Reading – & Now: 2023

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A love affair with books


"I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness."
– Max Planck, theoretical physicist and the originator of quantum theory, which revolutionized human understanding of atomic and subatomic processes, from an interview in The Observer, Jan 25, 1931.

Ryka Aoki, Light from Uncommon Stars

The audiobook cover of Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki showing a blue Koi with a red front swimming in the stars of the universe.Beautifully narrated by Cindy Kay

Interspersed with new books, I've been re-listening to a few favorite books.

When I listen to a story for the first time, the focus is discovery; when re-listening to a story I know, something relaxes inside and my focus shifts to details. I enjoy both perspectives.

Tomorrow is tomorrow. Over there is over there. And here and now is not a bad place and time to be, especially when so much of the unknown is beautiful.

I first listened to Light from Uncommon Stars when it came out a couple years ago. This time around, I noticed some new details, but overall had a similar response to the story. From my first review:

What a fresh, delightful, insightful, refined and raw book! It combines science fiction, fantasy, and gritty reality into a story that swept me away into aspects of life with which I have no firsthand experience, something I deeply appreciate. At times, I learned and laughed; at other times, my heart totally ached.

Ryka Aoki is an incredible person. I appreciate so many aspects of what she brings to this story, for example, her insights into music.

Catalin Matía would smile whenever someone described great music as divine.
   To him, that was nonsense. Great music is all about weakness, uncertainty, mortality—what does Heaven know of these?
   In the same way, there is nothing transcendent about a violin. It is maple, spruce, ebony, an ounce or so of hide glue, some brushes of varnish.
   Perhaps this why the violin fits the human soul fit so perfectly—only such a simple, mortal object can hold its fragility and turn it into a prayer.

My original review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki⩘ .

Tor Books, 2021;⩘ ; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2021;⩘ 

Serhii Plokhy, The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History

Cover of The Russo-Ukrainian War by Serhii Plokhy showing the dark outline of a helmeted person walking past burning buildings at night.Well narrated by Victor Bevine

I think it's vitally important to understand the historical context of Russia's brutal, immoral, and illegal invasion of Ukraine beginning in 2014. One of the most respected historians writing on this topic is Serhii Plokhy. Last year, I listened to his excellent history of Ukraine, The Gates of Europe⩘ , which was originally published in 2015 and explores its often painful history going back centuries.

When I read that Plokhy was publishing a new book focused on the current Russo-Ukrainian War, written between Mar 2022 and Feb 2023, I immediately ordered it. Still, I approached the book with trepidation as it's a painful subject to read about, and Plokhy is very detailed in his descriptions of the unfolding events. That said, I'm definitely glad to have listened to this book as it vividly puts into clear perspective the events of the last few years, from inside the global corridors of power to the frontlines of the battlefields. As Plokhy writes in the book's preface:

   In many ways, the current conflict is an old-fashioned imperial war conducted by Russian elites who see themselves as heirs and continuators of the great-power expansionist traditions of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. On Ukraine’s part it is first and foremost a war of independence, a desperate attempt on behalf of a new nation that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet collapse to defend its right to existence.
   Despite its imperial roots, the current war is being waged in a new international environment defined by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the disintegration of the post–Cold War international order, and an unprecedented resurgence of populist nationalism, last seen in the 1930s, throughout the world. The war clearly indicates that Europe and the world have all but spent the peace dividend resulting from the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and are entering a new, as yet undetermined, era. A new world order, possibly replicating the bipolar world of the Cold War era, is being forged in the flames of the current war. At the time of writing that war is not over, and we do not yet know what its end will bring. But it is quite clear even today that the future of the world in which we and our children and grandchildren will be living depends greatly on its outcome.

As much as I appreciate gaining an understanding of this horrible war from a global perspective, my deepest concern is its horrendous impact on the people of Ukraine. Their fortitude in the face of Russia's devastating aggression is incredible.

"The occupiers have been terrorizing my Kharkiv for two days in succession with particular cruelty: aerial bombardment and rockets cease for a few hours at most," wrote Kateryna [Novak, a Kharkiv resident and book editor] on March 1. "I'm writing now, and the sirens are wailing. Bombs have been pounding residential sections of the city for a second day. The suburbs are burning, and it's terrible to watch. There are blasts in the city center. Explosions near me: Paul's Field, Klochkivska Street … The remains of a shell whose name I don't know is sticking up from a linden tree in front of the meat store, whose windows have all been blown oust. The 'liberators' are killing children, destroying civilian buildings, targeting facilities vital to the life of my city.… They are pounding, and pounding, and pounding, and pounding us! The occupiers couldn't take the city, so now they're bent on destroying us, 'liberating' us from our lives, rubbing us out! I'm at home. My family is with me. My husband is fighting. Glory to Ukraine!"

W. W. Norton & Co, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Audible Studios, 2023; via Apple Books⩘ 

During the period I was listening to this book, I also watched two movies I found by reading several lists of the best Ukrainian films. The first intimately explores the impact of the war on one Ukrainian family living near the frontlines of the battle. The second provides insight into the fortitude of Ukrainian people by showing the events that unfolded in Kyiv's Independence Square when they confronted and eventually drove out the Russian-aligned government of President Yanukovych.

See also:

Kevin Powers, A Line in the Sand

Audiobook cover of A Line in the Sand by Kevin Powers showing a man walking through the vegetation alongside a beach, outlined against a pre-dawn blue sky.Very well narrated by Christine Lakin

An excellent, heartfelt, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful murder mystery revolving around members of an American civilian war contractor group and a Kurdish man who witnessed a massacre of civilians in Iraq perpetrated by the group.

The characters are incredibly well drawn by Powers, and equally well voiced by Lakin (at times, I found myself thinking that it was a performance by a cast of characters rather than a single narrator).

It was one of those rare stories that had me staying up late into the night, unable to stop listening. I found myself really caring about what happened to the main characters: Arman, Cat (Detective Catherine Wheel), Lamar (Detective Adams), and Sally and her father. When violence struck some of them, it was devastating.

   "She said, 'If we're gonna be partners, you're not allowed to hate anyone.' That was her condition."
   "How's that work?" Sally asked. "It's not like you can control how you feel."
   "That's what I said. And I meant it. But she said I was wrong. 'You can want justice, Arman,' she said. 'You can want them to answer for what they've done. But hating someone is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. It doesn't work. You can choose to drink it or not drink it. But I won't be around it.' So that was our deal."
   "You're a better person than me," said Sally. "I'm not there yet."
   "I'm not there either. But I told Lucy I would try."
   "You know what, Arman?" Sally said. "Maybe trying is enough."

Powers writes from a deep well of personal experience as an Iraq War veteran who served with the U.S. Army in Mosul and Tel Afar.

Little Brown and Co, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2023;⩘ 

Martin Cruz Smith, Independence Square

Audiobook cover of Independence Square by Martin Cruz Smith showing the authors name in big dark yellow block letters and the title in light yellow block letters superimposed over a dark outline of Independence Monument, which towers over Independence Square in Kiev and symbolises the birth of a new state.Narrated by Jeremy Bobb

After reading an enjoying a couple of Martin Cruz Smith's first books about Detective Arkady Renko, I was less captured by the next few books in the series and eventually stopped reading or listening to the subsequent volumes.

However, two things caught my attention when I read about this latest book in the series: it's set in Moscow, Ukraine, and Crimea just prior to Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and Renko has Parkinson's Disease, which the author also is personally living with. So I thought the book might offer some interesting observations and would be worth a listen.

It's short, less than six hours, and much of it reads more like a series of journalistic dispatches than a mystery novel. Still, it was worth the time for the vivid glimpses it provides into what it's like to live with Parkinson's, as well as how propaganda and control work in a corrupt country living under a brutal dictatorship.

Simon & Schuster;⩘ ; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023;⩘ 

Nathaniel Ian Miller, The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven

Audiobook cover of The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller. A beautiful, moody illustration of a man and a dog walking across a snowscape towards a small, ramshackle structure that is his home. Beyond is the deep blue tip of a fjord with craggy, snowcapped mountains rising behind the water.Pitch perfect narration by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

When I first listened to this book a couple years ago, my reflection on that experience⩘  included this: "I can pay it my highest compliment in that I plan to return for another listen someday." Well, that day showed up, and I found it every bit as good the second time around. I don't think I can improve on my original reflection, so here it is again:

This story, mainly set in the 1920s – 1940s, is about the fictional character Sven Ormson, also known as Stockholm Sven, but is loosely inspired by the life of a real person who isn't identified by name by Miller for privacy reasons.

There is only a faint outline known or suspected to be known of the real person's life. It is thought that he really was a miner in the far northern reaches of Europe who was caught in an avalanche-triggered mine cave-in that greatly disfigured him, that he went on to be a solitary trapper in the Arctic Circle region, and that he built a ramshackle hut that is still standing today.

The summary description of the story of the life of Sven—and the real person that inspired his character—sounds harrowing and frankly bleak. When the book's unusual cover first caught my eye and led me to its brief description, I quickly dismissed it as a story I wasn't inspired to listen to. But then I began to see rave reviews for the book, so I took a deeper look and eventually decided to give it a try. Really glad I did. While the story does explore harsh events that take place in an even harsher environment, it is a fascinating and captivating tale with a great depth of spirit and richly-drawn characters.

Certainly this story is among the very best I have enjoyed this year, and I can pay it my highest compliment in that I plan to return for another listen someday.

Miller likely found inspiration for this story during his 2012 expeditionary residency-at-sea with The Artic Circle⩘ . The following photo from the time of Miller's residency-at-sea depicts a hut that inspired the ones Stockholm Sven built and lived in during the course of the story.

Photo of Arctic Circle hut by Nathaniel Ian Miller
Photo taken by the author during The Arctic Circle expeditionary residency-at-sea, 2012

Author's website: Nathaniel Ian Miller⩘ 

Little Brown and Company, 2021;⩘ ; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2021;⩘ 

Andy Giesler, The Nothing Within

The audiobook cover of The Nothing Within by Andy Giesler showing the backlit outline of a girl holding a large staff and standing in front of a stone wall, surrounded on each side by the edges of a dark forest.Very well narrated by Emily Sutton-Smith

Well that was different. What to think when a SciFi novel is described as "a rural-dystopian novel exploring post-apocalyptic Amish country"? What to think when within the first few paragraphs of the story, nearly all of humanity, billions of people, are calmly and rapidly eliminated by an intentional release of lethal nanobots by an augmented scientist in an attempt to save at least a tiny remnant of humanity that is not infected by a technological advance gone wrong? What to think when the main character is a rebellious, stubbornly defiant, and rule-breaking young blind girl, Root, who is by her own choice, and against the wishes of her tradition-revering community, the apprentice of a talented, though gruff and stoic old woodworker who was banished from his own community because he broke a taboo out of love?

The only thing I could do was to stop thinking and start listening. And that was a good decision. This is storytelling at its finest.

While the story seems to veer into fantasy, which is not a genre I'm very interested in, the fantastical elements were in fact spun up by the small remnants of humanity trying to understand the strangeness around them as they struggled to survive in a world populated by beings afflicted with a technological augmentation gone very wrong. In their attempt to create a future for themselves out of the shards of their shattered world, they wove their fragmented understanding of the remnants surrounding them into myths and legends, a mist of fantasy. And yet out of that haze, and with the fierce determination of Root, who forges ahead against all odds and obstacles, they manage to create a tomorrow.

With so many good people looking toward tomorrow instead of toward yesterday, there's always a place for hope.

Looking forward to reading Giesler's just released Three Grams of Elsewhere⩘ .

Humble Quill LLC, 2019;⩘ ; audiobook: Tantor Media, 2020;⩘ 

Doug Johnstone, The Space Between Us

Book cover of The Space Between Us by Doug Johnstone showing multiple gracefully curving strands of black filament with a variety of colored circles amongst them and four larger black circles displaying the book title in white letters.

A truly captivating story about a trio of very different people who are brought together on an exhilarating and at times terrifying quest to help an unusual and vulnerable visitor to planet Earth, a Cephalopod from the moons of Saturn.

Johnstone does a wonderful job of imagining the challenges and unfathomable beauty of the attempts to communicate between utterly different beings, and presents colorful, in-depth dives into the complex lives of each of this characters, earthling and alien alike.

As Arthur C. Clarke once stated, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Cephalopods are certainly magic in this way.

Orenda Books, 2023; Blackwell's⩘ 

See also: Remarkably Bright Creatures⩘  by Shelby Van Pelt.

An elusive glass octopus, translucent and blue tinted, floating in the black depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute
In the article: Elusive glass octopus spotted in the remote Pacific Ocean⩘ 
by Laura Geggel, Live Science, Jul 21, 2021

Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies

Audiobook cover of No Logo by Naomi Klein. On a black background, NO is is bold red letters. LOGO is in bold black letters displayed on a white label.10th Anniversary Edition
Narrated by Nicola Barber

I've read and appreciated a few of Klein's more recent books, so when I saw a reference to this book, I decided to listen to it.

Klein shares her firsthand observations of the way global corporations have shifted their focus to brand identity and saturation and sometimes unethical marketing while outsourcing manufacturing in a manner that brutally exploits workers around the world. It is a nauseating story, laying bare the focus of corporations on growing and protecting their brands at any cost while ignoring the fundamental question of whether what they are doing is right. She also shares the anti-corporate pushback this has ignited worldwide.

From the new 2009 intro, No Logo at Ten:

   If there was ever a time to remember the lessons we learned at the turn of the millennium, it is now. One benefit of the international failure to regulate the financial sector even after its catastrophic collapse is that the economic model that dominates around the world has revealed itself not as "free market" but "crony capitalist"—politicians handing over public wealth to private players in exchange for political support. What used to be politely hidden is all out in the open now.

   [M]any, many people do not want markets opened at gunpoint, are repelled by torture, believe passionately in civil liberties, want corporations out of politics, see global warming as the fight of our time, and very much want to be part of a political project larger than themselves.

One of the fiction characters I identify with is Cayce Pollard in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, given her intense allergy to brands and logos. I find most marketing distasteful and often despicable, and think the emerging AI era, fostered in large part by companies that are brand-centric and marketing/advertising focused, is going to exacerbate the nauseating way they do business.

Author's website: Naomi Klein⩘ 

Knopf Canada, 2009;⩘ ; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2012;⩘ 

Related: I'm looking forward to Klein's upcoming book, Doppelganger, which is about today's culture of conspiracy theories, and is due out this fall: Naomi Klein investigates 'conspiracy theory culture' that has shaken her life⩘ , article by Sarah Shaffi, The Guardian, May 17, 2023.

See also: 'A nightmare I couldn't wake up from': half of Rana Plaza survivors unable to work 10 years after disaster⩘  by Thaslima Begum in Dhaka, The Guardian, Apr 28, 2023.

Richard Fisher, The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time

Audiobook cover of The Long View by Richard Fisher Showing a cross section of tree log revealing its annual growth rings.Narrated by the author

One of the essays in Greta Thunberg's The Climate Book that most touched me is Rain in the Sahel by Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. In her essay, she shares a glimpse into the deep wisdom of her people:

   For a long time, we have been taking care of nature not only for us but also for the seven generations to come. This is how decision-making is done in my community. Before deciding anything important, one should consider what the past seven generations would have done in the situation and what the impact of a decision for the seven upcoming ones will be. It's a way to put intergenerational equity at the core of every important decision.

Shortly after listening to that, I came across Fisher's book and was inspired to listen to it. In it, he takes a deep dive into the concept of time as it has evolved in human thinking since the earliest time, eventually exploring why we have come to generally be so focused on the short term at this time in our history, and how this has harmed our ability to live our lives and treat our planet in a manner that respects our future generations.

The book is a combination of anecdotes about people's view of time and philosophical reflections on those views. At times, he gets a bit too far down into the minutiae for my tastes, but in the latter portion of the book, he shares insights and observations that made the journey worthwhile for me. For example, I am absolutely awed by one anecdote he shares:

One of the most astonishing scientific facts I have ever heard is this: you and I are continuous with non-life.

   How so? The evolutionary biologist Stephen C. Stearns once explained why in a class he taught at Yale University:

Think of your mother. Now think of her mother. Now think of your mother's mother. Keep going back in time … speed it up … we're at 10 million years, now 100 million, a billion years. Every step of the way there has been a parent.

   At 3.9 billion years ago, something extremely interesting happens. You pass through the origin of life, and there's no parent any more. At that point you are connected to abiotic matter.

   Now this means that not only does the tree of life connect you to all the living things on the planet, but the origin of life connects you to all matter in the Universe. That's a deep thought. Every element in your body that is heavier than iron, and you need a number of them, was synthesised in a supernova.

So, when people say we are all made of stardust, it's more than a poetic cliché: it's true.

He concludes by sharing his thoughts about the value of shifting to a longer view as a way to help us navigate through the dangerous challenges we currently face.

If we want to chart a route out of difficult times—steering our fate rather than stumbling into the future—we need a compass direction. This is what the long view provides: a form of guidance for navigating a complex world. But as well as offering a route around future dangers, it also reveals the learnings of the paths already taken—alternative histories that could have been—and that there are myriad trajectories that could lie ahead. To be long-minded is to know that there are always multiple possibilities and turning points as we move through time. The long view reveals that the future is only singular when it becomes the present; until that day, it is always plural.…

The greatest legacy we can leave behind is simply choice. If we can ensure that tomorrow's people have the means and autonomy to decide their own path within a sustainable world, then that is enough.

Wildfire, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Wildfire, 2023;⩘ 

Greta Thunberg, The Climate Book: The Facts and the Solutions

The audiobook cover of The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg. Against a black background, the books title and author are displayed in large block capital letters. The letters are colored with vertical stripes showing the progressive rise in global temperatures each year. Starting in 1634 on the left, the stripes are dark ice blue, indicating cooler years. By the time they reach 2021 on the right, they are deep fire red, indicating the rapid heating of our planet.Narrated by Amelia Stubberfield, Greta Thunberg, Nicholas Khan & Olivia Forrest

In addition to Greta, more than 100 leading scientists and experts, and activists, authors and storytellers participated in this book.
List of contributors⩘ 

This was often an exceedingly difficult book to listen to; after all, we are killing the very planet that nurtures us. At the same time, it is certainly one of the most important books I have encountered in my lifetime. It shares one inescapable message over and over from many different perspectives:

   The climate and ecological crisis is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. It will no doubt be the issue that will define and shape our future everyday life like no other.… To stay in line with our climate targets—and thereby avoid the worst risks of initiating a climate catastrophe—we need to change our entire societies.

Before anything else, it's important to note that as dire as the situation is, we do still have a chance to avoid the worst outcome, but we must act now and in a big way.

   It is my genuine belief that the only way we will be able to avoid the worst consequences of this emerging existential crisis is if we create a critical mass of people who demand the changes required. For that to happen, we need to rapidly spread awareness, because the general public still lacks much of the basic knowledge that is necessary to understand the dire situation we are in.…
   To stay in line with our international climate targets we need to get our individual per capita emissions down to somewhere around 1 tonne of carbon dioxide a year. In Sweden, that figure currently stands at around 9 tonnes, once you include consumption of imported goods. In the US that figure is 17.1 tonnes, in Canada 15.4 tonnes, in Australia 14.9 tonnes and in China 6.6 tonnes.

One challenge is that many people are basically sleepwalking and dreaming that things will somehow magically work out.

   [T]he vast majority of us are still not fully aware of what is happening, and many simply do not seem to care. This is due to various factors, many of which will be explored in this book. One of them goes by the name of 'shifting baseline syndrome' or 'generational amnesia', which refers to the way we get used to new things and begin to see the world from a different perspective.

One of the essays in the book that really touched me is Rain in the Sahel by Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. She shares a wisdom of her people that we all should work to integrate into our lives.

   For a long time, we have been taking care of nature not only for us but also for the seven generations to come. This is how decision-making is done in my community. Before deciding anything important, one should consider what the past seven generations would have done in the situation and what the impact of a decision for the seven upcoming ones will be. It's a way to put intergenerational equity at the core of every important decision.

The book is presented in five sections:

  1. How Climate Works
  2. How Our Planet Is Changing
  3. How It Affects Us
  4. What We've Done About It
  5. What We Must Do Now

In addition, there is a summary section: What Next?

  • What needs to be done
  • What we can do together as a society
  • What you can do as an individual
  • Some of us can do more than others

See a bullet point summary of the What Next? section⩘ 

We have squandered decades of opportunities to tackle this existential threat. Each day we put off doing what is necessary makes it that more difficult.

A project of global decarbonization that began in 1988 when James Hansen, Michael Oppenheimer, Syukuro Manabe and their fellow scientists testified before the US Senate, and which was intended to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, would have required only modest and relatively undisruptive annual change and could have taken more than a hundred years to complete. Having instead chosen to ignore those warnings and let emissions continue to grow, stockpiling each year in the atmosphere a generational burden, the world now faces a far more harrowing task – zeroing out emissions within just a few decades, perhaps even sooner in the absence of negative emissions and carbon removal on a 'planetary scale'. What seemed advisable in 1988 now qualifies almost as climate denial; what counted as ambitious in 2008 is already hopelessly inadequate. And if the curves aren't bent immediately, by 2025 even the dispiriting maths we face today will no longer be workable either.

Required: A massive, worldwide, all nations and all societies effort

It is clear that a massive, worldwide, all nations and all societies effort is required. Nothing less will do. At the same time, all of us, all 8+ billion of us, need to do our part, especially those of us in the wealthiest countries who create the vast majority of the global warming with our extremely high rates of consumption. Anything less than a total effort will condemn our children, and all other life on our planet, to the worst possible future that can be imagined, and for many, no future at all.

Once again, see the bullet point summary of the What Next? section⩘ 

Penguin Press, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Penguin Random House Audio, 2023;⩘ 

Global temperature change (1850-2022)

Vertical colored stripes showing the progressive rise in global temperatures each year. Starting in 1850 on the left, the stripes are dark ice blue, indicating cooler years. By the time they reach 2022 on the right, they are deep fire red, indicating the rapid heating of our planet.
From: Show Your Stripes⩘ 

Some organizations working on climate-related issues

Some related links and news

Some recommended related reading

Saket Soni, The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America

The audiobook cover of The Great Escape by Saket Soni showing a group of Indian workers marching along a roadway on their way to Washington DCWell narrated by the author

Quite an amazing story written by the co-founder of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice and the founder of the National Guestworker Alliance, which is focused on "defending the human rights and dignity of guestworkers in America."

In this book, Soni focuses on the years-long struggle to help 500 Indian men who were performing rebuilding work in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to escape from working conditions that were exploitative, demeaning, and prison-like. After escaping, they marched from Louisiana to Washington DC to try to get the attention of the White House, members of congress, and the Department of Justice in order to bring a case against those who had exploited them, as well as to secure visas for the men. Their campaign was vigorously opposed by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement); however, it turned out that ICE was actually conspiring with the company that was exploiting their labor (no surprise). Eventually, they won their cases in court.

Soni has an incredible combination of a big heart and an iron will. He fought on against huge odds, never losing sight of the individual people he was fighting for. His book is full of deep insights into the stories of many of the men as well as their families back in India, highlighting the astonishing challenges they faced as they fought for their dignity and human rights. I'm in awe of their fortitude and willpower.

Saket Soni is currently the executive director of Resilience Force⩘ 

See also: 'We ferried 500 men out': how an organizer foiled one of America's biggest human trafficking operations⩘  by Wilfred Chan, The Guardian, Mar 10, 2023

Algonquin Books, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Algonquin Books, 2023;⩘ 

Nina Schick, Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse

The audiobook cover of Deepfakes by Nina Schick showing five vertical slices of a person's open mouth. The lowest slice is so highly pixelated as to be unrecognizable, but each slice above it becomes clearer and clearer until that top slice shows the teeth and lips clearly. In each open mouth is displayed the words of the title and the author's name.Narrated by Stephanie Racine

Schick, an expert on Generative AI, has written an excellent short book that explores our current climate of misinformation and disinformation, and how deepfake video will greatly exasperate this problem, something Schick refers to as "the coming infocalypse."

We are much more inclined to believe video information than other forms of information, so as AI-generated deepfake videos become more commonplace, the reach and impact of misinformation and disinformation will become that much greater.

We certainly face a quite terrifying challenge.

The chapter that discusses the Pizzagate episode really drives the danger home. While it was a political disinformation ploy based on total bullshit, it led one person to attack an innocent pizzeria with his AR-15 in a deranged attempt to free what he was convinced were children being held by pedophiles in the basement. There was no basement, and of course, no children being held. Fortunately, nobody was injured by the bullets he fired, but the innocent individual who runs that restaurant is still being harassed by people who continue to believe the bullshit. Imagine if there had been deepfake video made by some malicious political operative.

I was inspired to read this book after I came across a short and quite convincing AI-generated deepfake video of Nina Schick:

Author's website: Nina Schick⩘ 

Twelve, 2020;⩘ ; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2020;⩘ 

Jermaine Fowler, The Humanity Archive: Recovering the Soul of Black History from a Whitewashed American Myth

Audiobook cover of The Humanity Archive by Jermaine Fowler showing what looks like a stack of sheets of old, yellowed pieces of paper with the title and author's name on the top sheet. Cutouts around the title and name reveal old documents and photos beneath the top sheet.

This is an extraordinary book about Black history, and Fowler's narration lives up to that high bar. Perhaps because he is not a tenured intellectual, his writing vibrates with a passion I've never before encountered in a history book.

The prologue does a superb job of introducing the story to follow. I can think of no better way to sum it up this book than to share a few excerpts from the prologue (better yet, take a few minutes to read for yourself the entire prologue⩘ , which is available in the free sample of the eBook).

   In this book, I've recovered a few of the millions of stories from Black history to frame the contours of our humanity. But first, let me tell you my own story. Conventionally speaking, I'm no one's historian. I've defended no dissertations, have no PhD to proudly display, no real academic bona fides. I poked around the university for a while as a nomad drifting from architecture courses to mechanical engineering courses, then to marketing courses before jumping ship with an undergraduate degree. The only thing better than hindsight is foresight, much better to anticipate future problems than agonize over how you could've avoided them. Back then I had neither. I can now say with certainty my passions lie in scholarship and teaching. However, staring down the double barrel of student loans and monthly rent, a PhD in history looked very much like financial suicide. Then, the Great Recession of 2007 gutted anything left of my higher education dreams, yet my love of learning remained undiminshed.
   Curiosity is, and has been, my highest credential. I'm an intellectual adventurer, always trying to experience the high of discovering a dose of wisdom, a measure of history, a capsule of humanity. The library is my alma mater. Books are my professors.…
   Compared with a typical American-authored history book, which tends to sway toward uncritical celebration or museum of atrocity, this book is a little different. We will not shy from our ever-present power struggles, the spectrum of inequality, nor the deeply flawed history from which they stem, but my aim is to underscore our inextricably linked humanness.…
   This is not a textbook. And it is not a book with any groundbreaking original research. This is not a Herculean attempt to cover all Black history in a few hundred pages, nor is it a neat, little, linear timeline of history. This is a book that follows the pendulum of history as it swings back and forth. This is a book where we'll jump into the mess of history and sort our way out of it. I offer few prescriptions, and I have more questions than answers. What I am offering is an outline of Black humanity stitched from images stretching into a far-reaching past. Think of this as a reconnaissance mission. We'll scout the routes of knowledge, map the obstacles of whitewashing, and survey the Black historical landscape. We'll probe, seek, and sometimes stumble into the stuff that makes us human.…
   Stories of oppression are highly visible in this book, because they feature heavily in the Black American experience. This history still ripples through our institutions, and I'm far from the first to point out how it is still evident in our justice, health, education, housing, and environmental inequalities. Individual racism as a pathology refuses to die and, like most deep-seated prejudices, it'll likely never be fully eradicated, springing up like a weed year after year through fear-based myths and stereotypes.…
   As I write this, there are 331 million people living in America. We have centuries-old divisions that have yet to be mended and scars that have yet to heal, but the only way this American experiment continues is by finding some uniting principle. Something that can resonate beyond race, religion, politics, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, or culture. That thing will be and always has been our humanity.

Here's another glimpse of the brilliance of this book:

   Resilience has been thrown around as a leadership buzzword associated with "warrior wisdom," and a way to navigate life's rough patches. But the resilience I mean here, and the wonder of Black history, is how, after going toe-to-toe with adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and astronomical stress, Black Americans evaded extinction. That is the spirit of Black history that has been passed down through the culture, the will to survive. I think about how the Black residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were nearly bombed out of existence. But despair was not the result in Tulsa. That story does not end with that devastating massacre on June 1, 1921. Excellence had the last word, and for a time, Tulsa residents bounced back. The massacre rivaled a natural disaster in its destruction. But in fixating on the disaster and lack of justice, we forgot something. The city of Tulsa turned its back on displaced Black residents, offering little aid or recovery help. Insurance companies didn't honor their policies, and through all this, Black people rebuilt. Living in tents provided by the Red Cross for the next year, they rebuilt. Surviving the Tulsa winters that go below freezing, they rebuilt. When the Kansas & Texas Railway Co. offered 50 percent discounts on one-way tickets out of Tulsa to rid the city of them, they rebuilt. Some eight hundred structures were rebuilt by the end of 1921. Black families, landowners, and entrepreneurs paved a road to recovery. They assessed the 314 looted homes and rummaged through the 1,200 destroyed. They might not have found much, but they found the indomitable will of their human spirit. To be sure, many drifted away, unwilling to stay, unable to deal with the anxiety, disruption, and uncertainty of displacement. Those who stayed faced obstacles seemingly insurmountable. Like, when white commercial speculators tried to remove them from their land by enacting an arbitrary fire zone, which would have made it illegal for them to reconstruct houses. Those same residents fought back legally. Black lawyers argued all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, challenging Tulsa's plan to thwart property rights for the commercial interests of land speculators as unconstitutional. They won. They filed 1,400 lawsuits to recover some $4 million in damages, but the city of Tulsa claimed it was not responsible for the actions of the mob.
   Despite the injustice, we can pause to appreciate the excellence of a community coming together to rebuild. Because people pursuing greatness despite their hardships is excellence defined.

I'm guessing this book will be banned in Florida schools. It should be required.

Never stop learning or walking in the shoes of another.

Author's website: The Humanity Archive⩘ 

Row House Publishing, 2023;⩘  audiobook: OrangeSky Audio, 2023;⩘ 

Dave Hutchinson, Cold Water

The cover of Cold Water by Dave Hutchinson. The top half shows a tilted view looking up a dark escalator with glass sides. At the top is the silhoutte of a woman, and beyond, the hazy outlines of skyscrappers bathed in a light yellow-gold light. The bottom half shows the entire scene mirrored upside down. The title is displayed across the center in white capital letters.Narrated by Lexie McDougall

A speculative mystery set decades in the future after a massive flu epidemic in a much fractured world.

I found this a challenging story that demanded I pay close attention, with scores of characters, locations across the western world with a bunch of place names I wasn't familiar with, lots of flashbacks, and three storylines that seemed mostly disconnected until later in the story. Oh, and what turned out to be parallel pocket universes, which required me to do some side reading to somewhat understand.

I listened to the book, but also had the eBook and an online world map at hand so I could do searches to remind myself when and where characters had been first introduced, as well as to check spellings (for example, Stefan and Stepan sound confusingly similar). Yeah, my head did a fair bit of spinning!

This book, the first I read by Hutchinson, was presented as a standalone, but it turns out he wrote a set of four previous books set in the same fractured future. After reading their descriptions, it seems clear that had I read them first, I would've had a much easier time understanding this "standalone" followup.

Despite the challenges, this story kept my attention with its slow burn mystery and vivid descriptions of a mostly plausible messed up future world. While I found the ending a bit weak, overall it was an entertaining story well worth the time and effort.

Note: I'm showing the well designed full book cover because the poorly cropped audiobook version fails to convey the original cover's intrigue.

Fractured Europe: list of characters & places⩘ 

Rebellion Publishing, 2022;⩘ ; audiobook: Penguin Books, 2022; Apple audiobooks⩘ 

Dave Hutchinson, The Fractured Europe Sequence

The covers of the audiobooks in the Fractured Europe Sequence lined up horizontally and showing: in shades of burnt orange, a man's face with eyes in shadow surrounded by circles of railroad tracks and hovering above a sunset setting over a far horizon; in shades of dark blue, a backlit train entering the far end of a tunnel between the head of a man and a woman, each looking off to one of the sides, surrounded by circles of railroad tracks; in shades of white and gray, a train running across a winter landscape with three faces looking out below, a woman and two men, surrounded by circles of railroad tracks; and, in shades of dark red, a train approaching with the sunrise behind and with the heads of four people hovering above, a man, two women, and another man, surrounded by circles of railroad tracks.

Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight, Europe in Winter, and Europe at Dawn

Well narrated by Graham Rowat

Intrigued by Cold Water, I decided to go back and listen to The Fractured Europe Sequence. What a trip. It's certainly a challenging journey, and like many readers whose notes about these books I've read, I was often fairly puzzled, but there's no doubt it's a brilliantly conceived story. It's a bit like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle challenge, only the pieces are a mix of different puzzle sets, and some of the pieces won't fit unless you glance at them from side while squinting.

There also are fantastical elements, yet the way Hutchinson weaves them into the story is rather matter-of-fact—that's just the way things are, even as they throw twists into the elements of espionage and add to the intrigue that is the main focus of the slow-burn mystery at the core of it all.

   Sheet 2000 may be the last remaining example of a peculiarly English sensibility, the same sensibility which induced land-owners to build 'follies' on their estates. A folly most often took the form of a structure with no function other than the satisfaction of its builders' vanity, and Sheet 2000 could be seen as the Whitton-Whytes' folly—in both senses of the word. It remains as merely an extraordinarily-detailed scrap, a remnant of a work which occupied the lives of hundreds of people over a century and a half, and perhaps a remnant of an age now long-gone.
   Students of cartography will note the painstaking detail lavished not only on the spurious area of 'Ernshire,' but on all other areas of the map. Comparison with contemporary Ordnance Survey sheets shows a certain elegance of execution absent in the OS material. Sheet 2000, for all its faults, remains gorgeously custom-made, with all the care and attention—indeed, if the word can be used to describe a map, all the poetry—that entails. It is something which we today, with our satellite-assisted, computer-drawn maps, have lost, and recalls a time when maps did exercise a power over the landscape—if only in the imagination.

Given the strangeness I've recently heard and read about related to quantum physics⩘  and the way we perceive reality⩘ , who can say whether the bizarre reality Hutchinson describes in his novels actually may be possible.

   Bevan said, "Sometimes things are just so magnificently impossible that they must be possible."

There's even a hint that the entire sequence may be about simultaneous simulations running in a massive data center in the walled city-state of the Republic of Dresden-Neustadt. Of course, our entire universe may be a simulation⩘ , so perhaps these books are simply a recursive spin-off. (As physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark says, "My advice is to go out and do really interesting things so the simulators don't shut you down.")

There's also some biting observations woven into the various scenarios about topics like the climate crisis, political corruption, inequality, refugee crises, families, relationships, sexism, misogyny, racism, and classism.

There are a mind-boggling number of characters throughout these books and an amazing number of storylines, some sharing characters, others not. The characters are vividly drawn, many introduced with colorful backstories that provide insight into their unique perspectives and actions.

He'd never been able to understand why people felt the need to poke and prod at the name of the restaurant, although the motivations of people were a continual mystery to him and he thought he really ought to be used to that by now.

It's not until the final minutes of the fourth book that all the threads come together, and even then, as in real life, the conclusion is open-ended, leaving plenty of room for imagining where it might go next, and for hoping Hutchinson might take it there.

Well … all the threads except one: in the third book, a character is introduced who has a dramatic and traumatic experience in Hungary. Then she simply disappears from the story … until she reappears as the main character of Cold Water, Carey Tews. Her experience in Europe in Winter significantly shapes who she has become by the time we meet her again and continually shapes her decisions.

I learned two things listening to The Fractured Europe Sequence. First, Cold Water, Hutchinson's latest novel, isn't really a standalone book; rather, it's a sort of sequel, a continuation of the overarching story, mostly different characters, but same fractured Europe, and quite possibly a bridge to further books. Second, I would've had a much easier time understanding Cold Water had I first listened to The Fractured Europe Sequence, and likely would've gotten a lot more out of it.

A passage from Europe at Dawn that's equally well suited for our world today:

   Obviously, the world and everything in it had been stupid since the dawn of time. It was just that, every now and again, there seemed to be a surge in stupid and there was nothing anyone could do about it except hang on and hope things would get better soon.

It's interesting to note that the first book in the sequence, Europe in Autumn, was published in 2014, and in it, Hutchinson introduces the idea of a worldwide epidemic: "More than fifty million in Europe, they said, at least twice that in the United States. India was a mass grave. In China… nobody knew.… The media dubbed it the 'Xian Flu', and the name stuck, even though some studies suggested that it had travelled west to east rather than the other way around." Quite prescient.

Detail from the Europe at Midnight cover showing, in shades of dark blue, a backlit train entering the far end of a tunnel between the head of a man and a woman, each looking off to one of the sides, surrounded by circles of railroad tracks.

Note: After finishing The Fractured Europe Sequence, I decided to immediately revisit all the books again, including Cold Water, this time both listening and following along in the eBooks, and taking notes of key characters and places, as well as a few significant events. This helped bring the elements of the Fractured Earth and Cold Water stories that I had previously found puzzling into better focus. Hutchinson has woven a complex masterpiece!

Fractured Europe: list of characters & places⩘ 

The Fractured Europe Sequence by Dave Hutchinson:
Europe in Autumn: Solaris, 2014;⩘ ; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2017;⩘ 
Europe at Midnight: Rebellion, 2015;⩘ ; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2018;⩘ 
Europe in Winter: Solaris, 2016;⩘ ; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2018;⩘ 
Europe at Dawn: Rebellion, 2018;⩘ ; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2018;⩘ 

Gulchehra Hoja, A Stone Is Most Precious Where it Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope, and Survival

The audiobook cover of A Stone Is Most Precious Where it Belongs by Gulchehra Hoja showing a representation of a series of mountain ranges in shades of blue, green, and purple with a blue sky beyond. The title is rendered in white capital block letters interspersed between the ranges.Narrated by Sarah Suzuk

What the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghur people is utterly atrocious. Hoja's story reveals the depth of that brutal depravity in a very personal way. She first describes her quite wonderful childhood growing up in a proud and traditional family in Ürümchi, then how the Chinese government's accelerating atrocities changed everything over the years.

The Chinese government had taken from me everything that it could take. It took my culture, my language, my friends, my family, the dignity of my people.

Hoja eventually emigrated to the U.S., where she became a courageous and internationally recognized journalist for Radio Free Asia, making it her life's mission to "speak up for the voiceless."

If everyone could remember how interconnected we are, interlinked by our basic humanity, like the one long chain extending out across the entire earth, perhaps all kinds of atrocities would become impossible.

Hachette Books, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2023;⩘ 

See also:

Sophie McKeand, The Madness of Sara Mansfield

Cover of The Madness of Sara Mansfield by Sophie McKeand showing a woman's bionic head (for example, the ears are sheathed in thin electronic devices and the temples are covered with some type of flat appendages). The bottom half of entire cover, including the head, is turquoise colored. Behind the the lower half of the face can be seen mountain ranges. The lower half of the face itself is cracked, as if it is made of stone. The top half of the cover is blood red, and the top of the head has a root-like structure criss-crossing it. There is a black triangle over the area of the third eye.

1st in The MthR Trilogy.

A fascinating, poetic, complex exploration of the possible emergence of the Singularity.

Set in a world ravaged by wars and battered by extreme climate change, the story unfolds through the experiences of a wide and diverse cast of characters. A few are intimately connected to MthR, the OS evolving at an astonishing pace. Some are controlled by MthR, performing repetitive tasks necessary to keep the community functional while deeply immersed in distracting augmented realities. Others are working to subvert MthR, are attempting to escape from her all-encompassing domination, or are striving to connect to a more expansive existence.

Let us accept that time is an ocean and each moment a raindrop, let us embody this thought, let us collapse into a single water droplet, but in doing so, let us become the ocean; vast expanses of blue tumbling into myself, awash with the knowledge that time is eternal, that I am everlasting, wave after wave of my true Self crashing across the mind and I cannot measure or control it, it is too much to accept that I am so vast and untameable, so meaningless and ephemeral.

The climax at the summit of the 1st tale of the trilogy is a startling and breathtaking event that left me wanting to immediately plunge into the next.

Availability: This book and the author's other books are available via her website: Sophie McKeand⩘ 

Sophie McKeand Publishing, 2021.

Sophie McKeand, Prophets of the Red Night

Cover of Prophets of the Red Night by Sophie McKeand showing a woman's clenched fist rising upward. The lower half of the cover is turquoise colored with the wrist, with a root-like structure criss-crossing it, is emerging from a tumbled city. The upper half of the cover is blood red, highlighting the clenched thumb and finger with red fingernails.

2nd in The MthR Trilogy.

The continuing saga deeply explores several factions that have emerged across a Europe fractured by wars and dealing with the impact of climate change. At one extreme is the artificial intelligence MthR, though it becomes clearer that the powerful and power hungry Sara Mansfield may control MthR just as MthR controls the MthRlnd. At the other extreme is a prophet of the "natural" who, with a supposed connection to the Great Mother, the support of her disciples, and a name derived from the group they spun off from, opposes everything MthR and Sara stand for. In between are multiple groups, each trying to create a new way of living in the changing world, including women who have extreme body augmentation modifications and work as enhanced security enforcers for MthR, enclaves of wealthy who are developing their own technology, gated communities attempting to create eco-utopias, and the original tech-savvy group opposed to MthR called the Red Nights who are trying to undermine MthR through technology means.

McKeand emphatically explores the motivations of each faction, revealing how each deeply thinks or believes that the way they are living and the future they are trying to fashion is the true right way.

Tensions rise throughout the 2nd book, which culminates at the beginning of a huge rally that seems certain to stoke a major upheaval … one that won't be revealed in full until the 3rd and final book, due out May 1st, 2023.

While set in the future, nothing in the technological developments incorporated into the story seems implausible. While I was reading this 2nd book, I came across this article: Human augmentation with robotic body parts is at hand, say scientists⩘  by Nicola Davis, Science correspondent, The Guardian, Mar 2, 2023. "[H]uman augmentation could be on the horizon, suggesting additional robotic body parts could be designed to boost our capabilities." The story reveals that testing of appendages like additional thumbs and arms is already underway.

Availability: This book and the author's other books are available via her website: Sophie McKeand⩘ 

Sophie McKeand Publishing, 2022.

Sophie McKeand, Rematriation

Book cover of Rematriation by Sophie McKeand showing a tree without any leaves. The lower half of the cover is turquoise colored with a forest of raised fists beneath the tree. The upper half of the cover is blood red, highlighting just the upper branches of the tree, with the book's title above.

I didn't appreciate this third book in the trilogy as much as I did the first two. Some threads of the unfolding story do get sort of wrapped up, a lot of threads are left in a fairly frayed state, and frankly, I found some of the final parts of the story confusing.

Still, there were several sequences I found worth reading, and I particularly want to remember one memorable short passage, an invitation to think and live in way that is more in harmony with everything that we find ourselves immersed in.

You know, once you begin to think in tree-time, none of these things matter so much. Everything that lives, dies. Everything is in a constant state of flux which means that all that can matter is this day, this moment, how we choose to unfold a leaf, or wait for more favourable weather, and even that is not so much of a conscious choice, it's the knowing that comes with not-knowing, the joy felt when we trust the cosmos and the life within us.

Availability: This book and the author's other books are available via her website: Sophie McKeand⩘ 

Sophie McKeand Publishing, 2023

See also: Sophie McKeand's OUTSIDER blog⩘ . McKeand is living an interesting life. In 2017, she and her partner became nomads, living in a van with their two dogs, traveling around Wales, Europe, and the world, visiting many beautiful places along the way, hiking and surfing. More recently, she has focused more on her books, but in her past blog posts, she has shared some of her adventures.

An aside: These books are, for me, challenging reads. The written versions provided me with the best way to approach this story, as it enabled me to breathe deeply and relax into the story, pausing and re-reading a sentence or paragraph when needed, looking up unfamiliar terms in the glossary, figuring out which character each chapter was about, and more easily distinguishing between when a character was thinking versus speaking, as well as between the dialog of different characters. That said, there's one fascinating aspect to the 1st tale's audiobook: McKeand recorded each chapter of the book in the wild, for example, sitting in a tree in a forest, on the hillside of a mountain, or atop a dune near the sea. She introduces each chapter by sharing where she is recording, and sometimes there are traces of the wild in her recordings such as the song of a bird or the chirp of an insect.

Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home

The audiobook cover of A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley: five-year-old Saroo Brierley is shown wearing a t-shirt that says "Tasmania" and walking towards his adoptive family upon arriving in Australia. In the background is a fuzzy image in shades of red and orange that seems to show a person standing on a bank of a river, perhaps representing his mother searching for him.With Larry Buttrose; well narrated by Vikas Adam

I recently re-watched the film Lion⩘ . It again touched me deeply and inspired me to listen to this book, which the film is based on.

I'm glad to have experienced Saroo's story directly. His book provides deeper insights into his experiences, both as a young child from a small village in India experiencing the terror of being separated from his family and the bewilderment of trying to survive alone on the streets of gigantic Kolkata, and as an adult who grew up nourished by his adoptive Australian family yet retaining a passion to somehow find his mother and family back in India.

As much as I appreciated the film, I'm a bit surprised at how different parts of the story it tells are. For example, his adopted brother is portrayed very differently in the film, and the film also highlight tensions with his adopted family and girlfriend caused by his extensive search for his home in India that are not mentioned in his book. I wonder if those changes reflect a desire of the filmmakers to create additional drama, or if those are simply stories he didn't explore in the book.

Regardless, Brierley shares a wonderful, heartwarming story, and I appreciate his deep reflections on the good fortune that moments of chance have brought him.

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014;⩘ ; audiobook: Blackstone Publishing, 2014;⩘ 

Carissa Véliz, Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data

Audiobook cover of Privacy Is Power by Carissa Véliz: top one-third of background is red, bottom two-thirds is black. PRIVACY IS is written in bold black capital letters on the red background, and POWER is written in bold red capital letters on the black background.Well narrated by Rachel Perry

This book's message is simple and powerful:

Surveillance capitalism needs to go. It will take some time and effort, but we can and will reclaim privacy. Here's how.

Recently, an email app I had been using for years that marketed itself as privacy focused, Fastmail, began collecting and attempting to forward tracking data on my Android device. Fortunately, I have another app installed, App Tracking Protection by DuckDuckGo that prevents the forwarding of tracking data. When I asked Fastmail support about this change, basically all they said is that they are just collecting error and performance tracking data. They didn't provide a good answer when I asked why they hadn't been transparent about this change and why they didn't make it opt-in or at the very least provide a way to opt out. This wasn't acceptable to me, so I went through the days-long hassle of transferring to another email provider that I believe I can trust more.

When I was reflecting on their cavalier attitude toward privacy, I was reminded of this book. I read it when it first came out and concluded it was one of the most important books I read that year⩘ . I figured it would be good to revisit it now. This time I listened to it, but kept the book nearby to refer to for taking notes.

   Privacy is about being able to keep certain intimate things to yourself—your thoughts, your experiences, your conversations, your plans. Human beings need privacy to be able to unwind from the burden of being with other people. We need privacy to explore new ideas freely, to make up our own minds. Privacy protects us from unwanted pressures and abuses of power. We need it to be autonomous individuals, and for democracies to function well we need citizens to be autonomous.
   Our lives, translated into data, are the raw material of the surveillance economy. Our hopes, our fears, what we read, what we write, our relationships, our diseases, our mistakes, our purchases, our weaknesses, our faces, our voices—everything is used as fodder for data vultures who collect it all, analyse it all, and sell it to the highest bidder. Too many of those acquiring our data want it for nefarious purposes: to betray our secrets to insurance companies, employers, and governments; to sell us things it's not in our interest to buy; to pit us against each other in an effort to destroy our society from the inside; to disinform us and hijack our democracies. The surveillance society has transformed citizens into users and data subjects. Enough is enough. Those who have violated our right to privacy have abused our trust, and it's time to pull the plug on their source of power—our data.

The first three chapters explain in detail the many ways our data is being collected, used, and abused by big data companies like Google and Facebook, as well as a myriad of data collection companies, all without our explicit permission. Some of the ways our data is being used is shockingly harmful to us, as well as to our society and democracy. Sometimes the use is illegal, but it's very challenging to uncover those uses. If you're not currently concerned about your data, you almost certainly will be when you finish this section of the book.

The next two chapters explore how we as a society should try to address this. Given our current state of political dysfunction as well as the control Big Tech has over politicians, I'm skeptical there will be much progress on this front.

The final chapter dives into the steps we can take as individuals to try to protect ourselves and our data. This, for me, is the heart of the book.

   Look out for opportunities to protect your privacy. And don't expect perfection.…
   All of these measures will make a difference. All of them can save you from violations of your right to privacy. But none of them is infallible.…
   Even if you don't manage to protect your privacy perfectly, you should still try your best. First, you might succeed at keeping some personal data safe. That in itself might save you from a case of identity theft, or exposure. Second, you might succeed at keeping someone else's data safe, as privacy is a collective concern. Third, even if you fail at protecting privacy, such attempts have an important expressive function—they send out the right message. Demanding that institutions protect our privacy informs politicians and encourages policymakers to legislate for privacy. Choosing privacy-friendly products gives industry a chance to see privacy as a business opportunity, which will encourage them to innovate in our favour and to stop resisting regulation. Governments and companies are more worried than you might imagine about how you feel about privacy. We need to make it clear to them how much we care about our personal data.

I am hugely grateful to Carissa Véliz for having written this excellent book.

Melville House, 2021;⩘ ; audiobook: Tantor Audio, 2021;⩘ 

Tom Mustill, How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication

The very cool audiobook cover of How to Speak Whale by Tom Mustill. The back ground is purple, ranging from lighter purple at the top to a deep, dark purple at the bottom. Floating in front is what looks kind of like a big, square speech bubble with rounded corners in shades of blue, ranging from light aqua blue at th top to a deeper blue at the bottom. Looking more closely, a humpback whale is revealed by a cutout for the mouth at the bottom right, and the tail floating down on the left side and under the main body. The top of the whale is choppy, like the surface of a windswept ocean, and the outline of a little boat with two little people are floating there. The title of the book is superimposed on the whales body; each letter begins with a very small white capital that expands outward in all directions until it is a much larger dark blue letter.Enthusiastically narrated by the author

A mind-expanding and mind-blowing book!

It is a journey with Tom of the most recent scientific exploration of the possibility of animal communication, centered on whales and dolphins. [Some] scientists are finally going beyond previous biases about humans having unique thinking and language capabilities, and are doing some deeper and more meaningful research into the thinking and language capabilities of animals, including whales.

This book really touched me. Finally, humanity's view of whales (and other sea and land animals) is shifting from viewing them as merely exploitable resources to beginning to really see them as the incredible beings they are.

In the past decade, research capabilities, including microphones on the ocean floor, small camera and sensor arrays that can be temporarily placed on whales' backs with suction cups, and data collection, aggregation, and analysis via Artificial Intelligence are making it possible to gain much deeper insights into their behaviors, their lives within social groups, their vocalizations and singing, and their travels, including following some individuals on their journeys around the planet.

It already is possible for AI to distinguish unique sequences in their vocalizations. In the near future, it may become possible to determine whether it is a form of language, and perhaps even to begin translating it. Wouldn't that be amazing?!

Authors' website, including a selection of his short films: Tom Mustill⩘ 

Grand Central Publishing, 2022;⩘ ; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2022;⩘ 


Marvin Dunn, A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes

The book cover of A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes by Marvin Dunn showing a small outline of the state Florida looking like it is cut from a piece of grimy sackcloth and superimposed over a collage of three photos: in the upper left is the face of a black man looking outward; below him is a photo of Ku Klux Klan members marching in white robes and holding aloft burning crosses; on the right is a hazy old photograph of a lynching victim hanging from a tree.

A couple weeks ago, I read an excellent and powerful article about Dr. Marvin Dunn, 82, a professor emeritus at Florida International University, who is defying Florida governor DeSantis' law restricting lessons on race. [Reference: A Black professor defies DeSantis law restricting lessons on race⩘  by Lori Rozsa, The Washington Post, Jan 21, 2023.]

The article states:

Nationwide, education has emerged as a political battleground between Republican lawmakers and other conservatives who equate many lessons on race, gender and identity with liberal indoctrination and Democratic leaders, teachers and others who contend omitting them is tantamount to whitewashing history and hiding difficult truths from students.

I definitely agree with the whitewashing history opinion. How can we learn from previous mistakes and heinous acts in order to move forward if we hide ourselves from that history? The article also shares:

"I can't tell the story of the Newberry Six without expressing my disgust for the lynching of a pregnant woman," said Dunn…. "As a teacher who has spent 30 years going from place to place in Florida where the most atrocious things have happened, I don't know how to do that. And I don't want the state telling me that I must."

Dunn's statewide "Teach the Truth" tours are taking high school students to the sites of some of the worst racial violence in Florida history. His first tour in January took more than two dozen high school students from Miami and their family members to a museum that marks where married Black civil rights activists Harry T. Moore and Harriette V.S. Moore were killed on Christmas Day 1951 when a bomb planted under their home exploded.

As Shanika Marshall, one of the parents who took her teenage son on the Teach the Truth tour with Dr. Dunn says in the article:

"These are things that nobody knew, it's like it was swept under the rug. I feel very strongly that this history needs to be told. There's no shame, it just is what it is, but it needs to be put at the forefront so we can all try to get past it."

Once I had read that article, I knew I had to read Dr. Dunn's book, A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes, published in 2016. From the back cover of the book:

I know Florida. I was born in Florida during the reign of Jim Crow and have lived to see black astronauts blasted into the heavens from Cape Canaveral. For three quarters of a century I have lived mostly in Florida and I have seen her flowers and her warts. This book is about both. People of African descent have been in Florida since the arrival of Ponce de Leon in 1513, yet our presence in the state is virtually hidden. A casual glance at most Florida history books depicts African Americans primarily as laborers who are shown as backdrops to white history. The history of blacks in Florida has been deliberately distorted, omitted and marginalized. We have been denied our heroes and heroines. Our stories have mainly been left untold. This book lifts the veil from some of these stories and places African Americans in the very marrow of Florida history.

The book is a powerful and often harrowing recounting of the history of Florida through the experiences of Black people who have been there from the very earliest explorer and settler days beginning in the 1500s through modern times.

In the final chapter, Dr. Dunn shares his own story, his firsthand experience of Jim Crow, his education, his service in the U.S. Navy including a posting as a battalion commander and as a bridge officer aboard two aircraft carriers, and then his long and illustrious career as an educator.

It is essential that we listen to and learn from the wisdom of people like Dr. Dunne.

   The new Florida holds promise for blacks The state is more multi-racial and more urban now. The heavy influx of northerners has changed the racial tone and conversation in Florida.
   But, there is healing yet to be done. There are stories yet to be told, both tragic and triumphant. African-Americans must realize, however, that forgiveness works. True, some of the descendants of the people who did those bad things still live in Florida, but what guilt should the current generation of whites bear for the sins of their relatives? I say none. On the other hand, whites in Florida and elsewhere in this country, should stop living in denial. Terrible things did happen to blacks in the country and the debt to African-Americans is not fully paid. Let us all face our history together, even the bad parts. Let us learn from mistakes of the past and move on; after all, the challenges our country and the world face today leaves no room for racial, ethnic or religious divisions.

Createspace, 2016;⩘ 

Related: One evening during the time I was reading Dr. Dunn's book, I set it aside for a couple hours in order to watch the excellent and deeply disturbing 12 Years a Slave⩘ , the movie based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup⩘ , a book I listened to a few years ago [my review⩘ ]. The film made some of the stories shared by Dr. Dunn all the more viscerally vivid and often left me gasping for breath and with a deep, pounding heartache. We must fully acknowledge our history if we are to become a stronger nation and a better people.

Steve Phillips, How We Win the Civil War: Securing a Multiracial Democracy and Ending White Supremacy for Good

Audiobook cover of How We Win the Civil War by Steve Phillips. The title is one word below the previous in big bold black letters down the center. The background is split in half vertically with the left half orange and right half blue.Well narrated by Bill Andrew Quinn

So often, I look at what's happening in the political sphere these days and simply shake my head in disbelief and bewilderment, wondering "WTF is going on?" Phillips answers this question clearly, vividly, and persuasively.

The purpose of this book is twofold. First, I am trying to sound the alarm that our opponents are engaged in a continuation of the Civil War, have just recently tried to destroy democracy and move us into fascism, and are actively at work to do it again. Second, I aim to help illuminate the path to victory by putting the places that have successfully flipped from red to blue under the microscope to understand how these states and regions—and the key leaders and organizations there—succeeded and what lessons they offer for the coming months and years. The book is accordingly divided into two parts. Part I focuses on how the Civil War never ended, and the Confederates soldier on, to this day. Part II shows how we win. Then, in the epilogue, I offer a glimpse of the kind of society that could be possible once we win the war.

The thing that surprised me most about this book is that in the face of vile fascism and racism we are currently experiencing in our society, Phillips manages to paint a very optimistic picture. He does this using the examples of the grassroots work being done in Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, San Diego, and even Texas, and showing how that work is resulting in longterm progress towards a more equitable, multiracial democracy. His epilogue then provides a glimpse of what it will be possible to achieve in our society once the Civil War is finally and completely won.

Author's website: Steve Phillips⩘ 

New Press, 2022;⩘ ; audiobook: HighBridge, 2022;⩘ 

Ann-Helén Laestadius, Stolen

Audiobook cover of the Canadian edition of Stolen by Ann-Helén Laestadius showing the title written in blood red capital letters on a snowy background and surrounded by a ring of reindeer antlers.Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles; well narrated by Jade Wheeler

Laestadius, a journalist of Sámi and Tornedalian descent, has written a deeply intimate novel of modern Sámi life in the Sápmi territory of far northern Sweden. Told from the point of view of Elsa, first when as a girl of nine she witnesses a life-altering event, then later as a young adult as she faces her fears and fights to navigate life in her community.

As the author explains in an afterword, her story is a novel based on reality.

These things are happening in Sápmi today and have been for a long time. Reality is sometimes worse than fiction. The book is based on real-life events to a certain extent; among other sources I've had access to a hundred police reports.

The novel explores the challenges and tensions the Sámi endure as they strive to preserve elements of their ancient customs and traditions while integrating facets of modern life and facing the deep-rooted racism of encroaching colonialists. Elsa is a really good character through which to explore these themes. She has an inner determination rooted in her ancestry, yet also has the strength to challenge aspects of her people's customs as she strives to claim her place in the traditionally male-dominated work of reindeer herding, while at the same time finding within herself the courage to stand up to a particularly vile racist.

Scribner, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023;⩘ ; Note: I'm showing the Canadian edition version of the audiobook cover because I like it a lot better than the U.S. edition's version.

Related: See also my review of Forty Days without Shadow by Oliver Truc⩘ 

Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly

The audiobook cover of The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli displaying the title in the center in large black text, except for the word Thinking, which is red and upside down.Translated by Nicky Griffin; narrated by Eric Conger

Swiss author Dobelli discusses 98 cognitive errors we are all susceptible to make, providing illuminating examples of each, at times sobering, at others quite humorous.

The failure to think clearly, or what experts call a "cognitive error," is a systematic deviation from logic—from optimal, rational, reasonable thought and behavior. By "systematic," I mean that these are not just occasional errors in judgment but rather routine mistakes, barriers to logic we stumble over time and again, repeating patterns through generations and through the centuries.

One example is the Social Proof error, which is caused by individuals feeling they are behaving correctly when they act the same as other people, a mistake I think has been vastly multiplied by social media.

If 50 million people say something foolish, it's still foolish.
– W. Somerset Maugham

(For a glimpse of this, see: Jordan Klepper Crashes Trump's First 2024 Campaign "Rally"⩘ , The Daily Show, Feb 1, 2023.)

I wasn't always convinced by Dobelli's examples. I think he sometimes oversimplifies, glossing over nuance. Other times, I think he's a bit too certain of his own opinion. (Of course, I could be making cognitive errors in my evaluation.) Still, I think listening to the book was worthwhile, though there's no way I'm ever going to remember these 98 cognitive traps!

There is one takeaway conclusion I came to that I will remember: it's worth it to always maintain a healthy dose of skepticism as we're interacting with the world as well as about our initial interpretation of those interactions.

One of my favorite humorous stories is from the chapter discussing the Chauffeur Knowledge error, our tendency to overvalue knowledge from people who have learned to put on a good show (like news anchors):

After receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart: "It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur's cap. That'd give us both a bit of variety." Planck liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: "Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it."

In my opinion, one of the most frightening cognitive errors discussed is the Sleeper Effect, especially given today's political environment in the U.S.:

   If [propaganda] strikes a chord with someone, this influence will only increase over time. Why? Psychologist Carl Hovland … named this phenomenon the sleeper effect. To date, the best explanation is that, in our memories, the source of the argument fades faster than the argument. In other words, your brain quickly forgets where the information came from…. Meanwhile, the message itself … fades only slowly or even endures. Therefore, any knowledge that stems from an untrustworthy source gains credibility over time. The discrediting force melts away faster than the message does.
   In the United States, elections increasingly revolve around nasty advertisements, in which candidates seek to tarnish one another's record or reputation. However, by law, each political ad must disclose its sponsor at the end so that it is clearly distinguishable as an electioneering message. However, countless studies show that the sleeper effect does its job here, too, especially among undecided voters. The messenger fades from memory; the ugly accusations persevere.

Harper, 2013;⩘ ; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2013;⩘ 

See also: The Ultimate Guide to your most common Thinking errors - Part I⩘  and Part II⩘ , Escaping Ordinary, Jan 2023.

Iris Yamashita, City Under One Roof

Cover of City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita showing a distant multi-story building across the ice of a bay with mountains beyond. There is a hole in the ice with cracks radiating out from it.Well narrated by Aspen Vincent, Shannon Tyo, and Anna Caputo

A fun debut novel by screenwriter Iris Yamashita. The "closed-room" mystery takes place in an unusual town in Alaska that has a beautiful bay and is surrounded by mountains. When the bay is frozen in the winter, the only way into the city is through a long tunnel through the mountains that is vulnerable to closure when there are a large snowfalls and avalanches, as happens during the story. All the year-round residents, a couple hundred folks, live in one large condominium.

One really fun aspect of the story is that the town is based on a actual town in Alaska very similar to the one described in the novel. It's name is Whittier, and it really has a single condominium in which all the town's year-round residents live. Real life really can be as crazy as fiction!

Author's website: Iris Yamashita⩘ 

Berkley, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Penguin Audio, 2023;⩘ 

Related: Here's a photo of the condo and links to a couple articles about Whittier. It's fun to read the articles after the novel. You may even recognize the reflection of some of the novel's characters in the descriptions and photos.

The Begich Tower, a 14-story building with an array of boats parked in front and mountains rising behind.
The Begich Tower; screen capture from Google Maps

Heriberto Araujo, Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Amazon and the Violent Fight for the World's Last Frontier

Audiobook of Masters of the Lost Land by Heriberto Araujo showing a view of burning Amazon rainforest with the sky above full of smoke.Well narrated by Rebecca Mozo

I write about two kinds of books: those I most enjoy and those I most appreciate. I definitely didn't enjoy this book, but I certainly appreciate it. It makes the story of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest personal by sharing detailed stories of a few individuals living in a region in rural Brazil, the area around Rondon do Pará, which is on the forefront of the destruction.

It is a story of greed, violence, corruption, land grabs, organized crime, murders, human rights abuse, and a near total disregard for the forest itself, the Indigenous people who originally lived there, and the law. It also is a story of a few courageous people who have stood up and are standing up to lead the opposition to fazendeiros (land barons) and to advocate on behalf of landless and exploited people. Some of those people became martyrs to the cause; others are carrying forward the struggle at great risks to their lives.

As the case of Maria Joel shows, when the people accused are wealthy and powerful, policemen and judges often treat them with extreme leniency. This has real consequences for the Amazon and for the people who fight to protect it. Since I began to investigate this book in 2017, about 180 land and environmental activists have been murdered in Brazil. The number of homicides and the degree of brutality is appalling.

This story also helped me to understand at least part of the political fight between Jair Bolsonaro, under whom rainforest destruction greatly accelerated, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has promised to fight the deforestation.

Will the activists prevail? I have my doubts. Much of the impetus for the deforestation is the world's voracious appetite for the soybeans and meat produced on the cleared lands. China, the U.S., and Europe are the leading consumers of these exports. We are directly responsible for the destruction.

From the PDF accompanying the audiobook, a photo the Amazon in Pará state:

An ariel view showing vast tracks of rainforest bisected by a huge muddy river and many tributaries, with a town visible on the banks of one of the tributaries.

Mariner Books, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2023;⩘ 

See also:

Maria Ressa, How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future

Audiobook cover of How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa showing the book title in front of a black and white image of Maria Ressa standing in front of a street of multi-story building with smoke rising between Ressa and the buildings.Forward by Amal Clooney; Narrated by Maria Ressa and Rebecca Mozo

A critically important book written by a courageous and inspiring individual, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Maria Ressa.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started listening to this, but what I discovered is a very personal sharing of the experiences that shaped her life, led her to discover her passion for journalism, and enabled her to find a deep well of inner strength. FDR once said, "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear." Ressa has certainly lived that as she has faced the ongoing harassment of the current and previous authoritarian presidents of the Philippines, including the very real threat that she may live the rest of her life in prison for reporting the truth.

One thing that surprised me is the way Ressa and the online news site she founded, Rappler, have been at the forefront of exposing the extensive negative mental, civic, and public health damage caused by Mark Zuckerberg and his social media company Facebook. As internal documents shared by whistleblowers have revealed, Zuckerberg and Facebook have consistently put profit above individual and social well being. Given that the people of the Philippines have one of the highest rates of social media use in the world, this has a particularly strong negative impact on them, but we certainly feel this impact here in the U.S. as well.

One thing I want to remember: after Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2021 alongside Dmitry Muratov of the Russian Federation "for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace," they jointly published a "10-Point Plan to Address the Information Crisis." It begins:

We call for a world in which technology is built in service of humanity and where our global public square protects human rights above profits. Those in power must do their part to build a world that puts human rights, dignity, and security first, including by safeguarding scientific and journalistic methods and tested knowledge.

I think it's highly worthwhile to read and advocate for the entire plan: 10-Point Plan to Address the Information Crisis⩘ .

Harper, 2022;⩘ ; audiobook: HarperAudio, 2022;⩘ 

See also: Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa compares Zuckerberg to dictator⩘ , BBC News, May 26, 2023.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Audiobook cover of Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer showing paintings of a variety of mosses on a granular tan background and surrounding the book title in the center.Well narrated by the author

If I were ever to be banished to a life of solitude and allowed to take one book with me, it likely would be Braiding Sweetgrass by forest biologist and ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book, written by her a decade earlier, is similarly good, but shorter and a bit more focused on biology. Fortunately, I love moss, so her stories kept me engaged as she invited me into the amazing small world in which mosses contribute their ancient gift of abundance to the well-being of our planet.

While most of her stories helped me grow my deep appreciation of the natural world, one anecdote she shares left me a bit nauseous and quite angry. She was hired to do a short consulting job focused on mosses. It was a bit of a mysterious assignment, but turned out to be helping a young horticulturist fresh out of college who had the job of creating the gardens for a new mansion a very wealthy man was having built on a large rural piece of property. The owner wanted everything to look like it had been there for a century, so for example, huge trees were being dug up far away and trucked in to be transplanted, and the mansion itself was being constructed in a manner that made it look like an aged manor.

The owner wanted instant gardens of moss on the boulders surrounding one of the patios, and Kimmerer was brought in to advise on this. She tried to explain that moss isn't like a perennial flower you pop into the ground for instant gratification, that it grows only where it wants to grow, and that even then it can take decades to establish itself. The young horticulturist wasn't satisfied with this and pressed her for any methods she could share that would enable them to quickly grow moss where they wanted it. So she shared one "recipe" she had read about, a milkshake made of the right kind of moss and buttermilk that might create an environment on the boulders that was more conducive to moss colonies establishing themselves, but cautioned that even if it worked, and she was skeptical, it would still take years or decades for the moss to become fully established.

At the end of the day, the horticulturist took on her on a little tour of one portion of the property far from the manor to show her a large rock outcropping that was covered with gorgeous mosses. Then she left to write her report.

Sometime later, she was asked to come back for one more day of consulting. The owner wasn't willing to wait for his moss garden, so he had hired a team of stonecutters and explosives experts from Italy to fly over and carefully blast off portions of the moss-covered rock face of that beautiful rock outcropping and move them to the boulder garden surrounding the patio by the house. They were carefully drilling and setting up small charges to separate the portions of the rock face, then covering them with wet burlap to prepare for transport to the patio. The problem was that the moss began dying shortly after the blasting. So they had set up a "field hospital", a large tent with a sprinkler system to try to rejuvenate the moss, but it continued to die. So they brought Kimmerer in to see if she could advise them as to how to revive it. She was, of course, heartbroken and disgusted.

   Blowing up a cliff to steal the mosses is a crime, but it's not against the law, because he "owns" those rocks. It would be easy to call the abduction an act of vandalism. And yet, this is also a man who imports a team of experts for the gentle wrapping of mossy rocks. The Owner is a man who loves mosses. And the exercise of power. I have no doubts of his sincerity in wishing to protect them from harm, once they conformed to his landscape design. But I think you cannot own a thing and love it at the same time. Owning diminishes the innate sovereignty of a thing, enriching the possessor and reducing the possessed. If he truly loved mosses more than control, he would have left them alone and walked each day to see them.…
   I was dropped back at the staging area with the coolness reserved for a team member who won't play the game.

We all have the possibility to be assholes, but the wealthy have the capacity to supersize their fucking assholeness, as in this instance.

On a happier note, here's a photo I took a few years ago while out walking in the foothills after some nourishing rains had fallen over the previous weeks. For the record, we left the mosses there, only bringing their beauty home in our hearts.

A variety of mosses, from light green to dark green, growing on a steep hillside, interspersed with fallen Ponderosa needles.

I also enjoyed one moment of levity that Kimmerer shares from something she noticed while traveling:

If you fear change,
leave it here.
– Sign on a tip jar

Oregon State University Press, 2003;⩘ ; audiobook: Tantor Media, 2018;⩘ 

See also my previous review of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer⩘ .

Laurent Richard & Sandrine Rigaud, Pegasus: How a Spy in Your Pocket Threatens the End of Privacy, Dignity, and Democracy

Book cover of Pegasus by Laurent Richard & Sandrine Rigaud showing an abstract eye over the title; the pupil is black, the iris is comprised of rings of light blue zeros and ones that become narrower as they get further out until they become rays of blue shooting outwards; behind all of this are thin fragments of bright multi-colored bands of light (red, yellow, blue, orange, green) running horizontally across a black background.Introduction by Rachel Maddow; narrated by Andrew Wehrlen & Rachel Perry

An important story sharing the journey the authors, two investigative reporters with Forbidden Stories, went through—in partnership with Amnesty International and leading a consortium of other media organizations and journalists—to reveal the illegal use that the Pegasus spyware tool sold by the NSO Group was being put to. A dire threat to all of us.

Thanks to an unprecedented data leak, the international investigation revealed the existence of more than 50,000 potential victims of Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware tool sold by Israeli company NSO Group. Among the victims were journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, politicians, academics, businesspeople, and even members of royal families and heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron.
Pegasus Project: what has happened since the revelations?⩘  by Karine Pfenniger, Forbidden Stories, Jul 18, 2022 (one year after the story broke).

While early portions of the story get way down into the weeds of the grinding work investigative reporters go through, the later portions are at times absolutely nail biting as the team gets closer to publication and begins to experience the hair-raising risks they were exposing themselves and their source to.

Henry Holt, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Macmillan Audio, 2023;⩘ 

See also:

Stephen Markley, The Deluge

Book cover of The Deluge by Stephen Markley showing sunlit blue sky with a few whispy clouds and a big rip running down the top half of the sky.Incredibly well narrated by Corey Brill, Danny Campbell, Gibson Frazier, Stephen Graybill, Soneela Nankani, Joy Osmanski, Melissa Redmond, Aida Reluzco, André Santana, Neil Shah, Aven Shore, Shakira Shute, Pete Simonelli & Shaun Taylor-Corbett.

Amazing novel, certainly among the very best I've come across.

The story revolves around climate change, told through the experiences of a fairly large cast of characters who have seven very different points of view.

The story begins in 2013 and progresses through the late 2030s, weaving between moments of the mundanity of everyday life, soaring descriptions of exquisite poetic vision, deep explorations of the science of climate change, passages of impassioned activism, sections of stomach churning political machinations, and segments of sheer heart-stopping terror. It paints a bleak, though I think entirely realistic picture of what we are heading toward in the coming years. Even amongst the vividly described devastation of earth-shattering natural calamities, the extreme violence perpetrated by both terrorists and governments, and the dire life threatening climate challenges that all but the very rich are forced to try to cope with, the story ultimately has the hopeful message that even if it looks nearly impossible, it is possible that we can come together and tackle this existential crisis that we have created and continue to cause to accelerate.

Even if we succeed, it'll be generations before the emergency ends. I think we have to be at peace with that.

The Deluge inspired me to write the longest review I've ever produced, which is posted on its own page: Extended review of The Deluge by Stephen Markley⩘ .

Simon & Schuster, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023;⩘ 

Michael Bennett, Better the Blood

The book cover of Better the Blood by Michael Bennett featuring a koru—an inward-turning spiral that is used in Tā Moko, traditional Māori tattoos—drawn in blood red on a black background.Well narrated by Miriama McDowell and Richard Te Are

This story kept me riveted from start to finish. It also gave me a couple of gifts I deeply appreciate: it took me places I've never previously been and taught me things I hadn't previously known.

The story revolves around Senior Sargent Hana Westerman, a hard-charging Māori police detective in Aukland who faces an accelerating series of nearly impossible to resolve moral quandaries as she races to solve what begins as a very unusual murder.

The perpetrator leaves a mark behind that Hana discovers by following an intuitive hunch she has, something she is well known for. Drawn in the victim's blood is an inward-turning spiral resembling a koru, a design based on the appearance of an unfurling silver fern frond that is used in Tā Moko, traditional Māori tattoos.

The book includes a short but powerful addendum discussing the settings for the novel, Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) and Aotearoa (New Zealand). It's a novel, but it's rooted in sacred soil soaked in blood.

The wounds of colonization remain raw and unhealed. The past is not the past and we cannot let it be.

I can pay this story my personal highest compliment: I'll be returning to it again.

Michael Te Arawa Bennett (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue) is an award-winning screenwriter, director and author.

See also: Tā Moko: Traditional Māori Tattoo⩘  and Wikipedia: Tā Moko⩘ 

A closeup from the book cover of Better the Blood by Michael Bennett of a koru—an inward-turning spiral that is used in Tā Moko, traditional Māori tattoos—drawn in blood red on a black background..

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2023;⩘ ; audiobook: Recorded Books, 2023;⩘ 

Alan Weisman, The World Without Us

The cover of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman showing in the top half a city of skyscrapers shown in dark gray against a polluted-looking tan sky that transitions to white above, with the words THE WORLD in white over the dark gray of the cityscape. The bottom half is an upside forest, as if a reflection of the skyscrapers above, shown in dark green against a background of pale green transitioning to white below, with the words WITHOUT US in white over the dark green of the forest.Well narrated by Adam Grupper

Interesting book. Though 15 years old, it remains totally relevant, painfully so.

Weisman begins by speculating on what would happen to New York City should all humans on Earth disappear tomorrow, and how the rest of the natural world would respond. Talking with experts, he charts the breakdown of massive infrastructure like subways and subterranean water and wastewater systems, bridges, and skyscrapers. In a surprisingly short period of time, the city would begin to crumble. Within decades, major sections would be gone. Within a century, very little would be left for any observer to see. Within a millennium, almost no traces would be left.

Then he goes back to the beginning of humankind and traces how we have altered our planet over the millennia. Finally, he visits various major examples of our impact and describes both how they have changed our planet and what their disintegration would look like, for example farming, oil refineries (for me, the most appalling and frightening chapters in the book), the Panama Canal, plastics, infrastructure and artwork made from various metals we have created, nuclear power plants and nuclear waste, the immense amount of carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere, the electrical grid (in the U.S. alone, there is enough wire hanging in the transmission lines that crisscross the country to reach from the earth to the moon, back to the earth, and nearly back to the moon again!).

One thing is crystal clear: we have really screwed things up!

More crucial to us still here on Earth right now is whether we humans can make it through what many scientists call this planet's latest great extinction, make it through and bring the rest of life with us rather than tear it down. The natural history lessons we read in both the fossil and the living records suggest that we can't go it alone for very long.

Thomas Dunne Books, 2007;⩘ ; audiobook: Audio Renaissance, 2007;⩘ 

Oscar Hokeah, Calling for a Blanket Dance

The cover of Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah. According to the author, the cover is an "image that conveys perfectly the post-modern fracture experienced by the main character, Ever Geimausaddle, and his resilient trek through the process of decolonization." It shows a Native American man's head. The head is hollow and the face is broken away from the rest of the head in two pieces: the right eye and forehead is one piece, and the left eye, nose, mouth, and chin is the other piece. Out of the top of the head emerge crumpled dollar bills. Again from the author: "Those of us who engage in traditional gourd dances know that a crumpled dollar bill dropped at the feet of a dancer signifies a process of honoring." There is a sash of the colors that Kiowa (red) and Comanche (navy blue) dancers wear coming out of the head, the tassled ends of which, one blue and one red, hang behind and below the head. From the author: "With the sash coming down, I knew this honor was inextricably tied to his family and his community." The background is a bold orange beneath a grid of dark orange dots representing one of the quilts in the story.Well narrated by Oscar Hokeah & Rainy Fields; cover design by Christopher Moisan based on an original sketch by Christin Apodaca⩘ 

Oscar Hokeah's powerful novel features a series of stories about the life of Ever Geimausaddle, who like the author has a mother who is Kiowa and Cherokee, and a father who is Mexican. The stories begin when Ever is a baby and share glimpses of his life as he grows and becomes a father himself. They are told from his own point of view, as well as the points of view of several other people from his extended family.

The stories explore the extraordinary challenges Native American and Hispanic peoples face, as well as the deep well of strength that can be found in their families and tribal communities. Some of the stories are incredibly frightening, others are inspiring, painful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and uplifting.

From the author's website⩘ :

Oscar Hokeah is a regionalist Native American writer of literary fiction, interested in capturing intertribal, transnational, and multicultural aspects within two tribally specific communities: Tahlequah and Lawton, Oklahoma.  He was raised inside these tribal circles and continues to reside there today. He is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma from his mother (Hokeah and Stopp families), and he has Mexican heritage from his father (Chavez family) who emigrated from Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico.

See especially these two articles of his on his website:

Algonquin Books, 2022;⩘ ; audiobook: Hachette Audio, 2022;⩘ 

Mini Aodla Freeman, Life Among the Qallunaat

The book cover of Life Among the Qallunaat by Mini Aodla Freeman featuring a colorful stylized painting of three thin multi-story building, one yellow, one light blue, one dark blue, with a bunch of colorful cars driving back and forth in front of the buildings.Edited by Keavy Martin & Julie Rak; well narrated by Taqralik Partridge

This is a very gentle book. In it, Mini Aodla Freeman, a James Bay Inuit born in 1936 on the Cape Hope Islands located in Nunavut, tells her story. She shares what might be considered mundane details about her everyday life, except that she has lived an extraordinary life. She begins by describing what it was like when as a young woman, after having grown up in the rural environs of the far north of what is now Canada, she found herself in Ottawa working as a translator. She reveals to the reader how culturally confusing it was to have come from a very caring environment with clearly defined norms to then be among people who had little understanding of who she was and who lived in an entirely different and often callous or ignorantly uncaring manner.

Then she takes the reader back to her childhood, sharing the experience of what is was like to grow up with her nomadic family and within a strongly bonded community. Later, she was separated from her family and taken to a residential school, a painful experience for her during which she missed her family immensely. During those years, she became multilingual. Her life was pretty much put on hold due to a severe and long bout of tuberculous, but as she recovered, her multilingual talent led to her becoming a staff member at the sanatorium as a translator, where she then began to study to be a nurse. Her studies were interrupted when her family asked her to return home to be with them. However, after a short while, she left again to avoid an arranged marriage, and began working as a nanny. During all of this, she was a determined but very quiet, almost painfully shy person, keenly, if silently, observing the world around her. At the end of that period of her life, she became a primary school teacher, and it was then that she began to blossom into the incredibly strong woman she became.

She was then recruited by the federal Ministry on Northern Affairs and Natural Resources in Ottawa to work as a translator. Later, she was manager of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, was a cultural counsellor for Inuit and First Nations inmates in Alberta, and served as a cultural adviser to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, National Film Board of Canada, the Canadian National Museum of Civilization (now Canadian Museum of History), the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg. In addition to being an author, she is a playwright, an activist, and a proponent of the Inuit voice.

A more recent photo of Mini Aodla Freeman sitting a table, perhaps in a meeting, and looking upward with a nice smile on her face and in her eyes.
Photo from the article Freeman, Minnie Aodla⩘ , Inuit Literatures.

University of Manitoba Press, 2019 (originally published 1978);⩘ ; audiobook: University of Manitoba Press, 2019;⩘ 

See also: Minnie Freeman⩘ , The People and the Text.

Paul Seesequasis, Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun
Portraits of Everyday Life in Eight Indigenous Communities

Book cover of Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun by Paul Seesequasis showing two Indigenous women, one wearing a shawl made of red Tartan material in which she is carrying her child in the front of her, the other wearing a white woolen coat with a large hood trimmed in black fur in which she is carrying her child on her back.

A beautiful and deeply touching book of photographs depicting the everyday lives of Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada. Primarily taken during the 1950s through 1970s, the photos are accompanied by stories that are insightful, often exhilarating, and sometimes tragic. From the author's Introduction:

   One might call Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun a collection of Indigenous photographs. To be more precise, it is a book of photographs of Indigenous peoples, taken for the most part by non-Indigenous photographers, primarily in what is now Canada. There were not just any photographers but those who, through various circumstances, became embedded in a community long enough for their lens to not be as obtrusive as a tourist's, for the camera to be accepted enough that what is framed is not staged or phony. Alongside these photos appear those of the first generation of Indigenous photographers, among them Peter Pitseolak and George Johnson, who in th mid-twentieth century became pioneers within Indigenous photography.

Paul Seesequasis also shares photos via social media, including via his Mastodon social media account:⩘ . There also are numerous articles and interviews published online that share more about his inspiration for this book and the process that led to it.

   This book began from a comment my mother made to me when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was happening. She is a residential school survivor. She felt that she wasn't hearing anything on the news that reflected the strength of our families, our kinships and our relations with each other through the hardest of times.
   I was looking for photos that reflected kinship, strength and families' relationship with the land. It's the idea that previous generations, even going through the hardest times of forced relocations or residential schools, had strength that enabled today's resurgence of languages and culture of so many great artists, writers and filmmakers that we see today.
   – From an article in CBC Books⩘ , Jul 30, 2019

From the book's back flap: Paul Seesequasis is a nîpisîhkopâwiyiniw (Willow Cree) writer, journalist, cultural advocate and commentator currently residing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Since 2015, he has curated the Indigenous Archival Photo Project, an online and physical exhibition of archival Indigenous photographs that explores history, identity and the process of visual reclamation.

Knopf Canada, 2019;⩘ 

On a related note: Are You An Indian?": On Life As An Urban NDN⩘ " by Steve Dragswolf, who is Hidatsa and Arikara from the Three Affiliated tribes of North Dakota, otherwise known as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, Prayer for Words, Jan 2, 2023.

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