How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil – Book

Bill Gates recommends books for me to read. Well, okay, not just for me but for millions of people who subscribe to his Gates Notes and to the letters from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sometimes I recommend books to him, in the comment section on his Linkedin page. I assume he takes my suggestions seriously. (Just kidding.) He may never look at the comments. So, it was at the behest of Mr. Gates that I decided to include Vaclav Smil’s book, How the World Really Works, written during COVID home isolation, on my reading list. Now that I have finished Smil’s book I can’t say that I loved the things he had to say, but he is a polymathic professor at the University of Manitoba and my elder. (only by two years) He has several areas of expertise, all related to knowledge that is important to solving climate change, ocean pollution, and uneven distribution of fresh water. Although you may experience a Smil downer, the theses in this book must be taken into account as we try to approach getting to zero carbon emissions while still housing, feeding, and quenching the thirst of a global population that is still growing (despite lower rates of reproduction in many nations).

By methodically and numerically talking us through the 4 pillars of modern culture, steel, ammonia, cement, and plastics Smil shows us a series of daunting tasks. It is illuminating to read about how completely fossil fuels are entangled in almost every aspect of making these four key products that cannot be easily replaced. 

“The real wrench in the works: we are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determination of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years.

Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances.” (pg. 5)

Smil takes us through the intricacies of agriculture and of fertilizing soil. Without fertilizers to replenish nitrogen in our soils we would never be able to grow enough food to feed the 8 billion people who now inhabit the planet. This is where ammonia comes in. It is important in helping nitrogen take a form that plants can use. 

Smil says, “None of the people reading this book will relocate to Mars, all of us will continue to eat staple grain crops grown in soil on large expanses of agricultural land, rather than in skyscrapers imagined by the proponents of so-called urban agriculture, none of us will live in a dematerialized world that has no use for such irreplaceable natural services as evaporating water or pollinating plants. But delivering these existential necessities will be an increasingly challenging task, because a large share of humanity lives in conditions that the affluent minority left behind generations ago, and because growing demand for energy and materials has been stressing the biosphere so much and so fast that we have imperiled its capability to keep its flows and stores within the boundaries compatible with its long-term functioning.” (pg. 3)

Makes you want to prove Vaclav Smil wrong, doesn’t it? Before you set out to do that you had better read the book. He has done the math for you. First chapter covers Energy Fuels and Electricity, second chapter covers Food Production: Eating Fossil Fuels, third chapter covers Our Material World: The Four Pillars of Modern Civilization. fourth chapter covers Globalization Engines, Microchips, and Beyond, the fifth chapter covers Understanding Risks: From Viruses to Diets to Solar Flares and the sixth chapter covers Understanding the Environment: The Only Biosphere We Have.

In the last chapter Smil talks about how we are swinging between apocalypse and the singularity. 

“Apocalyptic visions of the future–with assorted hells offered by major religions–have been strongly revived by modern promoters of doom, who have been pointing to rapid population growth, environmental pollution, or now, increasingly, to global warming as the sins that will transport us to the netherworld. In contrast, incorrigible techno-optimists continue the tradition of believing in miracles and the delivery of eternal salvation. It is not uncommon to read how artificial intelligence and deep learning systems will carry us all the way to the “Singularity.” (pg. 213)

Vaclav Smil is basically telling us that there are far too many places and procedures that still rely on fossil fuels to get to zero or to decarbonize even by 2050. He also chastises us for not having done our due diligence over the many decades that we have known about climate changes like global warming, damages to our oceans and the unequal distribution of freshwater resources. We could still, if we worked together design a plan that might involve, for example, making sure soil in Africa has adequate supplies of fertilizer and fresh water to grow their own food and enough steel and concrete (made with cement) to build housing that will protect them from hot spots. Given that we cannot all agree that we need a wider, more global plan our situation looks bleak but Smil believes that earth will stay livable for many years to come.

Is this a wake up call or and admonition? Have we done too little and left things until too late? We will have to live it to learn it. Meanwhile, I assume and hope that environmentalists will keep plugging away. If they stop believing we are in big trouble.

Babel by R. F. Kuang – Book

From a Google Image Search – Orange County Register

Science fiction and social commentary are for all practical purposes in love and married to each other. Writers of sci-fi may build worlds but they generally have something to address in the actual world we occupy. In her book Babel: or, The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution, R. F. Kuang creates a new world right on the nineteenth century campus of Oxford University. England runs a bit differently than it does in our histories. In Kuang’s novel England runs on silver and language, and the whole system is run by translators.

The eight-floor high tower of Babel sits on the Oxford University Campus and only translators and their professors are allowed inside. Students enter on the first floor and work their way up to the eighth floor where their language skills allow them to make powerful decisions that keep the Empire running smoothly. 

Although the quality of people’s lives is affected by the silver/linguistics technology, England is otherwise the same colonial power as history records. Wealthy Brits believe that other nations on other continents are full of savages with primitive intelligence and backward customs, even in the case of a culture like China which existed for centuries before the English arrived. China opened its doors to trade for a brief period in the nineteenth century providing England with much coveted Chinese tea, but England is running out of the silver it needs to keep its wealthy citizens happy. China is not willing to mine silver for England or let England mine China’s silver. England plans to secretly flood China with opium to make it a quiescent nonentity. Surprise, surprise. China figures out this secret plan and does not agree with it.

Because the silver effect is controlled with word pairs from two different languages and by the etymological connections between the meanings of the paired words, this system does not work without the translators. All translators must have a firm grasp of Latin and Greek and at least two other languages. One of the languages must be English. Students must study for three years before they get to work in the silverworks on the eighth floor. 

In order for word pairs to function the words must not both be in common use. As the age of discovery and colonization begins to connect nations words that once belonged to a single geographic region become popular in common use across many nations. This makes it more difficult for England’s translators to come up with unique pairs. Suppose you want the sewer system throughout the country to function well and the rivers to stay clean, the drinking water to stay potable. Silver bars with the correct word pairs can make this happen if you happen to live in an elite neighborhood or an important village.

As England looks around the world for more esoteric languages, they find ways to parent children with native women, or they seek out talented children and they place them in the homes of wealthy sponsors or professors and offer them all the comforts of a wealthy life while they force these children to learn Latin, Greek, and English. They must also retain proficiency in their native language. What happens when these children grow up and attend Babel to become translators is the crux of this novel and the part where social commentary comes to the fore. How do you think children from nations Brits feel are inferior are treated at Oxford? Where does violence come into the picture? 

R. F. Kuang’s novel is complex, perhaps a bit too complex. The action should reach a crescendo at some point, but the intensity seems to be tamped down to a sort of monotone. The social commentary is clear, but it ends too abruptly in a simple epilogue. Will the actions the central characters finally choose have the desired effects? The author does not really answer that question. Does heroic sacrifice work as an alternative to violence? Will any of the voracious appetites of the wealthy be kept under control? The book is interesting, and the characters affect us much as the characters in Harry Potter do, but the book needs to go on to the aftermath for a bit. Perhaps there will be a sequel. It was an interesting read. The book has echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver Trilogy, except that he is a small g “god” of sci-fi.

The Last Chairlift by John Irving – Book

From a Google Image Search – CBC

It took me a while to adjust to John Irving’s bizarre characters and plotting details in The Last Chairlift, but John Irving knows how to have his way with his loyal readers. Will new readers of Irving like this book? Can an old activist discuss the wide array of modern genders without being guilty of cultural appropriation? Well, he has his tricks but perhaps only true readers, celebrated in this book, will go the course, ski the diamond runs.

John Irving is from New Hampshire. Skiing and skiers are things he probably knows quite a bit about. In The Last Chairlift his mom is a ski instructor and Adam is her one and only (child). She begat him in Aspen at the Jerome Hotel from a boy just entering puberty. She lives in a sort of dorm full of raucous and fun-loving girl ski instructors with her partner, Molly, a trail groomer, and a big old reliable girl with a sweet spirit. A number of women in Irving’s book have a big problem with penises. Then there are the characters who see ghosts and those that don’t. Adam and Little Ray (his mom) both see ghosts, especially at the Jerome Hotel but several ghosts visit Adam in the attic bedroom at his grandmother’s house where he lives while is mother is busy at various ski mountains. 

Adam is from a family of small people. His father, who does not appear until late in his life is small, his mother is small, thus the nickname “Little Ray,” she marries the very small Elliot Barlow (not too small to be a good wrestling coach, just the right size for a man who should have been born a woman). Small size does not make these characters small in spirit. 

Adam has a big cousin, Nora, a lesbian, and a true activist, bold, creative, and outspoken and much admired by Adam. Nora’s girlfriend, with the legendary wild and loud orgasms, is actually mute. These two have a comedy act at a NYC club that resembles The Stonewall Inn, called Two Dykes, One Who Talks. Em doesn’t talk but she becomes a master of awkward pantomime. She’s the pretty one. Adam loves all these people, but it seems he is in unrequitable love with Em (McPherson).

Moby Dick plays a big role in this novel, perhaps similar to the role the dog, Sorrow, played in Hotel New Hampshire, as a source of literary content, social commentary and “dick” humor. Repetition is one of the ways Irving gets us to immerse ourselves in his mayhem. Irving plays his usual comic tricks that never fail to provide humor that makes us shake our heads because it is so outlandish and sick. Adam’s early sexual liaisons with injured women, one on crutches with twitchy nerves, one with a cast, one who is a bleeder, might prove as obstacles to normal sexual development to a young man who did not have Little Ray and Molly and his nonchalant grandmother in his corner. 

But love is all around, and it tempers all the many disasters in this long tale. It is typically Irving, over-the-top, endearing social commentary intended to change your views and make you suspend your disbelief. Who decides when a great writer is too old to write? It’s a thing between writers and readers. This may or may not be Irving’s last novel, but in this one he’s still got his writer mojo.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Gramus – Book

From a Google Image Search – Book Club Chat

A book about what befalls a woman in a field dominated by men doesn’t usually sound like much fun, but Bonnie Garmus cracked that code in Lessons in Chemistry. Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, a talented chemist. She has exactly the right character for scholarly experimentation. She doesn’t plan to marry or have children. But she is beautiful, and it has created no end of problems for her. She doesn’t have her doctorate because she was sexually abused by the professor who was advising her. She is hired by a lab but is given a space that is poorly equipped. She wants to study abiogenesis, trying to trace life to one organism, but the head chemist, Dr. Donatti, will not sign off on that. Might she have been left to her own devices if she had not been beautiful? Maybe, but it would have been a different story.

While stealing beakers from the lab of Calvin Evans, the chemistry star of the university, recognized in significant articles in science literature, she piques his ire and then his interest. Calvin is not handsome, but he is tall and lanky and authentic. Elizabeth Zott cannot help herself. They become a couple and they eventually live together with their dog, Six-Thirty. Calvin proposes but EZ stays true to her decision not to marry. Calvin keeps the jealous, unethical, and lecherous Donatti at bay. He offers balance in EZ’s life, and he gets her to try rowing. Then tragedy strikes. (That’s all I can say)

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice could have been Elizabeth Zott if she had been born in the twentieth century. Although this snapshot of a woman just trying to excel at something men usually do is from the 1950’s, before women’s lib, this dynamic has not changed as much as you might think. Once women are established or have worked for an enlightened organization, women can compete, but the path to the top is still littered with abuse and attempts to make a woman’s accomplishments less or her lifestyle unacceptable. In Lessons in Chemistry Dr. Donatti and his assistants plagiarize Elizabeth’s work, and he publishes it as his own. You may think this is despicable because it is, but this has certainly happened although sometimes in more subtle ways. Elizabeth is forced by circumstances to earn her props in a related field before she can get back to pure chemistry.

Bonnie Garmus has managed to make this story madcap and humorous, certainly without the heaviness you would expect from a description of the book’s subject. It’s a wonderful book and it is over all too fast. If you liked Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple you will like this book too, perhaps finding it more realistic. In conclusion, I will simply suggest that you might want to get an erg for your living room. 

Desert Star by Michael Connelly – Book

Last summer (2022) I set out to do some recreational reading. I decided to read all the Harry Bosch books by Michael Connelly. I finished in early fall, but a new book was announced. Of course, I had to read it. The book is Desert Star, and it is also a Renée Ballard story. Since Harry Bosch has aged along with the books Connelly has written, Bosch has been retired from police work for some time. However, Harry Bosch has a life mission to rid the world of those who do evil. It is his frequently stated belief that “everyone counts, or no one does.” He despises the politics that infiltrates policing, and he runs afoul of those who occupy the tenth floor (the police commissioner and his staff) because when he is chasing someone truly evil, he cannot stop until he finds the guilty party or parties, even if he has to bend or break police department rules to do it.

In Desert Star, Bosch is invited to work with the Cold Case group which Renée Ballard has been authorized to set up. This division comes and goes with pressures from people outside the department. A pol who has a personal interest in an old case has put the pressure on the department to take another look at this case. 

The cold case division is also revisited when there is a new development in criminal forensics. This time the new developments are in DNA analysis. With the popularity of online genealogy websites and the family trees developed through these DNA analyses it is possible to trace crime scene DNA by using genealogical matches that are less than 100%. You can locate a criminal by locating relatives.

Bosch has agreed to volunteer with the new task force to solve a case that he cannot forget. Out in the desert are four cairns that mark the spots where an entire family (mother, father, young daughter, and son) are buried. They were shot and buried in the desert in a mass grave until a college class dug up their bones while completing a geology/paleontology project. Bosch has to find out what kind of evil human being would basically assassinate an entire family and why the evil one felt it was necessary.

We find Bosch torn between working on the case that the politician has ordered and the case he wants to solve. Ballard’s job is to rein Bosch in and keep him on task. Bosch has worked with Ballard before, and she has only the slightest edge on keeping him in line over any other police administrator because he likes her. This time Bosch goes beyond just breaking with police procedure; if anyone knew and could prove how he resolved the case that enraged him he would probably be charged with a crime. 

Can Harry Bosch ever work a case again? Is he too old to go rogue and become a vigilante? This time Harry may have to retire for real or become an evil one himself.

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra – Book

From a Google Image Search – You Tube

Anthony Marra’s most recent book is called Mercury Pictures Presents. I decided to read his book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena first and that did give me a glimpse into his most important theme, war, its absurdities and dislocations. This time we are focused on a village in Italy, San Lorenzo in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, in World War II. Two young people from that village end up in Los Angeles, escaping the constant fear of a misstep that will inspire the local commissioner to put you in a box under the floor of the jail and force you to suffer a sentence of isolation and sensory deprivation.

We begin in the office of Artie Feldman, head of Mercury Pictures where we meet one of those young San Lorenzo escapees, Maria Lagana, daughter of Giuseppe Lagana, once an occupant of the San Lorenzo isolation cell. Maria is Artie’s extremely talented assistant, a woman in a man’s business who is trying to change her fate and produce movies. We also meet Artie’s varied collection of toupees, named and displayed on wooden mannequin heads. Nearby is a perfect model of the entire grounds of Mercury Pictures right down to the back lots, in miniature.

In San Lorenzo we meet the villagers whose lives, once placid and one might even say boring, have been turned chaotic because of a dictator who leads by fear and threats, creating rules that are impossible to keep track of and all too easy to run afoul of. Maria’s father lives in this village. He is a photographer who takes photos for visas. He always takes two photos. One he uses for the visa. The second is torn in half and one half is given to the customer. Giuseppe’s address is on the back. He asks the traveler to send the other half back to him when they arrive at their destination. He rejoins the two halves and mounts them in an album. 

Maria’s father takes in a young man who wants to learn photography. Although he was from San Lorenzo, he was a student for a law degree in Rome until he met Giuseppe, smelled the dark room chemicals, and saw the photo album of the travelers. With his first camera he was hooked. Through a complex set of circumstances this young man Antonio “Nino” Picone arrives in Los Angeles with a new name. He is Vincent Cortese, supposedly the son of Concetta Cortese. Maria knows his real name because the man who took him in is her father. She wants nothing to do with him. 

The motion picture industry in Los Angeles is competitive and unstable. Your studio can be popular and rich at one moment and in dire circumstances the next depending on the quality of the movies the studio produces and the acceptance of movie goers. Once Japan bombs Pearl Harbor America gets involved in war movies which are important as propaganda for the war effort. However, there is a problem with capturing war footage or photos that show the drama of modern warfare. Most battles happen at night and photography cannot film action at night beyond bursts of light from weapons. In the daytime everyone is asleep in a trench, unwilling to risk daylight exposure to the enemy. Nino, now Vincent Cortese, left his law studies to become a war photographer. He can document the preparations for battle and the aftermath of battle, but not the actual battle. The Japanese have been interned in camps and other foreign nationals from enemy nations have severe limitations on their movements. Since it is difficult to make a believable war movie given the current way war is waged Mercury Pictures uses the miniaturist who created the model in the front office, a refugee from Germany, to build a scale model of her old Berlin neighborhood so it can be bombed and filmed to look authentic. 

Eventually Nino does return to San Lorenzo, and he travels around Italy filming the aftermath of war. He is sent to a small Italian village to recreate the capture of the village using the techniques he learned at Mercury Pictures to make it look like he was embedded in the original battle. “Ninety percent of the shots the moviegoing public associated with war drama realism were physically impossible outside the sound stage. The other ten percent were only possible by sacrificing the cameraman,” the author tells us.

This is a plot-driven novel, and the plot is complicated. We do get attached to the characters although sometimes the San Lorenzo characters can get a bit confusing. Somehow at the end it all comes together. Thematically, since we are experiencing war through the lenses of cameras we are removed from the horrors of war and we are with the civilians, experiencing the war as it affected people “behind the scenes.” Our point of view does not make war any more palatable. The movie connection is what makes the novel interesting and unique. The commentary on war is the author’s passion. War permits humans to act in extremely inhumane ways, which are often horrific, and occasionally absurd. It took me a long time to read this one, but it was because life kept interrupting.

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy-Book

From a Google image Search – Alta Journal

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy is so immersive; it’s like having a conversation with that person you could talk to all night. It’s one of those conversations that discusses little that is trivial. It goes deep and explores the human condition, the universe, the meaning of life, the nature of families and love. Stella Maris – could that translate to sea of stars? Apparently, it refers to a saint called star of the sea. Stella Maris in this case is the name of the fictional mental institution that Alicia Western has checked herself into as the novel begins. 

Alicia is a genius who began college in her early teens. Her parents worked for the Manhattan Project and moved with it to Oak Ridge Tennessee. They helped produce the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Her father was a physicist and her mother worked in a factory setting to separate U235 from U238.  There is guilt, lots of guilt. Alicia’s genius is in mathematics. Apparently true genius only occurs among mathematicians. 

Why did I so enjoy reading a book that I can’t pretend to totally comprehend? It made me feel both brilliant and sadly lacking in intellect at one and the same time. The names of famous physicists and mathematicians offer a fair bibliography of the work in these fields. 

Can mathematics solve the riddle of life and the universe? Does the pursuit of answers drive Alicia’s insanity, or just complicate it? It seems as if she was born to contribute to and expand on the work that comprises the field of math, but then why is she also born with a gene for schizophrenia and probably autism?

She spends her life in rare libraries and esoteric pursuits when her demons leave her periodically alone. She has no friends. She computes in notebook after notebook and in her mind when no paper is available. These are the things she discusses with her therapist, who seems able to follow her intellectually, although not mathematically. Having worked my way through advanced algebra with great difficulty, it is hard for me to imagine how math leads to so much philosophy but there it is, and its deep. You won’t like her conclusions about “life, the universe, and everything” as Douglas Adams put it, so I won’t tell you that part.

Alicia has a brother, Bobbie Western. He is the subject of the first book in this series (The Passenger). I believe that it helps to read them in order. Bobbie could not follow his sister to the heights (or depths) of her mathematical pursuits, so he studied physics and threw it all over for speed. He became a race car driver. 

Alicia is in love with her brother, despite society’s biological taboo against incest. He is the only one who understands her and loves her. He seems to also be in love with his sister, but he will not break the taboo on sexual intercourse. His sister’s broken heart contributes to her psychological burdens and to her worldview. 

If Cormac McCarthy is having his midnight conversation with his readers, which I think he is, then these books show unplumbed depths. But I warn you, at 89 his own worldview is perhaps not one that is designed to cheer you up, or even wake you up, as all human efforts seem to lead us to conclude that there is no powerful being or force watching out for us puny humans. I would still love to read both books, The Passenger and Stella Maris all over again and if I have the time I will. Is it that one book to take with you to a desert island? Not unless you also bring a math tutor. However, you can grasp the gist of this book without doing the math.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra-Book

From a Google Image Search – NPR

Reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra was like laying on your back in blackest night and regarding the heavens because the catastrophes that occur in the daytime world require that you escape to somewhere universal and seemingly immutable. Of course, the news brought all of us the fact of Russia’s wars in Chechnya. Marra brings those wars to life offering us characters to get attached to so that the wars become real. Chechens talk about two wars with Russia. Marra’s characters speak of the deportation of Chechens to camps in Russia, they talk of Russia replacing them with ethnic Russians, and then sending the Chechens back to Chechnya before waging a second war against this country which bulges up into Russian territory where it is surrounded by Russians, with Georgia to the south (a separatist state also invaded by Russia at least once). 

It’s a complicated history, all of it since the fall of the USSR, although the Chechen villages are still undeveloped. Chechens find themselves neighbors with relocated Russians, an ethnic dilemma, and a complicated social environment. The two wars leave little time to dwell on ethnic differences and wreak havoc with Chechnya’s economic development. Municipal buildings rise and fall, schools are formed and funded and then become too dangerous to attend and are eventually leveled by bombs and land mines, by Russian soldiers on Chechen soil. Hospitals are supposed to be left alone, but we know that Russia and the Geneva Convention rules have only a passing acquaintance. 

Let’s look through the other end of our telescope or binoculars at the upheaval in just one rural town near Grozny, Chechnya. The town has been destroyed. Just one resident, turned into an informer, has sent his neighbors to the terrible interrogation center in the Landfill where they die or return too broken to rejoin society. Ramzan is the name of this informer, and he did try to hold out against Russian tortures. He made it through his first trip to the Landfill. He could not stay true to his neighbors the second time he was taken. The crimes he reports are all about whether his neighbors are assisting the rebels, who they are assisting because they are fighting to keep Chechnya free.

Let’s focus in on the three or four residents left who live nearest to Ramzan, his neighbor Akhmed, his father Khassan, Akhmed’s wife Ula, and Dokka’s daughter Havaa. They realize they are next on Ramzan’s list. In fact, he has already turned in the names of Dokka and Havaa who offer beds to rebels passing through the village. There seems no where to turn in this story for relief but when Akhmed realizes the danger Havaa (who is ten) is in he takes her to the hospital in Grozny, 11 miles away. There we meet Sonja, and through her we learn the story of her sister Natasha. People live on tenterhooks and life is a precarious state. There is so much more. This is well worth reading. In fact, it’s also a love story.

The book cannot be read without thinking about what is happening in Ukraine, so parallel to what happened in Chechnya. And Russia may not be done with Chechnya yet. Devastation at the hands of Russia has been at the end of Russia’s giant destructive military spray hose trained on any state that separated from the old USSR. Pictures of broken housing, ruined infrastructure are so similar from state to state that it is difficult to decide which war we are looking at. This book humanizes what it is like to live with the existential threat that your home, your comfort, your life, your family could be wiped out at any moment and how difficult it is to escape your fate because of checkpoints and occupying troops. You cannot help but think how you would fare in similar circumstances. The title does not come from the heavens, it comes from a medical text (read the book to see the connection). The medical book defines life as “a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. War interferes with every one of these life activities.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver – Book

From a Google Image Search – USA Today

Rarely have I read a novel that was a take-off on a novel by a famous author from another era that is as well-done as Barbara Kingsolver’s book Demon Copperhead. I had to refresh my memory of the details of Dicken’s book, David Copperfield, but the parallels are strong, even down to the names of characters. Normally the newer book would be overshadowed by the original, however this is not at all the case here. Of course, Barbara Kingsolver is a storied author in her own right, and she proved her bona fides with this skillful modern tale. Demon Copperhead works well as a stand-alone novel without knowing about the historical references.

Dickens wrote to expose the inequalities in the lives of Londoners in the nineteenth century. For the most part his protagonist lived in an urban area. Barbara Kingsolver moves this discussion of inequality to a rural area in Tennessee, suffering unemployment and poverty because the coal mines have been closed. David Copperfield lost his parents; Damon Fields/Demon Copperhead (a redhead) lost his father before he was born, and his mother married an evil charmer who abused Damon. His mother eventually died of an addiction she could not overcome. I will not trace all the parallels between these two stories but if you haven’t read Dicken’s novel or need a refresher you should find a summary. I found David Copperfield streaming on Hulu. Online this is the one I found:

As if poverty and unemployment were not enough along comes oxy, oxycodone, heroin, and addiction, pill mills, a shortage of rehab programs, all factors that work to mix with the alcohol already in use for self-soothing. The mines had ruined the bodies of the miners and they were sitting ducks for pain meds. Kingsolver implies that the pharmaceutical industry was well aware of the fact that these pain meds are addictive. Did they decide that the negative side effects were actually a profit-making feature of the meds? Did they find out how addictive these pills were after widely prescribing them? Kingsolver does not find the industry, the greedy pharmacists, the crooked doctors innocent of guilt.

But this is not a scientific diatribe against the drug industry. This is a character driven story. We get attached to Damon/Demon as he wends his way through our disastrous foster care system, offered up to one flawed caretaker after another until he arrives at the farm of Mr. Creaky, another terrible caretaker, where he meets some boys who become entwined with his adult life, some in good ways, some in bad. As you read you wonder how any child could survive the system that consistently fails Damon. When Demon/Damon ends up with the coach of the Generals, and he grows into a star player on that high school football team, we think that his problems may be solved, but an injury pulls Demon into the world of oxy and many complications ensue. 

The best thing about living with the coach is his daughter Agnes, who calls herself Angus, an intelligent girl who adopts a witty but androgenous persona. There is an Agnes in the Dicken’s book too. In fact, these two books mirror each other, almost character for character. Several grotesque love stories are told of real love yanked out of any chance of success by drugs, of lovers that choose the wrong person to love, of lovers abused by the object of their affections. A loving neighbor family provides some stability in Damon’s life. I can’t even tell you who makes it through and who doesn’t. It’s an excellent novel and a story that is just as gripping in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth. Will it have as little effect on change? Novels may not bring instant change, but they often resonate through the ages.

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy – Book

Has Cormac McCarthy written the American Ulysses as per James Joyce? That’s the way The Passenger struck me, especially after the Thalidomide Kid and his cohorts finished their sad side show in the attic bedroom of Alicia Western. 

It’s the male cast of characters and the vicinity to water that brings to mind the guys who spend the day together in Joyce’s novel with all it’s classical references. Here the references are not at all classical but are certainly in the tragic style of many classics. In The Passenger we have Bobby Western, Oiler, Red, the pretentious Long One-John Sheddan, Darling Dave, Brat, Count Seals. Most of these men we meet in a bar and never hear from again. Bobby is my candidate for the new Leopold Bloom. Western has just come from a dive to check into a plane reported to have landed in waters near New Orleans. It’s a mystery which I cannot tell you about but just completing this dive job changes Western’s life forever.

Alicia and Bobby are brother and sister, and rumor has it that they were in an incestuous relationship, which may have just been sibling love beyond the understanding of this motley crew of men. They were born in Wartburg, Tennessee, near Oak Ridge. Yes, the Oak Ridge of building-atomic-bombs fame. (McCarthy ignores many rules of grammar and if he uses MS Word he must ignore lots of edits.)

“His father’s trade was the design and fabrication of enormous bombs for the purpose of incinerating whole citiesful of innocent people as they slept in their beds.”

Two very bright children who inherit the guilt of their father are bound to have complicated lives. Alicia loves math. Bobby begins with biology, cataloguing all the wildlife in the woods and streams near his childhood home but later decides that he loves physics because math is not his greatest strength, and because he thinks physics is more likely to unravel the secrets of the universe. You must forgive him. He was young. Both of their parents worked in a factory that enriched uranium. The father knew all the most famous physicists and so did Bobby and Alicia. Both parents died of cancer. Alicia inherits schizophrenia which ends her career as a brilliant mathematician. 

Bobby gives up physics to race Formula 2 cars in France and now has a metal plate in his head. Currently he’s a deep-sea diver. It turns out that there is a passenger missing. In fact, there are many references to passengers. Is that why men in suits are stalking Western? Is that why Oiler is dead?

These two unusual characters along with John Sheddan give the author’s prose scope to hallucinate, to offer a study in how schizophrenia can derail a life, to give us a history of physics in America, to call the roll of famous physicists, to explore the interior architecture of atoms and particles, and to take us through theories of physics up to and including string theory with some hints of the singularity. 

“Somewhere beyond that the installation at Oak Ridge for enriching uranium that had led his father here from Princeton in 1943 and where he’d met the beauty queen he would marry. Western fully understood that he owed his existence to Adolf Hitler. That the forces of history which had ushered his troubled life into the tapestry were those of Auschwitz and Hiroshima that sealed forever the fate of the West.” (pg 138)

While I see physics as a practical science leading to climate change and space exploration, Western seems to have arrived at a perception that physics is the branch of science that predicts extinction. 

John Sheddan, another product of the South, gives each member of the group a title. Bobby is the Squire. Sheddan pontificates,

“Flawed youths of course. To prefer a world of paper. Rejects. But we know another truth, don’t we Squire? And of course it’s true that any number of books were penned in lieu of burning down the world which was their author’s true desire. But the real question is are we few the last of a lineage? Will children yet to come harbor a longing for a thing they cannot even name? (pg. 115)

As the Thalidomide Kid, a hallucination Alicia invents to hang on to whatever sanity she can find, McCormack gets to say things like:

“Listen, Ducklescence, he whispered. You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you can’t help but lose what is being described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed. A moment in time is a fact, not a possibility. The world will take your life. But above all and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you don’t. Not in your heart you don’t. If you did you would be terrified. And you’re not. Not yet. (pg. 109)

I loved this book so much that I read it twice and I might read it again, but it is not linear, and it is not cheerful. I cannot say if you will find that it speaks to you, but Cormac McCarthy had me at physics. Although after reading The Passenger I may have to give up believing that physics will unravel the secrets of life and the universe.