Reading – & Now: 2022
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A love affair with books
"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
Craig Childs, The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert
There Are Two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning
Narrated by the author
I'm surprised Craig Childs is still among the living. The risks he takes on his various explorations border on the insane. In this case, wandering across Southwestern deserts carrying no water and counting on finding some small source of life-saving water, or climbing down some nearly inaccessible narrow canyon with the threat of catastrophic flooding hovering. That said, he is among the finest writers I've read in terms of taking me along on his adventures so that I feel I can almost see, taste, hear, and touch what he is experiencing.
In this book, one of his earliest, published in 2001, he shares his adventures exploring deserts to discover its mostly hidden sources of water or, on the other hand, the sometimes deadly flash flooding that occurs when rain does fall and is channeled at immense velocity through canyons and washes. It is his way to seek out the extremes of these experiences, to taste a mouthful of sweet water when he has been parched nearly to delirium by the intense heat of the desert, or to plunge his hand into the roaring waters of a flood so powerful it is snapping and shredding mature oak trees in its path and sweeping huge boulders downstream.
One moment hit me very hard and saddened me: he describes emerging out of a canyon after a long, difficult traverse down from the heights above to emerge on the banks of the roaring Colorado River somewhere in the Grand Canyon, and he muses about its seemingly never ending flow.
Not far beyond, the floor turned to mud. The flood had met the Colorado River, backing debris into the canyon. Tree limbs stuck through. I slogged up to my thighs in a material no thicker than pudding. Around a turn, the river became audible, its rapids rumbling over the boulders that this canyon had offered up over the decades. It was a far deeper sound than anything in the canyon behind me. Beneath a sheer eight hundred feet of cliffs that spread open like French doors, I rounded to the river, climbing out of the mud onto clean beach sand.
With a custard of mud slopping off my legs, I walked out to some of the flood-thrown boulders that reached into the river. Maybe a hundred feet across, the river's silt-heavy water passed at about eighteen thousand cubic feet every second. Eight million gallons a minute. Enough water to fill… what? Does it matter? Twenty thousand refrigerators every four seconds? Fifty boxcars in a blink? It was more water than I could calculate. To come upon a river like this, to walk out of the desert, even a flooded desert, and find this is like discovering an unknown ocean. The river passed with perfunctory swiftness. It is astonishing that this river flows and does not pause. Whenever I am camped at this river I wake in the night and walk to the shore, just to be certain that it is still flowing steadily, that it will never stop, never pause.…
Everything comes to the river. Water spills from seven states, traveling from hundreds and thousands of miles away. It is a pilgrimage with pathways set deeply into the land where every rock leans toward the river. It is not wind or fire or humans or gods, but water that defines this land. Could there be any doubt about the influence of water when the Colorado River is the final say for every shape and angle of land from here to the Wind River Range in Wyoming?
Today, just a bit more than two decades later, we see the impacts of our climate crisis as, after years of severe drought and extreme temperatures, it has diminished even the majestic, seemingly never-ending flow of this mighty river.
Back Bay Books, 2001; audiobook: Little, Brown & Company, 2019; IndieBound⩘
Rešoketšwe Martha Manenzhe, Scatterlings
Well narrated by Christel Mutombo
An at times harrowing but also touchingly beautiful story. In 1927, the so-called Immorality Act passed in South Africa, which prohibited intercourse between "Europeans" (white people) and "natives" (Black people). The story explores how the lives of one mixed-race family—Abram Van Zijl, his wife Alisa, their daughters Dido and Emilia, and their nanny, Mmakoma (Gloria)—is torn apart by the law.
Alisa grew up in Jamaica, the daughter of an enslaved man from Africa. When her father dies, she is adopted by a wealthy white British family. In England, she grows to become a well-educated young woman, but always feels the outsider. In an attempt to find her roots, she travels to South Africa, where she meets and falls in love with Abram, and together they create a family and a life for themselves.
As Manenzhe takes her story deep into the lives of her characters, weaving in tales based on African myths, she powerfully reveals the devastation caused by racism, the way it degrades and diminishes the lives of everyone involved.
Dido is a simply enchanting young person, full of curiosity and brimming with a vital intelligence. In her resides the only real possibility of redemption, the possibility of a better future for humanity.
See also: The PEN Ten: An Interview with Rešoketšwe Manenzhe⩘ by Sabir Sultan, Pen America, Dec 15, 2022.
HarperVia, 2022; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Doris Pilkington | Nugi Garimara, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
Beautifully narrated by Rachael Maza
Such an incredible story! It is written by one of the daughters, Doris | Nugi, of the oldest girl in the story, Molly. Nine years ago, I first watched the film based on this book, Rabbit-Proof Fence, then immediately read the book. Recently, I was inspired to revisit the book by listening to the audiobook version. Tonight, I'll re-watch the film, this time with all the details from the book fresh in my mind.
I think my original review from 2004 captures my feelings well, so I'll simply reproduce it here.
For the past year, we've been watching a lot of documentaries and foreign films. A couple weeks ago, a treasure appeared on our movie screen (doesn't seem right to call it a television screen since we don't watch television). Rabbit-Proof Fence stars three amazing young girl's who play Molly, Gracie, and Daisy.
In the 1920s and 30s, these three girls were among the first children born of unions between white and Aboriginal parents in the Jigalong area of Northwestern Australia. The Europeans had invaded Australia, usurped the Aboriginal lands, and totally disregarded existing Aboriginal laws. By the time Molly, Gracie, and Daisy were born, white Australians went one step further and decreed that children of mixed unions were to be separated from their Aboriginal families (the white fathers typically didn't assume responsibility for their mixed-race children, and usually abandoned them altogether).
When Molly, Gracie, and Daisy were first born, they were ostracized by the full-blooded Aboriginal children. But as they grew older, the were gradually accepted into the community. By the time Molly was 15, Gracie was 11, and Daisy was 8, they were fully a part of their community (and had always been fully a part of their families). It was then that the white Australian government seized the three girls.
The separation from their families was devastating. The relatives left behind beat and gashed their heads in a traditional display of deep sorrow, and the girls were understandably terrified, not told where they were being taken, being handed from one white official to the next. They ended up at the Moore River Native Settlement, a camp for mixed-blood children near Perth, in Southwestern Australia. They were locked in their grim dormitory at night, fed disgusting food, treated like prisoners, forced to abandon their native language and speak English, all with the goal of "improving" them so that they could become domestic help for white Australians.
Shortly after their arrival, Molly ran away, taking Gracie and Daisy with her. On foot and over the course of two months, these three children made the exceedingly difficult trek home, "one of the longest walks in the history of the Australian outback," some of which was through extremely harsh environments, all the while eluding the authorities and trackers who were after them. They were the first to successfully escape.
After Molly returned to her family in Jigalong, they moved out into the desert to elude recapture. Molly married and had two children, Doris and Annabelle. In 1940, Molly was hospitalized for appendicitis. Upon release from the hospital, she and her two children were forcibly returned to Moore River Native Settlement. A year later, she escaped with her 18-month-old daughter, Annabelle, and made the difficult escape home again.
Her other daughter, Doris, whose Aboriginal name is Nugi Garimara, wrote this book. Molly and Daisy are still alive; this is their story of their amazing journey, told to Doris. Doris also did a considerable amount of research to provide historical background to the story. In many ways, this short book is more powerful than the movie, but I found it wonderful to have the girls from the film in my mind's eye as I read the book. It was also wonderful to see the real Molly and Daisy, now great grandmothers, free and walking together in Jigalong at the end of the film. "We followed that fence, the rabbit-proof fence, all the way home from the settlement to Jigalong. Long way, alright."
Three years after Molly's second trek home, authorities took Annabelle away from her. Molly has never seen her again. This horrifying policy lasted into the 1970s and many of the children who were forcibly removed from their families were never reunited with them. They have come to be known as the stolen generations.
University of Queensland Press, 1996; audiobook: Bolinda, 2012; IndieBound⩘
Julie E. Czerneda, To Each This World
Well narrated by Megan Tusing, Justin Price & Sharell Palmer
What a trip! Czerneda has created a far future universe when humankind has abandoned the home world and scattered to multiple other worlds, losing touch with each other.
Her story brings together advanced tech, shapeshifting sentient AIs with clever personalities, incredibly diverse planets, jaw-droppingly different non-human beings and their portals that enable instant travel across light years, and a variety of colorful human characters.
The two main human characters, Arbiter Henry m'Yama t'Nowak and Pilot Killian m'Lamarr t'Brown, work alongside their AI companion Flip and within the mind-boggling and often confusing environment aboard one of the portals to solve a baffling mystery that may threaten the very existence of humanity.
I found the ending to be somewhat abrupt, leaving me wishing the various final events were described with the same level of detail as the story leading up to them, but the journey to the ending made the book a worthwhile experience.
DAW, 2022; audiobook: OrangeSky Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Alastair Reynolds, Eversion
Narrated by Harry Myers
A slice of cleverly entertaining SciFi. The story is told from the perspective of Dr. Silas Coade, a physician accompanying an expedition in search of an enormous artifact from elsewhere in space, perhaps alive in some manner. Dr. Coade's frame of reference keeps pulling back and back and back across time and space in a dizzying manner until at last reality is revealed.
Or is it?
Orbit, 2022; audiobook: Orbit, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Michelle Good, Five Little Indians
Narrated by Kyla Garcia
Powerful book comprised of the interwoven stories of five indigenous children, by Michelle Good, a writer, poet, and lawyer of Cree ancestry, a descendent of the Battle River Cree and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
The stories describe the experiences of the five children living in Canada—Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie, and Maisie—who when very young were all torn from their families by the government and sent to a rural, church-run residential "Indian School" where they were severely physically and emotionally abused by the presiding brother and sisters who ran the school. Later, when they were barely out of childhood, they were sent away to re-enter society with no support, forced to try to figure out how to survive on their own.
While a novel, it provides a glimpse into the incredibly harrowing trauma children who went though these schools faced, and the scars that experience left in their lives and the lives of their families. At times, I literally got stomach aches while listening. It also reveals the deep wells of resilience some of the children were able to discover in themselves as they struggled to create their post-school lives. Incredibly valuable perspective to have.
Author's website: Michelle Good⩘
Harper Perennial, 2020; audiobook: Harper Collins, 2020; IndieBound⩘
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, The Evening Hero
Narrated by Raymond J. Lee
An engrossing, insightful, and challenging but rewarding book, at times satirically humorous, at others devastatingly serious. It shares the experiences of Dr. Yungman Kwak, an aging doctor who immigrated from Korea to the U.S. as a young man.
The story is satirically humorous when it is providing insights into the immigrant experience from the perspective of Korean-Americans, as well as when it is eviscerating the practices of for-profit healthcare in the U.S. and the way it is failing people.
It is devastatingly serious when it is describing the Korean War as experienced by Yungman as a boy, particularly highlighting some of the inhumanely destructive behavior towards Korean civilians by both the U.S. army and the opposing northern army. And also when it provides glimpses into what life was like under the brutal dictatorships sponsored by the U.S. that controlled South Korea for decades after the war, and the bizarrely brutal dictatorship controlling North Korea today.
Author's website: Marie Myung-Ok Lee⩘
Simon & Schuster, 2022; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
See also: The Incredible Lightness of Quitting Twitter ⩘ , an essay by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Tricycle, Dec 13, 2022.
Giving up Twitter also gave me my reading life back. If writing comes from my heart and brain, reading is the respiratory system that catches the oxygen that keeps it all going.
Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning defines [deep reading] as reading that "uses higher-order cognitive skills such as the ability to analyze, synthesize, solve problems and reflect on preexisting knowledge." When you read this way, you are building on everything you've read before, making connections. Deep reading isn't just for writers; it's for anyone who wants to live a rich life.
Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray
Well narrated by Tamala Shelton
Anita Heiss, a member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales, has written a strong, insightful, and vivid story that has provided me with a further understanding of what the First Peoples of Australia have gone through and are going through, an insight that kicked me hard in the gut and penetrated deeply into my heart. Luminous and heartbreaking.
I think the audiobook's description paints a picture of the story much better than I ever could, though I have added a few translations and notes in square brackets:
The powerful Murrumbidgee River surges through town leaving death and destruction in its wake. It is a stark reminder that while the river can give life, it can just as easily take it away. Wagadhaany is one of the lucky ones. She survives. But is her life now better than the fate she escaped? Forced to move away from her miyagan [family], she walks through each day with no trace of dance in her step, her broken heart forever calling her back home to Gundagai [a small town in New South Wales]. When she meets Wiradyuri* stockman Yindyamarra, Wagadhaany's heart slowly begins to heal.
[*The Wiradjuri people are a group of Aboriginal Australian people from central New South Wales, united by common descent through kinship and shared traditions.]
Also, there are three significant notes about the book from Heiss in the description of her book on the Simon & Schuster Australia website⩘ :
- Using Wiradjuri language on the cover of my novel makes a strong statement—from me as an author and from Simon & Schuster as a publisher—regarding the reclamation and maintenance of the traditional language of my family. It is language of the Wiradjuri characters in the novel—the language of Yarri and Yiramiilan and their daughter Wagadhaany and her husband Yindyamarra, and their extended families.
- [Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray translates to River of Dreams.]
- The beauty of the bila [river] is captured in the photographic image that is overlayed with a gugaa [Goanna, a lizards of the genus Varanus found in Australia]—the totem of many Wiradjuri people from Wagga Wagga, Gundagai and Brungle, where the story is set. To have my cousin—artist Luke Penrith from Brungle—provide the image of the goanna makes the cover even more culturally and personally significant.
- [Here's the gugaa from the book's cover shown in higher contrast.]
- I did not just write a story, I wrote something that is part of the history of the First Peoples of central NSW. And that matters to me, and it matters to those the story and characters represent, like Luke.
- Map: Murrumbidgee River flowing through Gundagai NSW, Australia⩘
- National Museum of Ausralia: Gundagai flood, 1852⩘
- Author's website: Anita Hess⩘
Simon & Schuster Australia, 2021; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Australia, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Patty Krawec, Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future
Well narrated by the author
I spend a lot of time searching for books to listen to or read, scouring a variety of New Books lists each week, reading lots of reviews, researching recommendations I come across. Of course, picking books is a bit of a throw of the dice. Fortunately, I end up really enjoying or appreciating some of them, and those are the ones I end up writing about. I found this book through Libro.fm's New Releases playlist.⩘
I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but I'm grateful this book by Patty Krawec, an Anishnaabe/Ukrainian woman from Lac Seul First Nation, made it onto my queue. It's a short book, but she shares an incredible amount of powerful information and insight in those few pages/hours. In fact, I had to pause listening often so I could think about what she had just shared, sometimes re-listen to passages, or just let it sink in. I think this book is going to represent another important stepping stone on what I hope is a long and educational journey of mine, of noticing.
Before I get started, I want to acknowledge that I love the colorful beadwork by Giniw Paradis that is featured on the cover of the book.
I think the best brief introduction to what the book is about is shared in a single sentence in the book's description:
"Weaving her own story with the story of her ancestors and with the broader themes of creation, replacement, and disappearance, Krawec helps readers see settler colonialism through the eyes of an Indigenous writer."
One thing she shares that I found beautiful is her relationship to the land.
When I say that the land is my ancestor, that is a scientific statement: I want to reflect again on this claim by Dr. Keolu Fox, a Kānaka Maoli anthropologist and genomic researcher. The land itself and the conditions of that land, like altitude and climate, impact our genome just as our human ancestors do. We are born on it, die on it; we come from it and return to it. The land and the waters, oceans and rivers, are part of us, relatives and ancestors in a very real way. Inuk singer and activist Tanya Tagaq reminds me that the ocean is the mother too.
Stones are also our relatives. Whatever I eat has taken up nutrients from the ground, including minerals, and the land itself becomes part of me. Thunderstorms and rivers become part of me.
One thing I learned was about the Doctrine of Discovery, which I find to be astonishingly dishonest and immoral, and the related policy of disappearance.
The Doctrine of Discovery still forms the basis for US law even today and indeed the very existence of the American nations. It is the authority by which the European empires claimed ownership of land that was already occupied by sovereign people, something the United States and Canada recognized in their decisions to make treaties with us. Patrick Wolfe describes this in his book Traces of History, in which he discusses the treaty process by which the US and Canadian governments dispossessed the Indigenous peoples.
Our disappearance from these various landscapes isn't just something that happened, something tragic but unavoidable. It was deliberate. Disappearance was and is policy.
Already, my research related to this book has led me to begin to learn more about the original inhabitants of the land I live on, likely the Ute Tribe.
- Museum of Boulder: The Indigenous Period of Colorado⩘
- Uncover Colorado: The Original Coloradans⩘
- Boulder's Indigenous History⩘
There was one thing Krawec shared that was a bit of a stumbling block for me. From the first section of the book, titled Nii'kinaaganaa:
For a brief time in Canada, we were called Aboriginal. But the prefix ab- actually means "not," so the word means that we aren't original to this place—you can understand why we would object to that.
I try to be respectful and conscious about how I refer to other peoples, and always try to use terms they prefer. I've read a number of books by Aboriginal Australians, and have used that term because it is what they use in their own writings. I did a bit of research on this and came to a different answer than the on Krawec shared. Before I dive into that, the best advice I came across was in Your Dictionary⩘ in an article titled Aboriginal vs. Indigenous: Is There a Right Choice?⩘ :
It's always better to refer to a group by their specific tribe name if you know it. Individual people will also have their own preferences about how they want to be addressed.
That article helped me to understand that many native people in North America prefer Indigenous. I also learned that "Aboriginal comes from Latin aborigines, meaning 'the first inhabitants.'"
A dug a little bit deeper and found this in the Online Etymology Dictionary⩘ :
aboriginal (adj.) [Reference link⩘ ]
1660s, "first, earliest, existing from the beginning," especially in reference to inhabitants of lands colonized by Europeans, from aborigines (see aborigine) + -al.
aborigine (n.) [Reference link⩘ ]
from or made to conform to the Latin phrase ab origine, which means literally "from the beginning."
ab- [Reference link⩘ ]
from Latin ab (prep.) "off, away from" in reference to space or distance, also of time
Finally, I read some source material from Australia and learned that different people have varying opinions about the terms they prefer to be used, and that things are changing. It seems that Aboriginal as an adjective is generally okay, but Aboriginal as a noun is going out of favor. Here's an extensive discussion I found helpful from the Gulanga Program: Preferences in terminology when referring to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples (PDF)⩘ . This guide actually says "Be aware that some, if not many, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples are dissatisfied with the term 'Indigenous'." Again, I think the best approach is to be respectful and conscious of the preferences of individuals.
Broadleaf Books, 2022; audiobook: Tantor Media, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Alexis Wright, The Swan Book
Beautifully narrated by Jacqui Katona
Weaving myth and harsh reality, Alexis Wright, a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria, tells a story about the experience of Aboriginal people set a few decades into the future when climate change is causing enormous upheaval around the world, causing governments and cities to fail, and sending great waves of previously settled people out of their homes to wander as nomads searching desperately for any haven, any chance for survival.
People on the road called her the Mother Catastrophe of flood, fire, drought and blizzard. These were the four seasons which she threw around the world wherever she liked.
The story begins amongst a community of Aboriginal people living around an old lake that has turned into a swamp.
What they liked best, the kinsmen told her, was that they had nothing to do with the rest of Australia.
Listening to The Swan Book was a bit like entering into an hallucinogenic fever dream. Initially, I struggled to keep my feet on the ground as the dream's crazy gusts swirled around me. It was only when I let go and allowed myself to be swept up into the dream that it began to make some sense. I certainly didn't understand everything, but I think I was able to generally tumble along on the gusts.
In fact, after I had listened to the first hour of the audiobook, I paused, opened the print book, and went through the beginning again in order to try to ensure I was getting as much of the story as I could.
Not being from Australia, I also did some side reading to better understand one of the foundational themes of the story about the Northern Territory Intervention, a controversial program launched by the Australian government in 2007.
From Wikipedia⩘ :
A delegation of Northern Territory Aboriginal leaders met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, at Charles Darwin University in May 2011. The delegation stated that the situation had deteriorated under the Intervention. There is greater discrimination against them, Ms Pillay said they told her. Firstly, they said there's been an intervention and it started off badly without them being consulted, and secondly, there is insufficient respect for their land, she said. The delegation said Aboriginal people were under pressure from the Gillard government to sign leases over land they already own. They see that as a land grab, Ms Pillay said.
The Intervention hovers heavily over the story, portrayed at one point as lurking army men "sent by the Government to save babies from their parents."
This was the history of the swamp ever since the wave of conservative thinking began spreading like wildfire across the twenty-first century, when among the mix of political theories and arguments about how to preserve and care for the world's environment and people, the Army was being used in this country to intervene and control the will, mind and soul of the Aboriginal people.
And that's just a glimpse of the very beginning of the story.
The story then seems to dream its way into a mythical tale about the conceited callousness of racism, the destructiveness of inequality, the failed farce of politics and politicians ("tragedians and thespians mouthing off, and traipsing around on our block…, dragging us backwards through another bloody century of destruction"), and the shattering tumult of severe climate change.
These were only normal people of the times. People who were struggling to keep up with what was happening around them, so hard to keep up with the memories—the missing, yearned-for things in life…. They prayed for the people who had gone missing, those that had been snatched off the street, those that had had the life beaten out of them by thugs wearing balaclavas over their faces at the end of a lane, or those seen shot and fallen to the ground on a lonely wharf in the middle of the night, then disappearing without a trace. In principle, it was normal to live in hope, to hope that loved ones would return to life in the lanes and squats of the abandoned buildings, or hope for luck through sprawling suburbs where fate was as slender as a spider's thread blowing in the breeze.
At least, that's what I think it was about. Certainly a mind-blowing experience.
Giramondo Publishing, 2013; audiobook: Bolinda, 2016; IndieBound⩘
Jabari Asim, Yonder
Very well narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Lamarr Gulley, JD Jackson, Adam Lazarre-White, Imani Jade Powers & Janina Edwards
An intelligent and viscerally powerful story. Asim vividly describes the brutally cruel horrors of slavery ("thievery"), the evil perversion of the enslavers ("thieves"), and, in contrast, the persistent inner and outer strength of the enslaved ("stolen people") as they fight to survive, love, and free themselves.
Just before I began listening to Yonder, I read an infuriating article: Their wealth was built on slavery. Now a new fortune lies underground⩘ by Julie Zauzmer Weil, The Washington Post, Dec 1, 2022. "In Virginia, the land still owned by the Coles family could yield billions from uranium. Does any of that wealth belong to the descendants of the enslaved?" The article demonstrates how little has changed over the centuries and just how devious people can be in trying to avoid taking responsibility and insulate their ill-gotten gains.
During his battle to mine the uranium, Walter has been asked by journalists and others whether some of the revenue should be shared with Black families whose ancestors worked at Coles Hill. He made plans for 3 percent of uranium profits to go to a fund supporting Pittsylvania County education and other causes such as science research, rather than the descendants of those enslaved here.…
"Maybe that was not the best way," he said. But he wasn't sure a more personal approach was practical. Taking Gilly Coles, a cook at Coles Hill in the late 19th century, as an example, he asked: "How would you do that? [Gilly's] family, she must have 20 descendants. How would you decide what you would give each one, and how much?"
When a Post reporter pointed out that a larger number of descendants of the first Walter Coles have materially benefited from the enslaved laborers, he responded, "Well, they paid for those slaves, back then."
WTF?! The anger and disgust this provoked in me put me in the perfect frame of mind to begin listening to Yonder.
On a more positive note, the illustration on the cover, which I think may represent a joyous dance in celebration of hard-fought-for freedom gained, is simply beautiful.
Author's website: Jabari Asim⩘
Simon & Schuster, 2022; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Sara Nović, True Biz
Well narrated by Lisa Flanagan and Kaleo Griffith
I thought long and hard about whether to write about this novel. I usually write only about books I fully enjoy or appreciate, but in this case, I definitely have mixed feelings.
For most of the book, I really appreciated the perspectives it was giving me on the issues the deaf community deals with, for example, the frequent acts of unkindness and discrimination they face on top of the ugly history of discrimination the community has endured (the insight into Alexander Graham Bell was nauseating); the pressure to get cochlear implants and just "fit in"; the malpractice of the implant manufacturers who knowingly sold defective devices, causing great harm to some of the recipients; and the severe educational challenges deaf people have faced.
It was heartening to view the joy, or simply the normalcy, that can be found within the deaf community, as well as among those in the hearing community who are sincere allies. It was enlightening to gain insight into the tensions that can arise when hearing parents have a deaf child or when deaf parents have a hearing child (a situation that was explored in the wonderful film, Coda). Finally, I very much appreciated the glimpses into American Sign Language and Black American Sign Language that were presented throughout the book. While I primarily listened to the audiobook version, very early on I took a look at a sample of the eBook, and when I saw how valuable those glimpses were, I also purchased the eBook and for much of the story, followed along as I was listening.
The ASL signs for deaf, hearing, son, daughter, brother, and sister,
followed by the signs for each of the letters in the alphabet.
However, I was totally disappointed and turned off by the inclusion late in the story of an incidence of domestic terrorism, and especially the unnecessary inclusion of the instructions for making a bomb (whether or not they're actually real) and the lack of responsibility on the part of a couple of the main adult characters to at least try to prevent the subsequent bombing that occurred. As I reflect on this now, I'm still puzzled as to why the author included this element in the story. I suppose the author may have been attempting to portray the level of animosity felt by some in the deaf community toward the company that made the defective cochlear implants and the portion of society that marginalizes deaf people. However, in my opinion it represents an unjustified action that strongly detracts from what otherwise was such a strong and insightful call for understanding, acceptance, and inclusion.
In the end, I decided that the gifts the story gave me in terms of a better understanding of deaf culture outweighed my disgust at that negative bit.
Note: True Biz is an idiom that, depending on context, can mean seriously, literally, deadass, no kidding, or real talk.
Random House, 2022; audiobook: Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
See also: I'm done saying sorry for being deaf – I want to change how society treats people like me⩘ by Liam O'Dell, The Guardian, Nov 25, 2022.
Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow
Well narrated by Billy Merasty
In a rural Anishinaabe community in the far north of Canada, the people deal with the unraveling of the modern world after an unknown event causes the power to go out and cuts off all communication with anyone outside.
Tension slowly builds as winter encroaches and they work to survive while dealing with the disruption caused by a few outsiders who appear and request shelter. The story weaves the fear and despair caused by not knowing what is happening to the world, the dedicated caring exhibited by many members of the community who work to ensure their survival, the gentle wisdom of some of the elders, an underlying sadness from the way their people were pushed aside by colonialists in the past, and a lurking menace that circles around the edges of the community.
Author's website: Waubgeshig Rice⩘
ECW Press, 2018; audiobook: ECW Press, 2018; IndieBound⩘
Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi, Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions
A Novel in Interlocking Stories
Well narrated by Liz Femi & Korey Jackson
Intriguing and powerful set of stories mainly featuring four Nigerian women—and in some cases, prior generations of their families—as they navigate life in Nigeria, travel to other countries in Africa and Europe, and attend university and create lives for themselves in the U.S. In the final story, which left me stunned, one of the characters experiences a strange near future, one easy to imagine given what is happening now.
Ogunyemi was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria, and now lives in Los Angeles where she works as a biomedical informatics researcher.
Author's website: Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi⩘
Cover artwork: According to the author, the intriguing cover artwork is "a sculpture from the Magic Ladders⩘ Kid series by UK sculptor Yinka Shonibare⩘ "
Amistad, 2022; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Karen Wyld, Where the Fruit Falls
When I came across a description of this novel yesterday morning, I was intrigued enough to immediately sample a few sentences. I ended up reading all morning and, after a break for lunch and a walk, all afternoon and, after another brief break for dinner, late into the night until I reached the conclusion.
Wyld, a diasporic Aboriginal woman of Martu descent, shares an amazing indigenous story spanning four generations and traveling across a large portion of Australia, through periods of harmony and despair. The resilient women who are the main characters fight to protect and nourish themselves and their kin in the face of treacherous racism, but also graced by occasional incredible acts of kindness.
The final section follows the lives of two spirited young girls who are twins, though one is richly dark skinned and the other fair skinned, which highlights the disparity in treatment they experience as they navigate the 1960s and 1970s together on a quest of survival and discovery.
'What about the creatures, Aunty?' asked Maggie. 'The ones that lived in that sea long time ago. Do they live on too?'
'Yes, because everything is connected. Even people. We've all soaked up that ancient sea. We reconnect with it every time rain caresses upturned faces. Rain carries the essence of those creatures. It keeps them alive. Water is infinite—not even a single drop can die. Water connects us to all that is, was and will be. We are all one; kin to ancient seas.'
The author shares a note at the end of the book. Once again, I wish it had been shared at the beginning, as it provides deep and meaningful context, including:
I respectfully ask readers, reviewers and educators to be aware of how they read and respond to this work. I invite non-Indigenous readers to reflect on perceptions, myths, biases and worldviews that often unconsciously filter how we read and respond to works of fiction. And to uncover the truth and call for action that often lies hidden in fiction. I purposely applied elements of magic realism to this narrative; to assist readers in understanding our collective pasts in a different way, and to perhaps reimagine a more just and truthful present and future.
The beautiful cover was designed by Alissa Dinallo.
Author's website: Karen Wyld⩘
UWA Publishing, 2020; UWAP⩘
Yeva Skalietska, You Don't Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine
Well narrated by Keira Knightley
An astonishing book. Yeva begins her story, as recorded in her diary, recounting the joy of her 12th birthday. Ten days later, the Russians invade her city of Kharkiv, where she lives with her grandmother, and bombs and missiles began exploding nearby.
With tremendous poise and a maturity well beyond her years, Yeva then recounts her experience of the war and of becoming a refugee with her grandmother, sharing moments of terror—as when she and her grandmother huddle together in basements with bombs exploding nearby—and of grace as many kindhearted people assist them as they flee their home, which was subsequently struck by a missile, and make their way to western Ukraine, then Budapest, and finally to Dublin.
Everyone knows the word 'war', but very few people understand what it truly means. You might say that it's horrible and frightening, but you don't know the true scale of fear it brings. And so, when you find that you suddenly have to face it, you feel totally lost, walled in by fright and despair. All of your plans are interrupted without warning by destruction. Until you've been there, you don't know what war is.
Every day, my heart gets torn to pieces as I watch what's happening in my home country, in my home town.
Yeva concludes her story by sharing the brief stories of several of her friends, each of whom relates their unique experiences.
The final line of the book is a heartfelt statement by Yeva addressed to all of us on behalf of all the children: "we deserve to live a life of peace."
A book everyone should read.
Union Square, 2022; audiobook: Sterling Ethos Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
- You Don't Know What War Is by Yeva Skalietska review – Ukrainian child's poignant diary⩘ by Alex Preston, The Guardian, Nov 22, 2022.
- The European parliament has declared Russia "a terrorist regime" over its brutal war on Ukraine and called on democracies around the world to follow suit⩘ by Jennifer Rankin, The Guardian, Nov 23, 2022. Every morning, I read The Guardian's live coverage of Ukraine⩘ . This morning's coverage was again about a massive Russian missile attack on civilian infrastructure across Ukraine, including an attack on a hospital that hit a maternity ward and killed a baby. It is so clear that Russia under Putin is a terrorist regime.
Rebecca Giblin & Cory Doctorow, Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We'll Win Them Back
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
A detailed exploration of how big companies take advantage of weaknesses in copyright and antitrust laws to create chokepoints that enable them to extract more revenue at the expense of creators—such as writers, narrators, musicians, songwriters, filmmakers, podcasters, etc.—as well as all of us who are consumers of the creative works they produce.
Some of the in-depth details made my eyes glaze over a bit, but overall I really appreciate having gained further insight into how companies like Amazon, Audible, YouTube, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, Spotify, Disney, Apple, Facebook, Live Nation, Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Macmillian Publishers, Simon & Schuster, etc. are screwing all of us, not only by extracting more than a fair share of money, but even more importantly by draining so much money from creators that the creative process itself is being strangled.
I've had some awareness about all of this, but some of the details were new to me and frankly shocked me. One example is some of the devious ways Audible/Amazon reduces the amount of money it pays to the authors of audiobooks sold through their site, and then hides what it is doing by avoiding transparency of how it comes up with the amount of its payments. This made me really glad that I've been totally boycotting Audible for years now.
The second part of the book provides a series of seed ideas for how creators can begin working toward shattering the chokepoints and regaining some control.
Of course, those of us who are consumers of creative works can also pitch in to help creatives win this battle by how we focus our spending and attention. For a book lover like me that means avoiding doing business with companies like Audible/Amazon, and instead supporting our local independent bookstores, as well as paying attention to authors being published by small presses.
Website: Chokepoint Capitalism⩘
Beacon Press, 2022; audiobook: Cordoc-Co LLC, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Irene Vallejo, Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World
Translated by Charlotte Whittle; narrated by Sophie Robert
A celebration of storytelling, writing, books in their myriad forms, libraries, and bookstores from their earliest times and through their journey across the subsequent ages, interspersed with related anecdotes from the author's own journey.
While there are many interesting anecdotes in the book, I found a simpler one just jaw dropping: because papyrus scrolls were expensive to make and because the way they were made meant that they could be written upon only on one side, the goal was to fit as much text as possible onto the scroll; one way of achieving that was to write with no punctuation and no spaces between the words. Imagine the effort required to read an entire book written in that way. Headache inducing!
Knopf, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Michael Connelly, The Desert Star
Well narrated by Titus Welliver, Christine Lakin and, briefly, Peter Giles
A compelling story bringing Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch back together to tackle a couple challenging unsolved cold cases, one of which has been a fire smoldering in Harry's soul for years. Ballard now runs the re-opened cold case department, leading her new team of mostly volunteers, including Harry, with energy, passion, and fury.
Connelly does an excellent job of presenting the intricacies of the legwork required to tackle the cases, the psychology of the people involved, and the ugliness of politics and political players that adds an additional challenge to the investigations.
The truth is always manipulated by those in power.
Little, Brown and Co, 2022; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Teresa Berkowitz, Without Time, a short story
I don't usually write about a short story, but I really appreciate this wonderful story. Described by Berkowitz as nonlinear speculative fiction, a section of it brought one of my favorite films to mind, Arrival, based on the incredible short story, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. And several lines invited me to simply stop and contemplate. That's always a gift!
I'll work on staying tethered to time. For the historians (such a funny concept really).
I caught a wisp of something and it became clear: free the life from time and you could map my brother's life as a life well lived.
Some may wonder, how do humans accomplish anything untethered? How can there be scientists? The answer is simple. We live, moment by moment, in intent and action.
Make the most of each blessed moment.
It was also a gift to be introduced to Soft Star Magazine!
Without Time by Teresa Berkowitz⩘ ; Available via: Soft Star Magazine⩘ .
Tony Birch, The White Girl
Beautifully narrated by Shareena Clanton
In this deeply touching novel, Tony Birch writes about the incredible challenges faced by Aboriginal Australian people with a focus on the horrendous governmental policies in place in the 1960s that tore freedom from people and children from their families.
The story focuses on Odette Brown, who lives on the other side of the edge of a small town, supports herself with her art, struggles to live her life with dignity by keeping under the radar of the authorities, and lovingly works to raise and guide her bright, somewhat mischievous, light-skinned granddaughter, Sissy.
Odette's earthly wisdom brightens the tale.
"You could paint all these flowers and birds by memory, couldn't you, Nan?" Sissy asked. "You don't need the branch in front of you."
"You're right. I don't need them in front of me, Sis. But, as each tree is different, so is each branch and leaf and flower. What I'm painting this afternoon can't be painted again. They're all different. Once this flower dies there won't be another quite the same."
She handed the branch to Sissy, who closely examined the serrated leaves and fine ball-shaped flowers. "This comes from the tree in the front yard?"
"They're all the same, the leaves and flowers on that tree." Sissy sighed.
"No, they're not,” Odette protested. "You have to look more closely."
Sissy moved the branch closer to her face, until a leaf tickled her nose and she turned cross-eyed. "I can't see any difference between them. It's like they're all twins."
"That's because you're not looking with soft eyes," Odette said.
Their story takes an intense turn when the newly appointed town sheriff reveals himself to be a racist fanatic in the vein of Javert in Les Misérables. He begins to work to restrict Odette's freedom further, and initiates an effort to strip Sissy from her care. What follows reveals Odette and Sissy's incredible fortitude, as well as the good-heartedness of some of the people they meet along the way.
As with the Cash Blackbear books > I read earlier this year by Native American author Marcie R. Rendon—which also deal with the trauma of children ripped from their families, and torn from their cultures and communities—this novel is based on real experiences. Also similarly, the author's note at the end is a powerful statement that highlights the novel's underlying searing truth.
What I do hope for with this novel is that the love and bravery conveyed by Odette and Sissy provides some understanding of the tenacity and love within the hearts of those who suffered the theft of their own blood.
I feel so fortunate to have experienced the wisdom of some amazing Aboriginal Australian writers and storytellers over the years such as Claire G. Coleman, Tyson Yunkaporta, Doris Pilkington, and now Tony Birch. They have made my life richer.
HarperVia, 2022; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Orlando Figes, The Story of Russia
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
I usually approach history books with a bit of trepidation … so much is horrendously violent. However, my desire to understand WTF is happening in Ukraine overcame my hesitation.
Figes overview of Russian history has helped me gain a lot of perspective, though it is steeped in as much horrendous violence as I had feared.
One of the first things he addresses is why the title of the book is The Story of Russia rather than The History of Russia.
All of which is to explain why this book is called The Story of Russia. It is as much about the ideas, myths and ideologies that have shaped the country's history, about the ways the Russians have interpreted their past, as it is about the events, institutions, social groups, artists, thinkers and leaders that have made that history.…
Its underlying argument is simply put: Russia is a country held together by ideas rooted in its distant past, histories continuously reconfigured and repurposed to suit its present needs and reimagine its future. How the Russians came to tell their story—and to reinvent it as they went along—is a vital aspect of their history. It is the underlying framework of this history.…
No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings. None has changed its story so often.
One thing that has puzzled me is the way Russia has been squandering its soldiers in Ukraine. The number of Russian casualties has been absolutely astounding. As Figes reveals, this has clear roots in Russia's history.
This sweeping militarisation of society produced the largest standing army in the world—some 300,000 troops by Peter's death, in 1725, and 2 million men by 1801. No other state could mobilise so many men. But size was not a guarantee of military efficiency. A pattern soon emerged in the history of the armed forces, namely Russia's dependence on quantity because it lagged behind in quality. It was the only way the Russians could catch up with the Western powers in the military sphere. This was how Russia from now on would fight its wars—by expending more lives than its more advanced adversaries. It was why it lost so many troops in the two great wars of the twentieth century.
However, Figes questions whether modern Russians will accept the level of casualties in this invasion. The news coming out of Russia now, in November 2022, seems to be suggesting a raising level of unrest. For example: 'We were completely exposed': Russian conscripts say hundreds killed in attack⩘ by Pjotr Sauer, The Guardian, Nov 7, 2022. "Survivor tells of being abandoned to attack near Makiivka, as anger grows in Russia over death toll from war."
The final chapter of the book, which I found to be the most important of the book, encompasses recent history, including Putin's raise to power, his re-glorification of Stalin, and his current invasion of Ukraine. The book was sent to print in April 2022, so Figes could base his discussion on only the initial weeks of the invasion, but his insights appear to be spot on as he dissects Putin's reasoning, as flawed and myopic as it may be, as well as NATO's missed opportunities to change the course of history.
During his first term in office, Putin looked to further Russia's integration with the West. In interviews he spelled out his vision of the country as 'part of western European culture', and said that he was open to the possibility of Russia joining NATO and the European Union. Everything depended on how Western institutions would respond, on how NATO, in particular, would act in regions where the Russians had security concerns, historic links and sensitivities, which, if offended or ignored, might provoke an aggressive response from Moscow. 'We will strive to remain where geography and our spirit have placed us, but if we are pushed out,' Putin warned, 'we will be forced to seek other ties to strengthen ourselves.' It was a recurring pattern running right through Russian history since at least the eighteenth century. Russia wanted to be part of Europe, to be treated with respect. But if it was rejected by the West's leaders, or if they humiliated it, Russia would rebuild itself and arm itself against the West.
NATO and the EU missed an opportunity to end this historical cycle. Instead of trying to bring Russia into new security arrangements for Europe, NATO kept it isolated. The US and its North Atlantic allies acted as if the Cold War had been 'won' by them, and that Russia, the 'defeated' power, need not be consulted on the consequences of the Soviet collapse in regions where the Russians had historic interests. The effect of Western actions was to reinforce the Russians' own resentments of the West. On the back of years of anti-Western propaganda during the Cold War it did not take a lot to persuade them that a hostile West refused to recognise their country as an equal and took advantage of its current weakness to diminish it. This was the basis on which Putin built his anti-Western ideology.
I have been astonished and dismayed by the criminal brutality of Russia's military in Ukraine. Figes provides an insight into this, as well, though certainly not an excuse for it.
The Russian killings of civilians, their rapes of women and other acts of terror are driven not so much by the genocidal purpose of destroying the Ukrainians as a group than by the hateful urge to punish them, to make them pay in blood for their independence and freedoms, for their determination to be part of Europe, to be Ukrainians, and not subjects of the 'Russian world'.
Finally, Figes ponders the possible outcomes of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as well as Putin's likely future. In that section, he shares one absolutely chilling line.
Nothing Putin says can be trusted.
Metropolitan Books, 2022; audiobook: Blackstone, 2022; IndieBound⩘
See also: My heart is with the people of Ukraine >
Additional thought: I just read an article by Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling (Ret.), who was commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2011 - 2012. From what he shares, it sounds like the U.S., European, and NATO militaries may have attempted to reach out to the Russian military more than Figes gives them credit for in his book. I Commanded U.S. Army Europe. Here's What I Saw in the Russian and Ukrainian Armies.⩘ by Mark Hertling, The Bulwark, April 11, 2022.
Jaroslav Kalfař, Spaceman of Bohemia
Very well narrated by Jot Davies
When I first listened to this audiobook about five years ago, my response was, "Aha! I read for rare moments like this, when such a book materializes in my universe." Listening to it again now, I experienced the same feeling.
The story is rooted in Bohemia, now the westernmost and largest region of the Czech Republic. Kalfař takes us inside the mind of Jakub Procházka—who travels to Venus as the first astronaut of Bohemia—to explore a vastness of themes: the wonder of space, love and loss, the corruption of power and the power of corruption, being lost in the enormity of the universe, the history of Bohemia, displacement, the futility of retribution, and madness.
During the journey, Jakub meets Hanuš, an arachnid-type being who appears in Jakub's spaceship (and gets hooked on his cache of Nutella).
I have traveled through galaxies," he said. "I have raced with meteor showers and I have painted the shapes of nebulas. I entered black holes, felt my physical form disintegrate with the chants of my tribe all around me, then appeared again, in the same world but an altered dimension. I traced the outlines of the universe and witnessed its expansion, a turn from something to nothing. I swam in dark matter. But never in my travels, or in the collective memory of my tribe, have I experienced a phenomenon as strange as your Earth. Your humanry."
The story has a bittersweet ending, though one that feels quite realistic.
The slightest gesture makes up our history.
I appreciate the way Kalfař concludes his acknowledgements in the written version of the book: "Most importantly, I'd like to thank all readers of books, for keeping the conversation alive across centuries."
Kalfař has a new book coming in March 2023, A Brief History of Living Forever, which is definitely on my list.
Little, Brown and Co, 2017; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2017; IndieBound⩘
- My original reflection: Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař⩘
- Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar review – Solaris with laughs⩘ by Tibor Fischer, The Guardian, Mar 17, 2017.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human
Narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris
At times, the story Mukherjee is telling as he dives deeply into the functioning of the cell is bewildering complex. But I still found it a worthy investment of my time as he also shares many fascinating and easy-to-grasp anecdotes about the wonder of the cell, as well as the passion and quirks of the efforts to advance the scientific understanding of how the cell works.
The nucleus, as I mentioned before, houses the organism's genome, made of long stretches of deoxyribonucleic acid. The DNA double helix is elaborately folded and packaged around molecules called histones, and tightened and wound further into structures called chromosomes. If a single cell's DNA could be stretched out straight, like a wire, it would measure six and a half feet. And if you could do that for every cell in the human body and laid all of that DNA end to end, it would stretch from the Earth to the sun and back again more than sixty times. String together all the DNA in every human being on the planet, and it would reach the Andromeda galaxy and back nearly two and half times.
Many of the stories about the work to advance scientific understanding focus on brilliant contributions by astonishing thinkers pushing the boundaries. But some reveal the obstinance of entrenched—and often incorrect— thinking. The most tragic story Mukherjee shares is about one of the early glimpses of into a cause of human disease.
But what was the association between putrefaction caused by microbial cells and human disease? The first hint of a potential link came from a Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis, who worked as an assistant in a Viennese maternity hospital in the late 1840s. The clinic was divided into two wards: the first clinic and the second clinic. Childbirth, in the nineteenth century, was almost as much life threatening as it was life giving. Infections—puerperal fever, or, more colloquially, "childbed fever"—caused postpartum death rates that ranged from 5 percent to 10 percent for mothers. Semmelweis noted a peculiar pattern: compared with the second clinic, the first clinic had a significantly higher rate of maternal mortality from childbed fever.…
It was a rare opportunity to perform a "natural" experiment: two women, with the same condition, entered through two doors of the same hospital. One emerged with a healthy newborn; the other was dispatched to the morgue. Why? Like a detective eliminating potential culprits, Semmelweis made a mental list of causes, crossing them off one by one.…
Here, then, was a potential answer: the first clinic was run by surgeons and medical students who shuttled casually between the pathology department and the maternity ward—from performing cadaver dissections and autopsies straight to delivering babies. In contrast, the second clinic was run by midwives, who had no contact with cadavers and never performed autopsies. Semmelweis wondered if the students and surgeons, who routinely examined women without gloves, were transferring some material substance … from the decomposing cadavers into a pregnant woman's body.
He insisted that the students and the surgeons wash their hands with chlorine and water before entering the maternity wards. Semmelweis kept careful records of the deaths in the two clinics. The impact was astonishing, with the mortality rate in the first clinic declining by 90 percent. In April 1847, the mortality rate had been nearly 20 percent: one in five women died of childbed fever. By August, after rigorous hand washing had been instituted, the mortality among the new mothers had declined to 2 percent.
As stunning as the results were, Semmelweis had no explanation that he could visualize. Was it blood? A fluid? A particle? Senior surgeons in Vienna didn't believe in germ theory and had no interest in a junior assistant's insistence that they wash their hands between the clinics. Semmelweis was harassed and ridiculed, passed over for a promotion, and eventually dismissed from the hospital. The idea that childbed fever was, in fact, a "doctor's plague"—an iatrogenic, physician-induced disease—could hardly sit well with the professors of Vienna. He wrote increasingly frustrated and accusatory letters to obstetricians and surgeons all over Europe, all of whom dismissed Semmelweis as a crank. He eventually packed off to the backwaters of Budapest, only to suffer a mental breakdown. He was admitted to an asylum where the guards beat him, leaving him with broken bones and a gangrenous foot. Ignaz Semmelweis died in 1865, most likely of sepsis caused by the injuries; consumed, possibly, by germs—the very "material" substance that he had tried to identify as a cause of infections.
One sobering aspect of the book is Mukherjee's stories of patients he has treated who presented with serious and confounding variants of illnesses like cancers and HIV. He passionately works to uncover the causes of each patient's malady, and to find and implement a cure. Against all odds, some recover, but the illnesses of others tragically elude a cure. It is a stark reminder of just how fragile and fleeting this precious gift of life we enjoy is.
Perhaps the strongest impression I carry with me as I wander on beyond this book is the sense of science as an, at times, bold exploration of the yet unknown.
Scribner, 2022; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘ ; Accompanying PDF⩘
See also: Siddhartha Mukherjee: 'I don't like writing as if I don't exist'⩘ , interview by Killian Fox, The Guardian, Oct 29, 2022. "The tone that comes most naturally to me floats somewhere between memoir and history and science. Occasionally a poem will creep in, or a fragment of an essay. It all goes into the mix. If you can convince a reader to come on the journey with you, then you can combine memoir with science writing."
Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis, The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate
With Robin Gaby Fisher; narrated by Kirby Heyborne and John McLain
This is a tough, though ultimately hopeful book.
Pradeep tells the story of his Sikh family immigrating to the U.S., struggling to eventually become successful owners of a gas station/car repair shop/convenience store, and growing to become proud U.S. citizens, before a devastating shooting by a racist who invaded their temple took the life of his father and several other loving members of their community, including children.
Arno tells the story of growing up to become a fascist white supremacist skinhead addicted to hatred, violence, and alcohol, before his devotion to his young daughter opened his heart and helped him to understand how so many people of different religions, races, and ethnicities had gifted him with kindness even when he was going through his most hatefully violent period. He left the large racist skinhead organizations he had founded and strove to turn his life around. Eventually, he created another organization devoted to helping others leave the hateful racist life behind. Then he is devastated when a young man who joined the skinhead organization he had founded, though after he had left it, committed an atrocious massacre at a Sikh temple.
The two men meet as Pradeep is trying to understand the root causes of the massacre. Against the expectations of either of them, they become friends and go on to work together to bring their message of love and compassion to others.
I guess the ultimate lesson of this book is that it is always possible for people to turn away from hate and towards love, and that forgiveness is vital.
Kindness is the most devastating weapon against the suffering from which all violence stems. Love is the antidote to the fear and loneliness that seeds hate.
St. Martin's Press, 2018; audiobook: HighBridge Audio, 2018; IndieBound⩘
Richard Powers, Bewilderment
Well narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
I recently read an article about the wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer: 'Braiding Sweetgrass' has gone from surprise hit to juggernaut bestseller⩘ by Karen Heller, The Washington Post, Oct 12, 2022. It inspired me to listen to Robin's book again. I also came across this in the article:
To her readers, Kimmerer is a plant star; her work, transformative. "I was driving across the country listening to her read the audio book, and I had to pull over several times," says the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers. "My eyes were filled with tears, and I couldn't see the road." He became a Kimmerer fan long before she settled onto the bestseller list. As an homage, he named a character after her in his novel Bewilderment.
That inspired me to also listen again to this, the most recent book by Powers, and one I deeply appreciated⩘ when I first listened to it last year.
This is an astonishingly good book. It addresses issues that are critically important today to our society (political unraveling) and our very existence (climate change).
EVERYBODY'S BROKEN, he tells her. They sit on the beach on an upside-down kayak and watch the single low sun throw colors. Two boats in full sail skim alongside one another, back to the docks before the light is gone.
That's why we're breaking the whole planet.
"We're breaking it?"
And pretending we aren't, like you just did. The shame in her face shows up only in freeze-frame. Everybody knows what's happening. But we all look away.
These issues are presented within a deeply poignant human story that is mixed with the astonishing wonder of our universe as well as the life that has evolved on our small planet, and garnished with bits of imagination of what might be as our technology unlocks some of the secrets of our brains and consciousness.
Once again I felt that the final sentences are as beautiful as anything I've ever read.
W. W. Norton & Co, 2021; audiobook: Random House Audio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Jonathan Freedland, The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World
Well narrated by the author
The astonishing and horrifying account of Rudolf Vrba. In April 1944, Vrba—a citizen of Slovakia, known then as Walter Rosenberg—and fellow inmate Fred Wetzler were the first Jews to break out of Auschwitz.
Vrba was a teenager in early 1942 when he was arrested by Slovakian authorities and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. He possessed a keen mind for numbers and an amazing memory, and, motivated by the goals of "truth, information, action", began memorizing what he was seeing in the camp with the aim of escaping and alerting fellow Jews and the world to the mass murder being perpetrated by the Germans in Auschwitz.
He was extremely fortunate on several occasions to narrowly escape death in the camps, and again on several more occasions during their escape. The story of what it was like in the camps is one of the most appalling things I've ever read, and the story of their escape is one of the most frightening.
They finally made their way back to Slovakia where they dictated the information they had witnessed and memorized to Jewish officials, who compiled it into a shocking document titled the Vrba–Wetzler report. Their report likely saved more than 200,000 Jewish lives, but they were frustrated because delays in distributing the report allowed hundreds of thousands more Jews to be murdered.
It is astounding how incredibly evil humans can be, as we are unfortunately seeing again today in the brutal way the Russians are acting in their invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, it is inspiring to witness how courageous some individuals are, persevering in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
Harper, 2022; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
- Wikipedia: Rudolf Vrba⩘ "Auschwitz was liberated by the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (part of the Red Army) on 27 January 1945; 1,200 prisoners were found in the main camp and 5,800 in Birkenau. The SS had tried to destroy the evidence, but the Red Army found what was left of four crematoria, as well as 5,525 pairs of women's shoes, 38,000 pairs of men's, 348,820 men's suits, 836,225 items of women's clothing, large numbers of carpets, utensils, toothbrushes, eyeglasses and dentures, and seven tons of hair."
- How the first report from Belsen concentration camp shocked the world⩘ , BBC News, Oct 22, 2022. In April 1945, the BBC's Richard Dimbleby was the first reporter to enter the liberated Belsen concentration camp. "I never thought people could do this to each other."
Kate Beaton, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
This was an unusual book for me as I usually don't read graphical novels or comics, but I'm glad I explored this new territory.
Ducks is a big, long book, well over 400 pages, but as it held my attention, it was a relatively fast read. It explores Beaton's experience of leaving her home on the coast of Nova Scotia shortly after graduating from university to work for two years in the Oil Sands of Alberta in order to pay off her student debt.
She tells her story with a blunt frankness accompanied by well-done illustrations that really bring it to life. It isn't an easy story; she experiences loneliness, massive misogyny in a work environment of 50 men to every woman, and sexual assault. She also witnesses unfathomable environmental destruction as the big oil companies wreak havoc on the land, completely disregarding their massively negative impact on the health and well-being of the native people who live alongside the oil mines.
But Beaton's story is also one of personal growth and of discovering inner strength and toughness as she figures out how to claim her place and personal stature at the worksites. She left carrying with her the trauma of the rapes, which have deeply negatively impacted her, but also with a hard earned personal grit and wisdom that shine through in her story … and with her student loans paid off.
The book itself is beautifully made, smyth sewn, with endpapers created from two of her beautiful illustrations, a dust cover featuring a uniquely textured version of one of her illustrations, and beneath the dust cover, even a creatively illustrated hardcover, including this shimmering duck flying across the front.
See also: Ducks by Kate Beaton review – bad boys from the blackstuff⩘ by Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, Sep 12, 2022.
Drawn and Quarterly, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
Beautifully narrated by the author
I first listened to this last year and deeply appreciated it. The other day, I came across an article talking about how the book has become an international bestseller and Robin Wall Kimmerer a sought after speaker. Reminded of the sweet wisdom of the book, I decided to listen again. Good choice.
Robin Wall Kimmerer lovingly shares her unique perspective: a wholistic synthesis of Native American wisdom about our living earth as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation combined with the scientific insight of a botanist and microbiologist with a PhD in Plant Ecology. She is an American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology, and her graceful ability to teach lives in this book for any reader willing to open their learner's mind.
In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.
An essential book in this time of worldwide environmental destruction and the consequent climate change.
The fork in the road stands atop a hill. To the left the path is soft and green and spangled with dew. You want to go barefoot.
The path to the right is ordinary pavement, deceptively smooth at first, but then it drops out of sight into the hazy distance. Just over the horizon, it is buckled with heat, broken to jagged shards.…
I worry who will get to the crossroads first, who will make the choices for us all.
The earth gives away for free the power of wind and sun and water, but instead we break open the earth to take fossil fuels. Had we taken only that which is given to us, had we reciprocated the gift, we would not have to fear our own atmosphere today.
Author's website: Robin Wall Kimmerer⩘
As a writer and a scientist, her interests in restoration include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land.
See also: 'Braiding Sweetgrass' has gone from surprise hit to juggernaut bestseller⩘ by Karen Heller, The Washington Post, Oct 12, 2022.
The book is a word-of-mouth publishing wonder, with more than 1.4 million copies in print and audio, and it's been translated into nearly 20 languages. On Wednesday, Kimmerer was named a MacArthur fellow, a recipient of the "genius grant."
[Richard Powers, author of Bewilderment] says that "she looks at things with a long sense of time. I wanted to hear that wisdom, that clear-eyed, levelheaded, intensely knowledgeable voice expound on everything."
Milkweed Editions, 2015; audiobook: Tantor Media, 2016; IndieBound⩘
Celeste Ng, Our Missing Hearts
Well narrated by Lucy Liu
Powerful story. Set in a near dystopian future, though one that it is easy to imagine growing out of what admittedly is our dystopian present.
It is a time of mass surveillance and fear, of blaming non-white citizens, primarily those of Chinese or Asian descent, for the nation's troubles, of prejudiced hatred and violence directed against minorities, of forcibly removing children from their families, and of thought suppression, including self-suppression.
But it is also a time of defiant resistance and resilient expressions of love and hope.
Penguin Press, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Marcie R. Rendon, Cash Blackbear trilogy
Well narrated by Siiri Scott and Isabella Star LaBlanc
An interesting and excellent trilogy by Marcie Rendon, a citizen of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, which shares the story of Renee "Cash" Blackbear, a young woman also from the White Earth Reservation, but who lives in Fargo after having endured a very difficult childhood. The stories and their settings in the rural Midwest feel convincingly realistic and authentic. As a young girl, Cash was separated from her family and passed from one terrible foster home to another. She has one person looking after her, an informal guardian of sorts, a fellow named Sheriff Wheaton, who is also a Native American who went through the awful foster home system, though Cash initially doesn't know this. Cash gets by working on local farms, driving tractors, harvesters, and produce trucks. She is tough and resilient, but fairly aimless until Wheaton convinces her to go to college.
Rendon wraps the ongoing story in local crime mysteries that Cash helps Wheaton solve by using her ability to intuit things about what happened. But it definitely felt to me that the main focus of the books is sharing insights into the Native American experience. It shares some very difficult aspects, like the way so many Native American children were ripped away from their families, torn from their culture and communities, and raised in an uncaring foster system. It also shares some beautiful and even mystical aspects of the Native American experience.
One of the most powerful parts of the books for me was Rendon's author's notes at the end of each, in which she shares the factual backstory behind each novel.
It is my hope that you, reader, will search farther for the truths once you have read this story.… I hope you see the resilience that inhabits us as Native people.
Murder on the Red River: Narrated by Siiri Scott; Cinco Puntos Press, 2017; audiobook: Blackstone Publishing, 2020; IndieBound⩘ ;
Girl Gone Missing: Narrated by Siiri Scott; Cinco Puntos Press, 2019; audiobook: Blackstone Publishing, 2020; IndieBound⩘ ;
Sinister Graves: Narrated by Isabella Star LaBlanc; Soho Crime, 2022; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2022; IndieBound⩘
See also: This is only loosely related, but does show that it is possible for the government to treat people decently and with compassion: How one Minnesota county has been rapidly housing the homeless since the pandemic⩘ by Katie Lobosco, CNN, Oct 16, 2022.
Gulbahar Haitiwaji, How I Survived a Chinese "Reeducation" Camp: A Uyghur Woman's Story
With Rozenn Morgat; translated by Edward Gauvin
An excellent, though harrowing and heartwrenching account of an innocent Uyghur woman, Gulbahar Haitiwaji, who was torn away from her husband, Kerim, and her daughters, Gulhumar and Gulnigar, and detained by Chinese authorities for years in Xinjiang prisons and "reeducation" camps, which are, in reality, a kind of gulag. The very first sentence of the book, the dedication, is truly chilling:
To all those who didn't make it out.
Throughout the ordeal, she was treated brutally, forced to live in abhorrent conditions and subjected to devastating brainwashing techniques. It appears that all of the approximately one million Uyghurs who have been similarly detained experience these same conditions.
I did go insane in the camps, it's true. But everything that happened there was real. Nothing I went through was the manifestation of some morbid fantasy, or a prisoner exaggerating her conditions. I was taken, like thousands of others, caught up in the mad whirlwind of China. A China that imprisons. A China that tortures. A China that kills its Uyghur citizens. One day, I thought, when I'm brave enough, I'll tell my story. So Kerim, Gulhumar, and Gulnigar will know. So the world will know.
They nearly crushed her. She almost lost hope. She became weak and emaciated, and began to lose even her memories and the ability to remember. But she was able to retain a small spark of resilience.
Hope lay in the immutable cycle of life going on despite the tragedy. It lay in defeating Chinese "reeducation"camps, which, despite their tenacity in trying to silence me—a Uyghur, a free woman—did not succeed in doing so. It lay in the happiness of letting myself believe that, one day in the not-so-distant future, I would take my place again among my loved ones.
Although after lengthy diplomatic pressure from the French government, she eventually was allowed to rejoin her family living in exile in France, the ongoing Chinese campaign to stamp out Uyghurs continues to cast a long shadow over her life. She fears for her family members still living in Xinjiang. She is shunned by some in the Uyghur community in France, even some who had been friends, who harbor suspicions that the only way she could've been freed was by becoming a spy for the Chinese. She continues to have nightmares about her ordeal.
Nothing would ever be the same again. The madness sweeping our planet had forever torn me from the peaceful life I'd once lived.
I'm amazed at the courage she has displayed in writing and publishing this book. Every freedom loving world citizen should read her story.
Seven Stories Press, 2022; IndieBound⩘
- The faces from China's Uyghur detention camps⩘
- 'Like a war zone': Congress hears of China's abuses in Xinjiang 're-education camps'⩘ by Lauren Gambino, The Guardian, Mar 24, 2023. "Two women who say they experienced and eventually escaped Chinese 're-education' camps provided first-hand testimony to members of the US Congress on Thursday night, offering harrowing accounts of life in detention while urging Americans not to look away from what the US has declared a continuing genocide of Muslim ethnic minorities."
A bit of perspective – In an excellent post by Professor Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American⩘ , Oct 15, 2022, this caught my attention:
[T]he NSS [National Security Strategy] emphasizes that while the U.S. has "profound differences" with the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Government, those differences are not "between our people." "Ties of family and friendship continue to connect the American and the Chinese people. We deeply respect their achievements, their history, and their culture. Racism and hate have no place in a nation built by generations of immigrants to fulfill the promise of opportunity for all. And we intend to work together to solve issues that matter most to the people of both countries."
Kim Ghattas, Black Wave
Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East
Well narrated by Nan McNamara; introduction and conclusion narrated by the author
This was a challenging book to listen to because it is, necessarily, quite grim. That said, it was definitely a worthwhile effort as I learned a great deal about events I had only a vague understanding of, and some I didn't know about. But there's no denying that I was left feeling saddened and a bit despondent.
Ghattas concludes the book on an optimistic note, talking about the people around the world who are working for positive change, but admits the task is enormous.
Earlier today, as I was nearly finished with this book, I was very fortunate to come across a news article that caught my attention: A Marine who hated Muslims went to a mosque to plant a bomb. His intended victims ended up saving his life⩘ by John Blake, CNN, Oct 8, 2022. After I finished the book, I read the article and then watched the short documentary about this episode, which was mentioned in the article: Stranger at the Gate: A Veteran's Return from the Brink of Terrorism⩘ by Joshua Seftel, The New Yorker Documentary, Sep 14, 2022. The article and especially the documentary touched my heart and simply blew my mind.
Hopefully, the optimism with which Ghattas concludes her book with is not misplaced.
- A Whole Generation Revolts Against the Iranian Regime⩘ by Kim Ghattas, The Atlantic, Oct 2, 2022. "From Baghdad to Beirut, Tehran's opponents are exploring the possibility that a wave of protests might help weaken Iran's grip on their own countries."
- What Afghans Want the Rest of the World to Know⩘ by Bushra Seddique, The Atlantic, Oct 9, 2022. "The country is, once again, the worst place in the world to be a woman."
- Iranian security forces arresting children in school, reports claim⩘ by Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, Oct 9, 2022. "… the Norway-based Iran Human Rights group said on Saturday that at least 185 people, including at least 19 children, have been killed in the countrywide demonstrations."
- His father was killed in a massacre at a Sikh temple. To understand why, he reached out to a former White supremacist – and formed a surprising friendship ⩘ by Harmeet Kaur, CNN, Oct 30, 2022. "Despite their disagreements, Kaleka and Michaelis both feel that at their core they share the same values. Both men try to see humanity in everyone."
Henry Holt and Co., 2020; audiobook: HighBridge Audio, 2020; IndieBound⩘
Dr. Steven Novella, The Skeptics' Guide to the Future
What Yesterday's Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow
With Bob Novella and Jay Novella; well narrated by the author
Sometimes the simpler solutions … are just better.
Initially, the authors look at the predictions about the future that were made in the past and analyze why they were so often wrong, often wildly so. Building on the lessons learned from that and often using concepts that have been presented in science fiction books, movies, and TV shows as a springboard, they explore a whole range of topics, predicting what advances are probable or possible, and how and when they might occur, as well as what is highly unlikely, simply not practicable, or goes against the fundamental laws of physics.
Space travel is going to suck long into our future.
Book & audiobook: Grand Central Publishing, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Perhat Tursun, The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang
Translated by Darren Byler and Anonymous
Most of the time I was reading this book, I felt like I was in a haze, not unlike the main character of the book experiences walking through the streets of Ürümchi in a dark fog. Tursun describes what it is like to be in a city in his own homeland, yet to be treated as if he doesn't belong, as if he is either invisible or an unwelcome threat. This is the experience of Uyghurs in Xinjiang since the Chinese government under Xi Jinping, the "Paramount leader, also named supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Government and People's Liberation Army of the People's Republic of China" (reference: Wikipedia⩘ ) began its brutal crackdown of invasive surveillance, mass detention, and torture.
Just then I realized that everyone becomes a homeless wanderer after they are born and has difficulty finding a proper place for themselves as soon as they touch the ground and let out their initial cry. They will spend their whole life trying to determine their position—becoming anxious and griping about its vagueness. Everyone is a wanderer in space. Even the notion of possession carried out by those who own land, palaces, and mansions is in fact just an assumption based on imitation. Some people aren't even satisfied by owning their own lands, palaces, and mansions, but to make it their own instead want to own whole cities, countries, and the universe itself. All of this comes from a kind of worry that is based on the feeling that a person can't determine a lasting position in the universe. The more this happens, the more a person wants to own their place in the world and deny the idea that nothing can really belong to them. Or that they themselves were born into this world for no other reason than to be a wanderer for their whole life. They want to deny all of this by madly thinking they can own things unceasingly.
Shortly after completing this book, Perhat Tursun disappeared, as have so many other Uyghurs. He is thought to be serving a long prison sentence in one of the many detention camps in Xinjiang. The "anonymous" co-translator of this book also disappeared. Darren Byler is an American anthropologist, author and assistant professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University who specializes in the Uyghurs in China and has written about their ongoing oppression such as through the Xinjiang internment camps.
- In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony⩘ by Darren Byler.
- A Uyghur seeks just a place to sleep in 'The Backstreets'⩘ by Emily Feng, NPR, Sep 13, 2022.
- Xinjiang Has Produced Its James Joyce: And he's now sitting in a prison camp⩘ by Ed Park, The Atlantic, Sep 22, 2022.
- "The irony is that Tursun, a secular Muslim steeped in 20th-century Western literature and philosophy, was himself the target of death threats from conservative Uyghur Muslims outraged by his 1999 novel, The Art of Suicide. (The journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who wrote that 2015 profile, dubbed him China's Salman Rushdie.) Persecuted by the religious right and its foe, the Chinese Communist Party, Tursun would be a heroic figure regardless of the quality of his output. Its bittersweet for us Anglophones, then, that the slim evidence we have—136 pages, distilled over a quarter century—is close to a perfect work of art."
Columbia University Press, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Bruce Henderson, Bridge to the Sun: The Secret Role of the Japanese Americans Who Fought in the Pacific in World War II
Well narrated by Brian Nishii; afterword by Gerald Yamada
Having read and very much appreciated Facing the Mountain⩘ last year, this new release caught my attention. Then two review snippets made me realize I definitely wanted to listen to it:
"Bridge to the Sun tells the unforgettable true story of Japanese American troops who defended our nation while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II—even as their families were being imprisoned in American internment camps back home. This book honors their courage and sacrifices, and it highlights the lesser-known service of the Japanese Americans who helped save countless American lives as part of the Army's Military Intelligence Service while fighting on two fronts: against the Japanese overseas and against racial prejudice here at home." – Senator Tammy Duckworth
"Bridge to the Sun is all the stronger for its willingness to acknowledge the deep evils of war while simultaneously celebrating the bravery and valor of a group of soldiers that can only be classified as true American heroes." – Zack Ruskin, Review: 'Bridge to the Sun' spotlights heroism of Japanese American soldiers in World War II⩘ , San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, Sep 20, 2022.
Bridge to the Sun, which is focused on American soldiers of Japanese descent who served in the Pacific Theatre, is as incredible a book and tells as amazing a story as Facing the Mountain, which is focused in the European Theatre. The soldiers featured in Bridge to the Sun served mainly as interpreters and translators, though also often in the thick of brutal battles.
Once again, I felt deep sadness at the way Japanese Americans were treated after WWII broke out, especially those who were torn from their lives, homes, and livelihoods to be sent to internment camps. I also feel deep sadness about the way Americans of Japanese descent are all too often still treated by other Americans today. To behave in such a manner reveals a despicable ignorance.
After listening to this book, I came to the same conclusion: we owe these heroes a deep and lasting debt of gratitude.
Knopf, 2022; audiobook: Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Well narrated by the author
I first heard of Anand Giridharadas when he was speaking in Joel Bakan's film, The New Corporation⩘ . I was impressed by his comments and decided to listen to his book.
A starting premise of this book is that "something is not quite right." Giridharadas explores this "something" by interviewing a lot of people who are working with global corporations and wealthy individuals who are "doing good to do well," a concept that is explored in The New Corporation.
It is in many respects a rather bleak book because it uncovers an ugly truth, which is that this approach of trying to solve the world's big problems through the philanthropy of the rich and powerful rather than by empowering governments to tackle these issues all too often leads to the treatment of symptoms rather than root causes. Another way Giridharadas expresses this is as "this paradox of elite change-making that somehow seems to keep things the same." But one thing it does accomplish is to makes the do-gooders feel better about themselves, even when they themselves caused or are contributing to the problems in the first place.
It's important to listen to or read the acknowledgments at the end of the book, as Giridharadas provides perspective on how he came to be aware of this issue and to gain such a keen insight into the players involved. In fact, I found this so important to evaluating the validity of his arguments that I ended up thinking that this information should've been presented in an introduction to the book.
Vintage, 2018; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2018; IndieBound⩘
Ramona Emerson, Shutter
Well narrated by Charley Flyte
This debut novel by Diné filmmaker Ramona Emerson is a fresh and gripping police procedural. Featuring Rita Todacheene, a member of the Navajo nation who works as a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque police force, the novel explores both her current work and the events that have shaped her life including the time spent living with her wise grandmother on the reservation.
Rita brings an interesting dimension to her work: since she was a child, she has been able to see and interact with the spirits of the departed. So the victims at the crime scenes she is working sometimes help her discover details that the detectives on scene miss.
The novel begins with some rather gruesome descriptions of crime scenes that might be too much for some readers, but it's a realistic glimpse of how she sees and experiences the scenes through her camera lenses. This also provides the foundation from which the story pivots and takes off in surprising directions that grabbed my attention and kept me spellbound.
Soho Crime, 2022; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Vanessa Nakate, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis
Vibrantly narrated by the author
A passionate, incisive, feisty, and honest treatise on our climate crisis, with a focus on Africa. Courageous Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate clearly explains that the global south contributes only a small percentage of emissions to the climate crisis, but is suffering the vast majority of the life-altering and life-ending consequences.
I can't understand why more people aren't outraged or that more institutions, organizations, and governments aren't mobilizing.
Nakate's tenacious activism is inspiring. She decisively calls for urgent global action and climate justice, providing clear examples and feasible, achievable means for achieving the necessary change.
All we really want is a livable and healthy planet, an equitable and sustainable present and future. Is that too much to ask? Not to destroy our only home and have a small group of people benefit from our pain and suffering. Let's do all we must to protect our planet and have everybody happy too.
She concludes her book with practical suggestions for how we all can contribute.
Young people like Nakate are changing the world. If we are to save our planet and ourselves, I'm convinced it will be because of their passionate leadership.
Our house is on fire. There's no more time to waste.
Mariner Books, 2021; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Author's website: Vanessa Nakate - Climate Activist from Uganda⩘
- 'Polluters must pay': UN chief calls for windfall tax on fossil fuel companies⩘ by Oliver Milman and Julian Borger, The Guardian, Sep 2022. "António Guterres said money raised should be diverted to vulnerable nations suffering losses caused by climate crisis."
- Vanuatu makes bold call for global treaty to phase out fossil fuels⩘ by Miranda Bryant and Australian Associated Press, The Guardian, Sep 24, 2022. "We call for the development of a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty to phase down coal, oil and gas production in line with 1.5C and enable a global just transition for every worker."
- 'A powerful solution': activists push to make ecocide an international crime⩘ by Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Guardian, Sep 26, 2022. "Movement aims to make the mass damage and destruction of ecosystems a prosecutable, international crime against peace."
- Young people demand climate justice in run-up to Cop27 UN talks⩘ by Sandra Laville, The Guardian, Oct 3, 2022. Omar Elmawi from Kenya: "My aim is to rise from the ashes to show that we are not just victims but a force to reckon with. All we have to do is move past our small differences and find unity of purpose to stop the exploitation of global south resources, including oil and fossil gas, for the wealthier nations and instead push for real solutions that provide accessible and affordable energy to the millions of people that are energy poor."
- 'It's on us to fight': the student climate activist energizing a US school board⩘ by Maanvi Singh, The Guardian, Oct 7, 2022.
Darren Byler, In the Camps: China's High-Tech Penal Colony
Well narrated by Fajer Al-Kaisi
A short but excellent and very hard hitting account of the brutal and inhumane treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang by the Chinese government, as well as their exploitation by Chinese businesses as very low paid laborers, kept docile by the ever-present threat of being sent or re-sent for "re-education" at the horrendous internment camps the Chinese have built throughout Xinjiang.
Darren Byler is assistant professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University and an expert on Uyghur society and Chinese surveillance systems. According to the book description, it is based on "hours of interviews with camp survivors and workers, thousands of government documents, and over a decade of research."
- The faces from China's Uyghur detention camps⩘
- Waiting to be arrested⩘
- Surveillance State: Inside China's Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control⩘
- The Tech Site That Took On China's Surveillance State⩘ by Timothy McLaughlin, The Atlantic, Sep 29, 2022.
Columbia Global Reports, 2021; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Joel Bakan, The New Corporation: How "Good" Corporations Are Bad for Democracy
Well narrated by Kevin R. Free
To prepare for listening to this book, I rewatched the 2003 documentary film, The Corporation⩘ , which is based on the first book Joel Bakan wrote, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power⩘ . Even now, nearly two decades later, it is a shocking and sickening story about the psychopathic behavior of corporations.
Per the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Ed.:
- A person who engages repeatedly in criminal and antisocial behavior without remorse or empathy for those victimized.
- A morally irresponsible person.
- A person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, cunning, manipulating, glibness, exploiting, heedlessness, arrogance, delusions of grandeur, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, disregard for morality, lack of acceptance of responsibility, callousness, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses.
The New Corporation, an even more devastating story, explores how things have evolved—or more accurately, devolved—over the recent two decades as corporations have sought to sidestep government and reduce regulations or become self-regulating, while trying to project an image of "doing good to do well".
Of course, we have seen through the smokescreen of "doing good" over and over, for example, the Volkswagon Dieselgate scandal⩘ . We also have seen what self-regulation has led to again and again, for example, Boeing 737 MAX airplanes diving out of the sky to crash and kill all on board after Boing evaded the regulatory oversight of the FAA (Wikipedia article: Boeing 737 MAX groundings⩘ ).
By liberating corporations from regulation, we liberate them from us. That's a profound and profoundly undemocratic shift.
The overall impact of "doing good to do well" has been to make corporations tremendously more powerful and wealthy while they rape the planet and grind enormous numbers of people around the world into despair and poverty.
Much of what I saw and listened to in The Corporation and The New Corporation left me feeling that we are so fucked. But the final portion of The New Corporation has an uplifting message about what is possible when people come together.
One thing that's remarkable is just that people keep struggling, that in the worst situations, people always fight. Even when you thought nothing is possible, you look at the political situation and think how bad it is, then something beautiful and inspiring comes up.
Vintage, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Listening to the book inspired me to watch the film based on it, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel⩘ . I found it an even more powerful experience. It covers all the main points presented in the book, but in a more succinct and, of course, visually arresting format. I'd actually recommend watching the movie over listening to or reading the book.
"200 years of corporate rule is enough."
See also: Criticism intensifies after big oil admits 'gaslighting' public over green aims⩘ by Oliver Milman, The Guardian, Sep 17, 2022.
Luke Mogelson, The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible
Well narrated by Rob Shapiro
A deep dive into a sad and crazed conflict fueled by delusion.
Mogelson spent years as a war reporter covering conflicts around the world. Then, when he saw what was happening with QAnon and right-wing militias during Trump's presidency, he came home to cover the conflict here, bringing his fine-honed ability to make sense out of chaos by getting close to the people involved on the frontlines and persuading them to open up about their motivations and intentions.
His firsthand account of what happened at and in the Capitol on January 6th is more powerful than any other account I've read or any of the videos I've seen.
An excellent boots-on-the-ground account of what has been unfolding these past six years, revealing the very real dangers we face as a nation.
- Reporter Luke Mogelson: 'I was surprised by the lunacy of the conspiracy theories in Michigan'⩘ interview by Killian Fox, The Guardian, Aug 28, 2022.
"The New Yorker writer, whose new book follows the militarised rightwing protests in Michigan that prefigured the Capitol attacks, on extremism and the possibility of civil war."
- The Storm Is Here by Luke Mogelson review – America on the brink⩘ by Julian Borger, The Guardian, Sep 7, 2022.
Penguin Press, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Javier Zamora, Solito
Narrated by the author
From the author's website⩘ : "When he was a year old, his father fled El Salvador due to the US-funded Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). His mother followed her husband's footsteps in 1995 when Javier was about to turn five. Zamora was left at the care of his grandparents who helped raise him until he migrated to the US when he was nine."
An amazing story, a memoir written by the now adult Javier Zamora about his more than two-month journey by land and sea as a child in 1999 from his hometown of La Herradura, El Salvador to the U.S. to join his parents. Written with the grace, sensitivity, and attention to detail of the poet he now is, it is a vivid recounting of his experience, at times beautiful, at others, horrifying.
The latter part of the book, describing in detail his actual crossings into La USA through the Sonoran Desert, is absolutely terrifying.
At the same time, the way a few of the other strangers traveling with Javier take him under their care, becoming almost like family, is incredibly touching. "Mom likes to call them my 'angels,'' but I worry that takes away their humanity and their nonreligious capacity for love and compassion they showed a stranger."
Another strong contrast that comes across is the difference between the callous treatment by most of the U.S. Border Patrol authorities of the people, including children, they caught and put into cages during their processing before deportation, and the graceful and compassionate care provided to those same people after they had been deported by a charity run by nuns who provided them with good hot meals, showers, and beds. Still, there was one Border Patrol officer who treated them kindly and humanely, showing it is possible.
The one thing I struggled with is that Zamora sprinkles quite a bit of Spanish throughout the book, mostly with no translation provided. Consequently, there were frequent times when I lost the flow of the story, which was a shame. I'm always surprised when authors publish a book in English and do this. I understand and even enjoy when some Spanish, or whatever other language is relevant to the story shared in a book, is incorporated into a story to provide flavor, but only when translations are provided when necessary to maintain the flow for an English-speaking reader or lister like me who isn't fluent in the other language being shared, especially in an audiobook when it's even more challenging to look up translations. But it's a minor issue relative to the overall power of the story.
Beautiful cover illustration by Daniel Liévano. Cover designed by Anna Kochman.
Hogarth, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Josh Chin and Liza Lin, Surveillance State: Inside China's Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control
Well narrated by Brian Nishii
An in-depth exploration of the rapid expansion of surveillance focused primarily on China—where it used by the government for the brutal suppression of the Uyghur, the systematic monitoring of the behavior of billions of other Chinese, and also for some attempts to achieve social good—and secondarily on other parts of the world where despots are using it to solidify their control and police are using it clandestinely to monitor crime and attempt to catch criminals. This latter case is prevalent in the U.S., though with mixed results and unfortunately in ways that are trampling the rights of some innocent people.
The book begins and ends with the story of Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet and filmmaker, and his family, who experience firsthand the encroaching iron fist of surveillance in Xinjiang, then escape to live in exile in the United States, though surveillance continues to smother them by making it impossible for them to stay connected to their families and friends back home, some of whom are in the horrendous "re-education" camps the Chinese government is running in Xinjiang.
Chin and Lin also describe how U.S. corporations are profiting off selling the instruments of surveillance—hardware, software, and artificial intelligence—with no control over whether it is being used ethically or unethically. Only profit matters.
The lesson of the book is quite clear: surveillance is creeping into all of our lives. If we're not careful and don't remain vigilant, we stand to lose our freedom and fundamental human rights as it permeates and controls every aspect of our lives.
St. Martin's Press, 2022; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
- Waiting to be arrested⩘
- The faces from China's Uyghur detention camps⩘
- 'Surveillance State' explores China's tech and social media control systems⩘ by Emily Feng, NPR Book Reviews, Sep 7, 2022.
- The Tech Site That Took On China's Surveillance State⩘ by Timothy McLaughlin, The Atlantic, Sep 29, 2022. "He obviously pisses people off, but it is because he is trying to tell the truth." – Gordon Haupt speaking about John Honovich.
- 'A brazen intrusion': China's foreign police stations raise hackles in Canada⩘ by Leyland Cecco in Toronto, The Guardian, Nov 7, 2022. "The allegations came after a string of cases around the world in which China has been accused of overstepping diplomatic and legal norms to persecute its citizens far beyond its borders. In a report released last month, the Madrid-based NGO Safeguard Defenders detailed 54 alleged Chinese police stations around the world, prompting authorities in a number of countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, to launch police investigations."
Bella Lack, The Children of the Anthropocene
Bella Lack, a young person and a child of the Anthropocene, shares the inspiring stories of other young people from around the world she has met in person or online who are working with determination and passion to create a better world.
We are right now in the beginning of a global climate and ecological emergency that affects all of us.
A book like this could be really bleak—what we are facing is dire, and those of us in the older generations seriously messed up—yet every time she shares a devastating story or statistic, Bella manages to steer the narrative in the direction of what it is possible for people who care about our planet to do.
This predicament we find ourselves in now is an opportunity to invent another kind of civilization. One more cognizant of limits and less exploitative, but also one more compassionate, green, inclusive, and safe. Just as volcanic ash creates the most fertile soil, we too now have the opportunity to exit this period of smothering the earth and allow for the growth of something else.
Penguin Life, 2022; Blackwell's UK⩘
- One of the young people Bella Lack writes about in her book, Genesis Butler, stopped eating one of her favorite foods, chicken nuggets, when she was three years old and learned where they came from, then became a vegan a few years later when she learned where her milk came from. "As many people do when when they feel something is undeniably wrong, she began to speak up about it. She says she rarely has to convince people to care about animals, but rather to align their existing care for animals with their actions towards them."
- Her TEDxCSULB talk is an absolute delight: A 10-year old's vision for healing the planet⩘ by Genesis Butler, TEDxCSULB, May 19, 2017.
- Genesis Butler's website: www.GenesisForAnimals.org⩘
- "Africa is on the frontlines of the climate crisis but it's not on the front pages of the world's newspapers. Every activist who speaks out is telling a story about themselves and their community, but if they are ignored, the world will not know what's really happening, what solutions are working. The erasure of our voices is literally the erasure of our histories and what people hold dear to their lives," said Nakate.
- 'Africa is on the frontlines but not the front pages': Vanessa Nakate on her climate fight⩘ by Nina Lakhani, photo by Evelyn Freja, The Guardian, Sep 17, 2022.
- Vanessa's website: Vanessa Nakate - Climate Activist from Uganda⩘
- Vanessa's book: A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis⩘
- 'What's the alternative? To give up?': Bella Lack, the new queen of green⩘ by Alex Moshakis, The Guardian, Aug 14, 2022.
Meron Hadero, A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times
Well narrated by Emebeit Beyene, Dele Ogundiran, Benjamin Onyango Ochieng, Raymond Karago, Waceke Wambaa, and Samba Schutte
When Brittle Paper reported⩘ that "Meron Hadero is the First Ethiopian to Win the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing" for her short story The Street Sweep, I immediately downloaded the PDF⩘ and dove right in. I ended up writing this: "Her vividly told story brought back so many memories from the time I spent in Ethiopia, mainly Addis Ababa, as an exchange student nearly 50 years ago, an experience that certainly shaped the rest of my life."
Since then, I've eagerly awaited the publication of her first book, and here it is!
There are some real gems in this collection that address the challenges faced by people within the international diaspora, the awkwardness of visiting home after a long time away, the toll of poverty, and the hope for a better world. Hadero is a perceptive and witty writer. I look forward to her future works.
Restless Books, 2022; audiobook: Blackstone Publishing, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Jason Mosberg, My Dirty California
Well narrated by Corey Brill, Joy Osmanski, Joniece Abbott-Pratt & Andy Garcia-Ruse
When this book caught my attention, I was a bit skeptical, but the description suggested an offbeat freshness, so I decided to give it a try.
As the story unfolded, it kept surprising me and definitely kept me on my toes as it turned into something I definitely hadn't expected, covering a range of societal issues—drugs, racism, immigration, mental health, human trafficking—in a very unusual way, loosely wrapped in a murder mystery.
Though portions of the ending felt a bit too neatly wrapped up, the overall story kept me guessing and totally hooked my attention right up to the end.
Simon & Schuster, 2022; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Dr. Becky Smethurst, A Brief History of Black Holes
And why nearly everything you know about them is wrong
Enthusiastically narrated by the author
An entertaining dive (well, maybe that's not the correct word) into Gravitationally Completely Collapsed Objects, popularly known as black holes because nothing, not even light, can escape them, though Smethurst suggests that perhaps they could be more accurately called black stars since they aren't holes. Then again, they're the brightest objects in the universe due to the light emitted by their accretion disk, so that doesn't quite fit either.
I'm reminded of this NASA/JPL-Caltech photo of the Andromeda galaxy with its super-bright light at the center where its massive black hole is located, although that light is generated by the "blob" of stars at the center of the galaxy.
The fact is, since nothing can escape a black hole—not even light waves, the fastest things we know about in the universe—we can't really know what's inside them. What we do know comes down to observing the behavior of everything beyond their event horizon—the boundary beyond which nothing can escape from them—but still within the sphere of influence of their massive gravitational pull.
By studying the orbits of the stars in the centre of the Milky Way we can also determine how massive the object is that they're orbiting. We've now even seen one star complete an entire orbit around the centre in just sixteen years at a speed of over 11 million miles per hour. Compare that with the 250 million years it takes the Sun to orbit around the centre at 'only' 450,000 miles per hour.
In 2002, the results of Ghez's project were published, and astronomers finally knew how massive the dark object at the centre of our galaxy was: four million times the mass of the Sun. It is found in an area sixteen times the distance between the Earth and the Sun (to put that into context: Uranus orbits at nineteen times the distance between the Earth and the Sun). For something to be so big in such a relatively small space and invisible to all wavelengths of light, there was only one thing it could possibly be—a supermassive black hole.
A wonderful journey through a mind-blowing topic.
See also: Where does the name "black hole" come from?⩘ (hint: they're not black & they're not holes), a video by Dr Becky⩘ , Sep 1 2022.
Pan Macmillan, 2022 IndieBound⩘ ; audiobook: Pan Macmillan, 2022; Apple Audiobooks⩘
George Dawson, Life Is So Good
One Man's Extraordinary Journey Through the 20th Century and How He Learned to Read at Age 98
With Richard Glaubman; well narrated by LeVar Burton
An interesting autobiography about a good-hearted man who was born in the 19th century, witnessed all of the 20th century, learned to read at the end of the century at the age of 98, and saw this book, his autobiography, published in 2000 when he was 102.
"I am a witness to the truth."
I became aware of this book when a news article that seemed too crazy to be real caught my attention. Unfortunately, in these insane times when so many people are afraid to face the truth, the article turned out to be true. Per Wikipedia⩘ :
Dawson was posthumously honored when the Carroll Independent School District named a middle school after him in Southlake [Texas]. This same school subsequently placed his book under review in August 2022, to determine if topics such as "lynching, racism, segregation and civil rights" are suitable instructional materials.
Yes, the book does discuss lynching, racism, segregation and civil rights. How could any truthful book about the entirety of the 20th century not discuss those topics, especially one authored by a Black man? More importantly, it discusses the inspiring life of a man who lived a full and interesting life, and who faced hardships and challenges with grace and perseverance.
Mr. Dawson passed away in 2001 at the age of 103.
Random House, 2000; audiobook: Phoenix Books, 2000; IndieBound⩘
Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Surviving Autocracy
Narrated by the author
The Man Without a Face is an informative, sad, chilling story that helps explain the brutal and immoral insanity of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, and also provides a very sobering warning about how important it is that we defend our democracy here in the U.S.
Once the institutions of democracy had been dismantled, it was impossible, it was too late, to organize to defend them.
Surviving Autocracy is a razor sharp and insightful exploration of the way Trump and his presidency infected the U.S. with unabashed autocracy, and what will be needed to recover from this disastrous anomaly.
[T]he Trump administration shared two key features with the Soviet government: utter disregard for human life and a monomaniacal focus on pleasing the leader, to make him appear unerring and all-powerful. These are the features of autocratic leadership.
Recovery from Trumpism—a process that will be necessary whenever Trumpism ends—will not be a process of returning to government as it used to be, a fictional state of pre-Trump normalcy. Recovery will be possible only as reinvention: of institutions, of what politics means to us, and of what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.
The job of revitalizing the language of politics will fall primarily to political leaders. It will be the job of journalists to embody and enforce the expectation of meaning. It will also be the job of journalists to create a communications sphere in which people feel not like spectators to a disaster that defies understanding but like participants in creating a common future with their fellow citizens. This is the fundamental project of democracy, and the reason it requires media.
"Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist, author, translator and activist who has been an outspoken critic of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the former president of the United States, Donald Trump." Wikipedia⩘
The Man Without a Face: Riverhead Books, 2013; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2019; IndieBound⩘ | Surviving Autocracy: Riverhead Books, 2021; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2020; IndieBound⩘
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Translated by Julie Rose; narrated by George Guidall
Amazing novel, originally published in 1862 while Hugo was in a self-imposed exile. I first read it many years ago after I came across a facsimile hardbound edition at a used bookstore (which didn't even list the translator). Recently, I listened to another novel that I actually didn't enjoy all that much, but it made frequent references to Les Misérables, which peaked my interest in experiencing it again. When I took a look at the many editions that are currently available, this one caught my attention because there were a lot of complimentary reviews of Julie Rose's recent translation. Frankly, I'm not a fan of George Guidall's narration style and even skip listening to some books when he's the narrator, but I really wanted to listen to Julie Rose's translation, so that was the price.
I didn't remember much of the story from my first reading, other than a faint outline of the story, so it was like diving into a new book. Despite Guidall's narration, I quite appreciated Rose's translation, and really enjoyed getting swept away for many, many days in the story once again. It's a masterpiece of writing about the human experience from so many different angles.
From the book description: "Victor Hugo (1802–1885), novelist, poet, playwright, and French national icon, is best known for two of today's most popular world classics: Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, as well as other works, including The Toilers of the Sea and The Man Who Laughs. Hugo was elected to the Académie Française in 1841. As a statesman, he was named a Peer of France in 1845. He served in France's National Assemblies in the Second Republic formed after the 1848 revolution, and in 1851 went into self-imposed exile upon the ascendance of Napoleon III, who restored France's government to authoritarian rule. Hugo returned to France in 1870, after the proclamation of the Third Republic."
This edition – Audio: Recorded Books, 2011; Paper: Modern Library, 2008; IndieBound⩘
Wikipedia: List of characters⩘
Illustration: Cosette in the Thénardiers' inn at Montfermeil depicted by Émile Bayard (1837-1891) – Les Musées de la Ville de Paris⩘ , Public domain⩘ :
Frankie Boyle, Meantime
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
Well 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.
Icon Books, 2022; audiobook: Dreamscape Media, 2022; IndieBound⩘
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
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
Translated 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.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022; audiobook: Tantor Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Louise Carey, Outcast: The Truth Won't Always Set You Free
Well 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!
Gollancz, 2022; IndieBound⩘ ; audiobook: Orion, 2022; Apple Books⩘
Carlo Rovelli, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important than Kindness
And Other Thoughts on Physics, Philosophy and the World
Narrated 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.
Riverhead Books, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Karen Campbell, Paper Cup
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. This one will be available stateside in September 2022.
Canongate Books, 2022, IndieBound⩘
Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
Well 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.
Doubleday, 2020; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2020; IndieBound⩘
See also: Ousted Republican reflects on Trump, democracy and America: 'The place has lost its mind'⩘ by Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, Aug 21, 2022.
Rusty Bowers was speaker of Arizona's house of representatives when he stood up to the former president's demand that he overturn the election result. He paid the price but has no regrets.
Mick Herron, Nobody Walks
Well 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.
Soho Crime, 2015; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2015; IndieBound⩘
David McRaney, How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion
Narrated 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:
- Street epistemology - best suited for beliefs in empirical matters like whether ghosts are real or airplanes are spreading mind control agents in their chemtrails.
- Deep canvassing - best suited for attitudes, emotional evaluations that guide our pursuit of confirmatory evidence, like a CEO is a bad person or a particular policy will ruin the country.
- Smart Politics - best suited for values, the hierarchy of goals we consider most important, like gun control or immigration reform.
- Motivational interviewing - best suited for motivating people to change behaviors, like getting vaccinated to help end a pandemic or recycling your garbage to help stave off climate change.
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:
- Don't assume bad intent.
- Ask questions.
- Stay calm.
- Make the argument.
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⩘
Portfolio, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini To The Present
How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fail
Well 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.
 Author's website: Ruth Ben-Ghiat⩘ ; Substack newsletter: Lucid⩘
W. W. Norton & Co, 2020; audiobook: Kalorama, 2020; IndieBound⩘
Joachim Schmidt, Kalmann
Translated 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.
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.
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."
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.
See also: Aurora Over Arctic Henge⩘ by Cari Letelier⩘ , Astronomy Picture of the Day, Mar 27, 2023.
Bitter Lemon Press⩘ , 2022; IndieBound⩘
Eddie Robson, Drunk on All Your Strange New Words
Well 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.
Tor, 2022; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Massoud Hayoun, Building 46 四十六号楼
"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
Well 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.
Random House, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Werner Herzog, The Twilight World
Translated 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 (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 Press, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for American Democracy
Narrated 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; audiobook: Simon & Schuster, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Chris Offutt, The Killing Hills and Shifty's Boys
Very 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:Grove Press, 2021; audiobook: Dreamscape Media, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Shifty's Boys: Grove Press, 2022; audiobook: Dreamscape Media, 2022; IndieBound⩘
David Yoon, City of Orange
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.
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Dan Chaon, Sleepwalk
Pitch-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.
Henry Holt & Company, 2022; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Deon Meyer, The Last Hunt
Translated 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.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020; audiobook: HighBridge Audio, 2020; IndieBound⩘
Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta, Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History
Well 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.
Harper, 2021; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Ian Millhiser, Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted
Narrated 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.
Bold Type Books, 2016; audiobook: Tantor, 2015; 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.
I later listened to a speculative fiction novel also featuring octopuses, The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, and while I didn't appreciate it as much as this one, there was a line in it that I quite enjoyed when he describes an octopus as "exploring its world with liquid curiosity."
Ecco Press, 2022; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
Narrated 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 Press, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
John W. Reid & Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ever Green: Saving Big Forests to Save the Planet
Well 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:
- The Amazon – mainly Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, and also Bolivia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela.
- The Congo Basin – Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
- The Taiga of Russia and far northern Europe – Sweden, Finland, Russia, Norway, and Estonia.
- The North American boreal zone – Canada and Alaska.
- The island of New Guinea.
- A plea to preserve the megaforests that keep the Earth alive⩘ by Richard Schiffman, The Washington Post, Apr 1, 2022.
- 1,000-year-old oaks used to create 'super forest'⩘ by Helen Briggs, BBC, Mar 25, 2022.
- And for a sobering reality check: 'Relentless' destruction of rainforest continuing despite Cop26 pledge⩘ by Patrick Greenfield, The Guardian, Apr 28, 2022: "Tropics lost 11.1m hectares of tree cover in 2021, including forest critical to limiting global heating and biodiversity loss, finds World Resources Institute."
W. W. Norton & Company, 2022; audiobook: HighBridge, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Elie Mystal, Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy's Guide to the Constitution
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 via Apple Books⩘
Steven Kotler, Last Tango in Cyberspace & The Devil's Dictionary
Well 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: St. Martin's Press, 2019; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2019; IndieBound⩘
The Devil's Dictionary: St. Martin's Press, 2022; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
Narrated 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.
Basic Books, 2021; audiobook: Tantor Media, 2015; IndieBound⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
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-vol. 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."
Seven Stories Press, 2005; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2008; , IndieBound⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988)
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.
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⩘ ; also available as an audiobook narrated by Mark Bramhall via Apple Books⩘
Jenny Tinghui Zhang, Four Treasures of the Sky
Narrated 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.
Flatiron Books, 2022; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2022; , IndieBound⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five,
or, The Children's Crusade
Well 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.
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⩘ ; also available as an audiobook narrated by James Franco via Apple Books⩘
Will Hurd, American Reboot: An Idealist's Guide to Getting Big Things Done
Narrated 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, 2022; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
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, 2010; IndieBound⩘ ; audiobook: Beacon Press, 2018; Libro.fm⩘
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; audiobook narrated by Jacques Roy: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Aside: And for a humorous glimpse of one the craziest ideas we've fallen for, watch:
Conspiracy Theorist Anonymous
The Chaser⩘ , Dec 18, 2020
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction
Narrated 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 Kimberlé Crenshaw's writing on the subject? This book even 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.
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.
New York University Press, 2017; IndieBound⩘ ; audiobook: Echo Point Books & Media, 2019; Apple Books⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird
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
Translated 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.
Open Letter, 2021; audiobook: Tantor Media, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Donald Hoffman, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes
Narrated 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!
- Do we see reality as it is?⩘ , Donald Hoffman, TED2015.
- Are we all living in a hallucination?⩘ , made by Daniel Nils Roberts, BBC Ideas, Jul 4, 2022.
W. W. Norton & Co, 2019; audiobook: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019; IndieBound⩘
Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
Well 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.
Vintage, 1989 (1966), IndieBound⩘ ; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2015, IndieBound⩘ ;
Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth
Narrated 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.
Vintage, 2022 (1963); audiobook: Recorded Books, 2008;
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
Narrated 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⩘ .
St. Martin's Press, 2022; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Kelly Weill, Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything
Well 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.
Algonquin Books, 2022; IndieBound⩘ ; audiobook: Workman Audio, 2022, Libro.fm⩘
Rob Hart, The Paradox Hotel
Narrated 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.
Ballantine Books, 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Jelani Cobb, The Essential Kerner Commission Report: The Landmark Study on Race, Inequality, and Police Violence
Well 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:
- Summary of the Kerner Commission Report: Introduction
- What Happened? Chapter 1: Profiles of Disorder
- Why Did It Happen? Chapter 4: The Basic Causes
- What Can Be Done? Chapter 11: Police and the Community
- What Can Be Done? Chapter 17: Recommendations for National Action
- Appendix [to the The Essential Kerner Commission Report]: Frequently Asked Questions
[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.
Liveright Publishing, 2021; audiobook: Kalorama, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five,
or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
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
Narrated by Vikas Adam
Note: Now retitled Progressive Capitalism: How to Make Tech Work for All of Us
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, 2022; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism
Narrated 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.
Basic Books, 2018 (originally published in 1992); audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2018; IndieBound⩘
Kimberly Jones, How We Can Win: Race, History and Changing the Money Game That's Rigged
Narrated 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
Henry Holt & Company, 2022; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Well 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.
Anchor Books, 2017; audiobook: Random House Audio, 2016; IndieBound⩘
David Fideler, Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living
Well 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⩘
W. W. Norton & Company, 2021; audiobook: Ascent Audio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
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
Narrated 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.
Crown Publishing Group (NY), 2021; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Narrated 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:
- Chapter 1: The Sixth Extinction – Kolbert uses the frog-fungus relationship as a symbol of how humans are introducing invasive species to various environments, where native species would normally have the proper distribution of alleles for their environment.
- Chapter 2: The Mastodon's Molars – Kolbert uses the mastodon as a symbol for the idea that catastrophe is an important mechanism of extinction.
- Chapter 3: The Original Penguin – Kolbert uses the great auk as a symbol of how human overexploitation of resources is another important mechanism of extinction.
- Chapter 4: The Luck of the Ammonites – Kolbert explains that, even though ammonites were 'fit' for their current environment, a single moment can completely change which traits are advantageous and which are lethal.
- Chapter 5: Welcome to the Anthropocene – Kolbert states that human activity has transformed between a third and a half of land surface on the planet. We have dammed most of the major rivers of world, increased levels of nitrogen higher than can be fixed naturally by terrestrial ecosystems, used more than half of the world's readily accessible freshwater run-off, removed more than one third of the primary producers of the oceans' coastal waters, and changed the composition of the atmosphere by deforestation and fossil fuel combustion.
- Chapter 6: The Sea Around Us – Kolbert uses the drastic decline in life forms around the Castello Aragonese as a warning sign of what is to come if we continue to increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
- Chapter 7: Dropping Acid – Coral reefs support thousands of species by providing food and protection. Subsequently, many species have co-evolved with corals. Due to ocean acidification, it is very possible that corals will become extinct by the end of the century.
- Chapter 8: The Forest and the Trees – The extent to which species are mobile and can relocate to new areas, in response to shifting climate conditions, is predicted to be a significant factor in possible species extinction. This has particular importance for trees and other plant species. Even more difficult to estimate is the extent to which ecological communities of species will be able to tolerate disruptive changes.
- Chapter 9: Islands on Dry Land – Kolbert points out how everything in life is interconnected, and discusses the importance of patch dynamics. Over time, fragmentation of environmental areas leads to a decrease in the number of species in an area. This occurs, in part, because the size of such "islands" is too small to support a stable number of species members. Also, smaller populations are more vulnerable to these changing events.… Kolbert also notes that the habits of many species can be highly specialized to their environment. She explains that one minor change can cause a domino effect in various ecological systems.
- Chapter 10: The New Pangaea – Kolbert points out that there is an evolutionary arms race, in which each species must be equipped to defend against their potential predators, and need to be more fit than their competition. A species has no defense if it encounters a new fungus, virus, or bacterium.
- Chapter 11: The Rhino Gets an Ultrasound – Kolbert uses this rhino species to illustrate habitat fragmentation as another mechanism of extinction.
- Chapter 12: The Madness Gene – Kolbert states there is every reason to believe that Neanderthals would still exist if it weren't for Homo sapiens.
- Chapter 13: The Things with Feathers – Kolbert concludes with hope in humanity, pointing to various efforts to conserve or preserve species. Whether meaning to or not, we are deciding which evolutionary pathways will be shut off forever, and which can be left open to flourish.
Picador USA, 2015; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2014; IndieBound⩘
Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them
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⩘
Crown Publishing Group (NY), 2022; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2022; IndieBound⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan
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
"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
Narrated 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".
Anchor Books, 2019; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2018; IndieBound⩘
Jennifer Marie Brissett, Destroyer of Light
Narrated 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."
Tor Books, 2021; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2021; IndieBound⩘
Kyle T. Mays, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States
Narrated 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.
 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; audiobook: Beacon Press, 2021; IndieBound⩘