Jane Smith, is a mom and a wife, with a job in the security business in Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Hummingbird Salamander. Jane lives a normal American life, constantly questioning if this is the best life she could be living. She is a big woman, a wrestler who no longer wrestles, but does work out at a strip mall gym, not the designer variety. Her boss has named her giant hand-bag ‘Shovel Pig,’ signaling to her that she is not exactly a dainty woman, which she already knows. She decides to keep the name. She is in the American game, working to get ahead, trying to avoid office politics. Until one day someone hands her an envelope outside her favorite coffee shop with a cryptic message – an address and a key, and a message that says if Jane receives this envelope the sender is probably dead.
Would you bite? Would you get more and more distracted from your fairly normal life, lose everything to solve an increasingly twisted and dangerous mystery pathway, somehow related to either ecoterrorism or solving climate change? Can anyone embrace a cause fully without having it take over their life? Can you be a true activist without putting your family in jeopardy, without losing your job, perhaps even your home, your reputation, your clean criminal record? Would living a life on the run make you feel rootless and disoriented? Could you keep your focus on your target goals until you reached your own personal endgame?
Silvina, the woman Jane never meets, the woman who sent her the note, who leads her to a hummingbird, and eventually a salamander, the woman who puts Jane in mortal danger, is just such a committed activist. She seems, for some reason, to pick Jane as her successor. Will Jane ever solve the mystery of who Silvina is, how she is connected to Jane, and what she wants Jane to see and do. Entering this book is like entering an Escape Room where clues keep leading you to an exit that seems to recede into the distance just when you think the riddle is solved. You don’t get out of this Escape Room unless you finish the novel. Halfway through I got so frustrated, so angry at what Jane was doing to her life that I wanted to quit, but I could not put the book down.
There are no plans for stopping climate change in this book that would ever have worked. But we do learn if Silvina was a fraud or a true activist and she does present us with a result, sort of, maybe. As the story moves along the climate worsens, the color of the sky is a sickly gray-green and weather conditions are erratic – rain alternating with snow and sleet, excessive warmth replaced by freezing cold. Life doesn’t stop in an instant. The world goes on and people adapt to each new climate change as best they can. There are refugee ships full of climate migrants out on the oceans with nowhere to land.
There will be a hummingbird, and a salamander? What happens to them? What do they represent? Hummingbird Salamander is a conundrum because of the clues Jane follows and the threats she faces. It’s a thriller.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder is an authentic piece of journalism about Americans fed up with our social systems which consistently rob middle-class Americans of things they felt were part of the ‘social contract.’ In a land where our Declaration of Independence proclaims that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), we assume that our government would not legislate against our rights.
Although governing is complicated it seems clear to most of us ‘bottom dwellers’ that our laws have been skewed to advantage the wealthy. When the wealthy play with the stock market and the economy to tweak it so they can get wealthier it hurts those whose finances are least secure. We are taught that consumption is good. We are dazzled by credit card offers that allow us to live well.
But when the rich go too far and we land in the Great Depression or the Great Recession people at the bottom, perhaps those very folks who believed the promise of credit as a road to comfort, fall off the economic scale.
They lose a job, they age out of the job market, they can’t pay their mortgage, they can’t afford health insurance and a major health crisis hits, their long time employer goes bankrupt and they lose their pension, or they are a widowed housewife who now has to live on the abbreviated Social Security they get from their dead husband’s account.
These are the people who sell their homes or lose their homes, who refuse to be homeless, who can find employment but not unless they travel to where employers are hiring. They buy a van or an RV, new or used depending on how much they were able to salvage from their previous life.
They outfit their RV, or van, or bus, or even just their car using lots of advice from those who have set out on this journey before them. They make places to bed down, they deal with how they will get electricity and water if they end up at a campsite with no amenities, they add solar panels hiding them if possible because they are not allowed to have them in some places where they camp, and they figure out what to do about showers and wastes.
There are websites for this. On Reddit there is a thread called ‘vandwellers’. There are searchable maps on a site like FreeCampsites.net, Allstays.com. There is a Wallydocking app. There are websites for Workampers who are seeking jobs to pay for their expenses, to possibly save up for a more comfortable van experience.
Jessica Bruder is a journalist, a writer. When she decided to write about this population she had a hard time getting vandwellers to speak to her. The media had not been kind; they tended to eventually get around to using the word ‘homeless’ which is offensive to vandwellers. These nomads tell the author that they have nothing against the ‘homeless,’ they are just not at all homeless. They have a home; it just is not anchored in one place.
Because the National Park Service allows campers only fourteen days on a site, vandwellers have to move frequently. You can work as a camp host, cleaning bathrooms and campsites, checking in campers, stay for an entire season, and get paid, but these jobs are being eliminated.
Amazon hires workampers at Christmastime but these jobs are difficult for seniors as they involve walking for many miles on the concrete warehouse floors, bending and rising, and hefting a weighty scanner that keeps track of your every move. Workampers consider the challenges worth the rewards, although some do not make it in these physically taxing jobs.
Bruder makes friends with a camper named Linda May and she finally outfits a van of her own, which she names Halen, and joins Linda at sites vandwellers frequent, such as Quartzite, Arizona (The Gathering Place) and the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. She gets to listen to and learn from many vandwellers when she actually lives the life. Swankie Wheels is one of her sources, Bob Wells who started the website CheapRVLiving.com, Silvianne the astrologer, someone called Ghost Dancer.
One of her sources tells her, “[w]e’re facing the first ever reversal in retirement security in modern US history. Starting with the baby boomer, each successive generation is now doing worse than previous generations in terms of their ability to retire without seeing a drop in living standards…” (pg. 62) Another source says, “[b[y moving into vans and other vehicles people could become conscientious objectors to the system that had failed them. They could be reborn into lives of freedom and adventure.” (pg. 75)
Bruder writes, “[w]hile it’s human nature to put on a good face in turbulent times — and to present that face to strangers – something else was also appearing among the nomads. The truth as I see it is that most people struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning, and kinship when confronted with adversity. In other words the nomads I’d been interviewing for months were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers” (pp. 164-5)
Linda May is an especially interesting and aware vandweller. Beset by adversity she still has a grand plan to build an “Earthship” of dirt-packed tires and to get off the grid on her own land. As Nomadland ends she sets foot on the property she has saved for, searched for and purchased, and she is getting ready to build. She has made friends along the way who have promised to help.
The author finds it hard to leave the vandwellers and return to her own life to write the book she has researched and she concludes in this way:
“The most widely accepted measure for calculating income inequality is a century old formula called the Gini coefficient. It’s a gold standard for economists around the globe, along with the World Bank, the CIA, and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. What it reveals is startling. Today the United States has the most unequal society of all developed nations. America’s level of inequality is comparable to that of Russia, China, Argentina, and the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.” (pg. 247)
Obviously, I also have had some trouble leaving the vandwellers behind as I continue to digest the details of life on the road and the philosophies that maintain those whose lives have become nomadic. I worry that this could happen to me, or indeed, anyone I know. I have a friend who chooses to be nomadic for a portion of the year, but he and his wife own two expensive properties. Not the same thing at all.
The fact that women are safe and able to pursue this lifestyle if it becomes necessary helps lift my spirits a bit but the thought of 10-hour shifts at an Amazon warehouse to keep me in groceries has the opposite effect. It’s as if we are playing a game where colorful ‘peebles’ are lined up on a shelf and as new ‘peebles’ are added at the front end of the shelf, identical looking ‘peebles’ are falling off the shelf at the other end. Are you ready for Nomadland? Check out more of what Jessica Bruder learned and do a bit of soul-searching.
There is a writer’s lecture series at a local theater which is currently held as a Zoom presentation because of the covid pandemic. You buy a ticket and you are registered to attend. Meg Wolitzer was the writer and the book she was speaking about was The Female Persuasion. I ordered the book but did not finish it in time so I never bought a ticket to the presentation. I find it hard to keep track of the many zoom meetings that come to me in my email. I am sorry I missed it though. I don’t often get to see a best-selling author in person (on zoom).
I finished the book not long after that, although spring had been a pleasant distraction. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer covered women’s rights territory that had key moments in my younger years, and here in this novel we have young people involved in the women’s movement which is having another key moment. Women’s rights are under attack. Hard won concerns, once thought resolved, could possibly be overturned here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Wolitzer’s book does not spend much time arguing the issues though.
Greer Kadestsky, a young lady who did not get to attend the college of her dreams with her boyfriend, Cory, finds herself at a smaller college. Despite having to travel to keep her relationship with Cory alive, Greer makes a good friend Zee. Although Zee is gay and Greer is not, their friendship transcends their sexuality. When Greer meets an iconic figure from the women’s movement of the 60’s, Faith Frank, she finds her focus. Zee has guilted her into going to the lecture, but it is Greer who becomes a Faith Frank fan.
After college Greer goes to work for Faith and overcomes her fear of public speaking, but she also learns about the compromises Faith has felt it necessary to make. Greer eventually criticizes the lack of purity in her mentor. Her mentor reminds Greer of something Greer has done which is a betrayal of a relationship.
Greer also has some lessons to learn about her relationship with Cory, a man who does not just talk the talk. It turns out that he understands love and sacrifice in ways that Greer does not recognize – until she finally does.
It’s a good story and some of the observations about compromise, and purity, and the correlations between means and ends are interesting to think about for our own lives and issues. It just didn’t grip me. It wasn’t relevant enough to women’s rights to hook me. Today’s news, modern activism and the current makeup of the Supreme Court offer far more gripping concerns. The mentor relationship was less interactive than it kept promising to be. However, Cory I came to like very much, and he might end up being the best mentor for Greer in this novel.
Kazuo Ishiguro may seem to be telling folkloric tales in his most recent books, but they are actually quite philosophical and contemporary. In Klara and the Sun we meet a number of AF’s on display in a shop in a city very like London. The Manager rotates the AF’s into and out of the front window hoping to attract the attention of a teen who will convince an affluent parent to buy an attractive friend, dedicated only to them. Klara and Rosa are both B2’s, with the newest B3 models hot on their heels. They follow all the manager’s directions to try to attract a buyer. A teenager named Josie admires Klara and tries to convince her mother to purchase her but then she disappears. Klara takes a chance and turns down a potential buyer because she is waiting for Josie to come back. Manager lets her get away with it, but tells her she will not be allowed to turn down a buyer again.
Klara is an unusual AF because she pays attention to what is going on around her and draws conclusions from what she sees in the store and outside the front window. She watches when the sun seems to resurrect the Beggar Man and the Dog and when it smiles on the reunion of long separated lovers. She is shocked when the Cootings Machine comes to park in the street with its 3 funnels that vacuum pollution and send it out into the air, turning day into night.
This is a future, perhaps a near future, when some children are genetically “lifted” in their childhood years if parents so choose. A social gap arises between those who are lifted and those who are not. Josie is “lifted.” Her best friend from a young age, and now her boyfriend is Rick, who was not “lifted.” For some young people being “lifted” can cause illness and even death. Josie is at the critical age when she is ill and she could die. That’s when her mother buys Klara for her. Klara goes home with Josie to their home in the suburbs.
I believe this is a story about soul; do we have one, can an AF have a soul, what is a soul. Perhaps Ishiguro is answering back to someone like Yuval Noah Harari who doesn’t put much stock in a human soul in his book Sapiens. To Harari we are animals, human but not “lifted” above any of the other animals on the planet. In fact, to Harari our big brains have been more of a liability than an advantage, especially to the planet we call home.
But Ishiguro may be suggesting that our soul may be a function of what we do, of how we live our life. If even a robot can do something that seems soulful, could believing in a soul prompt us to do better, to be less selfish. Klara undertakes a task that she thinks will cure Josie but she is unsure how her own abilities will be affected by the bargain she accepts and the sacrifice she must make to complete it. We can’t help but compare Klara’s optimism to the way Josie’s mom, Chrissie, gives in to the past experience she has had in this matter and sets a truly selfish and rather macabre plan in motion. If Klara had chosen to go along with Mother’s plan how would things have turned out differently, for everyone?
Do we have a soul? Do we build a soul by believing that we can affect the universe in positive ways? Is soul the same thing as character? Regardless of how you answer these questions or others you might arrive at, it is almost certain that you will find Klara an extraordinary AF indeed. This one speeds by. Make sure you stop and ponder the ideas as well as the story.
How To Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates – Book
If you like a level-headed, carefully researched roadmap to ‘get to zero’ (zero greenhouse gas emissions), tapping into the mind of a man who brought on the age of technology can’t hurt. Bill Gates in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is exactly the unemotional problem solver, backed by a team that has helped collect data and facts (you remember facts) who could foment the kinds of changes the humans on our planet need.
Did you know that 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere in a year? How do we get that number to zero? Gates comes as close to showing us how we can do this, without making our lives unrecognizable, as any one has. “I came to focus on climate change in an indirect way – through the problem of energy poverty,” says Gates. (pg. 8) Eventually Gates divested of all stocks in coal, gas, and oil.
Gates offers plenty of graphs and charts but not to prove that carbon dioxide and methane are heating up the world and causing global warming that is great enough to affect climate. He begins with the assumption that this correlation is real and spends his time exploring every thing humans do that creates emissions and how we get each to zero global warming emissions. He uses one graph and some dramatic examples to show how warming affects the earth and some people more than others. He admits that ‘getting to zero’ will be hard. The effects of warming will be worse in poorer countries that are not responsible for emissions. The changes will have to be made in rich nations who will be most reluctant to change their ways.
“To sum up: we need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar. To do it we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy systems to stop doing all the things we don’t like and keep doing all the things we do like – in other words, to change completely and also stay the same…But don’t despair. We can do this.” (pg. 48)
Gates starts us off with a chart on page 51 which shows “How much greenhouse gas is emitted by the things we do?” Making things (cement, steel, plastic) – 31%, Plugging in (electricity) – 27%, Growing things (plants, animals) – 19%, Getting around (planes, trains, trucks, cargo ships) – 16%, Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) – 7%
Using this chart every greenhouse gas producing activity is assigned a Green Premium. That green premium needs to go to zero. Gates, with the help of his research groups (Gates Ventures and Breakthrough Energy) takes each greenhouse gas emitter and shows how we get to zero carbon emissions. This is another climate book you really need to read. In fact, if you are an inventor, there are any number of areas where you could follow in the footsteps of Bill Gates and perhaps get in on the revolutions in energy that we all need. Will you end up skyrocketing to fame and fortune? Perhaps, perhaps not, but you could end up in some future history books. Help Bill Gates, help yourself.
Anna Malaika Tubbs has given us a book about The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. I began reading this book near the end of Black History Month and finished it on International Women’s Day, a serendipitous accident of relevance.
Emma Berdis Baldwin was born on the island of Grenada to an activist mother and father who faced the same fights for racial equality we have seen in America. America had claimed to be a nation where all men (and they did mean men) were created equal, but of course when she arrived she found that she was not in any racial nirvana. James was Berdis’s eldest child. Berdis was able to communicate love, pride, and the value of an education to her family and her family remained a close and loving one living in a four story Harlem building owned by James Baldwin which offered places for his sisters and brothers. Finding a mother as beloved as Berdis, a mother who produces a child of such value to the nation and the world is surely enough to hold a place for Berdis in our historical memory.
Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X, was an activist all her life. She and her husband and her children moved frequently because her activism made them targets. She was a follower and an important worker in the movement begun by Marcus Garvey. She wrote in his newspaper and spread his message despite one close call with the KKK and other terrorist attempts to force her to be quiet. Her husband Earl was killed when he was pushed in front of a trolley. She and her children struggled with poverty after Earl’s death. Social services (welfare) pursued the family, eventually sending Louise to a mental institution, although her only mental illness was the stress of single parenting in a world where she could find no work. Malcolm X had followed in his mother’s footsteps, although he was not a Garveyite. He founded the Black Panthers and was assassinated for his embrace of violence as a means to change, but of course Martin Luther King Jr. who believed in nonviolent protest was also assassinated. Louise was released after 25 years in the mental institution and was able to spend her last years surrounded by her family in a lovely and peaceful black town they founded.
Alberta King was married to the powerful reverend at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. She led a life of greater affluence. Alberta was a talented musician who played the organ at that famous church and led a renowned choir that people came from miles around to hear. She also gave lessons in music to many black Atlanta children. As she watched Martin Luther, (ML) as he was called, turn into a speaker who captured the attention of the entire world she worried constantly about the forces arrayed against him. One day a stranger entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church and shot Alberta and four others as she sat at her organ. She survived to be surrounded in her age by her remaining children and grandchildren.
Anna Malaika Tubbs is well aware of how women, especially Black women get erased from history and she did not want that to happen in the case of at least these three moms who gave the world so much. As she writes she shows us the ways that these sons were products of their upbringing and how the mothers were the most influential forces in their children’s lives. These mothers lived through many dark days and they kept their families afloat and put hope and love and a need to speak out in their hearts. Our nation benefitted from the lives of these three men and they would, all three, wish us to remember their mothers. I can’t think of a better message for International Women’s Day (March 8, 2021)
I am announcing that my new novel 2028: Trump at Guantanamo by NL Brisson has just gone live on Amazon.
This is a Trumpian fantasy which takes place in the future. It imagines what might have happened if Trump had won in 2020, if he wins again in 2024. It is fiction and it is meant to be enjoyed. Although Trump’s policies are reflected in the content, the actual policies the story describes are extrapolations. You might enjoy meeting Cyborg Trump with a half metallic head prosthesis. He selected two wigs to wear. He wears them under a MAGA hat. See which wigs he chose. Come join Melania, Trump, Barron, Ivanka, and Jared at Guantánamo. It is a fun revenge fantasy.
Franny Stone, born in Australia, taken to live in Galway by her mother, is one the migrators in Charlotte McConaghy’s book Migrations. She is part ocean, part sea ice and part arctic tern. In this atmospheric tale the reader is taken to a landscape and a life unlike their own. Franny is a woman who must live near water, cold water, wild water. She must live near the few nesting sea birds that remain in a world where wild animals are almost gone. She embraces the cold and it seems to have seeped into her, except that she is also passionate.
This is a love story. Two people have this passion for arctic terns in common, and Niall Lynch is the only one who can bring this wanderer Franny to stay on land. This is a tragedy. I can’t tell you the details. This is an Irish folk tale. People imagine that Franny is a selkie (she’s not). When she is ten she leaves her home and follows a boy to his home on the other coast of Ireland. He tells her this story; “There was a lady, long ago, who spent her life coughing up feathers, and one day when she was gnarled and gray she stretched from a woman into a black bird.”
Franny, now older, places trackers on three arctic terns at a nesting site in Greenland. It is her passion to follow them on their migration, one of the longest of any of the birds. She has to find a sea captain who will take her. She has to ride on a fishing boat when she knows that fishing is over and destroys the very balance she wishes she could protect. She finds Ennis Malone, captain of the Saghani, in Greenland. Saghani means raven. Off they go.
You carry the entire Franny ecosystem in your mind for days, perhaps longer. A sadly sweet, cold water journey of a book. In a time when we are not supposed to leave our living rooms what would happen to a footloose, can’t stay in one place person whose entire life is a series of Migrations? And, since we already lost 3 billion birds it is not at all unlikely that there may be a last migration.
Hanging out with President Barrack Obama has been a real trip through his early days in politics, campaigning for the Senate, his journey through the presidential primary in 2007, his presidential campaign and a win that will seem like a bit of magic and a truly historical accomplishment. Obama was both a black man and a young man, fairly new to Washington, but with a grasp of American hopes and a charisma that fueled his improbable election.
It took a while to finish Obama’s book, A Promised Land, but not because it wasn’t readable or revealing, just because there were so many things going on as the 2020 election unfolded and the events of January 6th shocked us all. I was actually blogging about politics all through the Obama administration because the opposition to him in the Republican party and in the media, especially the alternative media (Fox News, Talk Radio) became a constant stream of negativity. As a Democrat, I agreed with Obama’s politics, but setting that aside, the use of racist tropes and the shade cast on his every move jump-started my love of the underdog.
Obama’s book gives him space to reveal the thinking behind his actions as President and offers plenty of insight into foreign affairs, especially the upheavals in the Middle East, which perhaps grew out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which Obama inherited but did not initiate.
After blogging for the past decade, I published some of my posts in a series of books entitled Loving America to Death and two omnibus editions which cover all ten years, including the Trump administration. Reading about the same events I wrote about with the new advantage of being, in a sense, inside Obama’s head and heart was similar to time travel. He discusses but does not dwell on the ACA. The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the difficulty plugging that leak was something we both wrote about. Obama touches on Fukushima, the tsunami and the failure of the nuclear reactor. The dual track optics was so odd for me. We were observing the same events; me as a citizen sitting out here in the cheap seats, and Obama as the prime actor, the President of the United States.
Even if you don’t agree with Barrack Obama and you don’t like his politics and you think any of the dozens of complaints that were aired about him were true, it never hurts to spend time in someone else’s shoes. The memoir is personal, intimate, and informative and well worth the time it takes to read it. After all, it is our history.
Twin girls born in a town that isn’t even on any map, black girls with skin so light who, in any fair world, would not have to worry about how society would classify them are at the center of this story – twin girls who see their father dragged from home and lynched in the middle of a traumatic night. This is the world that Brit Bennett describes in The Vanishing Half. It is a world where skin color is an issue and not just with white people but also with black folks. Desiree and Stella find their small eerily segregated town, confining. They graduate from high school and run away to the big city. Desiree is the twin with the inclination to wander, but Stella is the one who disappears.
Good characters and an interesting concept introduce us to a world most of us cannot inhabit. Even to talk about the issues presented in this novel makes it far too easy to stray from political correctness. Before slavery was there a skin color hierarchy? When we acknowledge that skin color is used as a kind of class indicator even among black folks does that indicate that the superficial judgments of slave owners were passed on to their human “property”? These are things I can perceive but cannot pass judgment on. But Bennett gives us a peek behind the curtain.
This is not a heavy tome full of academic discussions of these matters. This is basically the story of a family and the traumas that determine their futures. It is a story of separation and a sort of reconciliation. It is a story of secrets kept and finally half revealed. But behind the story is that undertow that makes us think deeper thoughts. Interestingly, it is a wanderer who becomes the glue in this family of woman who were robbed of their father/husband. I wouldn’t mind having my own Mr. Early.