old has aged so well. Other than a few instances in which the flavor of the 50s leaks through, the book reads as if it were a recently written cyberpunk title.
Harry Cliff, How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch
In Search of the Recipe for Our Universe,
from the Origins of Atoms to the Big Bang
Enthusiastically narrated by the author
Cliff, who is a particle physicist at the University of Cambridge and a researcher on the Large Hadron Collider, assembles the ingredients of a fascinating story. The more I learn about this universe that is our home—from the glimpses of the furthest reaches of space and time to the odd behaviors of the tiniest sub-atomic particles—the crazier and more wondrous it all seems and the more enchanted I become.
That we are here able to think about this at all is nearly incomprehensible.
I suppose somewhere in another dimension late one afternoon, a couple high school students are leaning over a viewing chamber for for their physics lab experiments when one says, "Whoa, what an awesome expansion! But it's getting pretty late; I guess we better start shutting it down so we can get out of here in time to catch the bus home."
Daniel Sherrell, Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World
Narrated by the author
The book's marketing blurb accurately captures its premise: "From a millennial climate activist, an exploration of how young people live in the shadow of catastrophe."
As a member of the Boomer generation, which totally failed to address the climate crisis over the past three decades, I was curious to read the climate-related thoughts of a member of the Millennial generation. Written as a long letter to his hypothetical child, the book blends Sherrell's thoughts about climate-related activism, anger, angst, despair, and hopelessness.
At times, Sherrell meanders and I found myself getting restless and even bored, but it was worth getting through those portions of the book to listen to his comments when he is more focused, incisive, and provocative. He avoids naming the crisis, instead referring to it as "the problem":
Everything is about the problem; the problem is about everything.
Despite the age gap and the fact that I'll be checking out sooner than later, leaving the solving of this challenge, if that's even possible, to his generation and those following, I share much of his anger, angst, despair, and hopelessness. I am reminded of something I read a few years ago by Roy Scranton, in his essay in the The New York Times, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene⩘ :
The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today—it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.
Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.
I so very much love the natural world we inhabit. I only wish we would treat our home with more love, respect, and care.
Sanjay Gupta, MD, Keep Sharp: How to Build a Better Brain at Any Age
Narrated by the author
Because of Sanjay Gupta's reporting and commentary about the pandemic, which I've found really valuable, I decided to pick up his new book. I'm glad I did. He provides some good insights about how we can best keep our minds in good shape throughout our lives, so that we can best manage the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's as we age.
He shares his wisdom and understanding respectfully and with a nice sense of humor. For example, in the About the Author section:
Sanjay Gupta fell in love with the brain as a young boy in middle school. He later went on to spend four years earning a medical degree and then seven years completing residency training so he could become a neurosurgeon–a practice he has been enjoying for the last twenty-some years. The brain is his first and truest love.…
Sanjay is married to Rebecca, who, after reading this, reminded him that she was in fact his truest love. He wisely conceded this point. They have three teen and preteen daughters, who find it hilarious their father is writing a book about memory. As they put it, the Gupta Girls believe their father "literally can't remember anything."
There's a lot of good information in his book. Here are a couple snippets I want to keep in mind:
[I]t is important to know that memory is fundamentally a learning process—the result of constantly interpreting and analyzing incoming information. And every time you use your memory, you change it.
There's a group of neurons that are charged with helping the brain to forget, and that are most active at night during sleep when the brain is reorganizing itself and preparing for the next day of incoming information. Scientists discovered these "forgetting" neurons in 2019, which helps us further understand the importance of sleep—and the merits of forgetting. It's a beautiful paradox: In order to remember, we have to forget to some degree.
Gwen Strauss, The Nine: The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany
Well narrated by Juliet Stevenson
An amazing story of nine women freedom fighters—six French, two Dutch, and one Spanish—who escaped the Nazis towards the end of WWII during a brutal death march when the Nazis were moving them away from a horrendous camp to flee the advancing allies.
It is a story of incredible courage, fortitude, intelligence, quick wittedness, compassion, and even, surprisingly, good humor versus inconceivable inhumanity and brutal cruelty. Gwen Strauss, the great niece of one of the women, artfully weaves together each of the stories of the nine, their involvement in the resistance, their captures—often due to betrayal—their nightmarish experience at the camps, their camaraderie during their imprisonment and escape, their fearless trip through Germany and across the frontlines, their joyous liberation, and their difficult journeys re-entering normal life after the war in the aftermath of their life-shattering experiences.
I am in awe of these nine women, and of the author.
Meron Hadero, The Street Sweep
Brittle Paper reported that "Meron Hadero is the First Ethiopian to Win the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing" for her short story The Street Sweep, and provided a link to the PDF⩘ .
Her vividly told story brought back so many memories from the time I spent in Ethiopia, mainly Addis Ababa, as an exchange student nearly 50 years ago, an experience that certainly shaped the rest of my life.
Congratulations to Meron Hadero for her well-earned prize! I look forward to someday reading the novel she is now working on.
Meron Hadero is the First Ethiopian to Win the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing⩘ , Brittle Paper, Jul 26, 2021. The Street Sweep first appeared in ZYZZYVA⩘ in 2018: PDF⩘ .
Omar El Akkad, What Strange Paradise
Very well narrated by Dion Graham
A beautiful, insightful, haunting novel about the plight of refugees. Through deeply exploring the possible experience of one young boy among a large group of refugees on an overloaded boat that capsizes within sight of the shore of an unwelcoming island that caters to wealthy tourists, El Akkad both personalizes the tragedy and provides vivid context for the circumstances driving many people to undertake such a dangerous migration. He also uses the boy's eyes as mirrors to reflect the caring and uncaring, tenderness and brutality, anguish and disdain of the people upon whose shores the migrants are landing or washing up, and of all of us who enjoy the privilege of living in the destination lands beyond those shores. The ending simply took my breath away.
It's a story worth contemplating deeply as I think we are heading into a time of increasing and increasingly desperate mass migration … by individuals who will all too often be seen by many as just a faceless mass of them to be feared and shunned. It's an incredibly difficult challenge with no easy answers, yet I hope we can find the strength and clarity to keep in mind the individual mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers, who are in many ways just like you and me.
Katherine Johnson, My Remarkable Journey
With Joylette Hylick & Katherine Moore; narrated by Robin Miles
A remarkable memoir. Johnson was a brilliant mathematician who helped ensure the success of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions. She fell in love with mathematics as a child, was fearless in her pursuit of her passions, endured and transcended appalling racism, juggled her demanding work with her dedication to family, and touched many people with her optimism and kindness. In 2015, she was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, surely one of the most deserving recipients.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Beautifully narrated by the author
One of the wisest and most profound books I've ever experienced. As I slowly listened to it while on my daily walks, it touched me ever more deeply with each step.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is the SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Through sharing personal anecdotes and scientific observations as well as reflections on Indigenous teachings, she reveals the strength and wisdom that is inherent in cultures of gratitude and cultures of reciprocity, and charts a possible way forward through our current ecological crisis.
What is the alternative? And how do we get there? I don't know for certain, but I believe the answer is contained within our teachings of "One Bowl and One Spoon," which holds that the gifts of the earth are all in one bowl, all to be shared from a single spoon. This is the vision of the economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forest, are commonly held rather than commodified. Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity. These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous worldview in which the earth exists not as private property, but as a commons, to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all
And yet, while creating an alternative to destructive economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policies that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance.
Eric Berger, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX
Well narrated by Rob Shapiro
I've long read the Ars Technica⩘ articles by Senior Space Editor Eric Berger, so I know he's an insightful and excellent reporter and writer, yet he surpassed my expectations. I figured this would be an interesting book, but I had not expected such a nail-biting thriller!
There's no doubt the SpaceX team deserved to succeed. The company's approach, under the leadership of Elon Musk, has totally shaken up the way things are done in the space industry. They are innovative, incredibly hard-working, risk-taking, passionate, and scrappy. Yet deserving to succeed doesn't equal success. The fourth flight of the Falcon 1, after three failures, is one crazy story. It was a make or break moment for the company. In a very real way, it shouldn't have succeeded. Happily, it did.
Image by SpaceX, CC BY-SA 3.0⩘
I hope Berger writes more books about the SpaceX story because it's one of the most inspiring and exciting technology stories unfolding these days, and it's really fun to get a better peak behind the curtain!
Update: Too bad Musk and his teams can't get their shit 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
Lena Nguyen, We Have Always Been Here
Well narrated by Catherine Ho
An ambitious debut effort exploring interesting intersections between psychology, the physics of dimensions, and AI, as well as the conflicts caused by corporate authoritarianism run amok and spread out into space.
I look forward to Nguyen's future books.
Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
Narrated by Amir Abdullah
Audio version of:
Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester,
By Frederick Douglass,
Author's Republic, 2020, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Lushena Books, 2021, Bookshop.org⩘
Browsable copy of the original pamphlet: ORATION, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester⩘ , by Frederick Douglass, July 5th,1852. Internet Archive.
PDF: What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?⩘
Neil Sharpson, When the Sparrow Falls
Well narrated by Jake Fairbrother
Fascinating novel. In an advanced technology future when AI control most of the world and most people carry their cumulative memories as they merge into successive generations of clones, the story is set in a dystopian authoritarian country comprised of the last "natural" humans.
Using that backdrop and a cast of interesting characters facing a host of moral challenges, Sharpson vividly explores a variety of ethical and emotional dilemmas. While this is his first novel, Sharpson draws on his experience as a playwright to stage this character-focused drama. In fact, the novel is based on what originally was a play he wrote, which brings an interesting dimension to the story. Kudos!
Danny Caine, How to Resist Amazon, and Why: The Fight for Local Economics, Data Privacy, Fair Labor, Independent Bookstores, and a People-Powered Future!
Narrated by the author
Danny Caine, the owner of the Raven Book Store⩘ in Lawrence, Kansas, has written a passionate book about how and why to resist Amazon.
I've long held a similar attitude about Amazon, which I call "Shun Amazon!" Here's something I wrote about them a couple years ago:
As I've learned over the years just what a ruthless and unethical company Amazon can be, how badly they treat many of their employees and contractors⩘ , and how poorly they perform at protecting their customers from third-party vendors they allow on their site that sell bad and even dangerous goods⩘ , I now try to minimize my business dealings with Amazon and all of the companies they've swallowed up. If I want something and can find it elsewhere, I buy it elsewhere, even if it costs more and takes longer to arrive. If I can't find it elsewhere, I carefully ask myself if I really need it. If I don't, I pass.
How greedy can you get? It is a travesty to be one of the richest corporations in the world headed by one of the wealthiest men in the world, and still not be willing to spend a little bit more money to ensure the safety of your customers, and still not be willing to spend a little bit more money to ensure the safety and well-being of your frontline employees. What a disgraceful company. What a disgraceful CEO.
– From my contemplation: Shun Amazon⩘ .
So I was quite interested when I learned about Caine's book via an article by Ellen Cushing in The Atlantic: Cancel Prime: The subscription service is Amazon's greatest—and most terrifying—invention⩘ . In particular, I appreciated one thing Cushing shared that Caine had said, which has helped me to view my tiny act of resistance against such a colossus in a brighter and warmer light:
[O]ne person canceling Prime won't do much of anything to a multinational corporation's bottom line. "It's statistically insignificant to Amazon. They'll never feel it," Caine told me. But, he said, "the small businesses in your neighborhood will absolutely feel the addition of a new customer. Individual choices do make a big difference to them."
Caine's book is great, a clearly written, passionate deep-dive into this important subject. He provides a variety of detailed reasons (the "why"), personal anecdotes, and actions we all can take (the "how").
I write this book … to do what I can to protect a way of life I value.
I am resolute in the idea that being human means more than being a source of data with which companies can sell you things. Being human is about things that can't be measured in clicks, data, or money. If you ask me, we should resist companies that want to tear down those ways of being human.
Resisting Amazon is about protecting communities.
Reading Caine's book almost makes me wish I lived in Kansas so I could often hang out at Raven Book Store!
Mike Rothschild, The Storm Is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything
Narrated by Joe Barrett
QAnon has really puzzled me. I have often found myself wondering how some people can believe many of the various conspiracy theories that have been raised within the QAnon sphere, as well as how some people can continue to give credence to QAnon when so many of the predictions have proven false.
Rothschild answers these question, provides a detailed overview of QAnon from 2017 to the present day, and offers insights into how to best try to relate to people who are involved. Definitely a worthwhile read.
Peter Brannen, The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions
Narrated by Adam Verner
A very interesting journey through Earth time covering five mass extinctions (End-Ordovician, Late Devonian, End-Permian, End-Triassic, and End-Cretaceous), as well as what happened in-between, with a focus on learning how understanding these events can be applied to our understanding of our current circumstances, and might even inspire us to take more fruitful actions to address them.
The subject matter is deadly serious, but the author and narrator do a nice job of keeping it lighter and, at times, even humorous. Still, I vacillated between sometimes feeling despondent—especially when Brannen compared past carbon dioxide build ups and ocean acidification to what we are causing to happen so rapidly today, and the consequences of that to our future—and at other times relaxing into an acceptance of the grand scale of our planet and time. As an individual, I likely will experience some great discomfort over the coming years, even life-threatening. As a society, we likely will face huge disruptions. As a species, we might face catastrophic consequences. Yet when viewed at the planetary level, this is just another cycle; and when viewed at the universal scale, just a wisp of dust on the cosmic breeze.
One thing I found curiously interesting was how trees—those wondrous sources of life to our present day planet—were, when they first arose, ecologically cataclysmic to a lot of the other pre-existing life on earth.
Like the first trees, we are extraordinary in the history of life for our ability to radically alter the geochemical cycles of the planet, with dramatic consequences for the climate, the oxygenation of the oceans, and life on land and in the sea. And there's something more than a little poetic in our doing so by digging up and igniting the carbon-rich life buried in black shale by the Late Devonian mass extinctions.
"What's happened is not that humans have evolved right now, since hominid evolution has been going on for 6 or 7 million years," [University of Cincinnati geologist Thomas] Algeo pointed out, "but rather that we've evolved to the point where our technology is causing havoc on the planet's surface. It's an analogous development."
Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary
Fun story! Weir has quite the imagination.
Ballantine Books, 2021, Bookshop.org⩘
Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment
Nicely narrated by the author
Fascinating account of the author's visits to abandoned places around the world to observe how nature rebounds once the heavy hand of humans is lifted. Flyn explores the various ways in which vegetation and animals rebound and reclaim humanity's castoffs, from the mountains of tailings left behind by defunct mining operations to dystopian landscapes like the one that resulted from the Chernobyl disaster to devastated post-war zones to the crumbling places resulting from economic ruin. She also discusses a variety of related ethical and ecological issues. Left me with a lot to think about.
Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
Narrated by the author
Incredible book. Insightful, raw, hard hitting, and horrifying, yet at the same time rich, uplifting, and even poetic. Smith visits places that are strongly associated with slavery and reveals their history, places like New Orleans, the Monticello Plantation, The Whitney Plantation, the Louisiana State Penitentiary named Angola after the former Plantation it occupies, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Dakar, Senegal. He finishes in a deeply personal way by speaking with his grandparents about their own experiences related to slavery and Jim Crow: "I lived it."
Smith reveals the horrors of slavery from many different angles, as well as the way that slavery, deeply codified in our society, is still impacting us today. One aspect discussed during his visit to The Whitney Plantation was how consumerism related to sugar, chocolate, coffee, and cheap textiles directly correlated to slavery:
"It's so easy for people to just look at these plantation owners and be like, ‘This history is awful. They were the bad guys.'" Yvonne paused. "They were the bad guys, but what are the larger implications of a global society? In England, these factory workers were going to work in the nineteenth century, and all of a sudden molasses comes on the market." There in England, for instance, sugar became cheaper and more accessible—something factory workers could buy, Yvonne pointed out. "Poor people can now afford sweetener, which used to be reserved for the elite." I nodded. "And so these individuals are going to work and now they can start purchasing sweetener for their afternoon tea…and then they start to demand [it]. And that is in direct correlation to the people who are enslaved on these plantations. And so it helps people understand that it's not so cut-and-dry. It's not just like, ‘Those overseers were sadistic people. The plantations were morally bankrupt and corrupt.' Yes, they were. But also, in Europe, once the appetite for sugar and chocolate and coffee and cheap textiles and all these things started flooding the market, and people can finally buy into this larger system of capitalism and consumption, who is at the other end of it?"
I think it's important that we consider this question from a contemporary point of view as well, the way our current consumerism is driving exploitation of workers around the world. For example, I read one story this past year about how many of the masks we've been wearing to protect ourselves against COVID-19 are being manufactured in the Chinese prison camps imprisoning millions of Uighur people.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is that Smith is telling the story. He shares one experience about listening to young people reading parts of this history during a commemoration ceremony that I found particularly strong:
I watched these young people read to the audience parts of history that placed our country in context. I felt, in that moment, envious of them. Had I known when I was younger what some of these students were sharing, I felt as if I would have been liberated from a social and emotional paralysis that for so long I could not name—a paralysis that had arisen from never knowing enough of my own history to effectively identify the lies I was being told by others: lies about what slavery was and what it did to people; lies about what came after our supposed emancipation; lies about why our country looks the way it does today. I had grown up in a world that never tired of telling me and other Black children like me all of the things that were wrong with us, all of the things we needed to do better. But not enough people spoke about the reason so many Black children grow up in communities saturated with poverty and violence. Not enough people spoke about how these realities were the result of decisions made by people in power and had existed for generations before us.
After college, when I was doing more reading on my own, I began to understand all that has happened to our communities, to our people, over generations—it was liberating. I had language to name what I felt but had never known how to say. People sometimes believe that if they talk to Black youth about the historical legacy of slavery—and the intergenerational iterations of systemic racism that followed—young people will feel overwhelmed and shut down. But there is enormous value in providing young people with the language, the history, and the framework to identify why their society looks the way it does. Understanding that all of this was done not by accident but by design. That did not strip me of agency, it gave agency back to me. I watched these young people share this history, and I dreamed of what it might mean if we could extend these lessons to every child. How different might our country look if all of us fully understood what has happened here?
A must read.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, In Love with the World
Narrated by Feodor Chin
In 2011, at the age of 36, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher and master of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, snuck out of his monastery in Bodhgaya, India and began a "wandering retreat" through the Himalayas and the plains of India that lasted four and a half years. He shares his experiences and the lessons he learned, including during a near death experience due to food poisoning. It was a deeply touching experience to listen to this on my daily walks.
On my next several morning walks, I listened to The Joy of Living. In this book, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who is one of the new generation of Tibetan teachers and masters who were born and grew up outside of Tibet, gently and with good humor shares meditation techniques. He also discusses the continuity between traditional Tibetan Buddhist understanding and recent discoveries in Quantum Mechanics. Quite fascinating.
Among sentient beings, human beings appear to stand alone in their ability to recognize the necessity to forge a bond between reason, emotion, and the instinct to survive, and in so doing create a universe—not only for themselves and the human generations that follow, but also for all creatures who feel pain, fear, and suffering—in which we all are able to coexist contentedly and peaceably.
This universe already exists, even if we don't realize it at present. The aim of Buddhist teachings is to develop the capacity to recognize that this universe—which is really nothing more or less than the infinite possibility inherent within our own being—exists in the here and now. In order to recognize it, however, it is necessary to learn how to rest the mind.
In Love with the World: A Monk's Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Helen Tworkov, narrated by Feodor Chin, Random House Audio, 2019, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Random House, 2019, Bookshop.org⩘
Related video: In Love with the World Book Talk with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Dr. Richard Davidson⩘
The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Eric Swanson, narrated by Jason Scott Campbell, Random House Audio, 2007, Libro.fm⩘ ; Harmony, 2008, Bookshop.org⩘
Terry Miles, Rabbits
Well narrated by Christine Lakin
One crazy story, one crazy entertaining trip!
In the story, reality bends and warps a lot. Or maybe the mind of the main character, K, is what is bending and warping so much. And maybe there's no difference because, you know, quantum mechanics and all that jazz.
I experienced one additional reality warp while listening to the book. The character, K, is written in a somewhat ambiguous manner. Because I was listening to Christine Lakin narrating the book, I presumed K is female, and nothing I heard during the first 2/3rds or so of the book changed my mind about that.
Then, while I was perusing book review sites, as I often do, I came across a review that wrote about K as a male character. I was a bit startled. The reviewer was basing their review on the written version of the book rather than the audiobook, so I wondered whether that made the difference in interpretation. I found a couple more reviews, also of the written version, that also referred to K as male.
I now realize that I was carrying a bias, presuming the main character is female because the narrator is female, and will be more aware of that bias in future.
Next, I picked up the eBook version and revisited the first few chapters. Without a female narrator, I couldn't find any clue that convinced me K is female or male.
When I returned to finish listening to the audiobook, I paid closer attention. Under the influence of Lakin's narration, I continued to experience the perception that K is a female character, and nothing I heard convinced me otherwise.
In the end, I appreciate the ambiguity; it fits with the mood of the story itself.
Bruce Levine, Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Racial Justice
Well narrated by Landon Woodson
I found this to be both an inspiring and difficult book to listen to. Inspiring because it tells the story of Stevens and others who, flawed though they may have been, like all of us, fought tirelessly for justice and equality, for the core principles of our constitution. Difficult because it's so painful to be so vividly reminded on the cruelty and callousness of the enslavers and those who fought—and continue to fight—so hard to keep others from accessing their constitutional rights. And also, well, because politics. The political climate we are facing today is painful, infuriating, demoralizing, messy, and ugly; unfortunately, that's nothing new.
W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
Well narrated by Paul Heitsch
What an amazing story! Henrietta Wood must've been an incredibly strong woman to have survived and endured after having been enslaved for many years, legally freed, kidnapped and re-enslaved for many more years, and finally freed again after the Civil War (though she was taken to Texas during the was by her enslaver in order to avoid having her be granted her freedom by the advancing Northern armies, so her freedom didn't happen until a couple years after the war's end). It's so hard for me to understand the unfathomable cruelty of the enslavers.
This story is also incredibly relevant today, as it lays bare the roots of racism, white supremacy, the behavior of the Republicans in their quest to limit voting rights, and the Big Lie, all of which are currently plaguing our country in such an ugly way.
Related article: She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew.⩘ , By Sydney Trent, The Washington Post, February 24, 2021.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
Narrated by Christine Williams
A lot of birds hang out in or pass through our space here, including a variety of very small to somewhat larger-sized songbirds and a lot of the corvids: Blue Jays, Scrub Jays, Stellar Jays, Clark's Nutcracker, Magpies (with their amazingly long tails and constant chattering), and crows. I like the crows: they're somehow both dignified and comical, bold and timid, familiar and wary. All last year, a threesome hung around, probably parents and a juvenile. Sometimes a flock of crows would drop by, but those three were around a lot. This spring, the parents took off and only the juvenile—now a young adult—remains. Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to get to know a bit more about these interesting and intelligent creatures.
Haupt's book is less about crows than I had thought it would be and more about being aware of our natural surroundings, including the wild creatures we share it with even in an urban environment.
How, exactly, are we connected to the earth, the more-than-human world, in our lives and in our actions? And in light of this connection, how are we to carry out our lives on a changing earth? These are the questions we are called to answer in this kairos, this graced moment of opportune crisis. I have come to believe that opening ourselves to such inquiry and participating daily in the process of discovery it implies is our most urgent work as humans in the new millennium. And not because engaging these questions will make us happier, or smarter, or make more of our moments feel enchanted, though it will certainly do all of these things. It is urgent because an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth—this wonderful earth that we rightly love. We cannot know a place well or understand to which side of Leopold's tendency our actions swing unless we walk the paths and know the breadth of our neighborhood and neighbors, on and off the concrete, above and below the soil.
That said, Haupt does share some insights about our crow neighbors, about other birds and wildlife in general, and about our relationship with them.
In his journal, Thomas Merton wrote, "Someone will say: you worry about birds. Why not worry about people?" He answered unapologetically, "I worry about both birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness, it all hangs together."
I really appreciate the conclusion she reaches regarding how we can, as individuals, deal with the ecological crisis we are facing.
I am no ecological Pollyanna. I have borne, and will continue to bear, feelings of wholehearted melancholy over the ecological state of the earth. How could I not? How could anyone not? But I am unwilling to become a hand-wringing nihilist, as some environmental "realists" seem to believe is the more mature posture. Instead, I choose to dwell, as Emily Dickinson famously suggested, in possibility, where we cannot predict what will happen but we make space for it, whatever it is, and realize that our participation has value.
Carlo Rovelli, Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell; very nicely narrated by David Rintoul
A fascinating and fun short book, a joyous search for knowledge within the strangeness of quantum physics.
I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty
I still don't understand much about quantum physics—and Rovelli assures us that that's actually okay—but I did gain some glimpses of insights, including, for the first time, into the strangeness of entanglement:
The joint properties of two objects exist only in relation to a third. To say that two objects are correlated means to articulate something with regard to a third object: the correlation manifests itself when the two correlated objects both interact with this third object, which can check.
The apparent incongruity raised by what seemed like communication at a distance between two entangled objects was due to neglect of this fact: the existence of a third object that interacts with both the systems is necessary to give reality to the correlations. Everything that manifests itself does so in relation to something. A correlation between two objects is a property of the two objects—like all properties, it exists only in relation to a further, third object.
Entanglement is not a dance for two partners, it is a dance for three.
Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist who strikes me as also being a Renaissance man, seamlessly weaves in a lot of fascinating insights, including this bit about the way we see, which blew my mind:
One of the most fascinating recent developments in neuroscience concerns the functioning of our visual system. How do we see? How do we know that what we have in front of us is a book, or a cat?
It would seem natural to think that receptors detect the light that reaches the retinas of our eyes and transform it into signals that race to the interior of the brain, where groups of neurons elaborate the information in ever more complex ways, until they interpret it and identify the objects in question. Neurons recognize lines that separate colors, other neurons recognize shapes drawn by these lines, others again check these shapes against data stored in our memory. Others still arrive at the recognition: it's a cat.
It turns out, however, that the brain does not work like this at all. It functions, in fact, in an opposite way. Many, if not most, of the signals do not travel from the eyes to the brain; they go the other way, from the brain to the eyes.
What happens is that the brain expects to see something, on the basis of what it knows and has previously occurred. The brain elaborates an image of what it predicts the eyes should see. This information is conveyed from the brain to the eyes, through intermediate stages. If a discrepancy is revealed between what the brain expects and the light arriving into the eyes, only then do the neural circuits send signals toward the brain. So images from around us do not travel from the eyes to the brain—only news of discrepancies regarding what the brain expects do.
Being a lifelong fan of the books of Douglas Adams, I also appreciated the inclusion of this snippet of wisdom from The Salmon of Doubt:
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
I was so enthralled by Helgoland that I quickly embarked on a journey listening to a few other books by Rovelli, beginning with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a short and, for the physics uninitiated, gentle introduction to seven fundamental ideas of modern physics. The lessons were made all the more enjoyable by Rovelli's narration.
I followed that with the beautifully titled Reality Is Not What It Seems. This one is more challenging for someone at my level, but I very much appreciated the journey through the history of ideas related to physics, and for the first time, I got a glimpse of what gravity/spacetime is … sort of … or at least I think I got a glimpse … who know for sure!? If nothing else, I got a good head spinning!
Finally, I dove into The Order of Time. This one was way over my head! But I think—or at least I have fooled myself into thinking—that I got a glimpse into what time is … or isn't, which is very different from my previous understanding.
One thing I can say for sure: through all of these books by Professor Rovelli, I have gained a much deeper appreciation into just how strange, marvelous, and wondrous is this … whatever it is … we live in. I don't think I could imagine anything stranger than this reality that science is revealing to us.
Science is a continual exploration of ways of thinking. Its strength is its visionary capacity to demolish preconceived ideas, to reveal new regions of reality, and to construct new and more effective images of the world. This adventure rests upon the entirety of past knowledge, but at its heart is change. The world is boundless and iridescent; we want to go and see it. We are immersed in its mystery and in its beauty, and over the horizon there is unexplored territory. The incompleteness and the uncertainty of our knowledge, our precariousness, suspended over the abyss of the immensity of what we don't know, does not render life meaningless: it makes it interesting and precious.
Helgoland: Penguin Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Riverhead Books, 2021, Bookshop.org⩘
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics: translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, narrated by the author, Penguin Audio, 2016, Libro.fm⩘ ; Riverhead Books, 2016, Bookshop.org⩘
Reality Is Not What It Seems: translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, narrated by Roy McMillan, Penguin Audio, 2017, Libro.fm⩘ ; Riverhead Books, 2018, Bookshop.org⩘
The Order of Time: Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre; narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Penguin Audio, 2018, Libro.fm⩘ ; Riverhead Books, 2019, Bookshop.org⩘
Senator Amy Klobuchar, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age
Narrated by Nan McNamara & the author
While I didn't like this book as much as most of the books that I end up writing about here—it has a couple significant flaws and sometimes made my eyes glaze over—I did very much appreciate gaining a broader and deeper understanding of the history in the U.S. of monopolies, monopsonies (a concept I hadn't heard of previously), and antitrust efforts.
The most interesting sections for me were those discussing what is happening—or more precisely, not happening—in terms of applying antitrust principles to today's crushingly large companies in our country that are dominating their markets to the detriment of innovation, our economy, and our individual rights.
The flaws: The book is at times repetitive, perhaps due to a lack of careful editing. Second, there is an entire chapter in the middle of the book that deviates from discussing antitrust to covering a range of other issues. Even though I agree with Klobuchar's position on most of those issues, the entire chapter was like a lengthy stump speech and nearly caused me to abandon the book. Fortunately, the remainder of the book refocused on the main topic.
One topic that isn't covered, but that I think is crucially important, is how to balance applying antitrust principles at a national level when the economy has become so global, with the result that our mega-companies are competing with other mega-companies based in nations that don't share similar antitrust principles.
Nicole Kornher-Stace, Firebreak
Narrated by Carlotta Brentan
While up and coming authors in the science fiction genre often capture my attention, I typically avoid LitRPG; however, the reader reviews of this book were solid, so I decided to give the story a try anyway.
While the story plunged into the RPG world more than I like, especially in the early going, the author handled that aspect well, staying focused on the storyline and integrating the gaming aspect into the overall story quite well.
In the end, the strengths of the story, its well-drawn characters, and the storytelling outweighed the weaknesses—including a narration style that tended to be a bit overwrought—leaving me glad overall that I had experienced this journey into a vividly imagined corporate-ruled dystopian future mired in surveillance capitalism. I found myself repeatedly thinking that this was a glimpse into a possible future of ours if we allow companies like Amazon to continue to freely expand and impose their awful corporate practices on our society.
I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for future titles by Kornher-Stace.
P.S.: I like it that in the About me section of the author's website⩘ , she shares that something we might find her "semicoherently yelling about," is the "fictional representation of strong platonic relationships." Bravo! This came across strongly and coherently in Firebreak.
Daniel James Brown, Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II
Very well narrated by Louis Ozawa
Incredible book. Amazing story. Mainly focused on Katsugo "Kats" Miho, Fred Shiosaki, and Rudy Tokiwa, boys from Hawai'i and stateside who enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor was bombed and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated infantry regiment in the United States Army comprised of Americans of Japanese ancestry; as well as Gordon Hirabayashi, a Quaker who was a conscientious objector and fought for the civil and constitutional rights of Japanese Americans, choosing to go to prison rather than compromise his beliefs. Also tells the stories of their families and friends who were torn from their lives and forced into American concentration camps where they were interned even if they were American citizens because they were of Japanese ancestry, as well as some of the soldiers they served alongside.
Some came from small towns, some from big cities. Some hailed from family farms in the American West, some from vast pineapple and sugarcane plantations in Hawai'i. By and large, they had grown up like other American boys, playing baseball and football and going to Saturday afternoon matinees. They performed in marching bands on the Fourth of July, went to county fairs, ate burgers and fries, messed around under the hoods of cars, and listened to swing tunes on the radio. They made plans to go to college or work in the family business or run the farm someday. They eyed pretty girls walking down school corridors clutching books to their chests, making their way to class. They studied American history and English literature, took PE and shop classes, looked forward to their weekends. And as the holiday season approached in 1941, it seemed as if the whole world lay before them.
But within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, all that changed.
I knew about the interment of Japanese Americans, and had also heard about the valour of the 442nd, but Brown brings this history to vivid life with his telling of these stories. The way Japanese Americans were—and sadly, all too often still are—treated by other Americans was and is despicable. The battlefield scenes are horrifying. How these courageous fellows persevered in the face of terrifying casualties and horrendous conditions on the ground, as well as how they persevered in the face of the awful treatment they all too often were subjected to once they returned home is simply astonishing. We owe these heroes a deep and lasting debt of gratitude.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Well narrated by Anna Fields
More than 20 years ago now, I first read and thoroughly enjoyed this book. Recently, I came across it while wandering through my old reviews, thought it might be fun to revisit it, and checked to see whether an audiobook had been released in the meantime. As luck would have it, an excellent rendering of the book by Anna Fields is now available.
Beryl Markham was an exceptional person who, on top of so many other extraordinary accomplishments, wrote this excellent autobiography. She grew up on a farm in Kenya, fearlessly playing in the bush with the other young children who lived on the farm, surviving an attack by a lion, hunting with tribal warriors she knew, learning how to care for—and love—thoroughbred horses. Then she struck out on her own in her late teens when her father lost his farm after a devastating drought, becoming an accomplished horse trainer, before falling in love with the fascinating new flying machines that had begun making an appearance in Kenya.
Reading about Markham's adventures as one of the first bush pilots in Kenya gives vivid life to the expression flying by the seat of your pants. Fortunately, she had excellent judgment with which to guide her aircraft, and went on to create a successful flying business during which she accomplished some incredible and colorful feats. She flew all over Kenya and surrounding parts of East Africa, flew several times from Kenya to England and back, and became the first person to fly solo from England to North America. Her descriptions of some of those adventures left my heart pounding and my fingers tingling. I must add that no matter how talented her flying may have been, her stories of locating magnificent bull elephants from the air for the benefit of hunters left my heart broken and my stomach aching.
The best part of her story is her descriptions of the people she grew up with, worked alongside, flew with, and met along the way. By the seat of her pants and the passionate keenness of her perception, she lived a very rich and colorful life.
Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
Narrated by the author
This is an amazing book. Professor Simard combines stories of her decades of research—in the forests and in labs—with stories of her life, revealing the interconnectedness between her professional and personal lives, just as she reveals to us the interconnectedness between the inhabitants of our forests: the various species of trees, the other vegetation, the fungi, the insects, the animals, birds, and fishes … and yes, even us. This goes way beyond just that we all live side by side, also contradicting the long-held belief that the primary relationship is competition, to reveal how trees communicate with and nourish each other, as well as the rest of us.
Somehow with my Latin squares and factorial designs, my isotopes and mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, and my training to consider only sharp lines of statistically significant differences, I have come full circle to stumble onto some of the indigenous ideals: Diversity matters. And everything in the universe is connected—between the forests and prairies, the land and the water, the sky and the soil, the spirits and the living, the people and all other creatures.
Although there are many challenges to the life of our forests these days—including our callous clear cutting, our monoculture tree farming, and the changing climate—Professor Simard ultimately shares an upbeat and optimistic vision. In conclusion, she invites us to think about what can be possible if we understand the totality of what our forests give us, and take action based on that understanding.
… with taking something comes the obligation to give back.
Author's website: SuzanneSimard.com⩘
Introduction YouTube video: Finding the Mother Tree⩘
Related Radiolab podcast featuring Professor Simard: From Tree to Shining Tree⩘ , Jul 30, 2016
Related TED talk by Suzanne Simard: How Trees Talk to Each Other⩘ , Jun 2016
Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity
Well narrated by the author
A deep reflection on the natural, anthropogenic, and future existential risks humanity faces, what we might do to mitigate those risks, and the meaning of our present action or inadequate action on the potential millions of future generations of our species.
Consider human history as a grand journey through the wilderness. There are wrong turns and times of hardship, but also times of sudden progress and heady views. In the middle of the twentieth century we came through a high mountain pass and found that the only route onward was a narrow path along the cliff-side: a crumbling ledge on the brink of a precipice. Looking down brings a deep sense of vertigo. If we fall, everything is lost. We do not know just how likely we are to fall, but it is the greatest risk to which we have ever been exposed.
This comparatively brief period is a unique challenge in the history of our species. Our response to it will define our story. Historians of the future will name this time, and schoolchildren will study it. But I think we need a name now. I call it the Precipice.
The Precipice gives our time immense meaning. In the grand course of history—if we make it that far—this is what our time will be remembered for: for the highest levels of risk, and for humanity opening its eyes, coming into its maturity and guaranteeing its long and flourishing future. This is the meaning of our time.
I am not glorifying our generation, nor am I vilifying us. The point is that our actions have uniquely high stakes. Whether we are great or terrible will depend upon what we do with this opportunity. I hope we live to tell our children and grandchildren that we did not stand by, but used this chance to play the part that history gave us.
In the past, the survival of humanity didn't require much conscious effort: our past was brief enough to evade the natural threats and our power too limited to produce anthropogenic threats. But now our longterm survival requires a deliberate choice to survive.
Ord concludes with an exploration of our potential, a consideration of what we might accomplish when considered on the scale of deep time and across the far reaches of our universe.
What could we hope to achieve? To experience? To become? If humanity rises to the challenges before us, navigates the risks of the coming centuries, and passes through to a time of safety—what then?
I very much appreciate his thoughtfulness, honesty, intellectual rigor, and his overarching optimism. While the challenges and risks we face are significant, our potential is immense.
Recorded Books, 2020, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Hachette Books, 2021, Bookshop.org⩘
Book's website: The Precipice⩘
See also: The Blue Marble⩘ , reflections on the author's work on digitally restoring some of the iconic images of our planet taken by the Apollo astronauts.
Related: Degrees of Uncertainty by Neil Halloran⩘ : "an animated documentary about climate science, uncertainty, and knowing when to trust the experts. Using cinematic visualizations, the film travels through 20,000 years of natural temperature changes before highlighting the rapid warming of the last half century."
John le Carré, The Constant Gardener
Well narrated by Michael Jayston
The finale in my revisiting of my favorite le Carré novels, and my top one. As with all his novels, I appreciate the scathing eye he turns on spy agencies and governments.
In this story, he especially eviscerates the pharmaceutical companies and the way they have mistreated Africans. His anger is palpable as he patiently reveals the corruption with an authenticity based on a real-life case involving Pfizer in Nigeria (Wikipedia⩘ ).
Pharmaceutical companies certainly do some things that benefit society—the same Pfizer has produced the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine that looks like it will contribute to saving many lives—yet it's important to keep in mind that they can be ruthlessly profit motivated. For that reason, they also must be scrupulously regulated and monitored.
Thank you, Mr. le Carré, for having given us some excellent novels that peer deeply into our real world.
Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos
Well narrated by Mozhan Marnò
A consequential book. Most importantly, it shares and shines light on the stories of fiercely courageous Polish Jewish women who fought against the German Nazi invaders and their persecution of Polish Jewish citizens:
- Renia Kukiełka: born in Jędrzejów, a courier for Freedom in Będzin.
- Sarah Kukiełka: Renia's older sister, a Freedom comrade who takes care of Jewish orphans in Będzin.
- Zivia Lubetkin: born in Byten, a Freedom leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
- Frumka Płotnicka: born in Pinsk, a Freedom comrade who leads the fighting organization in Będzin.
- Hantze Płotnicka (pronounced in English as Han -che): Frumka's younger sister, also a Freedom leader and courier.
- Tosia Altman: a leader of The Young Guard and one of its most active couriers, based in Warsaw.
- Vladka Meed (nee Feigele Peltel): a Bundist courier in Warsaw.
- Chajka Klinger (pronounced in English as Hay-ka): a leader of The Young Guard and the fighting organization in Będzin.
- Gusta Davidson: a courier and leader of Akiva, based in Kraków.
- Hela Schüpper: a courier for Akiva, based in Kraków.
- Bela Hazan: a Freedom courier, based in Grodno, Vilna, Białystok. Worked with Lonka Kozibrodska and Tema Schneiderman.
- Chasia Bielicka (pronounced in English as Has -ia) and Chaika Grossman (pronounced Hay -ka): two Young Guard couriers who are part of a ring of anti-Fascist operatives in Białystok.
- Ruzka Korczak (pronounced in English as Rush -ka): a leader of The Young Guard in Vilna's fighting organization (FPO) and a partisan leader in the forests.
- Vitka Kempner: a leader of The Young Guard in Vilna's fighting organization (FPO) and a partisan leader in the forests.
- Zelda Treger: a Young Guard courier based in Vilna and the forests.
- Faye Schulman: a photographer who becomes a partisan nurse and fighter.
- Anna Heilman: an assimilated Warsaw Young Guard member who takes part in the resistance at Auschwitz.
The book also provides an up close look at the inhumane brutality of the Nazis, the Gestapo, and their collaborators. This is an emotionally challenging aspect of the story to take in; several times I had to set the book aside to give myself time to recover my equilibrium. Yet I think it's crucial that we look at this aspect of our history with wide open eyes and hearts. Only by fully knowing about and acknowledging this horrendous history can we ever hope to truly grow beyond it.
Stefano Mancuso, The Incredible Journey of Plants
Translated by Gregory Conti; well narrated by David Stifel
Another very good book by Professor Mancuso, in which he invites us to learn the many clever ways plants have evolved to spread themselves around our planet.
I really like his attitude: he's shrewdly observant, deeply perceptive, and playfully mischievous. He admires plants that others dismiss as invasive species, something I've always puzzled about. The way I see it, a plant—or an animal, for example, us—can only be viewed as invasive if we assign an arbitrary date after which any new plant or animal that finds its way into a habitat is judged an invader. I understand that so called invasive species can be disruptive, but if we step back to take a broader view, every type of life on Earth can be classified either as an invasive species or as an clever traveler. I'd rather celebrate the cleverness.
The book also discusses the damage we are doing to our planet's ecosystems, either through our inadvertent carelessness or our callous manipulation designed to reshape nature to server our selfish interests.
The survival of species is a very delicate thing.… Every living species is part of a network of relationships about which we know very little; therefore, every living organism must be protected. Life is a rare commodity in the universe.
Once again, I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity to experience another of Mancuso's books.
Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
Narrated by Karen White
Bruder presents the story of the modern day nomads, who sometimes call themselves Rubber Tramps, people who have chosen or been forced to make their vehicles—ranging in size from large RVs to small campers to vans and even cars—their home. According to some of the people interviewed, they are not homeless, but they are houseless.
Their journeys vacillate between daunting challenges and hostility from locals in some of the places they are visiting to the incredible beauty of other places and the nourishment of a loosely affiliated tribe of fellow travelers, some of whom gather annually in southern Arizona for the RTR, the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.
Through this story, Bruder explores a variety of issues facing people in our society today, and ends by asking a crucial question about our country:
When do impossible choices start to tear people, a society, apart?
I came across a related essay by David Roth in Defector exploring this theme of choices that aren't really choices, Private Choices Have Public Consequences⩘ .
In place of any actually ennobling liberty or more fundamental freedom, contemporary American life mostly offers choices. But since most of these are not really choices at all in any meaningful way, it might be more accurate to say that we're offered selection. The choice between paying for health insurance and running up six figures of non-dischargeable debt because you got sick, for instance, is honestly less a choice than a hostage situation. But because the second outcome is still extremely possible even if you choose to pay for health insurance, it's more correct to say that the choice is already made, and that the decision is more about choosing from an array of variously insufficient and predatory options the one whose name or price or risk you like most. Sometimes there isn't even that, and the choice is a binary one between something and nothing. None of this is really what anyone would choose, but these ugly individuated choices are what we get.
After finishing the book, I watched the film, Nomadland (2020), written, directed, and edited by Chloé Zhao, and starring the marvelous Frances McDormand as well as a bunch of interesting real-life Rubber Tramp Nomads, some of whom—like Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells—play significant roles as fictionalized versions of themselves. It is a somewhat melancholy film, yet richly rewarding for the eye-opening insight it provides into a large and growing population of our fellow citizens who are living on the margins of our society.
My only criticism of the film is that it feels like the views inside the Amazon warehouse were sanitized. Perhaps in exchange for being allowed to film in the warehouse, the filmmakers were obliged to show workers walking and working at a quite leisurely pace, in contrast to all the stories we hear in the press and read in the book about how the actual work pace is grueling with high injury rates.
Lauren Redniss, Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present Future
This is the second book by Lauren Redniss that I've read. They are unlike anything else I've come across. She researches, designs, and illustrates her books. She even creates the typefaces that are used in them. This book is large and beautifully made, printed on quality paper and smythe sewn. Both of the books present a thoughtful and unique perspective on the topics they cover.
This one is about our weather, weaving together science, myth, legend, and a variety of anecdotes to bring alive obvious topics like cold, rain, fog, wind, and heat, as well as surprising weather-related insights into dominion, war, profit, and pleasure. Of course, no book about weather would be complete without a look into the crystal ball of forecasting, and Redniss invites us to gaze deeply into this mystery.
Her style of illustration is unique, colorful, and enchanting. To explain her approach, she first shares a 1725 watercolor painting of a flamingo by Mark Catesby and an 1801 hand-colored botanical engraving of an American Cowslip by P. Henderson, then says: "It was to this tradition that I hoped to pay homage with my choice of medium. Catesby's flamingo and Henderson's cowslip capture a certain feeling—a sensation of strangeness, wonder, terror—that we experience in the presence of nature, most powerfully perhaps when encountering the forces of the elements: a howling wind, a thunderstorm, the beating sun."
Stefano Mancuso, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior
Nicely narrated by Gibson Frazier
After listening to Mancuso's most recent book, The Nation of Plants, earlier this year, I was inspired to pick up a couple more of his books. This one looked like it would be full of amazing images, so I both listened to the audiobook and followed along in the hardbound book, as I sometimes do.
Mancuso, a leading authority of plant neurobiology, discusses mind expanding theories and findings, inviting us to look beyond our animal biases to explore plant intelligence and problem solving with chapters like: Memories without a Brain, Moving without Muscles, and The Sublime Art of Mimesis.
Maple tree samara; image by Stefano Mancuso
It was great to be able to concurrently see images of some of the amazing plants I was listening to the discussion of, as well as of some of the interesting projects he has tackled, like the prototype of the Jellyfish Barge, designed to float in the ocean, made entirely of wood, and able to produce vegetables without using freshwater, soil, or energy other than that of the sun.
I am so glad I have had the opportunity to experience this fascinating book.
John le Carré, The Russia House
Very well narrated by Michael Jayston
A bittersweet experience. This is one of my favorite le Carré novels, which I've been revisiting after his passing last December. It's as good as I remembered, a top-tier novel that looks deep into the souls of its characters.
After finishing the audiobook, I again watched the film, which was released a year after the book. Another bittersweet experience, given Sean Connery's passing last October. The movie does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the story, Connery shines as Barley, and the glimpses of Moscow and Leningrad are fascinating.
Penguin Audio, 2013 (originally published 1989), Libro.fm⩘
Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown
Very well narrated by Joel de la Fuente
I first met Charles Yu on his time machine in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. What a blast!
Still, this new short novel of his stayed on my "Maybe" list for over a year. I was curious, but skeptical about the format, a mix of screenplays, interior monologues, and exterior dialogues. Then I bumped into it again recently and the time was right to put aside my skepticism, dive in, and meet Kung Fu Guy.
So glad. Great story. Creative. Perceptive. Funny. Harrowing. Heartwarming. Heartbreaking. Thought provoking. Set in the phony world of Hollywood, yet entirely authentic. Wonderful listen!
As soon as I finished it, I re-downloaded How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe so I can take another trip on his time machine. See you some other time.
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century
I must confess that I have become largely cynical as I've watched our government over the past decades devolve from serving the people to serving the wealthy and privileged. So it is inspiring to know that there are people who retain enough optimism and foresight to think about a better future for our democracy, and to strive toward that goal. I don't typically spend time reading things like this, but this proved to be well worth the investment. Kudos to the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship for doing this work.
Perhaps the line that best sums up this book is:
Encourage commitment to our constitutional democracy and one another.
Perhaps the most optimistic line is:
One of the most striking findings of the Commission's listening sessions was that, in this era of profound polarization, Americans are hungry for opportunities to assemble, deliberate, and converse with one another.
The process the Commission took to find solutions to the challenges we face is clearly described, while the overarching tone of optimism is presented within a realistic acknowledgment of the scope of those challenges:
The Commission spent two years engaging with communities all over the U.S. to explore how best to respond to the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our political and civic life. Its final and bipartisan report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, was released in June 2020 and includes six strategies and 31 ambitious recommendations to help the nation emerge as a more resilient democracy by 2026, the nation's 250th anniversary.
No narrow set of recommendations can address all of these challenges, and no single institution has the reach to make an impact across all of these domains. Improving, building, and sustaining the practice of democratic citizenship requires that we recognize how these challenges overlap and identify the intersections of our political institutions, civic culture, and civil society where reform can have the widest impact. It requires too that we find our way back to love of country and one another. We emphasize the word love. What we need is as much about our motivations as about mechanisms of change.
From the preface chapter, Challenges:
Prior to the economic crash sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. economic inequality was more extreme than at any time since 1929. This historic upward concentration of income and wealth in the United States has been both a cause and effect of political disengagement. Congressional priorities, studies have shown, now align with the preferences of the most affluent. Lower- and middle-income Americans correctly sense that the wishes of the wealthy are likely to prevail and they disengage in response. Their cynicism becomes self-fulfilling, empowering the affluent in a vicious circle.
The strategies that have been put forward to address the challenges:
- Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation
- Empower Voters
- Ensure the Responsiveness of Political Institutions
- Dramatically Expand Civic Bridging Capacity
- Build Civic Information Architecture that Supports Common Purpose
- Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another
For a summary of what is contained within each of the strategies: List of recommendations >
Related: The Real Reason Republicans Couldn't Kill Obamacare⩘ by Jonathan Cohn, The Atlantic, Mar 22, 2021
The incentive structure in conservative politics didn't help, because it rewarded the ability to generate outrage rather than the ability to deliver changes in policy.
Yu Miri, Tokyo Ueno Station
Translated by Morgan Giles; narrated by Johnny Heller
A curious short novel, quite melancholy while at the same time insightful, about a Japanese man and his challenging life, witnessing the horror of the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII and the trauma of a tsunami, his struggles to make a living that meant he was most often away from his family, the loss of his son at an early age, and then of his wife, his slide into homelessness, and finally his death, after which he continues to wander the park where he was homeless, observing the goings on.
What makes the story more powerful is an ongoing contrast between his life and the life of the privileged Emperor, born the same year, as well as a view into the disregard, hostility, and violence directed at the homeless. For example, any time the Emperor or other members of the Imperial family visit the park from their nearby residence, all the homeless are callously evicted, often into cold and rain.
It's definitely not a pleasant story, yet it's told with poetic sensitivity and provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on the life of individuals who are too often almost invisible within our societies.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Journey
Foreword by Neil deGrasse Tyson; introduction by Ann Druyan; narrated by LeVar Burton and Seth MacFarlane
Back in 1980, when this book was released by the enthusiastic and personable astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator, Carl Sagan, I was traveling around a few different places on this interesting planet of our and wasn't reading much during that time (and have never watched television much), so I missed this book and its associated television show. Each year, I begin these pages of notes with an "appetizer," an interesting quotation I've come across. After looking at this year's appetizer for a few months each time I visit this page to add a new book, I realized it was high time I experienced the source. The good news is that the audiobook version was released a few years ago, so I got to enjoy it the manner I prefer these days.
It's a fascinating journey.
The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.… I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
One thing that caught my imagination was Sagan's enthusiastic sharing of the journeys of the Voyager spacecraft, especially his description of the Jovian moon Europa during Voyager 2's closest approach to it on July 9, 1979, after traveling outbound for nearly two years. Here's the photo Voyager 2 sent back to us.
Europa, the size of our moon, is thought to have a crust of ice perhaps 100 kilometers thick which overlies the silicate crust. The complex array of streaks indicate that the crust has been fractured and filled by materials from the interior. NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory⩘
In 2009, James Kinsland reviewed the digitally remastered re-release of the television series in the The Guardian⩘ , and much of what he writes applies equally to the original book.
Cosmos is a complete science course, encompassing not just cosmology but also chemistry, physics, biology, and the history of human discovery.
Ah, this amazing place we inhabit!
Stefano Mancuso, The Nation of Plants
Translated by Gregory Conti; narrated by Nigel Patterson
This is a small book (narrated length: 3 hours) that packs a big impact! Mancuso is a professor at the University of Florence, and founder of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, designed to study physiology, behavior, molecular biology, intelligence, and other fields of plant science.
He opens this book by reminding us of the enchanting spectacle of the rising earth we first saw when astronaut William Anders took a photo on humanity's first visit to the moon's orbit: "That picture, dubbed by its author Earthrise …, changed forever our idea of Earth, revealing for us a planet of majestic beauty, but also fragile and delicate. A colorful island of life in an otherwise empty and dark universe."
Next he writes as if he is a representative to the United Nations on behalf of the Nation of Plants, presenting the nation's constitution with "norms applicable to all nations."
The Constitution of the Nation of Plants
Article 1 – The Earth shall be the common home of life. Sovereignty shall pertain to every living being.
Article 2 – The Nation of Plants shall recognize and protect the inviolable rights of natural communities as societies based on the relationships among the organisms that compose them.
Article 3 – The Nation of Plants shall not recognize animal hierarchies, which are founded on command centers and centralized functions, and shall foster diffuse and decentralized vegetable democracies.
Article 4 – The Nation of Plants shall universally respect the rights of the currently living and those of future generations.
Article 5 – The Nation of Plants shall guarantee the right to clean water, soil, and atmosphere.
Article 6 – The consumption of any resource that cannot be reconstituted for future generations of living beings shall be prohibited.
Article 7 – The Nation of Plants shall not have borders. Every living being shall be free to travel, move, and live there without limitation.
Article 8 – The Nation of Plants shall recognize and foster mutual aid among natural communities of living beings as an instrument of coexistence and progress.
In the core of the book, he uses each article of the constitution to discuss how humanity is failing our planet on which our very survival depends, and how we can look to the intelligence of plants for solutions. This portion of the book terrified me; we know what is going wrong, yet we aren't doing what we must do to save our planet, to save ourselves. And we don't have much time left.
From the prologue:
So you thought that the superpowers were the true masters of the Earth, or you believed that you depended on the markets of the United States, China, and the European Union? Well, you were wrong. The Nation of Plants is the only true and eternal planetary power. Without plants, animals would not exist; life itself, perhaps, would not exist on our planet, and if it did, it would be something terribly different. Thanks to photosynthesis, plants produce all the free oxygen present on the planet and all the chemical energy consumed by other living beings. We exist thanks to plants, and we will continue to be able to exist only in their company. It behooves us to keep this idea clear at all times.
From the Wikipedia article on Stefano Mancuso⩘ :
The very idea of giving plants rights to protect their dignity similar to animals, proposed by Mancuso, is still shocking to many people, both in terms of philosophy and politics. For Mancuso, providing plants with certain rights means, above all, protecting the people themselves, who are completely dependent on plants for providing oxygen, food, and biodegradable fibers. If a person wants to emigrate to another lifeless planet, then he will have to do this together with other organisms, including plants, on which we are completely dependent. Mancuso, therefore, argues that humanity should be interested in ensuring that the protection of the living conditions and plant diversity takes place, including at the legislative level.
I now have another of his books on my listening list, which I'm looking forward to: The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior. I think I'll pick up the hardbound copy, too, as I understand it includes beautiful illustrations.
Melanie Challenger, How to Be Animal
"What follows is an attempt to make sense of the kind of being that we are. Yet it's more than that: it's an invitation to refresh in our minds the loveliness of being animal."
– Melanie Challenger
This is a mind expanding work! As Stuart Kelly wrote in his excellent and comprehensive Feb 2021 review in The Scottsman⩘ : "It is multi-disciplinary, taking in ecology, philosophy, law, futurology, psychology, palaeontology and anthropology."
Even more than being an invitation to remind ourselves of the loveliness of being animal, it is an opportunity to appreciate the loveliness of the animals we share this planet with, and in doing so, to perhaps find a space of generosity in our hearts to treat them with more respect, and even love as our fellow travelers.
I really like the cover, which was designed by Brianna Harden and illustrated by Jason Holley. It's worth it to take a moment to view a higher resolution version >.
Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others
Well narrated by Todd McLaren and Abby Craden
Another of the rare books of short stories that I really appreciate. Chiang expresses a deeply creative intelligence in these stories, helping me to look at existence in a fresh way, something I very much enjoy. What a gift it must be to have a mind that can travel so freely.
Freedom isn't an illusion; it's perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It's like that famous optical illusion⩘ , the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There's no "correct" interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can't see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it.
The title story is excellent. The movie Denis Villeneuve directed that is based on this story, Arrival, is quite different and in its own flavor every bit as excellent. Villeneuve does an incredible job of vividly capturing a sense of what it might be like to experience existing in a manner in which there is no separation between past, present, and future. Also, the film's representation of the visitors' style of writing, Heptapod B, is exquisite, an expression of timeless calligraphy.
Just as I return to reading or listening to this story from time to time, I enjoy returning to the film now and again, something I rarely do with movies. Perhaps the revisits provide a glimpse of this merging of time: the story is in my past and I already know a bit of the future, which together enriches the experience of now.
Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Well narrated by Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill
Normally, I'm not much into short stories, but once in awhile, I come across a collection that's so good it gets past that bias of mine. This is one such example.
There are several amazing stories in this book, but my personal all-time favorite is The Waves, a story of the journey of one woman—and really, of all humanity—to the stars, to immortal life, to a merger into an advanced form of life housed in a mechanical body (that sounds steampunk, but think rather of an exquisite body/mind made with the advanced knowledge and engineering of the far future), to the ultimate transformation into a being of light.
During her journey, she travels and experiences the wonders of the universe. I can imagine no more joyous and wondrous journey, and think often of this story. Yes, I would love to be able to travel the universe as a being of light!
Ken Liu is a truly gifted thinker and artistic writer.
We speak about [tradition] as if it's always been this way, but that's not true. Real living tradition represents progress.
– Ken Liu
I first read this book when it was first published in 2016 (original review⩘ ). This is the second time I've subsequently listened to the audiobook with its fine storytelling performances by Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill, which add yet another dimension to this richly multi-dimensional experience.
One caveat: A few of the stories in this collection are quite difficult to read. As with the rest of the stories, they are intelligent and thoughtful, but tackle difficult subjects with a level of graphic detail that may be too much for some readers.
Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
Narrated by the author
Excellent. I already knew much, though not all, of what McGhee presents here, but the way she put puts it all together, humanizes it, and analyzes it is intellectually masterful, heartrending, thought provoking, and inspiring.
Racism and white supremacy are destructive forces in our society and in our world. Shining such a clear and bright light on these negative forces will help raise awareness about them, and hopefully will inspire people to continue the long, arduous fight to create a better world. For all of us.
"Why can't we have nice things?" Perhaps there's been a time when you've pondered exactly this question. And by nice things, you weren't thinking about hovercraft or laundry that does itself. You were thinking about more basic aspects of a high-functioning society, like adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty or a public health system to handle pandemics. The "we" who can't seem to have nice things is Americans, all Americans. This includes the white Americans who are the largest group of the uninsured and the impoverished as well as the Americans of color who are disproportionately so. "We" is all of us who have watched generations of American leadership struggle to solve big problems and reliably improve the quality of life for most people. We know what we need—why can't we have it?
I set out on this journey to piece together a new story of who we could be to one another, and to glimpse the new America we must create for the sum of us.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice
Narrated by the author
Incredible story. I don't think I can summarize it any better than Lemmon does in her introduction when she shares the ambition of the women whose stories she is telling:
When we spoke, they made clear that their ambition went well beyond this sliver of Syria: they wanted to serve as a model for the region's future, with women's liberation a crucial element of their quest for a locally led, communal, and democratic society where people from different backgrounds lived together. This story was not only a military campaign, I realized, but also a political one: without the military victories, the political experiment could not take hold. For the young women fighting, what mattered most was long-term political and social change. That was why they'd signed up for this war and why they were willing to die for it. They believed beating ISIS counted as simply the first step toward defeating a mentality that said women existed only as property and as objects with which men could do whatever they wanted. Raqqa was not their destination, but only one stop in their campaign to change women's lives and society along with it.
The epilogue—in which Lemmon shares the manner in which the U.S., under Trump's leadership, abandoned the Kurds to Turkey and Russia's brutal aggression after everything the Kurds had sacrificed to achieve the U.S. goal of defeating ISIS—is devastatingly tragic and difficult to read. Although at the time I was not surprised that Trump caved to Erdoğan and, especially, Putin, I nonetheless was shocked and dismayed, and remain so.
Carl Zimmer, Life's Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive
Narrated by Joe Ochman
In a journey through time, beginning in the mid-1700s until the current day, and places, from volcanic vents deep in the ocean to tide poles at sea level to ponds on the sides of high volcanoes to planets and moons far out in our solar system, Zimmer traces the way thinkers, philosophers, and scientists have attempted to understand and define what life is. There is no easy answer, but the journey itself is fascinating.
"What we call 'life' is a certain quality, the sum of certain reactions of systems of matter, as the smile is the quality or reaction of the lips," [Nobel Prize winning Hungarian physiologist Albert] Szent-Györgyi once said [in a 1948 lecture at MIT].
When he stopped to reflect more deeply on what he and his fellow biochemists were learning about life, Szent-Györgyi found it hard to offer a meaningful definition. If the definition of life involved something that sustained itself through chemical reactions, then a candle flame might be alive. What about a star, or a civilization?
All living things, Szent-Györgyi explained to his audience at MIT, shared some hallmarks. But thinking too categorically about those hallmarks was a one-way ticket to absurdity. "One rabbit could never reproduce itself," Szent-Györgyi observed. "And if life is characterized by self-reproduction, one rabbit could not be called alive at all."
We can find different features of life at different scales, Szent-Györgyi said, but only depending on the features of life we cherish most. "The noun 'life' has no sense," Szent-Györgyi declared, "there being no such thing."
One philosopher has taken a far more radical stand. Carol Cleland argues that there's no point in searching for a definition of life or even just a convenient stand-in for one. It's actually bad for science, she maintains, because it keeps us from reaching a deeper understanding about what it means to be alive.…
Life is different. It is not the sort of thing that can be defined simply by linking together concepts. As a result, it's futile to search for a laundry list of features that will turn out to be the real definition of life. "We don't want to know what the word life means to us," Cleland said. "We want to know what life is." And if we want to satisfy our desire, Cleland argues, we need to give up our search for a definition.…
When it comes to life, Cleland argues, we are still alchemists. We use our intuitions to decide which things are alive or not and make arbitrary lists of the features they share. We paper over our ignorance with definitions that never manage to capture the thing we're trying to understand. The best thing that scientists can do right now, Cleland argues, is work toward a theory that explains life.
[ More > ]
Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, 2034
Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, P.J. Ochlan, Vikas Adam, Dion Graham, and Feodor Chin
When considered purely as a novel, this book doesn't make my list of the best books I've listened to or read. Normally, that's the criteria I use for including books on these pages; however, this is a novel told in order to share a warning about the challenges we face—especially related to cyber—in the coming decades, and to warn us about the possibly dire consequences to our country and the world if we fail to address them adequately. That makes the book well worth the time investment.
The audiobook concludes with a half hour interview with Admiral James Stavridis, who served in the U.S. Navy for thirty-seven years, including stints as the commander, U.S. Southern Command, commander, U.S. European Command, and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. I actually wish I had listened to the interview before listening to the rest of the book as it provides excellent context for the message the Admiral is trying to get across via his novel. Once I had listened to that interview, I decided I needed to include this book on these pages.
One of the questions Admiral Stavridis is asked is: "How do you hope readers and listeners respond to the novel." His reply is telling:
I hope it scares the hell out of them.… I hope that 2034 will scare people and our decision makers and even our militaries so that they do all they can to avoid the kind of outcome described in the novel.
Update: Some critics of this book claim it is unrealistic. Here's a headline from the day after I finished listening to it: Britain to expand nuclear warhead stockpile by over 40% as global threats rise⩘ , Reuters, Mar 16, 2021.
S.B. Divya, Machinehood
Well narrated by Deepti Gupti and Inés del Castillo
Excellent exploration of the ethics of machine intelligence and of the boundaries between humans and AI robots, particularly when humans are enhanced, wrapped in an exciting and nuanced science fiction story.
Divya's debut novel—after her well received and multiple-award-nominated debut novella, Run Time—is assured, with a variety of interesting and complex characters that feel naturally drawn. Bravo!
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Beautifully narrated by Sura Siu
Dreamy, near future science fiction that explores a time when artificial intelligence is becoming significantly present in society, including some aspects that are terribly disruptive to the dignity of humankind.
Told entirely from the perspective of a second generation "Girl Artificial Friend", Klara, an AI bot designed to be a companion to a young person, in this case, a young girl. A third, more capable generation has just been introduced, but Klara, though limited in some respects, is a peak iteration of the 2nd gen, inquisitive, perceptive, aware.
The story explores many interesting and sometimes awkward aspects of the interaction between Klara and the human family that acquires her. Curiously, it also explores the virus of superstition, and how it can infect even a reasoning AI.
Altogether a worthwhile and thought-provoking novel.
In an aside, I must say that while the cover, which touches on an aspect of the story, is probably suited for Western audiences, I personally prefer the design of the Japanese edition by Toshiyuki Fukuda. To my eye, it captures the wonder and challenges explored in the story more accurately. Klara is a small bot in a big world that she is trying to grasp and understand as she navigates it in real time. She learns and deciphers very quickly, but new aspects of reality are thrown at her even more quickly, and she must try to fit the pieces together even as they are changing. The entire illustration for the Japanese edition captures this artfully.
John le Carré, The Karla Trilogy
Very well narrated by Michael Jayston
When John le Carré passed away this past December, I felt a great loss knowing there would be no more books coming from one of my favorite authors. To soften the blow, I decided to revisit the audiobook versions of five of my favorites, beginning with his Karla Trilogy: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People. A masterful journey, indeed.
I honestly do wonder, without wishing to be morbid, how I reached this present pass. So far as I can ever remember of my youth, I chose the secret road because it seemed to lead straightest and furthest toward my country's goal. The enemy in those days was someone we could point at and read about in the papers. Today, all I know is that I have learned to interpret the whole of life in terms of conspiracy. That is the sword I have lived by, and as I look round me now I see it is the sword I shall die by as well. These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers.
I'll reshare what I wrote about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy after rereading it in 2016:
Still the best spy novel I've ever read, primarily because le Carré gives the story all the room and time it needs to unwind gracefully.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Penguin Audio, 2011, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Penguin Books, 2011, Bookshop.org⩘ (originally published 1974)
The Honourable Schoolboy: Penguin Audio, 2011, Libro.fm⩘ ; Penguin Books, 2011, Bookshop.org⩘ (originally published 1977)
Smiley's People: Penguin Audio, 2011, Libro.fm⩘ ; Penguin Books, 2011, Bookshop.org⩘ (originally published 1979)
Georgina Lawton, Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth About Where I Belong
Narrated 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 lessons beneficial for all of us to incorporate.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619 – 2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. Blain
Beautifully 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
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Narrated 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.
Ben Montgomery, A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South
Well 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.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Wickedly 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.
Katie Mack, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)
Well 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!
Brandon Hobson, The Removed
Well 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.
Louise Carey, Inscape: The Truth Is Just a Matter of Perspective
Well narrated by Helen Keeley
As a lifelong Sci-Fi fan, I keep an eye out for debut novels in the genre. Sometimes, this means 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, Gollancz.co.uk⩘
James Comey, Saving Justice:
Truth, Transparency, and Trust
Narrated 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 intended 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, Libro.fm⩘ ;
Crown Publishing Group (NY), 2020, Bookshop.org⩘
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster Audio , 2018, Libro.fm⩘ ; Simon & Schuster, 2020, Bookshop.org⩘