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.
In order to profit from The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson you must get through the first chapter – the catalyst for all that follows. Frank May is the only survivor of an extreme heat wave event that kills 20 million people, an entire village, in India. We don’t even learn his name until much later in the book. There are reasons.
Robinson skips around a lot which helps move this fictional/nonfiction book, full of what could be very dry science, along. India, in reaction to that enormous heat wave tragedy tries to recreate the ashy clouds of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption which blocked the sun for almost two years. The strategy India settles on of creating a layer of a reflective substance (several are under consideration) which would reflect some sunlight back into space thus cooling the earth’s atmosphere temporarily is an actual tactic being considered by climate scientists. The Children of Kali, also in India, decide to go ‘dark’ and use more violent strategies.
In order to make the billionaires listen up and force these greedy souls to give up fossil fuels, massively effective plans will be required. The Ministry of the Future, a UN project headed by Mary Murphy from Zurich, Switzerland, never openly supports violent action. But Mary’s Assistant Chair, Badim, has no such compunctions and he has Mary’s permission to head a ‘dark’ arm of the agency. It is so ‘dark’ that even as the book ends we have no clues about the tactics used by Badim’s group, but you might want to learn about Pebble Mobs.
Mary Murphy’s machinations are not secret at all. Through the Ministry, Robinson’s book offers up one idea after another – the state of the art ideas, the far out ideas and ideas unpalatable to many – that could be used to lower the temperature raised by global warming and for sequestering the carbon dioxide (carbon) that is to blame. A story that is basically a climate textbook is made readable by making it a personal story with characters who interest us, and by flashing around the globe. We might be in India in one short chapter, or in China, or at a committee meeting, or experiencing the kidnapping of Mary Murphy, or in Antarctica, or Russia, or in the Alps, or San Francisco, along the new wildlife corridors, presenting an audacious financial plan to the world’s central banks. It’s a whirlwind for the most part, belying how slow actual change may be, but it’s exciting and it makes the reader believe that we could do this; we could save the planet.
The Ministry for the Future is a fiesta of climate ideas. If it gets a bit Kumbaya near the end, after all our recent coronavirus isolation, some communal esprit might be welcome. Mary Murphy’s mantra is “lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win.” We might need to stop losing and use some of Robinson’s pirated ideas if we want to have any hope of winning. Every person on the planet should read this book.
Given all the recent interest in a book that was required reading when I was in school, and the new TV series based on the book (which I have not seen), rereading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley seemed in order. It was shocking to find how little I remembered about the book so, good plan. The book is actually a philosophical exploration of the underpinnings of societies and it projects us into a mechanized future with universal happiness as its goal. I’m experiencing this as a sort of a mash-up because I am also reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the same time. Harari suggests that the only difference between homo sapiens and other animals is our ability to tell stories, our facility for generating myths that allows us to exist in collective groups greater than the 150 members of the largest groups that prevailed in previous ages. This reverberates with what Huxley writes about in Brave New World in 1931.
In the society Huxley creates, the god who is at the mythical core is Henry Ford and the model is the assembly line which was the object of both admiration and consternation among various groups. It allowed the production of all those Model A cars and Model T’s that offered the freedom of the open road and seemingly conquered the matters of distance and time. Rather than turning out one vehicle at a time the assembly line could produce dozens in a day or hundreds in a year and the production rates kept improving. So what if you applied the idea of the assembly line to human reproduction. Rather than the whole messy and often tragic process of biological birth, what if birth could be mechanized, removed from the nuclear family and moved into a factory setting. You could even produce different castes of humans depending on the way you controlled the birth environment and later the mental development. Huxley used Greek letters to indicate these castes: Alphas as the highest, Epsilons as the lowest.
We begin our tour of the “World’s State” at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The motto of the State is “Community, Identity, Stability.” Because of the Bokanovsky Process it is possible to create infinite numbers of twins by causing branching in fertilized eggs. These groups of identical twins work very well together without pesky disagreements, and in addition to their genetic content they are mentally conditioned or programmed to enjoy their group identity and their slot in society, however high or low. Alphas and even Betas are individuals and are not ‘twinned’. Epsilons are slated for menial labor. Alphas are, within limits, thinkers.
Sexuality is key to the goals and order of this society. Toddlers are encouraged to engage in sexual play. Many groups are sterile. During naptimes subliminal conditioning is broadcast as nursery rhymes and songs that are treasured in adulthood even as they control the behaviors of the various groups. Alphas and Betas cannot reproduce but they can have as many sexual partners as they wish, although pair bonds are frowned upon. If you live in this Brave New World and you find yourself in any way troubled or unhappy there is a drug for that. Soma will restore your happiness and send you tripping off into musical, light and sexual sensations that make you happy once again, and if that doesn’t work you can really zone out, take lots of soma and take a soma holiday.
An Alpha, rumored to have experienced a chemical imbalance in his birth bottle, promises to take Lenina, a female conditioned to enjoy sexual encounters, to an area that has stayed ‘savage’. There we meet Linda, who was what Lenina is now, but was left for dead by a previous Alpha who toured the same area. Linda was pregnant and was forced to do the very thing she was conditioned to despise. She had to give birth and have the feelings that mothers have. But she had also been taught to perceive of motherhood as a relic of the past, as an unacceptable role for women. It leaves procreation to chance. This combination of biological imperative and conditioned loathing is not a recipe for good parenting. We also meet her son John who does not biologically fit into this tribe in which he has been born. This tribe worships two gods; they worship Jesus and a tribal god. John has been raised with this religious conditioning. His mother acts promiscuously within the tribe and is shunned because of it. That is part of her conditioning, as is her willingness to take the mescalin and peyote available to her as a soma substitute. John is torn. He loves his mother and he loathes her sinful behaviors and the way it spills over into the tribes’ perceptions of him.
So what happens when our Alpha takes Linda and John back to the World’s Society, the Brave New World? What happens when myths collide? This is exactly the point where Sapiens and Brave New World collide, although they were written decades apart. You can probably make some guesses about what happens but this is a book that should be read and pondered as you question societies and what you believe they should be like.
Daniel Silva has written and published the twentieth book in the series that features Gabriel Allon, the green-eyed, clear-headed, master of intelligence work and art restoration, The Order. Lucky me. I like these cerebral mystery-thrillers that manage to seek out and find bad actors, and also unravel what is revealed in the aftermath of Jewish genocide in World War II. Silva shines a light on anti-Semitism and although we tend to think that it was limited to Germany, Silva uses his fiction to show how much cooperation Hitler found all over Europe. There were collaborators who cheated Jewish people by offering fake documents in exchange for money, paintings, jewels, and who never delivered. When the Jews were transported to the camps the scammers adopted their possessions as their own, displayed them, probably insured them, although they could not prove their provenance.
In this case we learn more about the ways that many European Catholics not only failed to protect the Jews, but actually collaborated with Hitler in exterminating them. At the heart of the book are the questions of whether the Jews killed Jesus, whether that explains anti-Semitism, and an exploration of the validity of the gospels.
Gabriel is the head of Israeli Intelligence. He is married to a beautiful Venetian Jewish woman and they have young twin boys. Chiara, Gabriel’s wife, finally books a vacation in Venice with a promise of a painting restoration. She knows how to tempt her husband. Then Pope Pietro Lucchesi dies. What does Israeli intelligence have to do with the Vatican? Well, it happens that Gabriel knows the Pope personally and saved his life once before. The Pope’s secretary, Luigi Donati and Gabriel have found that they work very well together. They also agree that the Pope did not die of natural causes. He was murdered. They have to move quickly to find the guilty party before the Cardinals lock themselves away in the Conclave to name a new Pope.
A shadowy Catholic organization which has been mentioned in other Silva books adds menace to this tale. What is the connection between the fate of the Jews and the Order of Saint Helena? Is there an actual Gospel of Pontius Pilate? The ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book gives the facts that are known to be true and these facts provide some authenticity to the events offered up as fiction. The Order is classic Daniel Silva and partners him with his team who we have come to know and care about.
Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new book, ‘hooked’ into memories of things I learned to love long ago that have stayed with me all these years. I was just out of college in the years Mitchell sets his band, called Utopia Avenue, down in. If you want to invent a rock band there is not a better era than that musical era that contained so many great bands and solo artists. After all that was the age of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell and Graham Nash, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sat in summer-green parks and watched children chase bubbles and whiled the afternoons away listening to great music. I saw the Moody Blues in concert. I went to Woodstock. I cannot help enjoying Mitchell’s story.
He gives us great characters too. Dean Moss is the first band member we meet and he is having a very bad day. He is not playing in a band at the moment and a pick pocket rips off his rent money. He gets evicted by his cruel landlady. He left his last band, Battleship Potemkin, a poorly designed band that tried to rock out to some Communist ideology. He asks at the coffee shop where he now works if he can have an advance and he loses his job. All the while the juke box in the diner plays an ironic soundtrack. But then the day ends with an astounding piece of luck. Dean runs into Levon Frankland who has heard Dean play his bass guitar. Frankland wants to put a band together with the best musicians he has seen at the London clubs.
We meet Elf, a girl folk singer with a user boyfriend, and he isn’t using drugs, he is using Elf, who has talent and character. Griff plays a harmonica and he is also the drummer. Jason sings and plays guitar. Elf plays guitar, piano, any keyboard instrument; she writes great songs and is a singer with some recording chops already. Dean sings and writes songs and so does Jason so this band would have a deep bench. They are lucky that Levon is the manager who found them because he is honest, and the music scene was and is loaded with managers who are happy to rip-off their artists.
David Mitchell usually writes dense books that play with time and offer up symbolic doses of social commentary; books that are sometimes like a mind puzzle. This book worked a bit differently. It plays with time in the sense that Mitchell sees parallels between 2018 and 1968. If you were around in both of these times, which Mitchell was not, but I was, the time travel happens inside my mind, inspired by Mitchell’s story. The people he mentions as contemporaries of Utopia Avenue are the same people I listen to on my stereo today. Yes I still have a stereo, but it only plays CD’s. So the reverberations of this book in my own life are trippy enough, but that is an accidental effect since I don’t think the book was aimed at only old hippies. It’s difficult for me to perceive, though, how it affects a younger reader. I say take a chance. Go for it. If you’re alive, you know rock bands.
Mitchell also does that ‘horology’ thing he does. Jason’s last name is de Zoet. Jason hangs on to sanity by a thread, via a drug prescribed for him and a strange encounter on a beach. Is Knock-Knock real? Is knock-knock a joke. Is Jason schizophrenic? Jason is able to forget the battle in his head when he’s on stage but when he is not performing he keeps expecting the quarantined Knock-Knock to return at any moment. He has seen ‘Knock-Knock’ and he takes the form of an imperious oriental figure who wants Jason dead. If you have read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet then you see the connection right away. If you didn’t read it, just go with the flow. All will be explained and it will be sufficiently freaky.
When the band gets famous enough, they are offered performances in America. Mitchell is able to fit in some observations about America through the eyes of Brits who have some delusions about the USA.
“I’ve never associated America with violence,” says Elf.
“Violence is on every page of our history.” Max mops up his gazpacho soup with a crust. “Brave settlers massacring Indians. Some days we’d cheat them with worthless treaties, but mostly it was massacres. Slavery. Work for me for nothing till the day you die, or I’ll kill you now. The Civil War. We industrialized violence. We mass produced it, years before Ford. Years before the trenches of Flanders. Gettysburg! Fifty thousand deaths in a single day. The Klan. Lynchings. The Frontier. Hiroshima. The Teamsters. War! We need war like the French need cheese.” Page 424
So not quite as abstract as some of Mitchell’s other books but packed with enough material for several readings. I don’t know why he chose a band as his vehicle but it worked for me. It’s an ‘Is it real, or is it Memorex’ moment. You may not be old enough for that reference either. He still sits firmly on my ‘great writer’ list.
Paul Krugman is an expert in Economics. He defies the economic analyses favored by Conservatives. In Arguing with Zombies Krugman resents that “zombie” economic ideas keep being disproved (dying) and that they keep “shambling along” like the zombie ideas they are because they match up with right-wing ideologies.
Of course, he mentions the origins of these ideas, names like Keynes and Friedman, but Krugman sets out to make the rather arcane, rather subjective field of economics clear to all of us who come down with fuzzy brain syndrome whenever the term economics pops up in conversation.
I always read Krugman’s columns in the New York Times , but I must have missed more than a few because, although this book is a hand-picked collection of his columns, he managed to include ones I had not read. If he can explain economics so I can understand it then he’s very talented indeed.
His topics in this book include: saving social security, the road to Obamacare, attack on Obamacare, bubble or bust, crisis management, the Euro, fiscal phonies, tax cuts, trade wars, inequality, Conservatives, Socialism, climate, Trump and the media. On each topic he contrasts his views with those held by Republicans.
Krugman makes me nod “yes, yes” as I read. If you find yourself nodding “no, no,” then Mr. Krugman is not the economist for you. But I swear he is right. If you read Krugman’s book you can judge if my “Spidey sense” is correct as events in America unfold. Only the last chapter is a bit dense and academic. I appreciate Paul Krugman for his clarity and his ability to come down from the “Ivory Tower” inhabited by most economists.
Lily King’s novel, Writers and Lovers is the kind of book that is so readable that it’s over before you are quite ready for it to be over. Usually books that we can’t put down are mysteries or thrillers, but this book is not in either of those genres. I suppose it would be classified as literary, but it is not at all obscure. Casey’s life is not in a good place. Her mom just died. They had a blip in their mother-daughter relationship but it got mended and they became very close. She is trying to finish writing a novel and yet she wants to cancel her appointment at a writer’s camp in Rhode Island because her grief is not the best mood for writing. And indeed, she gets almost nothing done but she does have a sexy romp with another writer, Lucas, which ends badly.
We find her, after her days at writer’s camp living in the garage of a friend of her brother, in what is so shabby and small it can hardly be called an apartment. Casey does not want to sell out. She does not want to take a job just for money because then she won’t have any time to write. But her college loans are weighing on her and we all know those lenders do not leave you alone. She is working as a waitress at Iris, a restaurant that King describes so perfectly that we know exactly where it fits in our restaurant schema; at the high end. King also brings all of the other wait staff, owners, chefs to life with deft character sketches that don’t require too much detail because we already know these people in a sense. Some of Casey’s fellow employees are miserable and some are warm and see work as a cooperative venture.
Casey’s friend Muriel is also a writer and she can see the grief and the debt weighing down on Casey’s mind. She takes her to a party where a writer named Oscar is set up in the kitchen for a book signing. She has another writer on her mind, named Silas who left town after they had one date – hard not to take that personally. She doesn’t pay attention to Oscar but he pursues her and shows up at Iris with his two lovable sons. His wife, the boy’s mom, died and he is past the main stages of his grief, looking for a new wife and a new mom for his boys. Here is another trap for Casey. First of all she doesn’t really want to be a wife and a mom, she wants to be a writer. Can she be both? But she is half in love with those two little boys. Second, Oscar is older than she is and is already a published writer with a pretty hefty ego. Is Oscar likely to be happy if she also becomes a successful published writer. And then there is that other interesting weirdo, Silas. He is back in her life and yet just as skittish. Will Casey Peabody have a nervous breakdown now that her landlord tells her the garage property is up for sale and the new chef turns mean. Quelle dilemma.
I see that I made this sound like some kind of romance novel, which it really isn’t. That’s because I’m not as good a writer as Lily King. Maybe I enjoyed this novel so much because I am currently trying to write a novel of my own. Still, worthwhile if the story line is of interest to you.
Can you be a committed activist born at a moment of radical change and have a personal life that fulfills all the social goals. Thomas Paine’s life story as told by Harlow Giles Unger in his book Thomas Paine and the Clarion Call for American Independence teaches me the details of a life that I knew only as a heading lost in a textbook chapter.
Thomas Paine was born in England but he argued that royalty was an elitist and bad form of government which kept citizens as subjects. The power of the King was backed by “divine right.” In other words, the King was chosen by God, so crimes against the King were sins against God and any person who slandered the King (in this case George III) was a traitor who could be burned at the stake, disemboweled, hung, or any two of the aforementioned horrific ways to die. Was it brave or foolish to argue against royalty as a viable form of government in 18 th century England?
Thomas Paine had to get out of town. He ended up in the American colonies just as the colonists were rebelling against the taxes levied by George III, the troops being quartered in their homes. This was a rebellion that Paine understood. This was a historical moment ripe for Paine’s ideas. He published an inflammatory pamphlet which opened with this famous line; “These are the times that try men’s souls” and he signed himself by the pseudonym ‘Common Sense.’ As the war ran into difficulties with recruitment he published more articles, also signed Common Sense. He knew George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other founders. He was a Quaker, nonviolent, but he picked up a rifle and joined the fight. We know who won the Revolutionary War but I did not know how many setbacks Washington had on the way. Victory was a near thing until France got involved and that was in response to entreaties from Thomas Paine.
Sadly Thomas Paine was very poor and had to depend on kindnesses from friends. In his years in America he was considered good company. He was eventually given some properties. But Paine did not stay in America. He returned to England to try to see his mother before she died, but he was too late. He was still a wanted man in England and had to go to France. Not everyone knew he was ‘Common Sense,’ but important people did. Paine arrived in Paris in time for the beginnings of the French Revolution which , of course, he championed. But after being greeted as a hero his life went off track in France. While in a French prison he finished a new treatise, The Age of Reason, in which he managed to alienate almost everyone. I have to leave you something to uncover for yourselves, so I will end with Paine ill and imprisoned, but that is not the end of his life or the book. I will say that if people had talked about such a thing as work/life balance during Paine’s lifetime that might have been a message he needed to hear. He was a great man with ideas ahead of his times but apparently life is not always a lark just because you are famous. Activism has consequences.