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
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 the nine women, and of the author.
Macmillan Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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 simply 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.
Penguin Random House, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
HarperAudio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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!
HarperAudio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Recorded Books, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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⩘
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!
Macmillan Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
Danny Caine, How to Resist Amazon, and Why
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 quoted 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," 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.
Blackstone Publishing, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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."
Harper Audio, 2017, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Little, Brown & Company, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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⩘
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⩘
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.
Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Tantor Audio, 2020, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Little, Brown & Company, 2020, Libro.fm⩘
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⩘
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics: translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, narrated by the author, Penguin Audio, 2016, Libro.fm⩘
Reality Is Not What It Seems: translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, narrated by Roy McMillan, Penguin Audio, 2017, Libro.fm⩘
The Order of Time: Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre; narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Penguin Audio, 2018, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Blackstone Publishing, 2005, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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⩘
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.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012 (originally published 2001), Libro.fm⩘
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.
HarperAudio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Tantor Audio, 2020, Libro.fm⩘
Jessica Bruder, Nomadland
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.
Highbridge Audio, 2017, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Random House Audio, 2020, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Audio, 2020, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Tantor Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Tantor Audio, 2014, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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 > ]
Penguin Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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!
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
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.
HarperAudio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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
Penguin Random House Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Penguin Audio, 2011 (originally published 1984), Libro.fm⩘
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.
Random House Audio , 2005 (originally a 1978 radio drama; published as a book in 1979), Libro.fm⩘
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!
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2020, Libro.fm⩘
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.
HarperCollins, 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Macmillan Audio , 2021, Libro.fm⩘
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.
Tantor Audio, 2020 (originally published by Del Rey, 1992), Libro.fm⩘
Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X
Translated by Alexander O. Smith, narrated by David Pittu
The most important character in this curious novel is Professor Dr. Manabu Yukawa, a physicist who is given the nickname Detective Galileo by his friend, Shunpei Kusanagi, the actual police detective who is investigating the murder the story revolves around. Yukawa solves the "impossible puzzle" coverup story.
The original novel (the cover of which I used here) won several highly regarded awards in Japan including the Naoki Prize and the Honkaku Mystery Award, and the English translation also was nominated for an Edgar.
It certainly was a relief to temporarily distract myself from the insanity of early January with a story that demanded a fair bit of focus to unravel its many twists.
MacMillan Audio, 2011 (originally published by Bungeishunjū, 2005), Libro.fm⩘
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels
Well narrated by Fred Sanders with an introduction by the author
This is a valuable book to listen to as we live through the craziness that is occurring during the first weeks of 2021. The historical insights Meacham shares help provide perspective as the loser of the election rants in a stark raving mad manner—egged on by the incredibly irresponsible comments and actions of his enablers—and tries to reverse the legitimate outcome of the election.
While the past is no guarantee for how the future will unfold, we can at least draw strength from knowing our democracy has faced similarly serious challenges previously, and sanity eventually prevailed. As Meacham's title for his introduction to the book encourages, it's a good time "To hope rather than to fear":
This book is a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable. In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground. In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story—or, worse, moves us backward—then those who witness, protest, and resist must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day. Progress in American life, as we will see, has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants, and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.
There's a natural tendency in American political life to think that things were always better in the past. The passions of previous years fade, to be inevitably replaced by the passions of the present. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and in the maelstrom of the moment many of us seek comfort in imagining that once there was a Camelot—without quite remembering that the Arthurian legend itself was about a court riven by ambition and infidelity. One point of this book is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception.
With countries as with individuals, a sense of proportion is essential. All has seemed lost before, only to give way, after decades of gloom, to light. And that is in large measure because, in the battle between the impulses of good and of evil in the American soul, what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive. To speak of a soul at all—either of a person or of country—can seem speculative and gauzy. Yet belief in the existence of an immanent collection of convictions, dispositions, and sensitivities that shape character and inform conduct is ancient and perennial.
There is a rich history of discussion of what the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, writing in 1944, called the American Creed: devotion to principles of liberty, of self-government, and of equal opportunity for all regardless of race, gender, religion, or nation of origin. Echoing Myrdal, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, "The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples of remarkably diverse racial, religious, and ethnic origins…. The American Creed envisages a nation composed of individuals making their own choices and accountable to themselves, not a nation based on inviolable ethnic communities…. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together."
In conclusion, Meacham shares this:
The only way to make sense of this eternal struggle is to understand that it is just that: an eternal struggle. And the only way to come to that understanding is by knowing the history that's shaped us.
History—which is all we have to go on—suggests that a president's vices and his virtues matter enormously, for politics is a human, not a clinical, undertaking. So, too, do the vices and virtues of the people at large, for leadership is the art of the possible, and possibility is determined by whether generosity can triumph over selfishness in the American soul. It's easy to be cynical about, and dismissive of, such a view. But if natives and newcomers alike can live up to the American idea of inclusion, then our best instincts will carry the day against our worst.
"We make our own history." – Eleanor Roosevelt.
Random House Audio, 2018, Libro.fm⩘
Barack Obama, A Promised Land
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
David W. Blight's expansive biography of Frederick Douglass had been on my list of books to listen to for some time during the latter part of 2020, the next step of my ongoing exploration of the life of Douglass. I hadn't intend to read Barack Obama's presidential memoir until a reviewer recommended listening to Obama narrate it rather than reading it. I listened to a sample and added it to my list, too.
As the post-election insanity unfolded, including the shameful racist maneuvers of the losing candidate to disqualify the legitimate votes of majority POC districts, it seemed a valuable time to gain a deeper understanding of the good fights that Douglass and Obama fought, so I began listening to the two books, interweaving an hour or two of both each day over the weeks leading to the end of 2020.
They are lengthy books, together more than 66 hours of oratory, so they informed my days to the end of the year, through the painful-to-witness, increasingly insane machinations of the losing candidate to subvert the democracy and freedoms that both Douglass and Obama worked so hard for.
Listening to these two stories, narrated in the calm and sonorous voices of Barack Obama and Prentice Onayemi, provided me with an invaluable perspective with which to deal with the madness I watched unfolding each day. Politics is an ugly, bare-knuckled fight that typically turns my stomach. Both Obama and Douglass experienced the ugliest rounds of this fight, yet somehow they both maintained a sense of optimism throughout, not letting defeats slow their efforts, and garnering renewed strength from each win, which Obama describes as "one more step toward a better country." How they did that is beyond me, but it helped me to not despair too much as I watched our country flounder in the mud.
It seems to me that we have come very close to losing our democracy over these past couple of months and, indeed, over the past four years, and that we are far from being out of danger.
I hope the optimism shared by Obama and Douglass is warranted.
From Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom:
He urged Liberty men to remember that a vote could seldom represent all of one's moral convictions. Sounding like a veteran politician, he offered a "rule" for action: "The voter ought to see to it that his vote shall secure the highest good possible, at the same time that it does no harm."