Reading – & Now: 2022

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A love affair with books

Appetizer:

"A text—a book—is a resting place for the memories of people who lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on."
– Licinius, in Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Frankie Boyle, Meantime

Meantime by Frankie Boyle

Almost every day I check the Books⩘  section of The Guardian, and occasionally a book published in U.K. but not yet in the U.S., as in this case⩘ , catches my eye, so I order it from Blackwell's⩘ .

According to Wikipedia⩘ , Boyle, who I hadn't heard of previously, is a Scottish comedian and writer "known for his cynical, surreal, graphic and often controversial sense of humour."

This story is fairly insane, following the antics of a guy who is pretty much in a drug haze most of the time, but decides to investigate the murder of a good friend of his. Because he knows next to nothing about investigating except what he has seen on the telly or read in novels, he bumbles along in a naive and sometimes comical fashion, making oftentimes shrewd if somewhat deviant observations about life along the way.

She seemed a little anxious, but only that kind of anxiety that now defined life, and seemed permanently present in everybody.

He bumps into a few colorful characters, equally insane in their own ways, who help him out with the sleuthing and add depth and breadth to the story.

A fair amount of the references in the book went right over my head, I think you'd need to be from the U.K., and possibly from Scotland itself, to catch some of them. I almost gave up on the book a couple times, but kept plugging along, figuring I'd at least finish it before trading it in at my local bookstore. Then the ending pretty much floored me and made sticking with the story totally worthwhile.

There's a certain amount of narcissism involved in thinking you can never change. You need to be a little egotistical to think that we're spinning through space, and moving through time, yet you are somehow the one thing in the Universe that's constant and unchangeable.

Baskerville, 2022; Blackwell's UK⩘ 

Bill McGuire, Hothouse Earth

Hothouse Earth by Bill McGuireWell narrated by Mike Cooper

As we witness what is happening this summer—drought and wildfire all over Europe and the U.S. West—it becomes clearer that we have passed a tipping point of global heating. Yet we continue to pump our toxic shit into the atmosphere and oceans at an astonishing rate. We're screwed and we're screwing ourselves. McGuire, a volcanologist and Emeritus Professor of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at University College London, provides historical context, then paints a harrowing picture of the coming shitstorm.

   Today, after more than 4 billion years of unconscious experimentation, the different elements of our world—the atmosphere and oceans, the solid Earth beneath our feet and the life that is all around us—have come to an innate arrangement that keeps our planet's environment in balance. The eminent chemist James Lovelock calls this set-up Gaia—after the ancestral mother of all life in Greek mythology—and it operates as a kind of superorganism through a system of self-regulating checks and balances that work together to sustain a habitat favourable to the maintenance of life.
   The problem is that Gaia is now sick and getting sicker. While taking ice ages and other natural climate shocks in its stride, widespread environmental damage and diversity loss has meant that Gaia is struggling to handle the vast quantities of carbon being pumped out by humankind's activities at a rate unprecedented in Earth history. Lovelock himself is pessimistic that Gaia can get on top of the situation in the short term, and he has expressed the view that civilisation will be hard-pressed to survive the ongoing breakdown of our climate. It is a view that we would be well advised to take heed of in the critical decades that lie ahead.

He leaves us with this:

The fact that the future looks dismal is not an excuse to do nothing, to imagine it's all too late. On the contrary, it is a call to arms.

Dreamscape Media, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Icon Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Closeup view of melting globe from book cover

See also: 'What's the alternative? To give up?': Bella Lack, the new queen of green⩘  by Alex Moshakis, The Guardian, Aug 14, 2022.

"The problem facing us felt so big and insurmountable … that I wondered whether I should stop with all the campaigning, the speeches, and just enjoy my teenage years while they lasted.… Recalling the moment now, Lack shrugs. "It's that recognition of the scale of the problem that makes you think: 'But what can I do?'"

When I ask how she's able to retain hope for the future, she gives the shrug all young climate activists give when people older than them ask inane questions: "What's the alternative? To give up?"

Bella Lack is a young conservationist and environmental activist and the author of The Children of the Anthropocene, "chronicling the lives of young people on the frontlines of the global environmental crisis."

Lucy Kissick, Plutoshine

Plutoshine by Lucy Kissick

As I've mentioned before, I'm a lifelong SciFi reader, and so always look for promising debuts by new authors. Occasionally, that means I'm rewarded by a book like this one.

Kissick explores the life of a small colony of humans living on Pluto, a planet of ice, and of the attempt at terraforming. Her descriptions of Pluto are breathtaking. Her characters are vivid and, in many cases, heartfelt, especially Nou, the young girl who was left mute by a traumatic episode, but retained a spirited inquisitiveness, and Lucian, one of the terraformers, who takes Nou under his wing, welcoming her into their lab and teaching her sign language.

While I think Kissick glosses over some of the extraordinary challenges that would be faced to establish a colony on a forbidding world like Pluto and to attempt a massive undertaking like terraforming, overall her story kept me riveted.

Here's the kicker: Kissick wrote this while she was studying for her PhD in nuclear physics! I can't imagine how anyone could pull that off, but her intimate familiarity with the science certainly shines through in the story.

The cover art beautifully captures the glory of Pluto as described by Kissick.

Author's website: Lucy Kissick⩘ 

Gollancz, 2022, Blackwell's UK⩘ 

Silvia Ferrara, The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

The Greatest Invention by Silvia FerraraTranslated by Todd Portnowitz

Using the story of a variety of scripts, some deciphered, others not, Ferrara explores the creativity and tenacity that has gone into the invention of written language, something that has occured multiple times around the world.

I was most touched by the story of Sequoyah who, in his fight for the independence of the Cherokee people, invented a writing system for their language over the course of the years, during which he was mocked by his friends, accused of witchcraft by his wife, of doing the work of the devil by others. But he perservered and produced a polished writing system for his people.

While she sometimes gets way far down into the academic weeds—something scholars may well appreciate more than I did—at other times her writing about writing is poetic and inspirational.

The most grievous error, however is to label bureaucracy as the ultimate aim—the beginning and end—of writing. This is just reckless drivel, which for far too long has cast its shadow over the greatest invention in the world, stripping it of its soul (as all misguided generalizations do). The heart of writing beats in the brain and in human language, in the imagination, in our need to anchor ourselves to the earth that sustains us, in our deep desire to name—ourselves, and everything around us.

Writing, especially as expressed through books, has certainly been one of the most significant gifts in my life.

Tantor Media, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Louise Carey, Outcast: The Truth Won't Always Set You Free

Outcast by Louise CareyWell narrated by Helen Keeley

Last year, I read and appreciated Louise Carey's Inscape: The Truth Is Just a Matter of Perspective⩘ , the first volume in an expected trilogy, which presented 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."

Outcast is a worthy followup, expanding upon and deepening the story … and leaving us hanging by our finger tips off a perilous cliff top, knowing that rescue is at least a year away!

Orion, 2022, via Apple Books⩘ ; Gollancz, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Carlo Rovelli, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important than Kindness
And Other Thoughts on Physics, Philosophy and the World

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important than Kindness by Carlo RovelliNarrated by Landon Woodson

I've enjoyed listening to some of Rovelli's previous books⩘  (even if I didn't fully understand everything he discusses). So his new book naturally caught my attention. It's quite different than his previous works, a collection of disparate essays, some exploring aspects of physics, others wandering off into other areas. I most enjoyed his 3-part essay on black holes, and found a few others quite fascinating, as well. Rovelli is quite the character and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of some more aspects of his life beyond his ponderings related to physics. A worthwhile listen, for sure.

[W]e cannot get rid of uncertainty. We can diminish it, but we cannot make it disappear. Hence we should not experience it as some kind of nightmare. On the contrary, we should be reconciled to it as our lifelong companion. In the end, it is a kind and good one. It is probability that makes life interesting. It is because of probability that we can be touched by the unexpected. It is probability that allows us to remain open to further knowledge. We are limited and mortal, we can learn to accept the limits of our knowledge—but we can still aim to learn and to look for the foundation of this knowledge. It is not certainty. It is reliability.

Penguin Audio, 2022, Downpour⩘ ; Riverhead Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Karen Campbell, Paper Cup

Paper Cup by Karen Campbell

Based on its description, I normally wouldn't have picked up this book, but I read an article about Karen Campbell in The Guardian that convinced me to. Campbell was a constable in Glasgow for five years. The article, which describes her first night walking her beat as a rookie cop, made me realize she knows what she's writing about: A moment that changed me⩘ 

The story revolves around Kelly, who is living on the streets in Glasgow after a personal tragedy knocked her off balance and subsequent struggles with alcoholism kept her down and out. A chance encounter on the streets, followed by a horrific accident she witnesses next to where she is pan handling change her trajectory.

Campbell writes vividly, which kept my attention riveted as the story—sometimes grim, sometimes graced with moments of incredible kindness, sometimes humorous—follows Kelly's journey across a portion of Scotland. And that's another thing I really appreciated: the book took me somewhere I've never been.

I ordered Paper Cup from Blackwell's UK⩘ , a great place to get books that have been released in the UK, but not yet in the U.S. It'll be available stateside in September.

Canongate Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

Twilight of Democracy by Anne ApplebaumWell narrated by the author

Drawing on her experience as a Pulitzer-prize winning historian and a writer—currently for The Atlantic and previously for The Economist and The Spectator, and The Washington Post editorial board—Applebaum provides a valuable exploration of why and how democracies morph into authoritarianism, with firsthand accounts from a variety of countries including Poland (where she is originally from), Hungry, the U.K., Spain, and the U.S.

A early point she makes the stood out for me is that not only are authoritarian states undemocratic, they are also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic.

Places in universities, civil service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable: they went to the most loyal. Individuals advanced not because of talent or industry, but because they were willing to conform to the rules of the party.

We are at a precarious moment in our political history. Applebaum presents a clear-headed analysis—neither overly pessimistic nor too optimistic— that illuminates the warning signs and explains the work that needs to be done to reinvigorate democracy going forward.

   No political victory is ever permanent, no definition of "the nation" is guaranteed to last, and no elite of any kind, whether so-called "populist" or so-called "liberal" or so-called "aristocratic," rules forever.…

   There is no final solution, no theory that will explain everything. There is no road map to a better society, no didactic ideology, no rule book. All we can do is choose our allies and our friends … with great care, for only with them, together, is it possible to avoid the temptations of the different forms of authoritarianism once again on offer. Because all authoritarianisms divide, polarize, and separate people into warring camps, the fight against them requires new coalitions. Together we can make old and misunderstood words like liberalism mean something again; together we can fight back against lies and liars; together we can rethink what democracy should look like in a digital age.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2020, Libro.fm⩘ ; Doubleday, 2020, IndieBound⩘ 

Mick Herron, Nobody Walks

Nobody Walks by Mick HerronWell narrated by Gerard Doyle

Herron is best known and much appreciated for his Slough House series. While I found Slow Horses, the first book in that series, well and vividly written, its farcical and obnoxiously gross tone turned me off.

This taut story is every bit as vivid, but drops the farcical and gross tone. Freed of that, the story stays focused on its compelling characters, the stench of the criminal underbelly of London, and the revealing of the sordidness of the secret services.

I've read reviews saying that Herron is today's John Le Carré, one of my favorite authors. In this story, I can definitely see that.

Recorded Books, 2015, Libro.fm⩘ ; Soho Crime, 2015, IndieBound⩘ 

David McRaney, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion

How Minds Change by David McRaneyNarrated by the author

A phrase that McRaney shares early in his book most succinctly sums it up: "pursuing the shared goal of learning the truth."

   [W]e each have the power to give up old beliefs, to replace old ignorance with new wisdom, to shift our attitudes in light of new evidence, and to free ourselves from outdated dogma, harmful traditions, and the diminishing returns of defunct politics and practices.…

   The ability to change our minds, update our assumptions, and entertain other points of view is one of our greatest strengths, an evolved ability that comes free with every copy of the human brain.

One of the big challenges of our current time is how divided we are. Between opposing camps there is a chasm that seems to be too wide and deep to bridge. Over the course of the book, McRaney shares multiple techniques people are using to have meaningful conversations with people on the other side of a divide:

The story I found most encouraging was that of Megan Phelps-Roper who grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church and enthusiastically participated in their hate-filled picketing across the country until she was in her 20s. Many people reviled her and attacked her verbally and venomously in person when she on the picket line and on social media. But a few people instead attempted to have a dialog with her, including people from groups she was hurling the most extreme expressions of hatred toward. Their conversations with her contributed to her being able to reflect on her beliefs, and to eventually change her mind. Here's a brief TEDNYC talk in which she shares her story: I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left⩘ 

She shares four things that she finds make conversation possible:

Another one of the big challenges we face is that there are so many daunting problems that it can seem nearly hopeless, so I felt encouraged by one of the thoughts McRaney shares towards the end of the book:

The ideas that change the world are the ones in the heads of people who refuse to give up.

Author's website: David McRaney⩘ 

Penguin, 2022, Downpour⩘ ; Portfolio, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini To The Present
How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fail

Strongmen by Ruth Ben-GhiatWell narrated by Chloe Cannon

Fascinating … and sickening. Even more nauseating because our own petty tyrant features prominently among the other creeps the book discusses. It's like they all follow the same guidelines: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Authoritarian Asshole.

[T]he strongman's golden rule: do whatever is necessary to stay in power.

Through sections on Getting to Power, Tools of Rule, and Losing Power, Ben-Ghiat's work "examines how illiberal leaders use corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power, and how resistance to them has unfolded over a century."¹ It provides an invaluable perspective, a timely wake-up call, and an urgent argument for the need for positive action to protect democracy.

A nation that never endured dictatorship or foreign occupation now has firsthand experience of the authoritarian playbook. A great privilege of life under democracies—taking freedom for granted—becomes a weakness when that freedom is under assault.…

History shows the importance of keeping hope and faith in humanity and of supporting those who struggle for freedom in our own time.

Per Kalorama's book description⩘ , the book discusses "Vladimir Putin and Mobutu Sese Seko's kleptocracies, Augusto Pinochet's torture sites, Benito Mussolini and Muammar Gaddafi's systems of sexual exploitation, and Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump's relentless misinformation."

It also discusses Idi Amin, President of Uganda; Mohamed Siad Barre, President of the Somali Democratic Republic; Jair Bolsonaro, Brazilian President; Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey; Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Leader of Spain; Adolf Hitler, Leader of Germany; Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq; Nahrendra Modi, Prime Minister of India; Victor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister; and Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, President of the Governing Junta of Chile.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is an American historian and cultural critic, a scholar on fascism and authoritarian leaders, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University.

[1] Author's website: Ruth Ben-Ghiat⩘ ; Substack newsletter: Lucid⩘ 

Kalorama, 2020, Libro.fm⩘ ; W. W. Norton & Co, 2020, IndieBound⩘ 

Joachim Schmidt, Kalmann

Kalmann by Joachim SchmidtTranslated by Jamie Lee Searle

What an amazing book!

Set in the village of Raufarhöfn, the northern most village in Iceland, and narrated by Kalmann, a neurodivergent fellow in his mid-30s. Kalmann struggles with certain aspects of life, like traditional education and stressful social situations, to the degree that some mock him and call him the village idiot, but he totally excels in other aspects, like hunting Artic foxes when they disrupt life in the village, fishing for the Greenland Shark found in the deep waters off Raufarhöfn, and creating a local delicacy called hákarl (fermented shark).

Doesn't really sound like much of a setup for a novel, but the story is a gripping, emotional, surprising, and fascinating murder mystery.

Then it really did become dark, a black, starless night, and that's how I know that dying isn't anywhere near as painful as living.

The setting is as much a character in the book as the many colorful villagers who populate it. So far north that the Arctic Circle lies off its coast, Raufarhöfn⩘  was a thriving fishing community until overfishing decimated the fish populations and the village began dying, which provides an underlying current in the book.

Map showing Kalmann on the far northwestern tip of Iceland

I actually prefer the image on the cover of non-English editions of the book better as it gives a better hint of the rugged and remote character of the locale.

Cover image from the non-English editions of the book showing a house on a bluff overlooking the sea

One of the settings in the story is the Arctic Henge⩘ , an actual place of towering obelisks under construction on a hillside just outside Raufarhöfn: "Similar to its ancient predecessor, Stonehenge, the Arctic Henge is like a huge sundial, aiming to capture the sunrays, cast shadows in precise locations and capture the light between aligned gateways."

View of the Arctic Henge with the village of Raufarhöfn and the sea lying beyond it

Another interesting aspect of the story is the previously mentioned hákarl, a local delicacy in Iceland, but an acquired taste, for sure. Here's a short video that provides humorous insight: Andreas & Sam try Hákarl, Icelandic rotten shark⩘ , Disgusting Food Museum, Apr 2018.

I was thoroughly entertained by this strange, offbeat, wondrous story. It did something only the best stories do, taking me places I'd never been before.

Bitter Lemon Press⩘ , 2022; IndieBound⩘ 

Eddie Robson, Drunk on All Your Strange New Words

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words by Eddie RobsonWell narrated by Amy Scanlon

A clever take on a near-future first contact story, at times humorous, tragic, and touching.

Our heroine, Lydia, works as a translator for Fitz, the culture attaché of the visitors, who have established an embassy on Earth. "Translator" only just begins to touch upon Lydia's talent, as the Logi communicate via thoughts, and tuning into Fitz's thoughts in order to translate, especially during more intense sessions, can leave her feeling as if she were intensely drunk.

Lydia is deeply human, sometimes wracked by insecurities, other times pulsing with a mischievous streak, driven by a deep desire to do right, capable of surprising herself and us, and a real blast to hang out with.

Recorded Books, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Tor, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Massoud Hayoun, Building 46 四十六号楼

Building 46 by Massoud Hayoun

"Building 46 is exquisite. A poetic and powerful piece of writing. Dark and mysterious, it has also returned to me the human warmth and strength of Beijing."

When I read what Ai Weiwei, the exiled dissident Chinese artist, said about Building 46, my interest was piqued and I ordered a copy from my favorite local bookstore, Barbed Wire Books in Longmont, Colorado.

It's an unusual story. Sam Saadoun is a closeted Jewish Arab university student from Los Angeles who, enticed by a possible love interest, travels to Beijing to attend Wei Da University's Department of Foreign Students of Chinese for a year just prior to the 2008 Olympics.

From that springboard, Hoyoun takes us on a wild journey into a heartbeat of Beijing that is beyond the veneer most of us catch glimpses of through the lens of typical news, books, and film. As Sam deals with the disorientation of being a foreign student—something I remember well from my year as an exchange student in Ethiopia (a long, long time ago)—he also stumbles upon a mystery that may even be a ghost story. Circumstances warn him that it would be much safer not to pursue the mystery while living in a surveillance state, but his curiosity wins out.

Darf Publishers, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Ed Yong, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

An Immense World by Ed YongWell narrated by the author

Ed Yong is one of my favorite writers. I deeply appreciated his previous book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life⩘ , and I carefully read almost all of his articles in The Atlantic. As soon as I learned about this, his new book, I pre-ordered the audiobook as well as a hardcopy for my beloved who prefers reading paper books, and also purchased the eBook, so I could reference key passages (bonus: the paper and eBook contain lots of great photos of the animals he writes about).

In the incredibly well researched An Immense World, Yong travels the globe, speaking with experts and researchers to explore and observe firsthand how various animals experience the sensory world: smells, tastes, light, pain, heat, contact and flow, surface vibrations, sound, echoes, electric fields, and magnetic fields. He especially reveals how differently we and the animals with whom we share this planet experience the sensory world. We each inhabit our own Umwelt (environment, surroundings), and often there's very little connecting them.

No creature could possibly sense everything, and no creature needs to. Evolving according to their owner's needs, the senses sort through an infinity of stimuli, allowing through only what is relevant. To learn about the rest is a choice. The ability to dip into other Umwelten is our greatest sensory skill. A moth will never know what a zebra finch hears in its song, a zebra finch will never feel the electric buzz of a black ghost knifefish, a knifefish will never see through the eyes of a mantis shrimp, a mantis shrimp will never smell the way a dog can, and a dog will never understand what it is like to be a bat. We will never fully do any of these things either, but we are the only animal that can try. Through patient observation, through the technologies at our disposal, through the scientific method, and, above all else, through our curiosity and imagination, we can try to step into perspectives outside our own. This is a profound gift, which comes with a heavy responsibility. As the only species that can come close to understanding other Umwelten, but also the species most responsible for destroying those sensory realms, it falls on us to marshal all of our empathy and ingenuity to protect other creatures, and their unique ways of experiencing our shared world.
– Excerpted from How Animals Perceive the World⩘  by Ed Yong, The Atlantic, Jun 13, 2022, which is based on this book.

An Immense World is filled with delightful and oftentimes mind-blowing details: "With receptors on their feet, butterflies and other insects can taste things by landing on them." My favorite section is the one describing the Umwelt of whales.

In the final sobering and somewhat tragic chapter, Yong discusses the topic of threatened sensescapes.

We now live in the Anthropocene—a geological epoch defined and dominated by the deeds of our species. We have changed the climate and acidified the oceans by releasing titanic amounts of greenhouse gases. We have shuffled wildlife across continents, replacing indigenous species with invasive ones. We have instigated what some scientists have called an era of "biological annihilation," comparable to the five great mass extinction events of prehistory. And amid this already dispiriting ledger of ecological sins, there is one that should be especially easy to appreciate and yet is often ignored—sensory pollution. Instead of stepping into the Umwelten of other animals, we have forced them to live in ours by barraging them with stimuli of our own making. We have filled the night with light, the silence with noise, and the soil and water with unfamiliar molecules. We have distracted animals from what they actually need to sense, drowned out the cues they depend upon, and lured them, like moths to a flame, into sensory traps.

We live on a beautiful and enchanting planet, sharing it with an immense variety of amazing creatures. We urgently need to take better care of our home and our housemates.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Random House, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Werner Herzog, The Twilight World

The Twilight World by Werner HerzogTranslated by Michael Hofmann; narrated by the author

As someone who has appreciated many of Herzog's documentaries and films, I was prepared for something unusual, but this short book is unlike anything I've previously encountered.

Part documentary, part novel, part an essay of reflections, it explores the surreal experience of a Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who, not believing that World War II had ended, continued fighting in the Philippines for twenty-nine years more. Tragically, this led to the unnecessary deaths of scores of Filipinos over those years, although Philippine President Marcos granted him a pardon after his surrender.

Herzog met Onoda in 1997 when he was in Tokyo to direct an opera (is there anything creative Herzog hasn't undertaken?). Establishing a rapport as they discussed their experiences with jungles—Onoda in the jungles of Lubang Island in the Philippines and Herzog in the Peruvian Amazon during the exceedingly difficult and controversial filming of Fitzcarraldo—they went on to meet many more times during which Onoda shared a great deal of his story with Herzog.

Onoda's wartime experience came to a conclusion in 1974 when he was discovered by a young Japanese adventurer, Norio Suzuki, which eventually led to his surrendering to Philippine authorities. Amazingly, Onoda was only the second to the last Japanese holdout soldier. Ten months after Onoda surrendered, Teruo Nakamura emerged from the jungle on the Indonesian island of Morotai.

Norio Suzuki and Hiroo Onoda
Norio Suzuki (left) posing with Hiroo Onoda, 1974. Personal photo.

According to Wikipedia:⩘ :

On 20 February 1974, Onoda met a Japanese man, Norio Suzuki, who was traveling around the world, looking for "Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order". Suzuki found Onoda after four days of searching. Onoda described this moment in a 2010 interview: "This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…". Onoda and Suzuki became friends, but Onoda still refused to surrender, saying that he was waiting for orders from a superior officer. Suzuki returned to Japan with photographs of himself and Onoda as proof of their encounter, and the Japanese government located Onoda's commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had long surrendered and since become a bookseller. Taniguchi went to Lubang Island, and on 9 March 1974, he finally met with Onoda and fulfilled a promise he had made back in 1944: "Whatever happens, we'll come back for you".

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Penguin Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for American Democracy

This Will Not Pass by Jonathan Martin and Alexander BurnsNarrated by Dennis Boutsikaris

With the hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol ongoing, I figured it would be valuable to get a bit more of an understanding of what happened in Washington D.C. over the past couple of years. Some of the reporting presented in their book is fascinating … and nauseating, quite frankly. Politics can be really an ugly affair. Other sections bored me to tears.

If Trump and his cohorts are not held responsible for their attempted coup, I'm afraid we are screwed as a democratic nation. Even if they are held responsible, our future looks pretty bleak as we face enormous challenges and appear to be fatally lacking in even the minimal unity that will be necessary to address them.

Simon & Schuster, 2022, Downpour⩘ ; Simon & Schuster, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Chris Offutt, The Killing Hills and Shifty's Boys

The Killing Hills and Shifty's Boys by Chris OffuttVery well narrated by George Newbern

Offutt sets these books in the place he grew up: the towns and hills of Rowan County, Kentucky. I have no way of judging the authenticity of the vivid places and characters he describes, but they sure have a natural feel.

His stories are about an army CID fellow, Mick Hardin, who is on leave and helping his sister, the county sheriff, investigate some murders in the county. Good pacing, good action, good insights into what motivates the characters.

Offutt writes a helluva good yarn.

Author's website: Chris Offutt⩘ 

The Killing Hills: Dreamscape Media, 2021, Downpour⩘ ; Grove Press, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 
Shifty's Boys: Dreamscape Media, 2022, Downpour⩘ ; Grove Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

David Yoon, City of Orange

City of Orange by David Yoon

A man wakes up lying in the sand at the bottom of a dry concrete river channel not remembering who he is or where he is. His surroundings—a burnt-out neighborhood on one side, an abandoned one on the other, desert beyond, suggest something catastrophic has occurred, but he doesn't know what, just that he's alone.

As he slowly figures out how to survive over the coming days and weeks, flashes of his past hit him at unexpected moments causing questions to arise and driving deep self reflection.

The story builds slowly through periods of poignance, despair, and confusion. It is a story of coming to terms with extreme loss, and ultimately, of the power of friendship.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Dan Chaon, Sleepwalk

Sleepwalk by Dan ChaonPitch-perfect narration by John Pirhalla

Crazy! And crazy good! I hadn't come across a story quite like this before. Featuring a cast of fairly insane, borderline despicable, yet somehow quite loveable characters, it's set in an imagined dystopian near-future that's only slightly different from our very real dystopian present in these so-called united states.

Chaon's imagination is way out there, in a good way, and Pirhalla's narration matched it all the way. Striking cover art, as well.

Macmillan Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Henry Holt & Company, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Deon Meyer, The Last Hunt

The Last Hunt by Deon MeyerTranslated by K.L. Seegers; well narrated by Simon Vance

Deon Meyer's sixth novel featuring Captain Benny Griessel, a detective working in Cape Town, South Africa. Though he stays mostly clean in the novels, Benny struggles with alcoholism, which ended his marriage, damaged his relationship with his children, almost destroyed his career, and adds a humanity to his story as well as creating a tremendous underlying tension.

This book revolves around the corruption that has tarnished post-apartheid South Africa. As with all the books in this series, Meyer paints a vivid picture of life in South Africa and the challenges of trying to build a new society.

One of the factors that has made this such an enjoyable series is the performance by Simon Vance, one of my all-time favorite narrators. He creates unique voices for the considerable cast of characters that resonates across the first six novels and one novella in the series (as well as several other books Meyer has written). Unfortunately, for some reason they have decided to engage a different narrator for the most recent, just released seventh book in the series, The Dark Flood. No matter how good the new narrator may be, the change will certainly create an awkward discontinuity in the series.

See also: Ryanair Afrikaans test: Why South Africa loves and loathes the language⩘  by Audrey Brown, South African BBC presenter, BBC, Jun 14, 2022.

HighBridge Audio, 2020, Downpour⩘ ; Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020, IndieBound⩘ 

Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History

Nightmare Scenario by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian PalettaWell narrated by Kirsten Potter

After recently watching The Big Conn, which was partially based on reporting by Damian Paletta, I looked for Paletta's other work and found this book.

Abutaleb and Paletta have done an excellent job of investigative reporting on the subject of the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic. I have paid careful attention to reporting throughout the pandemic so there were no new stories for me in this book, but I found it fascinating to learn what was happening behind the scenes of all of those stories. In particular, the book reveals the background and work of the doctors on the White House's coronavirus task force, and the almost impossible challenge they faced as data- and science-based professionals working under a president like Trump.

It appears that Trump's focus on electoral politics at the expense of almost continually downplaying the severity of the pandemic and commonsense responses like masks, as well as his administration's overt politicization of the CDC and FDA, has resulted in longterm damage to our nation's ability to respond effectively to a major health crisis.

"What happens when you mix politics and public health? You get politics." – Senior Trump administration official

Perhaps the only thing the Trump administration got right was enabling the fast tracking of vaccine development, but even that win was squandered by Trump's focus on stoking the raging culture wars, resulting in a significant minority of people turning their backs on this lifesaving strategy, at a huge cost in lives, as well as eliminating any chance of reaching herd immunity.

What a sad chapter in our nation's history.

HarperAudio, 2021, Downpour⩘ ; Harper, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Ian Millhiser, Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted

Injustices by Ian MillhiserNarrated by Joe Barrett

Well, the subtitle says it all. Not a pleasant read, but certainly worthwhile for gaining perspective on how awful the Supreme Court has been for most of its history.

[W]hy should anyone trust the decisions of the Supreme Court to be rooted in neutral principles of law when its membership is easily manipulated by whichever political party last won a decisive election.

Tantor, 2015, Libro.fm⩘ ; Bold Type Books, 2016, IndieBound⩘ 

See also: The case against the Supreme Court of the United States⩘  by Ian Millhiser, Vox, Jun 25, 2022.

   The Dobbs decision is the culmination of a decades-long effort by Republicans to capture the Supreme Court and use it, not just to undercut abortion rights but also to implement an unpopular agenda they cannot implement through the democratic process.
   And the Court's Republican majority hasn't simply handed the Republican Party substantive policy victories. It is systematically dismantling voting rights protections that make it possible for every voter to have an equal voice, and for every political party to compete fairly for control of the United States government. Alito, the author of the opinion overturning Roe, is also the author of two important decisions dismantling much of the Voting Rights Act.
   This behavior is consistent with the history of an institution that once blessed slavery and described Black people as "beings of an inferior order." It is consistent with the Court's history of union-busting, of supporting racial segregation, and of upholding concentration camps.

Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures

Well narrated by Marin Ireland and Michael Urie

A remarkably sweet story about life in a small town on the Puget Sound, about the search for meaning in life, about aging and loss, and about one very intelligent and quite mischievous Giant Pacific Octopus.

HarperAudio, 2022, Downpour⩘ ; Ecco Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure

The Great Experiment by Yacha MounkNarrated by JD Jackson

This is a bit of an outlier. I usually write only about books I really enjoyed or highly appreciated. That's not the case here, but I want to remark on and remember it anyway because it at least points in a good direction.

Mounk dissects the factors that have led to the success or failure, the cohesion or dissolution of groups, societies, and nations throughout history. He also speculates on the dangers to modern diverse democracies and on what might make it possible for them succeed. Some of his points are a bit surprising and some of his conclusions are a bit depressing. Overall, though, his is an optimistic outlook. Maybe we will be able to pull off this "great experiment".

I also have to add: maybe I just don't get it, but that is one of the least inspiring book covers I've come across.

See also: Why pluralism is so hard for democracies⩘  by Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post, Apr 25, 2022.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Penguin Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

John W. Reid & Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet

Ever Green by John W. Reid & Thomas E. LovejoyWell narrated by Roger Wayne

I have loved and been in awe of trees since I was a child first becoming aware of the world around me. They have nourished my soul and raised my spirits for my entire life, and I am at my happiest when I am among trees absorbing their stately quiet. Over the years, as I have learned more about how they communicate and care for each other, and us, my appreciation and respect has only deepened.

This book is a heartfelt love song to the megaforests of our world. The authors, who have spent much time in those forests, vividly and poetically share the beauty and magnificence they have experienced there. They introduce us to the Indigenous peoples who live among and in harmony with these forests, and have done so for thousands of years, and also give us a glimpse of the vastly diverse and incredible wildlife the forests support.

The book is also a scientifically grounded yet impassioned plea that we save these forests and the life they contain and nourish before they are lost to the threat posed by our consumption-crazed modern life. The story of what has been happening to the Amazon forest is horrifying, especially the way the destruction has been accelerating since Jair Bolsonaro became president and launched his war against the Brazilian Amazon. But there are threats to all of the megaforests, driven primarily by logging, resource extraction (oil and minerals), and hunting.

One thing I learned is the importance of road-free zones to the preservation of the integrity of the megaforests. Roads into and through forests are like a cancer that spreads disease and destruction wherever they intrude into the forests.

For modern humanity to keep the megaforests, and with them the one planet we know of that has any forests, we need to care for the world as if it is family.

The Earth's five megaforests are:

Related:

HighBridge, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; W. W. Norton & Company, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Elie Mystal, Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy's Guide to the Constitution

Allow Me to Retort by Elie Mystal

Snarky, sometimes outrageously crude, often decisively eloquent, unabashedly liberal, always insightful, Mystal dissects our constitution, exposes its flaws, argues forcefully for ways to fix it or, alternatively, that we should just completely trash it and start over. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked this book up, but I'm glad I read it.

Justice is not one constitutional option among many, it is a requirement of a free and equal society. Demand nothing less.

New Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ ; also available as an audiobook narrated by the author from Apple Books⩘ 

Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace & The Devil's Dictionary

Last Tango in Cyberspace and The Devil's Dictionary by Steven KotlerWell narrated by Ryan Vincent Anderson

A wild, near future dose of speculative fiction told in two parts. I missed the release of the first book three years ago, so got to enjoy listening to the entire story straight through.

Kotler explores the human attribute of empathy and what might happen if some people evolved super-empathy.

The story opens following one of the "empaths" named Lion as he is using his super ability in a rather mundane way, basically as a special breed of marketing consultant. In the early stages of the story, the flavor reminded me a bit of the opening of a favorite speculative fiction novel, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.

Then the crazy gets dialed way up, taking off to another dimension and reminding me of the flavor of another favorite, Void Star by Zachary Mason. I so much appreciate it when writers let their imaginations run free like this, creating thought-provoking glimpses of what our world might become as both our intellectual abilities and emergent technologies evolve.

Last Tango in Cyberspace: Macmillan Audio, 2019, Libro.fm⩘ ; St. Martin's Press, 2019, IndieBound⩘ 
The Devil's Dictionary: Macmillan Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; St. Martin's Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

The Gates of Europe by Serhii PlokhyNarrated by Ralph Lister

Not an easy book, but I feel it is important to try to better understand the historical context of the brutal horrors currently being inflicted upon the Ukrainian people by a ruthless Russian dictator and his savage military.

The people living in the Ukrainian region have lived through centuries of war: ethnic, tribal, familial, religious, political. They have been subjected to countless rounds of betrayal and exploitation. Casualties of the wars and the disruption and famine caused by the wars have counted in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even the millions. Yet somehow, the people have persevered.

We human beings can be such a scourge on this beautiful planet.

See also: Ukraine and the Words That Lead to Mass Murder: First comes the dehumanization. Then comes the killing.⩘  by Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic, Apr 25, 2022.

Tantor Media, 2015, Libro.fm⩘ ; Basic Books, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country

A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

As I mentioned earlier this year, after I watched the wonderful documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time⩘ , I decided to once again read all of his novels. I picked up the Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ , and set out on the journey. Once I finished all his novels, I once again picked up this, his final book, a collection of essays.

I can't even begin to imagine what he experienced when, as a young man, a child really, and a prisoner of war, he lived through the horrendous fire bombing of Dresden. It seems to me he attempted to process that experience his entire life, through his fourteen novels and this final book. Somehow, he carried it off with grace, humor, and a clear eye that bitingly dissected everything he saw around him over the subsequent decades. He didn't seem bitter, though somewhat angry and disillusioned, and ultimately accepting: this is the mess that we humans with our oversized brains that are so obviously a mistake of evolution have made of things. So be it.

"The good Earth—we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy."

Recorded Books, 2008, Libro.fm⩘ ; Seven Stories Press, 2005, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988)

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

Another adventure on my journey through Kurt Vonnegut's novels. I haven't written about all of them, and I wasn't going to write about this one, but weeks after I read it, images from the story keep flashing into my consciousness.

Overall, the story meanders and, as all of his books tend to do, shares a critique of our humanity and provides glimpses into the insanity of our society.

And then there is a scene toward the very end of story in which Vonnegut bares his soul and describes a portion of what he experienced and witnessed at the end of World War II. It is stunning, sobering, and heartfelt, an apt reflection of the terrors we are witnessing being inflicted on the citizens of Ukraine every hour of every day. That's what keeps flashing into my consciousness and breaking my heart.

Audible Studios 2015 audiobook narrated by Mark Bramhall available from Apple Books⩘ ; The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1987 – 1997 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Bluebeard was originally published by Delacorte Press, 1987 (cover shown); paperback edition available via IndieBound⩘ 

Jenny Tinghui Zhang, Four Treasures of the Sky

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui ZhangNarrated by Katharine Chin

Zhang's novel is set against the searing and very real backdrop of the struggles of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the late 1880s, during the time that the despicable Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted. The story reveals the life of, Lin Daiyu, who is kidnapped as a young girl in Southern China and forced to emigrate to San Francisco to work in a brothel.

Lin somehow manages to hold onto her optimism and eventually escapes the brothel and San Francisco.

The dream was difficult, but not impossible.

She ends up working in the shop of two hardworking and equally optimistic Chinese men in Idaho where she witnesses firsthand the illogical anti-Chinese sentiment stoking the hatred of their neighbors.

Sharing a vitally important story, the book is presented as a combination of lyrical fable, woven from legend and calligraphy, and a very painful reality presented with the startlingly vivid sense of a documentary.

The shocking ending ensures that we cannot forget the name of Lin Daiyu.

I also appreciate the gracefully beautiful cover design by Donna Sinisgalli Noetzel.

Macmillan Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Flatiron Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five,
or, The Children's Crusade

Slaughter House Five, or, the Children's Crusade by Kurt VonnegutWell narrated by James Franco

When I recently read Wonderworks, one of the literary inventions Angus Fletcher discusses that I found most interesting is the Second Look, which triggers a sense of alienation in our mind, and that in turn can lead us to the question: "Is there anything reliable in my head?" Indeed, a good question to ask ourselves on a regular basis!

And as our brain stares in disbelief at our two opposed certainties, we become alienated from the contents of our own psyche, realizing that somewhere along the line, we've believed the unbelievable.

One of the modern works of literature that Fletcher cites as an example of a book using this invention is Slaughterhouse Five, or, The Children's Crusade, which I read earlier this year as part of my journey to re-read all of Vonnegut's novels. Fletcher's musings triggered an interest in me to revisit it again already, but this time, I decided to listen to it. I'm glad I did; James Franco is a pitch perfect narrator for this story. And the story's candid look at the senseless violence of war and the way it devastatingly impacts so many innocents perfectly captures the needless tragedy currently unfolding in Ukraine. Every time I see a photo of Putin with his callous, heartless eyes, I feel a renewed sense of utter disdain.

Audible 2015 audiobook narrated by James Franco available from Apple Books⩘ ; The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963 – 1973 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade was originally published by Delacorte, 1969; Modern Library 1994 hardbound edition available via IndieBound⩘ 

Will Hurd, American Reboot: An Idealist's Guide to Getting Big Things Done

American Reboot by Will HurdNarrated by the author

If someone had told me a couple weeks ago that I'd be listening to a book by an ex-Republican congressman from Texas, I would've told them they were … let's just say overly optimistic. Then I came across an article written by Tim Alberta and published in The Atlantic on Mar 28, 2022: The Revenge of the Normal Republicans⩘ . The article intrigued me enough that I decided to give the book a try.

Hurd is an unusual person in today's Republican party: a moderate. Raised with conservative values by his black father and white mother in southern Texas, he ended up an operative in the CIA, and then took a big jump, leaving the CIA to run for congress in a predominantly Latino district. He served in congress for three terms. Now he's thinking about running for president.

Hurd believes that things get done in the middle, by moderates on both sides of the aisle working together. Talking about a two-day road trip he took with at-that-time Democratic Representative Beto O'Rourke:

   We branded our journey a "Bipartisan Road Trip Town Hall" and hashtagged it #bipartisanroadtrip.
   Two lessons came out of the journey. The first was that way more unites us than divides us. I had known this to be true in Texas 23, but the road trip showed me this was true for the rest of the country as well. The recent years of acrimony, hostility, and meanness would have you think we are irreparably divided, but the rapturous reception we received clearly demonstrated that people want to be inspired by their leaders rather than made to be afraid.
   The second lesson is that America wants politicians to disagree without being disagreeable. They don't expect politicians from across the aisle to always agree. But the country recognizes we have serious problems that need solving, and they want us to have a civil debate on what's best for the majority of our country while protecting the minority's rights. Then they want us to take action, not just blame someone else for inaction.

On the upside, he stakes out some good positions in his book. I particularly respect the urgency of his views related to the technological race that is being waged right now between the U.S. and China, and how important that is to our future security and position in the world. He also seems to genuinely care about people and to be committed to getting things done for them.

On the downside, he is a politician. As much as he talks about working with the middle on both sides of the aisle, he definitely takes a few shots, some of which I would describe as cheap shots, at Democrats, comparing the stance on some issues of the most extreme left Democrats with his moderate Republican views, and then using that to paint the entire Democratic party as too radical. Ah well. In all fairness, he also raises some tough criticism about some of the things Trump did while in office.

In the end, it was worth reading. I think the ideas he presents may be attractive to some Republicans who feel disillusioned by the turn their party has taken in recent years. I give him credit for at least thinking about what might possibly unite Americans, though I have a hard time seeing him making much progress selling those views in today's broader Republican party. Good luck to him, though.

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Simon & Schuster, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Where Do We Go From Here by Martin Luther King, Jr.Introduction by Vincent Harding
Foreword by Coretta Scott King
Well narrated by JD Jackson

Dr. King wrote these powerful words in 1967, his final book before he was so tragically assassinated the following year. With the exception of some aging terminology, it's astonishing and sad that so much of it could've been written now, some 55 years later.

   The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self deception and comfortable vanity.

King's analysis of the situation in America is detailed and precise, and his vision for possible paths of progress is crystal clear.

   Since before the Civil War, the alliance of Southern racism and Northern reaction has been the major roadblock to all social advancement. The cohesive political structure of the South working through this alliance enabled a minority of the population to imprint its ideology on the nation's laws. This explains why the United States is still far behind European nations in all forms of social legislation. England, France, Germany, Sweden, all distinctly less wealthy than us, provide more security relative for their people.
   Hence in attacking Southern racism the Negro has already benefited not only himself but the nation as a whole. Until the disproportionate political power of the reactionary South in Congress is ended, progress in the United States will always be fitful and uncertain.

As a nation, we have wasted decades of opportunities to move forcefully forward toward a more just and equitable future, something I think would greatly benefit all of us, and that could provide a bright beacon for the whole world.

   Nothing could be more tragic than for men to live in these revolutionary times and fail to achieve the new attitudes and the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands.

A final note: I often don't like introductions that are later added to books; most frequently, I find myself impatient to get past them. However, I really appreciated the introduction by Vincent Harding, may he rest in peace, that was added in 2010 to this most recent edition of Where Do We Go From Here.

Beacon Press, 2018 Libro.fm⩘ ; Beacon Press, 2010, IndieBound⩘ 

Angus Fletcher, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

For a book lover, the modern age is a truly extraordinary time. We are simply awash in choices. I spend a considerable amount of time each week looking for books to listen to or read, looking through bookstore shelves, scouring new release lists and reviews, reading through "best of" lists, and checking out what's new from authors I've previously appreciated. I find some real gems; still, I know I bump into only the tiniest fraction of a near endless realm. Over the course of my life, I've read or listened to thousand of books, yet that's just the tiniest drop in an ocean of possibilities. Sometimes I wonder about what I've missed.

Wonderworks was placed in my hands by an extraordinary book aficionado, Kathe at Barbed Wire Books in Longmont, Colorado; otherwise, I may never have found my way to it. Thank you, Kathe!

Reading it has been a humbling experience, underscoring something I've always known: I am a lover of reading books, not a writer. I've never written even a single sentence of a book. This book gives me a glimpse into why that is so. The way authors must think about what they write is simply beyond me. Even after reading this book, I don't think I could ever organize my thinking in a manner necessary to create a compelling story.

Fletcher discusses some of the most important literary inventions down the ages, explaining how they work, as well as the biochemistry they trigger in us, and then providing examples of books, old and new, in which these twists of the word are used. Some make total sense to me; others I don't fully understand, even when they are used in books I'm deeply familiar with. A few things he reveals provided me with a real "Aha!" moment. Perhaps the strongest of those is that the evolutionary wiring of our minds makes us prone to initially and instantly believe what we hear, and it is only through effort, the application of critical thinking and skepticism, that we can question, and perhaps reverse, those first impressions. This explains so much about what puzzles me about our world populated with so many misguided ideas and crazy conspiracy theories. For this insight alone, this book is a real treasure.

The Neuroscience of Our Gullibility
When the brain first evolved, in wormlike animals that emerged more than half a billion years ago in the nitrogen-thin shallows of the Ediacaran Era, its simple purpose was to process sensory information about the surrounding world. It detected light or food and directed the body: Swim to that light! Quick, eat that food!
   The brain, in other words, emerged without a filter. It didn't question whether the light or the food was real. It trusted all its primary perceptions.
   This system was crude yet effective. After all, most of the sensory data that arrived in the brain were reliable. The light existed, as did the food. In fact, so effective was this crude system that it's still used by many animals today. Bugs all over the world continue to exist without questioning their senses. Their brains just accept what their retinas see.
   Eventually, however, more complex brains emerged. And these brains discovered that there could be advantages to questioning. One of the advantages, rather ironically, was to offer protection from other complex brains. Complex brains could lie and deceive, duping their targets with elaborate fictions. So, over time the complex brain evolved the capacity to skeptically evaluate the things it saw—and judge whether or not those things could be believed.
   But even as the complex brain evolved new neural circuits that enabled it to judge, it didn't rewire itself completely. Instead, it patched its new circuits onto the old neural hardware that it had inherited from its ancient worm ancestors. Which meant that the brain continued to accept everything it saw—and then judge after the fact what was actually true.
   Our brain continues to work this way. Rather than deciding what to believe, it decides what not to believe. It doesn't inspect every new idea and tag it as "true" before admitting it into our belief system. Instead, it accepts every idea into our belief system—then sifts through our belief system, retroactively tagging ideas as "false."
   This makeshift method isn't necessarily bad. It allows us to react faster to things that pop up, and it keeps our mind permanently open. But like anything biological, it does have its drawbacks. One of those drawbacks is that we tend to be biased toward first impressions. We accept unthinkingly—and later have to work to change our mind. Another drawback is that we turn into easy dupes if we're tired or overwhelmed. Since it takes effort to not believe, we become more credulous in times of stress, allowing powerful regimes or predatory corporations to brainwash us with images when we're deprived of sleep.
   Our brain is full of that brainwashing now. You and I believe all sorts of nonsense spewed by politicians, businesses, media pundits, and other exploiters who take advantage of our natural gullibility (and our increasing state of modern exhaustion) to slip misinformation inside our skulls.
   Yet the brainwash doesn't need to stay inside our head forever. Literature has an invention to wash it back out.

The specific literary invention discussed related to this provokes us to take a second look at our first impressions, to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to what we are reading. If only we all could bring this invention more into play in our daily lives.

Simon & Schuster, 2021 IndieBound⩘ ; Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021, narrated by Jacques Roy, Libro.fm⩘ 

Aside: And for a humorous glimpse of one the craziest ideas we've fallen for, watch:

Conspiracy Theorist Anonymous

The Chaser: Conspiracy Theorist Anonymous
The Chaser⩘ , Dec 18, 2020

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean StefancicNarrated by Karen Chilton

After hearing the steady drumbeat of CRT fear mongering that has been inundating the news cycles for months now, I decided I needed to turn to a source book. I added this book to my listening list a while ago, but the stupidity being expressed by certain senators related to CRT at the hearing for Supreme Court nominee and supremely qualified Judge Ketanji Brown, I realized I had to listen to this now.

What can I possibly say? This is a commonsense book addressed to law school students, putting forth theories about systemic racism, citing case law, and asking important questions. It seems perfectly reasonable to me. We should all be applying our critical thinking skills to ideas like this. I wonder if many of the conservatives who are so passionately attacking CRT have even read this book or any of Kimberle Crenshaw's writing on the subject? This book ever criticizes liberal thinkers related to some of their views on racism!

Professor Heather Cox Richardson has shared a couple related things this past week that caught my attention:

A full decade ago, in April 2012, respected scholars Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, crunched the numbers and concluded: "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream," they wrote, "it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges."
Letters from an American⩘ , Mar 22, 2022.

It is only in honesty, integrity, and courage that we can truly prepare a future that our children deserve.
Letters from an American⩘ , Mar 24, 2022.

See also:
Critical Race Theory⩘ , Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Feb 20, 2022.
Opinion: The war on critical race theory in Virginia is really a war on critical thinking by Karen Keys-Gamarra⩘ , The Washington Post, Mar 4, 2022.

"The very essence of education requires free discussion. It requires our willingness to explore, research, discover, discuss and challenge current thought."

And after hearing the idiocy that Ted Cruz spouted about CRT during the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown, I can't help but think this must be his chief advisor on CRT issues: This guy says Critical Race Theory is the most important issue⩘ , @TheGoodLiars⩘ , Twitter, Nov 1, 2021.

Echo Point Books & Media, 2019, Apple Books⩘ ; New York University Press, 2017, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

Slowly continuing my journey through all of Vonnegut's novels.

Jailbird is totally insane and somehow at the same time absolutely grounded in the real. What an amazing mind!

   "So I elected to complain about our levity. "You know what is finally going to kill this planet?" I said.…
   "A total lack of seriousness," I said. "Nobody gives a damn anymore about what's really going on, what's going to happen next, or how we ever got into such a mess in the first place."

The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976 – 1985 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Jailbird was originally published by Delacorte Press, 1979 (cover shown); paperback edition available via IndieBound⩘ 

Andri Snær Magnason, On Time and Water

On Time and Water by Andri Snær MagnasonTranslated by Lytton Smith; narrated by Graham Halstead

While I typically prefer to listen to books rather than read them, when this book was published in the early part of last year and the audiobook release was scheduled for the end of the year, I was so interested in the book that I went ahead and read it. I was really glad I did⩘ —it's such an incredible and vital book—but I also wanted to eventually revisit the book in audiobook form, so I added the audiobook to my listening list as soon as it was released in late December.

Magnason does such an amazing job of contrasting his love of and appreciation for the stunning beauty of his homeland, Iceland—the glaciers and the valleys they have carved out, the fjords and surrounding sea—with the incredible destruction being caused worldwide—including the wholesale loss of glaciers, which are so vital to the lives of billions of people, everywhere around the planet—by the rampant industrialization aimed at satisfying our throw-away economy, and the imminent and life threatening danger posed by the resulting climate change.

Early in the book, Magnason shares portions of a conversation he had with Professor Wolfgang Lucht, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research in Germany:

"Anyone who understands what's at stake would not prioritize anything else. I oversee a large team of scientists. We publish computer models and diagrams according to established scientific conventions; people look at them and nod and take them in to a limited degree, but they do not understand them, not really. I present data to parliamentary committees and explain how millions of people will lose their homes if we do not act. The politicians immediately respond: 'If we do what you say, hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs tomorrow.' They make it my responsibility. If politicians really understood what I was saying, people would roll up their sleeves and find solutions. We have focused such huge energy on deadly problems of war and weapons, or on reaching the moon.… So why can't we do something for the planet, for good? If politicians really understood, they would come up with something like that. How many people should work on the climate crisis? Millions of people whould not be too many when the Earth's future is at stake!"
   I nodded.… I thought about it.
   "But no one wants to hear apocalyptic prophecies and dismal accounts of the world as it is today."
   "That's the problem," he said. "Imagine a doctor not wanting to tell a patient he has early-stage cancer. That the patient needs to quit smoking immediately, to upturn his life, even put everything on hold for one or two years in order to save his life; to undergo surgery, radiation therapy, rehabilitation. Imagine if your doctor does not want to candidly telly you what might happen because he fears scaring you. So instead he recommends organic tobacco and peppermint tea.… That's what's been happening. The result is we are faced with a serious problem that keeps growing: the patient has not changed their lifestyle, believing they will be saved by the scent of essential oils. We're talking about life and death, but people do not perceive it that way. Most of the solutions that get discussed are placebos. Homeopathic doses. Banning plastic straws. Sorting plastic. All minor details. We need much more radical action."

Parts of the book can be devastatingly difficult to listen to. Our beloved planet is sick, really sick, and getting sicker quickly. And for the most part, we're sitting on our hands watching … or ignoring the progression of the disease caused by us. It's crucially important that we take action, but we won't be able to do that unless we are first willing to fully face the accelerating destruction we are causing.

Magnason ends the book on a hopeful note, noting that spirit of people that has been harnessed to tackle seemingly impossible challenges previously in our history, as well as sharing some of the promising advances being made, though so far on a tiny scale relative to the scope of the challenge we are now facing.

This remains the most important book I've read or listened to in the past few years.

The solutions are manifold; some are absolutely beautiful.… Many solutions improve the welfare of both humans and animals; they'll lead to better transportation, improved living conditions, and better ecology. They'll lead to action, awareness, and a sense of community.… A large part of the solution requires sacrifice, doing something for others without asking for anything in return.…
   There is no certainly this will succeed; all things must one day come to an end, and that applies to humans like everything else. If we succeed, the world will still be far from perfect, but it will be more beautiful than words can ever describe.

There is an excellent, short, powerful TED video in which Magnason, standing on the Sólheimajökull glacier in the south coast of Iceland—one of the glaciers that is disappearing—shares how closely we are connected to those we love across the generations, including to those who will be directly affected by the actions we take, or do not take, today: On time and water⩘ , TED, Oct 2020.

I wrote a poem for a plaque that was placed on the mountain where Okjökull [an ancient glacier in Iceland that recently disappeared due to climate change] once stood. It was a letter to the future, and it says:

This monument is to acknowledge
that we know what is happenings
and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.

Magnason standing on the Sólheimajökull glacier in the south coast of Iceland

Tantor Media, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ; Open Letter, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

The Case Against Reality by Donald HoffmanNarrated by Timothy Andrés Pabon

"Galileo got the message and fingered some culprits. 'I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on … reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.'"

Hoffman, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, argues, convincingly, that we don't perceive reality, that not even our greatest minds and the theories they have put forth, like Einstein's theory of spacetime, perceive reality correctly. To the contrary, he argues that the natural selection that has guided our evolution has favored perceptions that are tuned to fitness over truth, that we perceive icons of reality that help us to survive rather than actual reality.

Our senses forage for fitness, not truth. They dispatch news about fitness payoffs: how to find them, get them, and keep them.
   Despite their focus on fitness, our senses confront a tsunami of information. The eye sports 130 million photoreceptors, which collect billions of bits each second. Fortunately, most of those bits are redundant: the number of photons caught by a receptor differs little, in general, from the number caught by its neighbors. The circuitry of the eye can, with little loss in quality, compress those billions of bits down to millions—just as you may, with little loss in quality, compress a photo. It then streams the millions of bits to the brain through the optic nerve. This stream, though compressed a thousandfold, is no gentle brook. It is a flood, which would overwhelm the visual system if untamed. Taming this flood is the job of visual attention. Billions of bits enter the eye each second, but only forty win the competition for attention.
   The initial descent from billions of bits to millions loses almost no information—like a book manuscript edited to omit needless words. But the final plunge to forty loses nearly everything, reducing the book to a blurb. This blurb must be tight and compelling—just the essentials to forage for fitness. This may feel at odds with your own experience of a visual world that seems packed, from corner to corner, with myriad details about colors, textures, and shapes. Surely, it would seem, we see more than just a headline, we see articles, editorials, classifieds—the whole works.
   But our experience deceives us.

Frankly, there is much in this book that is beyond my grasp. When I try to imagine a reality that is beyond my perception, I get the same feeling I do as when I try to imagine what a black hole really is or what the big bang was or how quantum entanglement works or what the spatial fourth dimension looks like: my brain spins! But I love books like this that kick me out of my comfort zone and push the boundaries of my understanding of existence.

I often listen to multiple books in turn, a few hours of one, then a few hours of another. I listened to Alan Watts' The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are alongside this one and finished and wrote about it just before this one, a few hours earlier today. It's funny how completely different and totally similar the two books are. Anyone who thinks that reality is ordinary or even boring is really missing the journey we are on!

Related videos:

W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, Libro.fm⩘ ; W. W. Norton & Co, 2019, IndieBound⩘ 

Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

The Book by Alan WattsWell narrated by Sean Runnette

I've been on a bit of an Alan Watts audiobook kick lately, first This Is It, then The Way of Zen, and now this. Watts has such a wonderful knack for making the unseen reality we inhabit vividly luminous. His talks leave me in wonder: Ah right, there's so much more than what I take for granted as my normal life experience.

What happens is neither automatic nor arbitrary: it just happens, and all happenings are mutually interdependent in a way that seems unbelievably harmonious. Every this goes with every that. Without others there is no self, and without somewhere else there is no here, so that—in this sense—self is other and here is there.
   When this new sensation of self arises, it is at once exhilarating and a little disconcerting. It is like the moment when you first got the knack of swimming or riding a bicycle. There is the feeling that you are not doing it yourself, but that it is somehow happening on its own, and you wonder whether you will lose it—as indeed you may if you try forcibly to hold on to it. In immediate contrast to the old feeling, there is indeed a certain passivity to the sensation, as if you were a leaf blown along by the wind, until you realize that you are both the leaf and the wind. The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside: they move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of control because the world outside is so much vaster than the world inside. Yet you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with ordinary activities—to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground holding you up, and of hills lifting you when you climb them. Air breathes itself in and out of your lungs, and instead of looking and listening, light and sound come to you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows and water flows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries you along like a river, but never flows out of the present: the more it goes, the more it stays, and you no longer have to fight or kill it.
   You do not ask what is the value, or what is the use, of this feeling. Of what use is the universe? What is the practical application of a million galaxies? Yet just because it has no use, it has a use—which may sound like a paradox, but is not.

I really appreciate having my perception opened like this.

Macmillan Audio, 2015, Downpour⩘ ; Vintage, 1989 (1966), IndieBound⩘ 

Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter TevisNarrated by George Guidall

This well-regarded, short sci-fi novel from 1963 came to my attention when I noticed a film remake is being released. Somehow, I never read this book, as far as I can recall, and didn't catch the David Bowie film from the 70s, so I figured it might be fun to give it a listen.

As can be imagined after 60 years, some of its technological aspects have a bit of an aged feel to them, which isn't helped by the narration, but it's an interesting and perceptive story none-the-less. It definitely has the feel of something that actually could happen if a physically and mentally sensitive person of advanced intelligence from a dying planet were to visit Earth today to try to figure out a way to save the few remaining people back home.

Tevis had a keen sense for the kinds of interactions that might take place between a visitor and various Earthlings, and the kinds of pressures and temptations that might overwhelm a visitor on such a challenging, lonely mission. While the ending is a bit sad, it's also quite realistic.

Recorded Books, 2008, Libro.fm⩘ ; Vintage, 2022 (1963), IndieBound⩘ 
Wikipedia: The Man Who Fell to Earth (novel)⩘ 

Dr. Guy Leschziner, The Man Who Tasted Words: A Neurologist Explores the Strange and Startling World of Our Senses

The Man Who Tasted Words by Dr. Guy LeschzinerNarrated by the author

Leschziner, a practicing neurologist, explains the truly marvelous depth and breadth of our senses by contrasting what is typically experienced with the experiences of some of his patients who live, for better or worse … often worse, with anomalous senses or without one of the senses.

As one of his patients, who has synesthesia, expresses it:

   "There are so many ways of experiencing the world."

I found his epilogue particularly fascinating, mind blowing, actually.

   [W]e already recognise that there is deviation between true reality—the cold, hard molecules around us—and our perception of it. What we perceive to be real is to some extent a figment of our own minds, a construct of the networks of neurones that constitute our brains.
   But for some cognitive neuroscientists, this is too conservative an explanation, too literal a view of the world. There are some scientists who would go as far as to argue that we have absolutely no fundamental understanding of what reality actually is. These are not quacks, not scientific pseudo-babblers, but respected, eminent individuals. People like Donald D. Hoffman, a professor at University of California, Irvine. Hoffman proposes that, contrary to our brains trying to represent reality for us, they have developed to actually hide it from us. Our minds construct a simplified or codified world to enable us to survive. Even as I write this sentence, it seems bonkers, totally ridiculous, no matter how many times I have read or heard his hypothesis, because it is so counterintuitive to what I 'know', what I experience on a daily basis.
   The orthodox view, one that Hoffman does not share, is that, while we do not see reality as a whole, we do see those aspects of reality that we need to survive; so, when we look upon an object, that object is actually present, and there are aspects of it that we perceive…. There are truths of the world that it is important for us to perceive, to enable our survival, and we perceive those fairly accurately.…
   But Hoffman's view is somewhat different. In fact, he describes this orthodox view as 'fundamentally wrong all the way down'. Hoffman actually questions the very nature of reality. He tells me, 'I think that our best scientific theories—namely, evolution by natural selection, quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of space-time (general relativity)—are all pointing to the same conclusion. We've believed for centuries that space and time, or their combination into what we call space-time, is fundamental, objective reality. And that the contents of space-time, like atomic particles, are therefore part of objective reality. But our best science is now telling us that space-time is doomed, that space-time is not fundamental, and that we're going to have to look for some deeper understanding of reality that's outside of space and time.' Hoffman argues that although our brains create perceptions of space and time, of physical objects, these are not a picture of reality. He terms this a 'user interface', there explicitly to hide the nature of reality, to simply enable us to survive, while we are utterly ignorant of what we are actually doing in reality.…
   Hoffman's hypothesis sounds crazy, but is supported by some evidence. Nevertheless, I cannot get my head around it. I tell him it all sounds very redolent of The Matrix, referring to the trilogy of sci-fi films, in which Keanu Reeves plays the main character, Neo. Hoffman responds, 'Yes, but in The Matrix, when Neo steps out of the matrix, he steps into a space-time world. So, I'm saying something even more radical. If we could take off our space-time headset, we would be in the real world, which has no notion of space and time at all.' Our perceptions do not have the capabilities to show us the truth.

Hmmm, guess one of my next books will be Hoffman's The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes⩘ .

Macmillan Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; St. Martin's Press, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Kelly Weill, Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything

Off the Edge by Kelly WeillWell narrated by Xe Sands

All I can say is that the people who run and work at YouTube, Facebook, Google and the other social networks should be ashamed of themselves for making money by designing manipulative algorithms that prey on people's vulnerabilities and unconscious behaviors. In my opinion, that's immoral and an incredibly destructive to our society. Our education system is also at fault for not teaching people better critical thinking skills.

See also: After Babel: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid⩘  by Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, Apr 11, 2022.

The most reliable cure for confirmation bias is interaction with people who don't share your beliefs. They confront you with counterevidence and counterargument. John Stuart Mill said, "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that," and he urged us to seek out conflicting views "from persons who actually believe them." People who think differently and are willing to speak up if they disagree with you make you smarter, almost as if they are extensions of your own brain. People who try to silence or intimidate their critics make themselves stupider, almost as if they are shooting darts into their own brain.

Workman Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Algonquin Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Rob Hart, The Paradox Hotel

The Paradox Hotel by Rob HartNarrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Wow, what a crazy, mind-warping, fun ride!

Take a spirited character, January Cole, with a big attitude (for a very good reason), mix in some time travel (including a degenerative condition causing January to experience time slippage), stir it all with a high stakes, big roller conspiracy, and you've got the Paradox Hotel.

The story demands that you keep on your toes and stay wide awake as it careens around the hotel and through a blizzard of abrupt time slippages; but if you do, you'll be well rewarded with a big hearted story of courage as January, the head of security at the hotel, tries to unravel the mystery before time itself totally unravels.

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Ballantine Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Jelani Cobb, The Essential Kerner Commission Report: The Landmark Study on Race, Inequality, and Police Violence

The Essential Kerner Commission Report, edited and introduced by Jelani Cobb with Matthew GuarigliaWell narrated by Mirron Willis

Edited and introduced by Jelani Cobb with Matthew Guariglia.

This is another book I learned about while listening to the talks of the Black History, Black Freedom & Black Love class⩘ .

The Essential Kerner Commission Report "distills the full Kerner Report to its most significant and enduring parts." While some of the statistics-heavy chapters don't translate well to an audiobook presentation, at least for me, overall I found this to be an essential listen, particularly, the following sections:

[Read the The Kerner Commission Report (1968) Summary: Introduction and Conclusion⩘ . Read the Full Summary (29 pages)⩘ .]

The Kerner Commission was created by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to respond to the civil disburbances that occurred between 1966 - 1967:

…. The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack—mounted at every level—upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions—not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America….
– Lyndon Baines Johnson, Address to the Nation, July 27, 1967

In the Summary to their 1968 report, The Kerner Commission stated:

This is our basic conclusion: Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

They went on the quote Betsy Hodges, a former mayor of Minneapolis:

   White liberals, despite believing we are saying and doing the right things, have resisted the systemic changes our cities have needed for decades. We have mostly settled for illusions of change, like testing pilot programs and funding volunteer opportunities. These efforts make us feel better about racism, but fundamentally change little for the communities of color whose disadvantages often come from the hoarding of advantage by mostly white neighborhoods.

In their Preface to the 1968 report, The Kerner Commission confronted two fundamental questions:

How can we as a people end the resort to violence while we build a better society?
How can the Nation realize the promise of a single society—one nation indivisible—which yet remains unfulfilled?

In the final chapter, Recommendations for National Action, the Kerner Commission presents goals addressing four major areas: Employment, Education, the Welfare System, and Housing.

   The major goal is the creation of a true union—a single society and a single American identity…. Toward that goal, we propose the following objectives for national action:

  • Opening up opportunities to those who are restricted by racial segregation and discrimination, and eliminating all barriers to their choice of jobs, education, and housing.
  • Removing the frustration of powerlessness among the disadvantaged by providing the means for them to deal with the problems that affect their own lives and by increasing the capacity of our public and private institutions to respond to these problems.
  • Increasing communication across racial lines to destroy stereotypes, halt polarization, end distrust and hostility, and create common ground for efforts toward common goals of public order and social justice.…

   We propose these aims to fulfill our pledge of equality and to meet the fundamental needs of a democratic and civilized society—domestic peace [and] social justice….

From Jelani Cobb's Introduction to the The Essential Kerner Commission Report:

   How did we get to this point, the nation asked? The Kerner Commission Report suggests that the more apt question should be how far the nation, in fact, has ever really diverged from such combustible moments. The most recent reports of state violence, the fiery reckonings in American streets, the often half-hearted scramble to attempt to understand the systemic failures and institutional rot that served as kindling for the latest conflagrations all seem like part of a grim recurrence of a chronic national predicament.

One passage from the original Kerner Commission Report is quite prescient considering what we experienced after George Floyd's murder:

   In this work, the police bear a major responsibility for making needed changes. In the first instance, they have the prime responsibility for safeguarding the minimum goal of any civilized society: Security of life and property. To do so, they are given society's maximum power: Discretion in the use of force. Second, it is axiomatic that effective law enforcement requires the support of the community. Such support will not be present when a substantial segment of the community feels threatened by the police and regards the police as an occupying force.

My heart aches. We have known for centuries what we need to do. When will we finally realize the promise of a single society—one nation indivisible.

Kalorama, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ; Liveright Publishing, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five,
or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

Slaughter House Five, or, the Children's Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut


Such an absolutely brilliant book.


The Library of America edition volume that contains Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade includes related supplemental material in its Appendix B that I found highly worth reading, especially:Letter from PFC Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to his family, May 29, 1945 and Wailing Shall Be in All Streets, c. 1945 - 1947. They add a depth of context to the book itself.

I felt then as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World's generations to come.

The Library of America is a nonprofit organization that "champions our nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy."

The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963 – 1973 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade was originally published by Delacorte, 1969 (cover shown); Modern Library 1994 hardbound edition available from IndieBound⩘ ; Audible 2015 audiobook narrated by James Franco available from Apple Books⩘ 

Ro Khanna, Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us

Dignity in a Digital Age by Ro Khanna

A wide-ranging and comprehensive discussion focused on democratizing the digital revolution to serve all American in all communities, including rural areas, across the country.

A national agenda must not simply favor the redistribution of wealth but should focus on the democratization of the value creation process itself.

Congressman Ro Khanna serves California's 17th congressional district, which includes Silicon Valley. But in a very real sense, he is serving all of us. He's definitely an optimist, and I certainly appreciate someone who is searching for and championing solutions that bring people together, as opposed to the trait I see all too often in Congress these days of being against everything. Inspiring!

[Frederick] Douglass's vision informs this book, which, at its heart, is an attempt to imagine how technology can advance democratic patriotism which is predicated on respecting the dignity of every American. The book shares Douglass's faith that we can be a composite nation—that we can embrace a holistic, resplendent American identity that is more than just a formal contract among citizens. It offers a blueprint for structuring the technology revolution to empower left-behind Americans, regardless of their background, so they have a stronger voice in our economic and political life, build thriving communities, and are on more equal footing to participate in the dynamic process of developing our national culture. It argues that we must be intentional about creating space for artists, retail shops, and local newspapers, as well as for introverted and marginalized citizens, to help shape who we are as a people. It suggests that joint economic projects online and reasoned exchange on digital platforms can help us appreciate and respect differences. We must reduce social distance in our modern economy across geography, race, gender, and class to increase the level of trust in our body politic.

I learned about this book through an excellent review in The Guardian: Dignity in a Digital Age review: a congressman takes big tech to task⩘  by Charles Kaiser, Jan 30, 2022. The Guardian's Books section⩘  is an excellent resource for learning about new books across the spectrum, both fiction (including one of my favorite genres, Science Fiction) and non-fiction.

Here's a sampling of the topics covered:

  • Building community and common purpose
  • The economics of innovation
  • Virtual workplaces
  • Racial and gender equity
  • Restructuring tech companies
  • Empowering workers
  • Family-supporting wages
  • High-quality child care
  • Education: from early childhood to universal higher education
  • Internet Bill of Rights
    • Opt-in consent
    • Knowledge of data use
    • Deleting personal data and abusive content
    • Security and notification
    • Portability and interoperability
    • Net neutrality
    • Data minimization for internet access
    • Multiple providers and platforms
    • Preventing unfair data discrimination
    • Fiduciary duty
    • Right to repair
    • Limiting mergers
    • Disinformation and digital deception
  • Building a green future
  • Investing in solar and wind
  • Clean tech innovation
  • Transitioning to electric vehicles
  • Regenerative agriculture
  • Ethical artificial intelligence
  • Semiconductor manufacturing
  • Synthetic biology
  • Manhattan project for cybersecurity
  • The spirit of civility

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Simon & Schuster, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

Derrick BellNarrated by Brad Raymond

During the talks of the Black History, Black Freedom & Black Love class⩘ , Professor Derrick Bell was mentioned several times, as was this book of his. It is a book of fictional short stories featuring himself as a main character, each of which underscores his main premise that systemic racism in America will never be eliminated. Instead, he contends that what we have witnessed as a nation and will continue to see is a "pattern of cyclical progress and cyclical regression."

That cyclical pattern appears vividly, if disappointingly apparent today given what we have most recently seen with the nationwide (and worldwide) Black Lives Matter protests bringing once again to the forefront of our national consciousness our deeply embedded racism with the hope that this refreshed awareness might engender some enlightened progress, followed almost immediately by the disgusting actions of states across the country implementing laws designed to discourage or prevent voting by Blacks and other non-white citizens.

   "For years I believed law was the answer, and I still teach law, including civil rights law. Now, though, I'm convinced that racism is a permanent part of the American landscape. The problem is that as soon as I express the view that racism cannot be vanquished by the enactment and vigorous enforcement of strong civil rights laws, most people conclude that I have given up, or surrendered, or, worse, sold out. Actually, I think they know better. The real problem is that my view—that racism is permanent—conflicts with and seems inimical to their world view. Moreover, many people, particularly civil rights advocates, have feared even to consider it—much less discuss it. Their reaction is usually reactionary and rarely grapples with the real question. I try to explain that a realistic appraisal of racism's crucial role in the society, far from being capitulation, would enable us to recognize the potential for effecting reform in even what appear to be setbacks."
– From the story, Divining a Racial Realism Theory

Of all the stories, I found The Space Traders both the most educational and disturbing tale. It uses a science fiction premise to vividly highlight the deep-seated racism that, in so many different ways, keeps our nation from ever realizing its potential. Though arguing through this and the other stories that racism is permanent, Professor Bell's book is, overall, inspiring rather than demoralizing.

   Now there is more here than confrontation with our oppressors. Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. We can recognize miracles we did not plan and value them for what they are, rather than always measure their worth by their likely contribution to our traditional goals. As a former student, Erin Edmonds, concludes, it is not a matter of choosing between the pragmatic recognition that racism is permanent no matter what we do, or an idealism based on the long-held dream of attaining a society free of racism. Rather, it is a question of both, and. Both the recognition of the futility of action—where action is more civil rights strategies destined to fail—and the unalterable conviction that something must be done, that action must be taken.

Derrick Bell, 1930 - 2011, was a civil rights attorney, pioneering legal scholar, professor, and political activist. A full-time visiting professor at New York University Law School for over two decades, he was previously the first tenured African American professor on the faculty of Harvard Law School and the first African American dean of the University of Oregon School of Law.

See also: Letters from an American, Feb 12, 2022: The Logic of Equality⩘  by Professor Heather Cox Richardson.

Hachette Audio, 2018, Libro.fm⩘ ; Basic Books, 2018 (originally published in 1992), IndieBound⩘ 

Kimberly Jones, How We Can Win: Race, History and Changing the Money Game That's Rigged

How We Can Win by Kimberly JonesNarrated by the author

A compelling and well researched exploration of the fundamental challenges the Black community of America is facing today and a variety of potential solutions by social activist and author Kimberly Jones.

I first learned about Kimberly Jones through the video of her powerful and spontaneous comments about the protests following the murder of George Floyd: How Can We Win⩘ . After that I read the equally powerful YA book she co-authored with Gilly Segal, I'm Not Dying With You Tonight⩘ . So when I saw that a new book by her had been published, I queued it right up. Although the book is clearly aimed at the Black community, I found listening to it a valuable learning experience.

Using the statement she made in the How Can We Win video as a touchstone, Jones vividly explains the roots of our rigged systems and their impact on our society today. Sharing gut-wrenching firsthand experiences, she provides in-depth explorations of rigged systems such as banking, prisons, education, policing, insurance, real estate, healthcare, and the criminalization of poverty.

She also explains that while this multi-faceted systemic crisis hits the Black community the hardest, it is also an American crisis, holding back our entire economy and society, preventing our nation from reaching its full economic wealth and innovation potential.

The repeating theme of the Black experience in America is the wholesale decimation of our financial potential.

Another section of the book presents a well-thought-out discussion of restitution (which she labels Reconstruction 2.0), its historical context, why it's necessary, and what it might look like.

In addition, she explores what "Defund the Police" actually means, why it's needed, and how it aims should be implemented. As she explains it, it makes sense, encompassing a narrowing of their scope of responsibilities and the shifting of resources to agencies better able to deal with some of the public safety responsibilities that have until now been tasked to the police simply by default.
(See also: Isn't that public safety?⩘ )

Ultimately, Jones shares a hopeful and unifying message of coming together, self care, and self improvement for the Black community that also will benefit all of us. She is certainly a wise auntie for her community.

We are stronger together. We are all always stronger together.

Author's website: Kimberly L. Jones⩘ 
Discussion video: Kimberly Jones with T Murph: How We Can Win: Race, History and Changing the Money Game That's Rigged⩘ , Book Soup Bookstore Official Channel, Jan 28, 2022

Macmillan Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Henry Holt & Company, 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Dark Money by Jane MayerWell narrated by Kirsten Potter

An excellent, well researched book that is an essential, though thoroughly nauseating read.

It appears that the only thing the Koch brothers, their multitude of companies, and their cohorts in the fossil fuel and other industries intentionally harmed more than our environment is our political system.

No wonder our democracy is in such a perilous state and we're sitting on our hands as our planet spirals into climate crisis.

I just read this morning in The Guardian⩘  that Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who is featured in Dark Money, donated to Senator Joe Manchin after he killed the Build Back Better bill, which would've benefitted so many ordinary Americans, saying, "Thank God for Joe Manchin. I'm going to have one of the biggest fundraisers I've ever had for him."

Descriptive words that come to my mind when thinking about the Dark Money cohorts: selfish, conceited, crass, cruel, dishonest, shortsighted, disrespectful, and in some cases, criminal.

Contrast the approach of the Dark Money gang with what Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said at the World Economic Forum on Jan 21, 2022:

"A country's long-term growth potential depends on the size of its labor force, the productivity of its workers, the renewability of its resources, and the stability of its political systems." The administration plans to increase growth by increasing the labor supply and productivity while reducing inequality and environmental damage. "Essentially," she said, "we aren't just focused on achieving a high topline growth number that is unsustainable—we are instead aiming for growth that is inclusive and green."
Source: Letters from an American, Jan 27, 2022⩘  by Professor Heather Cox Richardson
See also: Letter from an American, Jan 22, 2022⩘  by Professor Heather Cox Richardson

Afterthought: I'm currently re-reading all of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, and just came across this in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

   Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised a means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed.…
   E pluribus unum is surely an ironic motto to inscribe on the currency of this Utopia gone bust, for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been denied the many. An even more instructive motto … might be: Grab much too much, or you'll get nothing at all.

Random House Audio, 2016, Libro.fm⩘ ; Anchor Books, 2017, IndieBound⩘ 

David Fideler, Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living

Breakfast with Seneca by David FidelerWell narrated by Paul Heitsch

As I was reflecting on my experience of the past two years at the end of 2021, a word kept popping into my mind: stoicism, which I thought of in terms of striving to accept all the craziness that was happening with equanimity, trying to remain calm and composed in the face of extraordinary adversity. The more I thought about the term stoicism, the more curious I became about its roots. I had heard that the definition of the term had evolved since it was first introduced to describe a philosophy of living of the ancient Greeks and then Romans, and was interested in better understanding its original meaning. Fortunately, that curiosity led me to this wonderful book.

Stoicism has nothing to do with "keeping a stiff upper lip" or "bottling up your emotions," which everyone knows to be unhealthy. While Seneca was a Stoic philosopher, it's essential to recognize that over the centuries the meaning of stoic has changed radically: the word stoic today, written with a small s, has no relationship with the capital-S Stoicism of the ancient world. While the modern word stoic means "to repress your emotions," the ancient Stoics never advocated anything along those lines. Like everyone else, the Stoic philosophers had no issue with normal, healthy feelings like love and affection. As the philosopher Epictetus wrote, the Stoic should not be "unfeeling like a statue." Rather, the Stoics developed a "therapy of the passions" to help prevent extreme, violent, and negative emotions that can overwhelm the personality, like anger, fear, and anxiety. Rather than repress these negative emotions, their goal was to transform them through understanding.

I found myself appreciating Fideler's audiobook so much that I purchased the ebook in order to dive more deeply into some passages, and then even ordered a hardbound copy of it for my personal library—something I do once in awhile with a book I have truly enjoyed, as well as a book by Seneca he recommends, Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius, translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, which I hope to will provide me with a deep well of insights from which I can slowly sip over time.

the Roman Stoics placed their emphasis on people who were trying to make progress toward virtue or toward improving their characters. This meant there are three groups of people in relation to Stoic philosophy: sages; "progressors," or people making progress toward becoming sages; and a third group of people who don't make progress. While we could call this third group non-progressors, the Roman Stoics didn't give this group a name or even define them. Despite that, as we can clearly see from the writings of Seneca, this group is made up of people who are unconsciously tied to, or enslaved by, false and unexamined beliefs. For our purposes, we'll call this group the unenquiring….

One thing that deeply impressed me is Fideler's explanation of Seneca's idea that we can experience a sort of timelessness.

   Seneca gives his readers a way to value the full range of time, to join a broader human community, and to escape the slavery of being forced to live only in the present age. He writes, the life of a wise person is

not constrained by the same limits that constrain others. He alone is freed from the conditions of the human race, and all ages serve him.… Some time passes? He holds it in memory. Time is present? He makes use of it. Time is to come? He anticipates it. Combining all times into one makes his life long.
   But life is very brief and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they reach life's end, the poor wretches realize, too late, that they've been busy for a long time doing nothing.

In this remarkable insight, Seneca suggests that the happiest people are not just trapped in the present age. Instead, they can experience the ultimate value of time by weaving past, present, and future together. Here he no longer refers to time as being some kind of limited resource that we might someday run out of if we don't use it wisely. We now transition from scarcity to being part of a timeless human community, which is inexhaustible.
   Seneca challenges us to discover what is timeless and valuable about human nature, and to become better, deeper, and wiser people in the process.
   We can now see that the alternative to "preoccupation" and racing around in a flurry of busyness is learning how to live more deeply. And for us today, this doesn't require becoming a philosopher. Instead, developing an interest in art, music, architecture, science or astronomy, history or literature, or a spiritual tradition, to name a few, could help any modern person to live more deeply. Through these interests, we can take in the wisdom and accomplishments of the greatest thinkers from the past, with whom we can still form relationships. In this way, our lives are no longer limited to the present age, but enlarged and nourished by a timeless community of the human spirit.

So I can easily refer back to them from time to time, I also want to make a note of Fideler's overview of the Eight Core Teachings of Roman Stoicism⩘ .

See also: Stoic Insights website⩘ ; Author's website⩘ 

Ascent Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ; W. W. Norton & Company, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

I last read through Vonnegut's novels about a dozen years ago, long enough that I've mostly forgotten the story lines so it's a fresh journey to be reading them again. I was a bit hesitant about reading this one since its subject, Nazis, is devastating. But as I should've known, Vonnegut handles the subject with grace, wisdom, and even some humor as his novel describes the experiences of a man who is a valued spy for the U.S. during WWII even as he excels in his role as a Nazi propagandist.

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

The result is a strong, deeply personal story that decimates Nazi ideals.

The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.… The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases.

Vonnegut's voice is like no other I've encountered, a voice to be cherished.

The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950 – 1962 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Mother Night was originally published by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books, 1962; paperback edition available via IndieBound⩘ 

Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

Under a White Sky by Elizabeth KolbertNarrated by Rebecca Lowman

According to Kolbert, this is "a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems." A good followup to her previous book, The Sixth Extinction, it explores how people are trying to deal with the consequences of humankind's dominance of the Earth and, especially, by the climate change we have and are causing.

While scientists and engineers are imagining and implementing some amazing possible (partial) solutions like seeding the stratosphere with tiny diamonds to attempt to reduce the amount of sunlight (and heat) reaching the planet—the costs of these solutions are enormous both in terms of budgets and political willpower, and the risks are equally huge, which are themes explored brilliantly in Neal Stephenson's recent novel, Termination Shock⩘ . Because we have put off tackling this existential challenge for so long, we may have no choice but to implement some of these expensive and risky Hail Mary pass solutions.

The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be.

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ; Crown Publishing Group (NY), 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth KolbertNarrated by Anne Twomey

Mixes colorful firsthand experiences with historical and current science to vividly tell the story of extinction, the five previous mass extinctions, and the current mass extinction we appear to be precipitating.

I'm curious about Kolbert's most recent book, Under a White Sky, which explores climate change, specifically, how we have damaged our planet and how some of us are trying to come up with fixes. I decided to read this, her previous book, to gain a better understanding of the causes and impacts of mass extinctions in order to have a better context for her new book. I'm glad I now have this context.

Wikipedia.org⩘  has a good summary of each of the chapters, including the key point Kolbert makes with each:

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2014, Libro.fm⩘ ; Picador USA, 2015, IndieBound⩘ 

Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter

An essential, if frightening, read for anyone who loves the United States of America. And ultimately, inspiring.

If America doesn't change its current course, dangers loom.

Walter, a professor of International Relations and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has spent years researching civil wars around the world. In her book, she explains in detail the stages that countries go through leading up to a civil war, showing how those stages unfolded in some of the countries experiencing major civil wars during the last few decades. Then she shows how the U.S. is itself sliding towards civil war now.

   The idea that researchers could predict civil conflict was revolutionary. And so in 2017, when I was asked to join the PITF myself, I did not hesitate. Almost every year since then, I've attended meetings and conferences with other scholars and analysts, in which we study political volatility around the world—the potential collapse of Syria, the future of African dictators—and come up with ways to further refine the predictive possibilities of the data at our fingertips. Our goal has always been to try to anticipate violence and instability in other countries, so that the United States is better prepared to respond.
   But as I've done this work, I've realized something unnerving: The warning signs of instability that we have identified in other places are the same signs that, over the past decade, I've begun to see on our own soil. This is why I witnessed the events in Lansing [the plot to kidnap and kill Governor Whitman]—as well as the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021—with such trepidation. I've seen how civil wars start, and I know the signs that people miss. And I can see those signs emerging here at a surprisingly fast rate.…

   An eruption of conflict requires a set of variables to build on one another, like winds in a gathering storm. As I've become increasingly alarmed by the potential of a second civil war in America, I've grown personally invested in what we, as citizens, can learn from experts about defusing these gales and squalls. These incidents have offered us a lesson: We have trusted, for too long perhaps, that peace will always prevail. That our institutions are unshakable, that our nation is exceptional. We've learned that we cannot take our democracy for granted, that we must understand our power as citizens.

Walter explains how our current social media ecosystem is one of the chief contributors to the civil breakdown in the U.S. and other countries around the world, a clear threat to stability and democracy.

   Ultimately, it's the algorithms of social media that serve as accelerants for violence. By promoting a sense of perpetual crisis, these algorithms give rise to a growing sense of despair. Disinformation spread by extremists discredits peaceful protesters, convinces citizens that counterattacks by opposition groups are likely, and creates a sense—often a false sense—that moderates within their own movement are not doing enough to protect the population, or are ineffective and weak compared to the opposition. It's at this point that violence breaks out: when citizens become convinced that there is no hope of fixing their problems through conventional means.

Finally, in the most important section of the book, Walter explains how some countries, like South Africa, have avoided civil wars, and how we can, too.

After January 6, people kept asking me: What should we do? Do we need better policing? Better domestic terror laws? Does the FBI need to aggressively infiltrate far-right militias? My first answer was always the same. Take away the social media bullhorn and you turn down the volume on bullies, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, disinformation machines, hate-mongers, and enemies of democracy. America's collective anger would drop almost immediately.… Curbing the dissemination of hate and disinformation would greatly reduce the risk of civil war.

She finishes by explaining how we can rekindle our faith in American democracy.

See also: Civic University⩘  and its Civic Saturdays⩘ :

We all have the power to make change happen in our communities – and the responsibility to try. Here at Citizen University, we equip civic catalysts with the ideas, strategies, and spirit to build a culture of powerful, responsible citizenship in cities across the country.

Virtual Civic Saturdays on YouTube⩘ 

Penguin Random House Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘ ; Crown Publishing Group (NY), 2022, IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

A story about time and free will, or the absence of time and free will.

When I ran my space ship into the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it came to me in a flash that everything that ever has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been.

Vonnegut was an irreverent, insightful, and funny human being with a big heart.

It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950 – 1962 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; The Sirens of Titan was originally published by Dell, 1959; paperback edition available via IndieBound⩘ 

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

"America in the Coming Age of Electronics"
– from the blurb on the dust jacket of the original 1952 hardbound edition (shown here).

After I recently watched the wonderful documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time⩘ , I decided to once again read all of his novels, a journey I last undertook in 2008 (see my review from that time⩘ ).

Such an entertaining story! Written before I was born (a long time ago!), it's definitely a bit dated, but in another sense, quite brilliantly prescient in its description of how automation takes over life.

The other day, as I was reading this book, I attempted to call a FedEx customer service representative to speak about an issue I was experiencing with their service. After going around and around through multiple menus, the automated system was unable to answer my question adequately, but wouldn't let me speak with a real person no matter how much I tried. The astonishing thing was that as I kept indicating that I wanted to speak to real person, the voice of the automated system began sounding annoyed. At that point, I suddenly realized I was living inside a new chapter of Player Piano.

The automated system ended up quite rudely hanging up on me without letting me speak to a real representative. All I could picture in that moment was some asshole middle manager who designed that automated system and went so far as to hire a voice actor to speak in an annoyed voice for some of the recordings, all in attempt by that manager to kiss the rear end of their manager who must have given them the primary goal of reducing costs even at the cost of treating their customers like garbage. In the end, all I could think was "F*ck FedEx!" Of course, that makes absolutely no difference to FedEx Corporate because they obviously don't give a damn about their delivery customers. This is our modern Player Piano world.

I want to add that my rant doesn't apply to the FedEx workers who do the actual work of shipping and delivering parcels; I've almost always found the delivery drivers to be friendly and courteous.

A few days later: Same thing just happened to me at UPS, except that when the stupid automated system couldn't understand my tracking number after repeated attempts, it did finally put me through to (a very nice) human being instead of hanging up on me. Again, all I could think in the end was "F*ck UPS!" What is wrong with these companies?! Once again, my rant doesn't apply to the UPS workers who do the actual work of shipping and delivering parcels; I've almost always found the delivery drivers to be friendly and courteous.

The Library of America edition, Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950 – 1962 in Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels (4-volume boxed set)⩘ ; Player Piano was originally published by Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952; paperback edition available via IndieBound⩘ 

Eli Saslow, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli SaslowNarrated by Scott Brick, with an introduction by the author

An unpleasant yet important book. It tells the story of Derek Black, who was raised in a household seething with white nationalism, and how as a college student, he navigated beyond those ingrained early prejudices to understand the harm he was doing and become an outspoken voice against white nationalism.

The book is unpleasant because it necessarily spends a good deal of time focused on white nationalism and its obnoxious, ridiculous, toxic beliefs. The story couldn't be told without that, but it gave me continuous stomach aches as I was listening.

The book is important because it shows that it is possible for a person to grow beyond their ingrained prejudices through truth and the friendship of people who are willing to patiently share that truth. As the author shares in his introduction, "If parts of [Derek Black's] story trace the country's path to this contentious racial moment, then maybe the details of his transformation can also point a way ahead."

However, the dangers of this moment are immense. As Derek tells his father, who remains a committed white nationalist unconvinced by Derek's transformation, "We're coming up to the critical moment. That's why I'm trying to warn people."

However, I'm afraid that in many cases, his warnings are failing to reach and/or convince the people who most need to hear and understand them. Just today, I saw a short interview video by CNN correspondent Donie O'Sullivan who was talking to Trump supporters about the upcoming anniversary of the January 6th attack. It's almost unbelievable how removed from the truth some people are.

   Lisa, a Trump supporter: "The January 6th attack was not Republicans nor Trump; it was the Democrats were behind it all, they're the ones that caused it all."
   Donie O'Sullivan: "Do you really believe that?"
   Lisa: "I know it. There is no way a Republican would act that way, and there is no way that Trump had anything to do with what happened on January 6th."

   Anita Germano, a Trump supporter: "I think the whole reporting of it is a giant hoax."
   Marge Mathieu, a Trump supporter: "We are very peaceful people, so it was a total setup to me; it was the FBI had set it up. I don't believe that they were Trump supporters that did that."

One year later, mentioning January 6 at a Trump event doesn't go well⩘ , CNN, Jan 4, 2022.

Thankfully, the majority of Americans know the truth:

   A new Associated Press-NORC poll shows results similar to other major polling. Some 57 percent say former president Donald Trump deserves "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of the blame; that number grows to 70 percent when we include respondents who think Trump was moderately to blame.
   Even 4 in 10 Republicans say he bears at least a moderate amount of responsibility. It's still mind-blowing that 60 percent of Republicans say Trump bears little or no responsibility; that number, however, is 11 points lower than it was a year ago.
   In addition, the poll says, "Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the riot was extremely or very violent, and about 7 in 10 think Congress should continue investigating the events of January 6."
   Two things can be true: 1) Millions of Americans are deluded about Jan. 6 and think violence is acceptable, and 2) a big majority know Trump was responsible, support the Jan. 6 committee and reject violence as a way to settle elections.

Opinion: Polling on Jan. 6 shows the vast majority of Americans aren't crazy⩘  by Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2022.

Related: White Hot Hate⩘ , a six-part podcast series "about violent extremists who court chaos to spark a race war".

Penguin Random House Audio, 2018, Libro.fm⩘ ; Anchor Books, 2019, IndieBound⩘ 

Jennifer Marie Brissett, Destroyer of Light

Destroyer of Light by Jennifer Marie BrissettNarrated by Cherise Boothe & Landon Woodson

A compelling, though challenging story.

I spent more time reading reviews about this book than I usually do, both before I decided to listen to it and before I actually began it. One thing I noticed in a couple of the reviews was a reference to the fact that it is a "surprising" and "stunning" followup to the Brissett's previous book, Elysium: Or, the World After. Though both of those reviewers indicated the new work stands on its own, I decided to take a look at the synopsis and reviews for Elysium. The reviews made it clear that, like the new work, it is a compelling, though challenging story, perhaps even more so, as many of the reviewers indicated things didn't begin to make sense to them until the final portion of the book. I was intrigued and decided to listen to it in preparation for this new book. Elysium was an interesting read and I'm glad I listened to it to get a bit of the backstory for Destroyer of Light, though I agree that wasn't necessary; and while I appreciated it, I wouldn't have written a reflection about Elysium alone.

Having experienced the challenge of Elysium, I was motivated to carefully prepare for this new book by reading every review I could find, as well as some interviews. I also took a look at was written about the book on the author's own website: Jennifer Marie Brissett⩘ . I usually don't want to know that much about a story before I first listen to or read it—though I usually also enjoy the experience of listening to or reading a book a second time, when I know the story outline better—but in this case, given the challenging structure of the story, I was glad to be so well prepared as it helped me dive into the flow of the story with more clarity.

Brissett exceeded my expectations with Destroyer of Light, which is solid, fast-paced science fiction with creative world building on the planet Eleusis (to which humans were forced to flee due to what happened in Elysium); a thought-twisting exploration of the concept that all of time—past, present, and future—is happening now; colorful Afro-futurism aspects; vivid descriptions of an alien species that exists in more-than-three dimensions; an unflinching exploration of themes of colonialism, classism, and conflict; a mind-blowing dive into the possibilities of futuristic gene altering; and a stunning conclusion.

Note: Destroyer of Light is published with the following alert: "Warning: This book is designed for audiences 18+ due to scenes of physical and sexual violence, and themes that some may find disturbing."

Macmillan Audio, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ; Tor Books, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

Kyle T. Mays, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States

An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States by Kyle T. MaysNarrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett

An interesting if somewhat uneven book. I learned a few things about our history I was unaware of, and always find it worthwhile to be introduced to other perspectives.

   The foundations of whiteness today are rooted in the twin oppressions of Africans and US Indigenous peoples. How we view race and, in the formative years of the United States, who can own and be property was rooted in these oppressions. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris writes, "Because whites could not be enslaved or held as slaves, the racial line between white and Blacks was extremely critical; it became a line of protection and demarcation from the potential threat of commodification, and it determined the allocation of the benefits and burdens of this form of property." For Native people, property meant "white privilege through a system of property rights on land in which the 'race' of the Native Americans rendered their first possession rights invisible and justified conquest." "White" meant property owner and human, "African and Indigenous" meant the opposite. And it wasn't just property that European settlers were creating. In the development of their governing ideology, they believed "that the preservation and enhancement of their own democratic institutions required Indian dispossession and the coercive use of dependent groups, most prominently slaves, in order to ensure that they themselves had access to property." The core foundations of US democracy, and white people's strong belief in its possibilities were, from the beginning, based on the subjugation of Black and Indigenous peoples. Until we as a nation—and white people in particular—come to terms with this, we aren't ever really going to see any real changes.

One thing that helped me appreciate the book more was that shortly after beginning the book, I took a break to watch a video of a discussion/talk by Mays at the Boston Public Library, which gave me further insight into the author's unique perspective and his own voice that I could carry over to my experience of listening to the audiobook (which is narrated by someone else): Kyle T. Mays – An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States⩘ . From the description of that talk:

Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of US history, urban studies, race relations, and contemporary popular culture. He is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

I don't agree with all the points Mays makes. For example, while I think we urgently need police reform and demilitarization of the police as well as increased investment in alternative methods of taking care of our communities¹, I think the slogan "Defund the police" is shortsighted and unrealistic, especially when it is interpreted literally and to the extreme, as Mays does. That said, in general I appreciate the thoughtfulness and optimism Mays brings to his writing.

Popular culture matters. How we produce it and how we consume it is also important. As we move from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation to the forms of culture that will emerge in the aftermath of settler colonialism and white supremacy, it is urgent that we learn each other's histories. We must carefully produce popular culture together. Cultural collaboration will be a key part of our evolving society.

[1] See: Isn't that public safety?⩘ , The city that disbanded its police force⩘ , The Camden Policing Model⩘ , and This town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It's worked for over 30 years⩘ .

Beacon Press, 2021, Libro.fm⩘ ; Beacon Press, 2021, IndieBound⩘ 

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