Reading – & Now 4
A love affair with books
Tommy Orange, There There
Well narrated by Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Alma Ceurvo, and Kyla Garcia
In his first book, an extremely gifted young writer, Tommy Orange, breathes life into a vivid cast of characters whose lives tell an important part of the story of Native Americans living in cities, specifically in this case, Oakland.
As he allows each character to reveal their story more deeply in their own unique voice, he slowly draws all of their stories toward a startling intersection. This is not a comfortable story, but at times it sparkles with exhilarating grace.
Orvil mainly listens to powwow music. There's something in the energy of that big booming drum, in the intensity of the singing, like an urgency that feels specifically Indian. He likes the power the sound of a chorus of voices makes too, those high-pitched wailed harmonies, how you can't tell how many singers there are, and how sometimes it sounds like ten singers, sometimes like a hundred. There was even one time, when he was dancing in Opal's room with his eyes closed, when he felt like it was all his ancestors who made it so he could be there dancing and listening to that sound, singing right there in his ears through all those hard years they made it through.
Random House Audio, 2018
Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote
Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
Nicely narrated by the author
When I saw the title of this book, I just laughed and couldn't resist adding it to my reading list expecting, I suppose, to be entertained by snark. Certainly, I wasn't let down, but Burkeman provides much more than some simple sniping at the stupidity of positivity seminars (stupid, that is, except for the facilitators who make a killing off of them).
A couple quotes from the author's website⩘ sum it up nicely:
For a civilisation so fixated on achieving happiness, we seem remarkably incompetent at the task.
Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual collection of people—experimental psychologists and Buddhists, terrorism experts, spiritual teachers, business consultants, philosophers—who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. They argue that "positive thinking" and relentless optimism aren't the solution, but part of the problem. And that there is an alternative, "negative path" to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty—those things we spend our lives trying to avoid.
I enjoyed it and found it valuable enough to have listened to it twice already.
Audible Studios, 2012
Sarah McBride, Tomorrow Will Be Different
Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality
Narrated by the author
This is a compelling book on many different levels. First and foremost it is a window into the humanity of Trans people and the struggles they face seeking simple acceptance. As I said in a previous review, imagine how our world would transform if striving for the acceptance of others, no matter how they differ from ourselves, became one of humanity's defining endeavors. Let it be.
Second, it a deeply moving story of personal tragedy and loss as Sarah shares her experience dealing with her husband's cancer diagnosis, the challenges of the treatment, the triumph of his ringing the bell when he finished chemotherapy, the joy of learning that his next test showed him to be cancer free, the devastation when his cancer returned with a vengeance, and then all too quickly, the grace of the manner of his passing.
Third, it is a dramatic glimpse into the world of political activism. I've been so turned off by politics for so many years now that other than voting, I try my best to ignore it. But Sarah, who is currently the national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, shows how political activism can lead to positive change. I'm grateful that there are people like Sarah fighting the good, if difficult, fight.
I know that it can feel like we're almost lost as a country, but we must never forget that even with all of the hate and all of the challenges, no matter who is president, we can continue to change our world for the better. We've done it before and we can do it again.
Random House Audio, 2018
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures
Narrated by Robin Miles
I'm in awe of people who can grasp advanced mathematics, and this book tells the stories of some truly gifted mathematicians and engineers who worked at NACA and its successor NASA. The story focuses on three black women, Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, as well as their peers, as they courageously fought racism and misogyny to make significant contributions to helping the U.S. achieve aeronautical superiority during World War II, and then to help get the U.S. into space and to the moon.
As someone who doesn't understand advanced mathematics very well—just enough to begin to glimpse its universal beauty and elegance, but not well enough to actually decipher or use it—I'm particularly impressed by people like Goble, Jackson, and Vaughan who were able to see deeply enough into the mathematical principles in order to not just solve problems, but to push the very boundaries of mathematics in order to think into existence solutions for never previously encountered challenges. What amazing minds!
Harper Audio, 2016
Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet
Narrated by Bronson Pinchot
Shortly after he held his newborn daughter for the first time, Mann found himself pacing in the visitor lounge in the wee hours of the morning as his wife and daughter slept, thinking about what the world would be like for his daughter when she grew up and found herself living in a world populated by as many as 10 billion people. He wondered how she will find adequate clean water to drink, nutritious food to eat, decent housing, and fulfilling work when so many people are competing for resources.
This led him to research two scientists who have shaped our thinking about how to best deal with increasing population: William Vogt, who in a nutshell argued that we should find ways to reduce our use of resources and our own numbers, and Norman Borlaug, who argued that we should innovate our way to producing enough more resources to meet the increasing needs and wants of an increasing number of people.
Mann is careful to not pick sides; rather, he introduces us to each scientist's life so that we can understand what shaped their approaches, as well as the benefits and costs of each. For example, he explores the groundbreaking green revolution work Borlaug did, at great personal cost, to breed wheat and rice that is more resistant to debilitating diseases and infestations while producing higher yields. The obvious benefit was to help reduce hunger worldwide, while the cost was increased reliance on fertilizers and the need for more irrigation.
Wizards and prophets are less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum. In theory, they could meet in the middle. One could cut back here à la Vogt and expand over there, Borlaugh-style. Some people believe in doing just that. But the test of a categorization like this one is less whether it is perfect—it is not—than whether it is useful. As a practical matter, the solutions (or putative solutions) to environmental problems have been dominated by one of these approaches or the other. If a government persuades its citizenry to spend huge sums revamping offices, stores, and homes with the high-tech insulation and low-water-use plumbing urged by Prophets, the same citizenry will resist ponying up for Wizards' new-design nuclear plants and monster desalination facilities. People who back Borlaugh and embrace genetically modified, hyper-productive wheat and rice won't follow Vogt and dump their steaks and chops for low-impact veggie burgers.
Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.
The conflict between these visions is not between good and evil, but between different ideas of the good life, between ethical orders that give priority to personal liberty and those that give priority to what might be called connection.
Personally, I am appalled at the thought of a world populated with 10 billion people. I cherish nature, sparsely populated areas, quiet places, and starlit skies, and feel claustrophobic and sensorily assaulted even in the nearby small city of only a few hundred thousand people. But we are accelerating towards that future of 10 billion people and I don't see any noteworthy actions towards reducing our use of resources or our numbers, so I don't think we are going to have much of a choice other than to figure out how to deal with it. As bleak to me as the thought of such a densely populated planet is no matter how well innovation solves the crucial challenges, the alternative is utterly terrifying to contemplate.
At least this book has helped me to think about all of this with more clarity.
Random House Audio, 2018
Steve Coll, Ghost Wars and Directorate S
Narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner
These were difficult books to listen to, but essential and eye opening.
Ghost Wars is subtitled: "The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001." [The Soviet invasion occurred in December 1979.]
Directorate S is subtitled: "The C.I.A. and America's Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 - 2016."
Steve Coll is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and was an investigative correspondent and then a managing editor for The Washington Post, where he worked for 20 years.
The research for these books is meticulous and thorough, providing readers with a deep insight into these wars that have so completely engulfed the U.S. and much of the world for nearly 40 years now, spreading chaos, instability, and terrorism throughout the region and around the world.
For many Americans and Europeans who have lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after 2001, it is frustrating to hear discourse back home holding that Afghanistan and Pakistan are lands of "warring tribes" or "endless conflicts." The historical record belies such clichés. Independent Afghanistan was impoverished but peaceful and stable, untroubled by radical international violence, for many decades of the twentieth century, prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979. Its several decades of civil war since that invasion have been fueled again and again by outside interference, primarily by Pakistan, but certainly including the United States and Europe, which have remade Afghanistan with billions of dollars in humanitarian and reconstruction aid while simultaneously contributing to its violence, corruption, and instability. And for all of Pakistan's dysfunction, state-sponsored radicalism, and glaring economic inequality, it remains a modernizing nation with a vast, breathtakingly talented middle class and diaspora. If the army and I.S.I. did not misrule Pakistan, in alliance with corrupt political cronies, the country's potential to lift up its own population and contribute positively to the international system might today rival India's. The region's "endless conflicts" are not innate to its history, forms of social organization, or cultures. They are the outgrowth of specific misrule and violent interventions. They reflect political maneuvering, hubristic assumptions, intelligence operations, secret diplomacy, and decision making at the highest levels in Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington that have often been unavailable to the Afghan, Pakistani, American, and international publics.
Penguin Audio, 2011 and 2018
Lori Duron, Raising My Rainbow
Narrated by the author
A beautiful book about the joys, struggles, delights, and challenges of raising an amazing child who is gender creative in a society that struggles with simple acceptance.
Just imagine how our world would transform if striving for acceptance became one of our defining endeavors. Let it be.
No, I haven't given up hope yet. And stories like Lori's are one of the reasons.
Audible Studios, 2014
Jerry Merritt, A Gift of Time
Pitch perfect narration by Christopher Lane
Micajah "Cager" Fenton is an 80 year old who has grown weary of living … until one evening he comes how to find a giant crater in his yard with a "time glider" in the bottom of it. The time glider looks a bit like an old, beat up shipping container, and it's busted. The traveler in the glider asks for his help repairing it. Being an old engineer with a degree in Physics, he's intrigued, so rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. This rekindles a spark of enthusiasm in life and sets him on an amazing journey.
I read a lot of science fiction … a lifetime addiction. Unfortunately, many stories can be a bit tedious or overwrought, and I often end up speeding up the audio playback to get through them more quickly. Only once in awhile does a story contain a glimmer of a fresh idea, and it's ever rarer that the quality of the story itself lives up to a fresh idea's potential. These are stories I'm in no hurry to finish; they are a sip of good scotch to let linger on the taste buds.
In this tale, Merritt gives us the gift of some fresh ideas wrapped in a story populated with rich characters and vivid adventure. He explores the depths of human experience, the unfolding of humanness in an alien being, and the realization that a human can harbor more than a little alienness deep within. Guess I may want to take a short jump back and savor this one again.
Podium Publishing, 2017
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Beautifully narrated by Paul Michael
I have enjoyed many of the Port Williams books by Wendell Berry. Some, like this one, are made even better by Paul Michael's narration, which suits these stories to a T.
Jayber inhabits his life fully, while always being an observer, even of himself. Through his eyes, we see life unfolding, as well as the way the inexorable forces of modernity change things over the course of his life throughout the twentieth century.
Wendell Berry is a wonderful storyteller, infusing his tales with the humor, tragedy, ignorance, wisdom, clumsiness, and sometimes pure gracefulness that is life.
In those early days on the river I was living one of my happiest times. The visions of my mind filled me from morning to night, and I would go to sleep thinking of what I would do the next day. I had lots of work to do. The house had from time to time been stayed in, but until I came it had never been lived in. It owed its survival to Ernest Finley's good work at the beginning, and to the durability of the wide old yellow poplar boards. But now it required many small repairs. For days and days I was eagerly employed with rule and square and hammer and saw. I patched and repaired and replaced. I added new shelves and cabinets to suit my own notions and needs. None of this was fine work. It was all of used lumber and was crude enough. But it was neat too, all proportioned and placed in a good way. It would be hard to tell you, hard for you to believe, how pleased I was by the new nailheads gleaming in the old boards. I bought lime and a brush and by degrees, moving the furniture here and there, whitewashed the walls inside, which brightened and cheered the place considerably. I built a new privy to replace the one that had floated off in the flood of 1964. I cut back the branches and the saplings that had closed in around the house.
Every little difference I made seemed a significant change in the world. I would finish a piece of work and then I would stand and look and admire the way it fitted in with everything else. Just sweeping the porch seemed to make the tree limbs spread and hover more gracefully above it. Where a falling limb had poked a hole through a screen, I took a fine wire and stitched on a patch, and then sat a while and looked out the window, feeling that my work had improved the view.
Everywhere I looked, the prospect was new and interesting. Nowhere I had lived before had been so intimate with the world. A pair of phoebes were nesting under the eaves above the porch. Owls called at night, sometimes right over the roof. I would hear a fish jump and look up to see the circles widening on the water. Sometimes, just sitting and looking, I would see the fish when it jumped. Birds were nesting and singing all around—all kinds of birds, and I began to learn their names. Every tree seemed to be offering itself to the use of the birds. And there was the river itself, flowing or still, muddy or clear, quiet or windblown, steaming on the colder mornings of winter or frozen over, always changing its mood, never feeling exactly the same way twice.…
I had learned, once, from Uncle Othy how to fish with a trotline. That had been a long time ago, and now I had to learn again from Burley. From that time until now, when the stage of the river has been at all promising, from early spring until late fall, I have usually had a line or two in the river. The river and the garden have been the foundations of my economy here. Of the two I have liked the river best. It is wonderful to have the duty of being on the river the first and last thing every day. I have loved it even in the rain. Sometimes I have loved it most in the rain.
No matter how much it may be used by towing companies and water companies and commercial fishermen and trappers and the like, the river doesn't belong to the workaday world. And no matter how much it is used by pleasure boaters and water-skiers and the like, it doesn't belong to the vacation world either. It is never concerned, if you can see what I mean. Nothing keeps to its own way more than the river does.
Another thing: No matter how corrupt and trashy it necessarily must be at times in this modern world, the river is never apart from beauty. Partly, I suppose, this is because it always keeps to its way.
Sometimes, living right beside it, I forget it. Going about my various tasks, I don't think about it. And then it seems just to flow back into my mind. I stop and look at it. I think of its parallel, never-meeting banks, which yet never part. I think of it lying there in its long hollow, at the foot of all the landscape, a single opening from its springs in the mountains all the way to its mouth. It is a beautiful thought, one of the most beautiful of all thoughts. I think it not in my brain only but in my heart and in all the lengths of my bones.
Counterpoint Press, 2001
Audiobook: Hovel Audio, 2009
Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes
Well narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Amazing story about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the most brilliant cryptanalysts ever. The story follows her groundbreaking path from her pioneering work on the new field of radio code decryption during WWI to her cat-and-mouse chase of rum runners for the Coast Guard to her astonishing life-or-death fight against the Germans and Japanese during WWII.
Her tour de force battle against the spies using Enigma machines, just one of her many accomplishments, is an exhilarating tale. What a mind!
Equally as astonishing as her brilliance was the bias she faced as a woman shattering barriers, and the nauseating reactions she received from many short-sighted men of power who weren't intelligent enough to appreciate her formidable talent.
Thank goodness we know this story at last and can pay tribute to this remarkable woman and the work she did to help ensure the survival of the U.S. as it faced some of its most trying battles.
Audiobook: HarperAudio, 2017
Physical book: Dey Street Books, 2017
Follow up: Read an article in The Register this morning explaining how cryptographer Elonka Dunin paid a visit to the Friedman's grave and noticed something interesting: it appears that Elizebeth design a cryptogram that has been hidden in plain sight on the inscription on the tombstone since 1980: Unlocked: The hidden love note on the grave of America's first crypto power-couple.