Madhouse at the End of the World by Julian Sancton – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodreads.com

I picked Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton late one night thinking it would be a sci-fi book. In small print the cover said “The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night” which would have been a clue if I had read it. But it ends up that this journey, one of the first to Antarctica reads like science fiction, although it is a factual account of an expedition to a piece of our own planet that has an environment as alien as any you might encounter in space. It has air humans can breathe, but the behavior of an ice field is treacherous, the cold temperatures are unfriendly to human life, and isolation and severe weather take a toll. What drives men to go on risky adventures, to put their very lives on the line for fame and fortune, science, and curiosity? What drives them to want to simply be first?

Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery of Belgium does not want to do as his family expects. De Gerlache wants to go to sea. Belgium has a tiny navy consisting of only two ferries, but de Gerlache finally is allowed to earn credentials as a navigator after which he joins the navy. King Leopold, his king offers to send him on an expedition to the Congo, but de Gerlache wants to go to Antarctica. He raises money, finds a ship (the Belgica), hires sailors and scientists and after three years of planning sets sail for Antarctica. He wanted to use an all-Belgium crew, but it proved impossible. He left with his friend Danco, Georges Lecointe (28), his captain, an experienced Arctic explorer, Amundsen, and a crew that spoke a variety of languages (French, Dutch, Norwegian, German, Polish, English, Romanian, Latin). The best bit of luck de Gerlache had was when he took on Dr. Cook who met the group in South America and saved many lives on the ship by his Arctic experience and his great good sense.

From a Google Image Search – Wikipedia

De Gerlache made a fateful decision to spend a winter frozen into the Antarctic ice pack because he wanted to continue when summer returned to find the Southern Magnetic Pole. Early adventures on the ice revealed a lovely canal that opened between glaciers where perhaps the expedition spent too long collecting scientific data. By the time they moved on winter was upon them. Thankfully there were men on this expedition who loved to pit themselves against nature, the harsher the better. De Gerlache, suffering from scurvy, never having trekked the cold places, was not one of them, but he was an excellent navigator. He made the decision to spend the winter in the ice pack deliberately and the hardships that ensued should have been laid at his feet, but he never reaped the criticism he deserved, although he did not come off unscathed either.

The expedition undertaken by de Gerlache for family, nation, and science was intended to give Belgium a place on the world stage and it did succeed somewhat in this regard. But it was the Order of the Penguin, the risk-takers, the experienced polar travelers who saved the lives of the men of the Belgica and the reputation of de Gerlache. Lecointe, the 28-year-old captain, Amundsen and Cook, the Arctic explorers brought experience to bear. 

Even so, trapped in an ever-changing field of ice and watery channels that opened and closed at a whim, trapped in a season without sun day after day, riddled with scurvy due to a lack of fresh food, life aboard the creaking ship became a madhouse in the sense that holding onto sanity became a challenging legacy of ice and night that no one had foreseen. Obviously, the mental state of participants in extreme conditions presented explorers of Antarctica with information on a subject they had not included in their scientific considerations and studies. Madhouse at the End of the World is a well-researched and detailed presentation of the journey of the Belgica and of the men who went on that expedition. It is also an engrossing read.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel – Book

Fully Booked – From a Google Image Search

Apparently living in virtual quarantine throughout a long pandemic leads to thoughts of traveling through time rather than through space. Emily St. John Mandel in Sea of Tranquility presents us with anomalies which end up coming to us by way of the Time Institute of Moon Colony Two. Detectives are trained and then travel in time to try to explain events that seem to operate against the rules of time travel. The rules of time travel have come down to us from science fiction writers and scientists, from Star Trek and Isaac Asimov, et al. The main rule of time travel is to have as little effect on the past as possible because it is impossible to predict the consequences of changing past events beyond the tiniest of adjustments. Penalties for breaking the rules of the Time Institute are severe. You could be killed. You could be banished in time.

There is the anomaly experienced by Edwin St. John St. Andrew who questioned the concept of British imperialism at the dinner table in his London family home, who suggested that meddling implied a responsibility to “civilize savages”. Edwin is banished to America where he experiences a strange vision under a giant American oak tree on an island off Vancouver. 

There is Olive Llewellyn, a few centuries later, on a book tour on Earth. Olive lives in Moon Colony Two with her husband and her child. Her homesickness follows her to characterless hotel rooms all over Earth. There is a threat of a spreading disease, but Olive is determined to complete her tour and the disease seems always far from where she is speaking and meeting readers. Her book is called Marienbad and is, ironically, about a pandemic.

There is the mysterious Gaspery-Jacque Roberts who keeps popping up in different eras. Is he from an entire family that names each boy in generation after generation with this unusual family name, or is there another explanation for his ubiquity? 

If you could save an innocent, restore a loved one to their family, but had to break the rules of time travel to do so, would you? The fear of what might be lost to history and what might be gained would be difficult to overcome. Would you accept your punishment, or would you rebel? 

There are evocative images in this novel and resonant questions about scientific speculations that may never become realities. Will time travel ever be possible? Can we use time travel to escape existential threats to humanity? Mandel brings a certain European sensibility to her books which seem sometimes shrouded in mists. Her mysteries are so mysterious that we can’t quite grasp what we learned and whether we want to know it. Even so she is marvelous at atmospheric fiction and in all her novels, even when travel in time is not the topic, her images and metaphors take us traveling in time.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson – Book

The Vineyard Gazette – From a Google Image Search

Do you believe in magic? (Did your brain sing this sentence?) In Neal Stephenson’s entertaining novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., magic and physics partner up, with physics being used to bring back magic which has gone missing from the modern world. Triston Lyons literally bumps into Melisande Stokes outside the Harvard office of Dr. Blevins, the Head of Ancient Linguistics. Triston Lyons has figured out that magic died when photography was born, specifically when Berkowski, a daguerreotypist, took the first picture ever of a solar eclipse somewhere around the 1850’s. Melisande is fed up with Dr. Blevins, her Department Chair and boss, for good reasons. Triston has asked her bad boss Blevins to work on his D.O.D.O. project and has been turned down, so Triston takes Melisande for coffee and convinces her to join up. He can’t even tell Mel what DODO stands for; everything is “classified.” She makes a series of witty guesses such as, Department of Donuts, Department of Dusty Objects, Department of Deadly Observations, Department of Doing the Occult, and Department of Diabolical Observations, The interactions between these two suggest that they might “hook up” but Triston is a perfect boss for the “me too” era and is actually so obsessed with his science that he is oblivious to sexual undertones, to the amusement of most of the women and a few of the men he encounters as the project progresses. 

Melisande is introduced to Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca East-Oda. Frank is a retired physicist who has designed a time machine. The only thing missing is that it is necessary to use a combination of magic and physics to send someone back in time. It’s a big hiccup because there is no magic left in the modern world. Time travel is something that must be approached cautiously as there are rules to follow. If you don’t insert someone gently into the past; if you don’t carefully limit interactions, then you can cause a diachronic shear that obliterates everything in the path of the shear, causes mayhem and death, and changes history. While they build the first ODEC or time machine, under the auspices of a government department called The Department of Diachronic Operations they advertise for witches. One persistent person keeps calling them to insist that she is a witch, but they are skeptical until they finally meet her. Erzebet is a witch stranded in modern America without being able to use her magic to get her back to her home in Hungary in 1851 so she can spit on the graves of her ancestors. Magic works in an ODEC.

You can begin to see that this is the kind of story that Neal Stephenson excels at; a complex plot, a huge cast of characters, a scope that embraces time and space, and lots of cutting-edge science that may or may not ever be useful. The inclusion of magic is new, but it gives Stephenson and his partner who writes the follow-up book, an interesting way to talk about the multiverse and quantum mechanics. It seems that witches have for centuries used primitive style “abacuses” to keep track of different strands in the multiverse, although that is not the name they use. They can move sideways across these strands to affect events in the real world. Witches understand the danger of diachronic shear but have different names for the catastrophe. Erzebet knows it as lomadh, or perhaps that’s Gráinne, a witch who lives in London in 1850, around the time that the first photo is taken of the eclipse.

As with any scientific project that becomes a matter for national intelligence the military soon gets involved and complications multiply. The loosey-goosey early structures of DODO get whipped into shape with layers and layers of bureaucracy. And sad to say, they hire Mel’s old boss, the arrogant, clueless Dr. Blevins to be the head of the project. Triston, our oblivious dreamer, keeps his eye on the target and as he is in the army is unfazed by the hierarchy. Others are not so blithely unaware of the danger of an administration that doesn’t understand the project. In fact, the military would not be involved in this endeavor at all if other nations were not working on similar projects, making this a possible issue of national security.

The first mission of DODO (or the first DEDE), once the ODEC is up and running and Erzebet understands and reluctantly agrees to her limited magical role as a “sender,” is to steal a valuable first edition of a religious book published in Massachusetts when it was still the Bay Colony, to hide it in what will be the garden of Frank Oda’s wife Rebecca East-Oda, and then dig it up in modern day Massachusetts and auction it off for funds for their project. This is far more complicated than you would expect and leads to travels back to Shakespeare’s London and that’s how the bankers get involved, the Fuggers, who seem to have the ancestral memories of insects or birds. These bankers are not magical but find a way to crop up in almost every diachronic operation. By the way the real meaning of DODO is – the Department of Diachronic Operations. 

I always find Neal Stephenson books to be delicious nerd-romps in truly imaginative spaces and, since they usually involve plenty of speculative science, are intriguing to real scientists and dabblers alike. The book is intended to be fun, and it is, but it also tries to make complex knowledge understandable. Of course, ironically, if Triston succeeds in wiping out photography, he will also wipe out computers and almost all of modern technology. Just another little hiccup.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara – Book

Vanity Fair from a Google Image Search

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara begins with an America that is hard to recognize and yet unsurprising, given recent exposés of our historical and current prejudices, works as an obvious device for a novel of social commentary and is smack in the middle of Yanagihara’s wheelhouse. The Northeast section, NYC is called the Free States. Then there are the Colonies which include Southern states and Texas and Oklahoma. The current states east of the Rockies, north of the Colonies and including the Midwest are called America, the west coast is known as the West. You can find copies of the maps on Google Images. The social mores of Americans have been changed along with Hanya’s changes in the map of America. 

Although it is only the end of the nineteenth century same sex marriages are totally legal and acceptable if you live in the Free States. Same sex relationships are illegal elsewhere. There are also male-female marriages but the relationships we are concerned with for the most part involve two men, and these are not casual relationships, they are marriages, and these couples adopt children to become families. These relationships are hardly perfect; same sex couples experience the same challenges all marriages present. Couples may stay compatible for their entire lives or may drift apart because their partner is not who he seemed to be, or because of infidelity, or just from plain disappointment. 

This is a family saga with a time-travelling family tree that has some large gaps and, at the end, a big leap forward into the future. The Bingham family is wealthy, and the family is given credit for the founding of the Free States, so they are famous. They live in a mansion on Washington Square. The children live with their grandfather because both parents died. John, Eden, and David are grown now. John’s partner is Peter, Eden’s partner is Eliza. Learn the names because they come up in every era to mark characters in the Bingham family line. Charles Griffith has been matched with David Bingham, but David meets Edward Bishop and falls in love. He does not want to settle down on Washington Square, or in a stodgy marriage. Edward offers love and adventure although he is a slightly louche character. Remember those names also because there will be several incarnations of Charles and a few of Edward. Adams pops up over and over as the butler. It’s a very interesting and unique way to connect stories that could be lacking in continuity.

Book II involves a sojourn in Hawai’i, a colony, once a kingdom, that lost its culture to mainland invaders. Our next David is a member of the sidelined royal family. He is known by the native name Kawika. All the David’s have difficulty with social adjustments. Perhaps they would be placed on the autism spectrum today or diagnosed with Asperger’s. They just do not have a grip on their own life or identity. David does not know that he might be a homosexual in this future story. He meets Alice and she has a son who he becomes responsible for. For the most part the son is raised by the grandmother. He is called Wika. Then Edward, a young man Kawika went to school with arrives in his life as a grown man with a fire in his gut to return Hawai’i to its former glory. There is a Charles Griffith; he’s the family lawyer. Here the family blood line adds Asian-Hawaiian genes to its DNA.

In Book III we pop up in Zone Eight and travel back and forth in time between 2050 and 2094. Zone Eight centers on Washington Square in the same mansion where the story began. The Bingham family still owns the house for a while. Nathaniel and Charles are married and have just moved to Zone Eight from Hawai’i. Nathaniel, who studies and collects artifacts of his homeland is not at all happy to be in Zone Eight. Charles has an important job at a Research Center. The world has been rocked by one virus after another, and in what used to be New York and Washington, DC plans to contain diseases as they arise are changing America beyond recognition. So is climate change which is making cities so hot that people must own cooling suits to go out-of-doors at times. 

We focus on Charlie, a child who recovered from one of these viruses but with cognitive damage. Charles is protective of her and when he realizes that he will be arrested by the state, he finds her a husband and teaches her how to be a wife. Charles writes to the man he loves in New Britain whose name is Peter. It is so friendly to meet these familiar family members as we time travel through a culture like ours with this family. Many of these family members have dark skins so racism is not the issue in this book, but homosexual relationships become illegal once again. Hanya Yanagihara has a sort of mission to normalize LGBT+ relationships and make them as acceptable as heterosexual relationships or even staying single. 

In the future the author subtly suggests that the government of the once Free States is somehow now ruled from Beijing, so we can only assume that Beijing has taken over as the world’s most powerful nation. The Free States are no longer free. The fear of viruses that repeated in 2050, 54, 70, and now in 94 has allowed the government to control the population by promises to cure the viruses as they spread if the people will do as they are told. It may sound like residents have a choice, but their choices dwindle as new viruses continue to threaten. All is done in the name of keeping people healthy and safe. Since so many people are dying or being removed to containment areas or rehab centers, there is a big push for relationships to produce offspring. Homosexuality still exists but it must be kept secret and can lead to arrest. Fortunately the David in this timeline is focused and sure of himself.

“There were some people who thought the scientists were creating the sicknesses in our labs, because they wanted to eliminate certain kinds of people or because they wanted to help the state maintain control of the country, and these were the most dangerous people of all.” Pg. 383 “Back then, the Square (Washington Square) had been planted with trees and covered with grass, and the pit in the center had been a fountain, where water erupted in bursts and then fell back into the pit again. Over and over the water exploded and fell, exploded and fell, for no other reason than because people liked it. I know it sounds queer, but it’s true; Grandfather showed me a photograph of it once.” Pg. 388 

Is Hanya against mandates, is she an antivaxxer, or does she think that the temptation towards authoritarian solutions to problems that affect the lives of everyone must be considered very carefully to balance freedom and health measures? Clearly the world did not solve climate change. Are there still places in the world that have handled things in better ways with less disruption of normality while holding on to freedom and human rights? Clues suggest there are. I would have liked to go to New Britain to see what they did differently. You will have to decide where Yanagihara stands and even where you stand on these matters, but whatever you decide you will most likely agree that To Paradise is another Hanya Yanagihara tour de force. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – Book

From a Google Image Search – Vulture

Having seen announcements of Louise Erdrich books for some time on Amazon, Goodreads and in the New York Times, I decided that I should read one. I knew nothing about Erdrich’s connections to indigenous people and shame on me. The Sentence begins with a set up. Tookie, our main character, describes herself as solid and unattractive. She had to raise herself because her mother was addicted to drugs and was so often using that she had nothing to offer Tookie, which certainly explains Tookie’s lack of self-confidence. 

Tookie answered a call from someone she had been close to and agreed to perform a task that every cell in her brain rebelled against. She did it out of a sense of duty owed to a pair of old friends. Her friends betrayed her. Tookie ended up sentenced to fifteen years in jail. There was no one on the outside to care about her except a tribal police officer named Pollux. But if you need someone to care about you Pollux is your man. He felt so guilty about arresting Tookie that he hovered nearby, and he even quit the tribal police force. 

Love does wonders when it is a supportive force, as it is in Tookie’s life. She finds a job in a bookstore that specializes in native books and her love of books makes her invaluable to Asema, the owner. Penstemon also works at the bookstore. Obviously being an indigenous author opens up a wide range of interesting character names. Pollux attends native ceremonies, drums for the dancers and feeds everyone. All goes well until two complications arise. A customer named Flora dies, but for some reason she still hangs out at the bookstore every day. Tookie can hear her bracelets, her footwear on the floors, her silky clothing swishing. Sometimes Flora knocks books off the shelves in front of where Tookie is working. Since no one else can hear Flora Tookie at first says nothing, but after she finds a mysterious book that seems to have caused Flora’s death, Erdrich’s title takes on a new meaning. Tookie believes that when Flora read a certain sentence in the book it killed her. Tookie buries the book next to the tree that recently fell in her yard, but signs are adding up. Eventually the other two in the bookstore sense Flora’s presence.

The other complication that arises is the pandemic, the COVID pandemic, which has the bookstore busier than ever with mail orders. But Tookie cannot work in the shop alone, the sense that Flora wants something from her is too menacing. Does it have anything to do with the fact that Flora has adopted an indigenous heritage when she is not indigenous at all? Between being unable to visit Pollux, sick with COVID and in the hospital, trying to forge a better relationship with Pollux’s daughter and her new baby boy, and the terror she is beginning to feel whenever Flora makes her presence known in the bookstore, Tookie is having a difficult time holding on to the sanity she found in her relationship with Pollux. She is reliving past sorrows. 

Erdrich obviously loves books and is a voracious reader. When her tale is done, and throughout the book great titles and exciting reads spill out, and as a bonus end up in lists of book recommendations at the end of the story. Read with a pen and paper handy because you will want to write down those book titles. Nothing like a good haunting, insight into indigenous lives, and a precarious love story to provide readers with a book that is hard to put down.

The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams – Book

From a Google Image Search – CBS

Jane Goodall and her work with chimpanzees in the wild always fascinated me because it seemed brave for a woman raised far from the African bush to adjust to living with the heat and the bugs so close to the soil where she had to sit for hours and hours among the chimpanzees in Gombé to get them to accept her as part of the landscape and eventually befriend her. 

Jane Goodall tells us in The Book of Hope from the Global Icons Series, in conversation with the author Douglas Abrams, that she often got discouraged, suffered scratches and sores, and once had a near death experience when she fell down a hill in the company of an enormous rock which could have crushed her. Although she had worked with Louis Leakey on his digs in Africa looking for human bones and animal bones that might offer clues to evolution, she was often afraid that her grant money would run out. Interesting to note that as a woman could not venture out into the African forests by herself, Jane’s mother went with her in the early years and was a great help. But how did she continue to hope that one day she would be able to interact with the chimpanzees in their wild habitat? She is perhaps the perfect person to talk to us about hope in these times that seem hopeless.

The book is full of anecdotes which makes it very personal. Storytelling often spices up deep philosophical discussions and takes them from the realm of the sublime and esoteric to a level that makes the abstract real and comprehensible. As the local people started to challenge the ability of the chimpanzees at Gombé to survive, as locals began to cut down the forests that provided habitat for them, as they began to hunt them for food and capture baby chimps to sell as pets, the numbers of chimpanzees dwindled and extinction looked imminent. Rather than criticize the local residents, Jane tried to understand why this was happening. She came to an awareness that this was due to the poverty of the residents, and that unless the poverty was addressed the extinction trend would continue. Through an agency she and others founded, microloans offered to help residents buy farm animals or seeds, to help them accumulate wealth and build schools and maintain fresh water supplies. Once the standard of living rose nature was left alone to bring back the forests and bush lands that the chimpanzees needed to survive and thrive. She shows us how her intimate knowledge of the needs of the species allowed her to made decisions that were wise for both humans and animals, and incidentally for the environment.

Jane Goodall says that we must solve four great challenges and that working on solving these challenges will offer us hope for the future sustainability of all living things on this earth. Even plants are alive. All things on earth, under it, and above it are interconnected.

#1 First we must alleviate poverty. “If you are living in crippling poverty, you will cut down the last tree to grow food. Or fish the last fish because you’re so desperate to feed your family. In urban areas you will buy the cheapest food-you do not have the luxury of choosing a more ethically produced product.”

#2 We must reduce the unsustainable lifestyles of the affluent. Let’s face it, so many people have way more stuff than they need – or even want.

#3 We must eliminate corruption, for without good governance and honest leadership, we cannot work together to solve our enormous social and environmental challenges.

#4 We must face up to the problems caused by growing populations of humans and their livestock. There are over 7 billion of us today, and already, in many places, we have used up nature’s finite natural resources faster than nature can replenish them and by 2050 there will apparently be closer to ten billion of us. If we carry on with business as usual, that spells the end of earth as we know it. (pg. 59-60)

Jane Goodall tells us she was shy, and she describes the first speech she gave in public and says that now she speaks to people all around the world. She tells them and us, her readers, that these environmental and cultural challenges are not insurmountable. She blames our current dilemma on a “disconnect between clever brains and compassionate hearts.” “True wisdom requires both thinking with our head and understanding with our hearts.” We are left with the feeling that we could solve the problems facing us and wondering if we will find the wisdom to do it.

Anthem by Noah Hawley – Book

From a Google image Search

Anthem was a gutsy title for Noah Hawley to choose since the original book with that title was written by Ayn Rand. His invocation of the previous book was perhaps done deliberately to stress his similar themes and to point out that threats to the free world now may be as serious as the threat of the rise of Hitler was in 1937 when Rand wrote her book. 

Hawley’s book takes place in near-future America. Teens are committing suicide, and no one knows why. Parents are devastated but they don’t seem to blame themselves for their children’s choices. Simon loses his older sister Claire in just such a way. His anxiety disorder soars, his grief for his sister is all-encompassing, and his wealthy parents eventually place him in a center that tries to prevent the inevitable in children who are exhibiting signs that they should not be left alone. At the recovery center Simon is given a program of medications to treat just about every mental ailment that medication has been created for. He meets a young black girl named Louise who has suffered and wants revenge on someone she calls The Wizard, and he meets another teen named Paul, who wants to be called The Prophet.

America is the same mess we see around us right now only the social diseases are further along a scale indicating that collapse and chaos are imminent. Simon’s father makes a pill that is as addictive as opioids and yet he never accepts that his destructive path to personal wealth might have been what upset his daughter, although she papered the bathroom where she bled out with the wrappers that held her father’s pills. 

The original trio is joined by others they collect along the way, Felix, aka Samson, son of Avon who lives way off the grid. Felix shares a guilty secret with his father. Story is the girl Felix falls in love with and is hiding out with. Story’s mother is in the process of getting approved as a Supreme Court Justice. Story doesn’t know that Felix has another name, his off-the-grid name. Felix’s sister, Bathsheba has been kidnapped by a billionaire with a taste for sex with very young girls, (parallel with Jeffrey Epstein’s predation scheme right down to the female “friend” who keeps him supplied). Bathsheba, now called Katie, has been impregnated by her keeper, The Wizard, and she is being held as a prisoner in a compound in Texas until she gives birth. Louise was molested by this same billionaire who lives in houses all over the world and never has to suffer any consequences for his horrific behavior.

As the teens make plans to rescue Bathsheba, as they collect weapons and learn to use them, the world explodes around them and complicates their mission. There are militias all over the place, some organized, some not. Why are the teens feeling such despair? Is there any hope for creating a world where money doesn’t rule and any endeavor, no matter how harmful to a healthy society, is fine if it offers material rewards? The Prophet tags along on all the rescues but his true purpose is for this band of unlikely heroes to establish a utopia, to start over and to not make the same mistakes as their parents and ancestors.

Noah Hawley breaks the “rules” of writing fiction by breaking into the story to present commentary about the events of the story and to talk about the questions his daughter asks about what he is writing. It may not be part of usual story structure to sort of “break the frame,” but Hawley also writes for TV and movies which may explain his willingness to use story structure creatively. This is just the sort of dystopian tale that I enjoy, especially because of the social commentary that also tags along for the ride. One more thing – if you get a text message that says “A ll” you had better get a copy of Anthem right away so that you will be able to decode the message.

Is it possible for flawed humans to create a Utopian society? Maybe not, but if it takes a few centuries for a culture to turn bad then starting from scratch every now and then may be the only way to avoid the human capacity for rationalization, for turning our worst traits into self-destructive positives.

Assembly by Natasha Brown – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodread.com

Assembly by Natasha Brown – Book

This little book, Assembly by Natasha Brown, packs a big wallop. Our narrator is unnamed, but we get to be inside her head. She is a Black woman living in London, a British citizen who White Brits still see as an interloper, a colonial intruder, easy to focus on as a person of color who cannot hide in the whiteness that Britain feels is its historical identity.

Our brilliant and disciplined lady had worked her way up from the bottom at her bank to a corner office, although she has to share it with a White contender who management does not want to slight. What has our winner had to give up to get here? She repeats the word “assimilation,” not with approval. She lives in a world of White folks now and there is money, security, savings, a fine apartment, the White boyfriend, son of a wealthy and famous politician. Her boyfriend intends to follow in his father’s footsteps. He mentions Bill DeBlasio whose Black wife probably helped him get elected in NYC. She, his Black girlfriend will be an asset.

She has been invited to come for the weekend to the family pile and to attend a party. So many wins in her life, but she is empty – cannot help feeling that her choice doesn’t fit her, doesn’t feed her soul (although, there is no talk of souls).

 She is in hostile territory, judged by those who felt they deserved the win, that she was promoted only to help the bank appear diverse, a woman, a Black woman. She, on the other hand, feels no closeness, no warmth in her working life. Her coworkers at this level are mostly middle-aged White men with pallid skin and flabby bodies. 

Even her personal life seems bleak and lonely. When she arrives at her boyfriend’s house, she is greeted warmly, but in the morning, when the mother and daughter are at work in the kitchen helping the caterers, the mother doesn’t include her in the camaraderie of the kitchen or give her a little job to do, instead she sends her off on a walk.

She, our narrator, observes her life; she doesn’t inhabit it. Her description of her potential mother-in-law chewing a piece of toast is mechanical, anatomical, and extremely unflattering. It reveals her position as an outsider. This is not just a class phenomenon, it’s about race.

Women who move up the career chain can relate to the loneliness of succeeding in a male world, but they do not have the added set of negative cultural experiences that Black people, and especially Black women, share as a sad legacy of past White cultural crimes. Our narrator has another challenge and how she is planning to deal with it is possibly tied into her fear that the winning may, in fact, be losing – a dynamic she chose, without realizing how empty it would make her feel. Terrible to think that our culture cannot find a warm place even when a Black person succeeds on terms White people define.

The style and flow of the prose in Assembly, the lack of prose structure, is part of this little book’s power. We need your  voice, Natasha Brown, and your talent.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson – Book

From a Google Image Search

How does a well-adjusted Queen of the Netherlands meet a half Comanche mourning Texas father on the autism spectrum who spends his days hunting for the wild hog that snatched his baby and ate it, and who still manages to be one of the sanest people in any room? What is the Queen of the Netherlands doing in Texas? These two unlikely characters meet as the Neal Stephenson novel, Termination Shock begins with a crash.

Neal Stephenson has been a favorite author of mine since I read The Quicksilver Trilogy, also a tale with keys scenes in Dutch cities. Stephenson writes unique science fiction, often long and complex, teaching me things that ignite my mind and entertain me. He mixes the plausible and implausible, always making running commentary on the human condition, buried in all that complexity somewhere.

Perhaps after seeing Kim Stanley Robinson publish The Ministry of the Future and Bill Gates publish How to Avoid a Climate Disaster the time seemed right to weigh in with a plot Stephenson had already been working on.

TR Schmidt (one of several names), a wealthy Texan, is the real reason Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, the Queen of the Netherlands (familiar name Saskia) is in Texas. She has been invited to a Conference/Demonstration/Extravaganza. Apparently, in this not-so-distant future, America is the laughingstock of the world, but a wealthy Texan who owns an enormous tract of land can do just about what he likes. It turns out that TR is tired of the world’s inaction on climate change. The world is getting hotter, the ice at the poles is melting faster and the seas are rising higher. TR’s land is outside Houston. What he has in common with the Queen of the Netherlands is that they both live in low places along coastlines, as is true of all the other leaders invited to the conference (Singapore, Venice, certain island nations in the South Pacific). 

TR is a man of action. This conference is not about forming a think tank. He already has a plan based on one summer when Mount Pinatubo erupted and the whole world cooled off. TR has a way to use that model to cool the earth for a few years while more permanent solutions can be put into effect. His Pina2bo structure is finished. These people are here to witness activation of the apparatus. 

One problem with his new process is that it is a geoengineering approach, opposed by those who favor green solutions. Another problem is that this process has certain “knock-on” effects that some nations won’t like – namely China and India, two very large and powerful nations. China and India are rivals. China is trying to swallow India at the Line of Actual Control one gulp at a time. This parallel story line of a young Sikh man named Laks who comes to be known as Big Fish connects with the TR and Queen Frederika story line eventually. TR is trying to cover countries that will be left out of his original cooling scheme because of things like prevailing winds, and is using isolated locations perfect for building and employing his apparatus. Internet rumors say that if Pina2bo continues to function the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, could lose its monsoons making farming impossible. No one on the internet is showing the maps that describe TR’s plans to cover all areas on the planet with cooler temperatures, thus slowing the melting of the ice caps and the rising seas. TR knows that if he stops now there will be an equal and opposite reaction called termination shock.

This is not a climate change textbook lesson, but, as usual, Stephenson teaches us many things, including some esoteric geography and some ancient martial arts. Kim Stanley Robinson talked about geoengineering. He mentioned but did not stress using particles in clouds to reflect more of the sun’s cooling back into space. Neal Stephenson concentrates almost entirely on geoengineering. Stephenson is a great describer and explainer. You will get the picture. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr – Book

From a Google Image Search – NPR

It’s possible, but not certain, that the city named “Cloud Cuckoo Land” dates back to an Aristophanes story “The Birds” written in 414 B. C. E. “…how long had those tablets moldered inside that chest, waiting for eyes to read them? While I am sure you will doubt the truth of the outlandish events they relate, my dear niece, in my transcription, I do not leave out a word. Maybe in the old days men did walk the earth as beasts, and a city of birds floated in the heavens between the realms of men and gods. Or maybe, like all lunatics, the shepherd made his own truth, and so for him, true it was. But let us turn to his story now, and decide his sanity for ourselves.” (pg.14)

So, we start with a book, an old, old book, a book that has been wet and attacked by mold and lost for uncounted amounts of time. We end with the book in a new form, translated by Zeno Ninis who learned Greek from his fellow prisoner in a POW camp in the Korean War. The book may be fiction, and the characters may be fiction but the power of a great story to offer hope, to mellow grief, to calm anxiety has been a factor in many of our lives.

Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light You Cannot See. If he never wrote another book that one volume would be enough to keep him in my list of great authors. But here is another great book that stretches from the siege of Constantinople to sometime in the future. In the legend there is a shepherd who hears the tale of Cloud Cuckoo Land, and he learns that if you get to that land, you will be satisfied; that restlessness and yearning will no longer hound you. In the clouds where the birds circle the cloud towers is peace. But humans cannot go there, only animals. The shepherd uses magic, but it backfires, and he turns into a donkey. You will hear this story repeated in every age and the tale works its magic on many humans, even though they cannot expect to find Cloud Cuckoo Land unless they are transformed by the gods because of their deeds into a bird who can fly there. There is more to the shepherd’s story, but you should discover it for yourself.

Two characters are alive at the siege of Constantinople – Omeir and Anna. Anna finds the old manuscript when she is trying to save the life of her sister. Zeno begins his life about 18 years before the Korean War. The Cunningham sisters are librarians at the local library in Lakeport, Idaho. They introduce Zeno to the Greek writers, especially Aristophanes and his birds. There are birds everywhere in this story, especially owls. Seymour lives in the same place as Zeno, but when Seymour is a young man Zeno is in his eighties. Seymour has a mental disorder that involves hypersensitivity to sounds. His mother Bunny is patient but must work two jobs to support the two of them. Once Seymour disobeys Bunny and goes to the woods behind their double-wide he begins to communicate with a Great Grey Owl, and he finds peace in nature. When developers buy the land and remove the forest Seymour’s anger cannot be eased. We also have Konstance who is travelling aboard the Argos to a new earth she will not live long enough to see. 

Perhaps an homage to books, because of the lengths people go to save this book and because of the number of different historical contexts in which the story lives in the minds of readers; perhaps a coming-of-age story, there is yet another aspect of Doerr’s book that speaks about the damages done to our modern world, and the possible dystopia that awaits. “In late August, twin forest fires in Oregon burn a million acres each, and smoke gushes into Lakeport. The sky turns the color of putty, and anyone who steps outdoors returns smelling like a campfire. Restaurant patios close, weddings move inside, youth sports are canceled; the air is deemed too dangerous for children to play outside.” (pg. 487)

Konstance, in the Argos seems to be the only person left after her fellow travelers die in an epidemic that sweeps through the ship. She has her “perambulator” and access to a prodigious digital library. She makes it through a year of solitude by cutting up pieces of her 3D-printer powdered food sacks and writing down the stories her father told her about a donkey and a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. If you like fantasies there is plenty of that; but it you require realism, there is also plenty of that. What book would you take with you if you could only take one. So many found exactly what they needed in Antonius Diogenes’ 24 Folios about a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. The connections made between characters and eras in this book may remind you of your own eureka moments when your brain made similar connections as you read books and learned your way through life.