The Tangled Tree

the-tangled-tree-9781476776620_lgThe Tangled Tree, David Quammen

Among the many mysteries of evolution is where the mutations come from in the first place. That species change over time, and eventually branch off to become separate species, is fairly well settled. But what is less clear is just how these changes occur, and how they become prevalent. The assumption, and one that is still taught primarily in biology class, is that it’s random mutation, just pieces getting mixed up a bit, or a transcription error, and every now and then—probably for far less than one in a million random changes—the mutation is useful and catches on. But less talked about, and likely far more common, especially in the early primordial soup everything was swimming around in, is Horizontal Gene Transfer—HGT—or DNA just sort of leaping from one organism to another. This is incredibly prevalent in bacteria, being one of the key ways that antibiotic resistance spreads so quickly. What is more surprising is when protozoan DNA show up in  animals around the world, or viral DNA seems to be key to mammalian evolution.

This is an interesting topic, and David Quammen is an excellent writer—I’ve ready other books and several articles of his—so the fact that his book fell flat was a big disappointment to me. Firstly, for all the talk about how this book is about a radical reimagining of evolution and the tree of life, it’s actually far less about the science than it is the scientists. It begins, ends, and returns frequently to Carl Woese, who discovered the third domain of life, archaea, with each main discovery on other topics centering on the scientist who made the discovery. I can see how this could be interesting, but it holds little interest to me. I would not have chosen to read a book about the many scientists who have worked on molecular biology researching evolution, I wanted to read a book about molecular biology and evolution.

And amazingly, for all that the Quammen touts HGT as the most amazing discovery, one that throws the entire question of the tree of life into disarray, I never thought that the consequences were explored as deeply as they could have been. Quammen focuses quite a bit on how bacteria can share genes, and have free floating bits of DNA not on their main chromosomes, which would have been mind blowing to learn at the time, I’m sure, but still doesn’t call evolution or what makes us human into question. The more interesting question to me is what makes a species a species? Apparently there are some who have provocatively asked whether all bacteria actually constitute a single organism. Quammen is rather dismissive of this as an example of the extremes to which considering HGT can take you, but I would have actually liked to spend more time here. Bacteria of vastly different genus and species can share useful genes and characteristics, which made me spend a lot of time wondering, how do we even determine different species or genus of bacteria? How did we especially do it before DNA? Is it that the boundaries really are fuzzy, or are they essentially meaningless? Rules about species not interbreeding are pointless for cells that reproduce asexually, so what are the rules here? I don’t think you can just say HGT plays a role in evolution of bacteria and archaea and how it disrupts the tree of life without delving in to how we even define the branches of that tree in the first place.

More amazingly to me is that Quammen barely even touches on what is, by far, the most interesting question raised by all of this: what is life? Quammen explores briefly “transposons”, bits of junk DNA that repeat themselves and replicate themselves into other parts of the DNA, often many of thousands of times over. He mentions that these are considered self-replicating DNA that is trying to preserve itself and then moves on without the obvious question of WHAT?!  There are bits of DNA that are trying to preserve themselves, using my DNA as a vessel to do so? Are they their own life? Are they symbionts, or parasites, or neither? Is my DNA actually part of me, or is some of it what designs this whole human contraption, and some of it just something barely separate from a virus that is just there for the ride, or hoping I succeed to pass this separate DNA on? And yet this is never explored.

Nor are viruses, despite the fact that they are also their own domain, and their own thing so strange that there have been debates on whether or not they should be considered life, barely more than strands of DNA. Yet viruses help bring bits of bacteria DNA between each other. They can insert themselves into germline cells—eggs and sperm. And there is evidence that what makes mammals mammals, the key mutation that lets us carry our developing babies around internally, was a key bit of viral DNA.  And yet, after chapters and chapters and hundreds of pages on bacteria, viruses get barely more than a passing mention. They seem to be key to interspecies, and interdomain, gene transfer. They are vitally important in they one case cited in this book of actually developing a brand new class/order/family/genus/species. And yet, they are barely mentioned, and then only towards the end. How can one even discuss HGT, or the domains of life, without talking about viruses?

HGT is weird and interesting, and raises fascinating questions about the definition of life, of taxonomic classification, of what even is DNA, and of the origins of everything. I’d like to read more. But I felt this book barely got down to what was really important, and overlooked the big questions to focus on scientific rivalries, and far too many pages on whether the tree of life is really a tree, as if the perfect metaphor is the most important question in all of this. It did not live up to what it could have been.




foeFoe, J.M. Coatzee

J. M. Coatzee’s reimagining of Robinson Crusoe is obsessed with speaking and being heard, how we can know people or their reality, and who tells our story. The story is told through Susan Barton, an Englishwoman who had left for the new world searching for her daughter, who had either been abducted by or ran away with a clearly unsavory character. She never finds her daughter, and on the way back to England becomes the captain’s mistress. When the crew mutinies, she is set adrift and eventually lands on Crusoe’s island, where she lives with him and a mute Friday until they are rescued by a passing trader.

Throughout, the story teases out who we listen to, who we believe, the power of not only speech but being heard, and why our own language is important. And it is a tale of the power that some have over others and how we become trapped in that patter. Susan becomes attached to the men she encounters seemingly through no choice, but an unavoidable part of being a woman—she is the captain’s mistress, Crusoe forces herself on him and she feels little ability to decline, and ends up again with Foe, the author she wishes to tell her story. She is perplexed by Friday, wondering why he would stay in servitude on this island where there is no rule to force him. During her stay on the island, Susan Barton is infuriated by Crusoe—or Cruso, in this book—who seems to have lost all interest in leaving the island. Friday has had his tongue cut out, supposedly by slavers who captured him, but this comes from Cruso and Susan has no way to verify. She tries to teach Friday to write, but is unsuccessful, and when she returns to England finds that Friday now belongs to her in some ineffable way, Cruso having died en route.

Susan seeks out a novelist, Daniel Defoe, shortened to Foe here, to tell her story, but is constantly frustrated. By his lack of work on the novel. By his wanting her story to only be the search for her daughter, ignoring the rest of her travels. By erasing her from her own tale of the island to center the adventures of Cruso, despite Susan’s insistence on the story she wants told. By her own feeling that she cannot capture her tale on her own and needs this authors voice to tell her tale, even as he seems incapable of doing so.

The themes of power and powerlessness, and how language winds around all of that, are interesting, and Coatzee is a talented writer. This book would probably be of interest to me in a graduate course, and indeed, as I was looking up other reviews, I found dozens of academic articles on it and a long list of books which reference this work. Unfortunately, though, I feel as if I didn’t have the requisite background to really appreciate the novel. It dragged in parts, and I felt as if it was treading water, although that may have been just life for Susan Barton. And I didn’t have a strong enough point of reference. I know the outlines of Robinson Crusoe, of course, but I have somehow avoided reading this classic up to now. I suspect that having the details of the book as a touchstone would have made this a more enjoyable and relevant reading experience for me. In the end, though, this was the type of book that I’m more glad to have read that I was glad reading. It has deep and profound things to say, but I had to slog my way through to start thinking about them.

The Green Brain

the green brainThe Green Brain, Frank Herbert

While most discussions of extinction focus on the cute and well-loved animals, or the charismatic megafauna, the fact is that the Sixth Extinction is hitting plants and animals of all categories. One of the quieter, yet potentially devastating, die offs has been in the insect population. For the past year or so there have been increasingly alarmedand alarmingreports on insect die offs around the world. I’ve been following these closely, as I follow other environmental news, so that put me in a very interesting mindset to read The Green Brain.

Written in 1966, Frank Herbert’s The Green Brain encapsulates some of the concerns of the error, although it addresses some of the concerns today of how much control we can ever really have. In an unspecified future time, humanity is dealing with massive overpopulation, and pushing into rainforests and other previously untamed areas of wilderness, and in order to make them habitable, killing off the insects. Increasingly poisonous and destructive compounds must be developed as the insects develop resistance, and in Brazil bandierentes go out to clear areas of the Amazon. It’s barely mentioned, but there are environmental groups, the Carsonites, arguing against this effort, and some doubt it can be done. China has supposedly eradicated all of their insects except genetically engineered honeybees to pollinate their crops, but will let no one in to observe this for themselves.

Into this world strange new insects, which seem to be able to plan and control things, and that have grown to enormous sizes are being spotted. Many international organizations, and even some politicians, think that it must be either lies spread by the bandierentes looking for more money, or created by the Carsonites. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that a hivemind among many insects has developed as they design their own ways to try to communicate with the humans the necessity of living together if life can continue.

Let me put this short book in the category of interesting concepts, poorly executed. For me, this started to fall down from the beginning. The basic idea of wiping out all insects and just redesigning a few helpful ones isn’t so crazy, especially when considering the major spread of pesticides in the Green Revolution and overall idea of how technological control would soon make us masters of everything in the air at the time. But it’s not as If what was stopping human settlements in the first place was insects. Why were pest controllers going out to kill insects in practically uninhabited rainforest rather than clearing out insects in already inhabited and farmed regions? Why can’t anyone start a city somewhere before all insects have been exterminated? But that’s the sort of plot point that doesn’t really make sense but might be written in to get a book moving, and can be forgiven if the story still works overall. And that’s where the real problem lies.

A political conflict lies at the heart of this book. After hearing the rumors of mutants, and with China’s success being perhaps not quite all that they’re saying, a Chinese entomologist, Dr. Travis Huntington Chen Liu, enlists his Irish colleague, Dr. Rhin Kelly, in a not-quite-clear mission in Brazil, bent on discrediting one of the bandierentes, Joao Martinho, reporting these mutated insects. I never understood this plot. I didn’t know why Joao needed to be discredited. I didn’t know why a scapegoat overall was needed. I didn’t understand why the International Entomological Organization (IEO) had an espionage unit. I didn’t understand what Dr. Chen Liu and Dr. Kelly actually did. And the characters made no sense whatsoever, with their motivations mostly being in italicized asides to themselves. As for Dr. Rhin Kelly… I remember from reading Dune that Herbert is entirely capable of writing a compelling, strong and intelligent female character. But the less said about his sexualized, fiery Irish temptress, the better.

Herbert can write a decent story, and he’s playing with some big ideas. The ideas of unintended consequences, interconnectedness, and other species needing to communicate with us—almost taking some of the concepts of meeting with aliens but applying them to the ways we treat species in our own world—are interesting ones, and could have come together into a really excellent book. Alas, that is not what happened here. This should have been so much better.

Childhood’s End

childhood's endChildhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

First, a major SPOILER ALERT. In these reviews, I do discuss the plot, but I generally try to stay away from spoilers or giving away the whole ending. For this one, though, I’m not at all sure how to discuss it without delving into some of the purpose of the book, so spoilers lie beneath. I’d be sorrier about that if the book weren’t 66 years old.)

While most of Arthur C. Clarke’s books take place in the medium-to-far-distant future, Childhood’s End begins in the mid-20th century. Humanity receives a surprise visit from a different planetary civilization who call themselves the Overlords. They claim they are only there to help humanity better themselves, but refuse to show themselves and only deal directly with a few humans. There is a great deal of skepticism among the population that we’re dealing with a “To Serve Man” situation here, but it eventually becomes clear that the intentions of the Overlords really are to help humanity, putting an end to hunger, disease, warfare, and even animal cruelty and ushering in an era of peace and prosperity.

We eventually come to learn that the Overlords are here to help humanity as we make our next evolutionary leap, to join numerous other civilizations who have made a similar transition, from beings of the physical world to pure mental energy. This does come to pass within a generation of the Overlords coming to Earth, with first a few and eventually all children making this transition, and there being no ‘human’ children in existence, as all people under a certain age make this leap. Humanity on Earth dies out, and we end with these energy balls we cannot comprehend joining their brethren on a faraway planet.

I found this a very strange book, and was surprised to learn not only how well received it was at the time, but that many more recent readers seem to love the book as well. I generally look around at other reviews before I write one of these, and many people apparently love this book, and the creativity of thought and one thought experiment of how we could evolve. What partly surprised me there is that my own copy of the book, which is a few decades old (bought for $.25 at the Library Book sale, obviously), included a disclaimer and a bit of a disavowal of the book from Clarke. Apparently, he was very deeply into the idea of psychic powers, ESP and telekinesis at the time and had written that while bit with the Overlords may be out there he really thought that this evolution to pure mind was one possibility for humanity. However, he had since learned how little evidence there was for such things, and how much he had believed before was from frauds, and was now keeping this book as pure fiction but was embarrassed by his previous beliefs. I’m sure that colored my own perception of the book, and I know it made some of the reviews extolling his creativity seem a bit, well, incorrect.

Plus, while I recognize that eventually all things must end, as someone who dedicates their real world work to humanity not ending itself, it was hard to read that part as hopeful, even if it means our children will be bouncing balls of light on a weird planet somewhere.

To sum up, while apparently, I’m in the minority, this book just left me feeling weird and unsettled all around, but not in a good way like 2001 or the other books do. Just a strange piece of work, and one that doesn’t feel like it fits with what I look for when I read some Arthur C. Clarke.

Annual Book Review!

Another year come and gone already. It hardly seems possible. As xkcd has put it, I’m somehow always surprised by the passage of time, even though it’s literally the most predictable thing in the universe.  I did pretty well on my reading this year, 54 books, which I think is respectable, what with the three small humans I have to keep alive taking up most of my time. (That 54 does not include the many times I read Dragons Love Tacos 2 or Spot Goes to the Beach). As for the writing, well, I started out strong, and then life got in the way. But the good news is it’s time for me to make New Year’s resolutions again, so this year, for real, I’ll write enough reviews to keep up with my reading habit. Below, a full list of my grown-up reading for 2018, with links to my full reviews where available. And be warned, apparently my reading list ended up being pretty depressing this year.

Mort, Terry Pratchett—Death trains an apprentice in this typically witty addition to the Discworld universe. One of my favorites in the series, and I do enjoy the Discworld Death, he’s one of my favorite characters.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe—Just a fun bit of mystery and suspense, but I really enjoyed it and it was quite well researched for a book about witches. And I liked some of the minor twists at the end. Great light read to pick up.

Meet Me in Atlantis, Mark Adams—This book is hilarious and informative and I highly recommend it. I know you think you know about the Atlantis story, but I guarantee you’ve barely scratched the surface. This is a great tour of the world and theories about Atlantis, Plato, numerology, and almost everything in between.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré—No one is ever going to suggest John Le Carré as a happy, feel-good read, but it sticks with a person, that’s for sure. He’s a fine writer, though, and I have a couple other books on my to be read shelf for when I start feeling too optimistic about people.

Woman in White, Wilkie Collins—I am outraged that I didn’t know about this book before. One of the earliest suspense novels, written by a contemporary of Charles Dickens, this is a fantastic book. Amazing, strong female characters, great twists and turns, and a thrill to read.

The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs—A tale of what happens when a man decides to try to follow all the rules of the Bible—including the stuff about no mixed fabrics, never telling a lie, and being sure never to touch a menstruating woman. Very tongue in cheek but surprisingly compassionate, too. I read this while listening to the OMGWTFBIBLE podcast, and they complement each other well.

The Planets, Dava Sobel—I loved Galileo’s Daughter and Longitude, which are very readable but still standard non-fiction, well-researched scientific tales, so I wasn’t prepared for the poetry and myth in this ode to the planets. Beautiful book, though.

My Life with the Saints, James Martin, SJ—A walk through and short tale of some of Fr. Martin’s favorite saints. A great piece on the importance of saints in Catholicism, and of not too challenging but not too light spiritual reading.

Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel—First of all, the Holocaust is a horrific event that needs to be treated as its own thing if you’re writing about it, don’t use it as a setting to work out your own feelings on art and whatever. Secondly, we already have a book that’s “The Holocaust, but with Animals.” It’s Maus, and no one is going to top it, so don’t try.

Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith–Oh, hey, it’s the book that took me over a month and almost derailed all my reading goals. Lots of writing on laws around pasture that drag on, but still really glad I read this. It’s much more down on monopolies, the merchant class, and allowing policies to be set by the wealthy, than you’d think from the way it’s discussed today.

Guadalajara, Quim Monzó—A very strange short story collection. One or two sort of stood out to me, but for the most part I’m not sure I really got it.

Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, Kent Nerburn—A reflection on how to live out the prayer of St. Francis, this one disappointed me. It was far more Christian self-improvement than spiritual or religious writing.

Artemis, Andy Weir—Weir’s sophomore novel. I liked this book more than a lot of the critics. It’s not nearly as good as The Martian, but it’s still a fun enough novel. He just seems to know how to write the one character, but that’s never been a problem for hard sci-fi before.

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert—An accessible and detailed description of how we are destroying life on earth and making the planet’s ecosystems and atmosphere unrecognizable to most species. The way we have transformed transportation, ecosystems and climate are like nothing any species has ever seen, and we are a cataclysm on par with a meteor strike.

Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee—Tales of ‘archdruid’ David Brower, the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, an an ardent protector of nature, in conversation of those who would cut up nature for parts. (Although far more even handed than my description, this is not a polemic by any means.) An excellent distillation of the debates still occurring today, and a reminder of the value of nature.

The Comedians, Graham Greene—I continue to say that Graham Greene is one of the greatest and most insightful novelists of the 20th century. This novel of idealists, con artists, and just people in search of a life in Duvalier’s Haiti was heartbreaking and beautiful.

Sourcery, Terry Pratchett—Look, there are 41 Discworld novels and a handful of short stories, they won’t all be the winners. Luckily, Pratchett on a bad day is still better than most, so it’ll keep you entertained.

First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde—I thought this was the weakest of the Thursday Next books, but you sort of have to read it to get to the other books in the series. And the last two are definitely worth it.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon—I’m consistently impressed by the intricate worlds Chabon can weave. This book is in our reality, not a slightly-mystical one like Kavalier and Clay or Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but the contained universe of one neighborhood is still incredibly detailed and well realized.

The Banquet in Blitva, Miroslav Krleža—The first two novels of a trilogy by a Croatian author, set in a fictional Balkan country. The trilogy was interrupted by World War I, so definitely a strange and unique set of political circumstances. A satire of a revolutionary hero now become an authoritarian leader, the content was fine but the writing a bit stilted. I don’t know if that’s the original or the translation.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Roll Back Global Warming, Paul Hawken—This is an incredibly interesting run down of all the possible ways to not only eliminate carbon emissions, but also pull it from the atmosphere, based only on things that are technically feasible today. It almost makes one feel hopeful. You can look at the solutions and their ratings on the website as well.

Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett—Pratchett’s back in full form with the Witches, and a parody of Hamlet.  Really fun read that also plays around with a ton of tropes in a creative way.

Václav Havel: Or Living in Truth, Václav Havel—This collection of essays by Havel was surprisingly readable, and a shot in the arm for those of us struggling to fight for democracy in this time. I ended up highlighting almost every line to quote.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Jasper Fforde—Almost entirely in BookWorld, another fun entry in the Thursday Next series. Real world Thursday hasn’t been seen in ages, and BookWorld series needs to find her. If you like the others—and if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about books, you really should have picked up a Fforde novel or two—you’ll love those one.

Pyramids, Terry Pratchett—An introduction to the Discworld desert kingdom of Djelibeybi, the tale of tearing open doorways between dimensions, people fulfilling their destinies and the intelligence of camels (they’re sort of the dolphins or mice of Discworld) was another excellent entry in the series.

A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss—I know a mystery centered around the financial intrigues of the East India Trading Company with long explanations of the way the stock market was first started and trading laws in early 1800s Britain doesn’t sound interesting, but it really was.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan—My second time reading this book, and I’m once again blown away by it. Egan is a brilliant writer, and there’s so much here that is completely new and could be so gimmicky if handled by a lesser writer, but is just a revelation to read here.

The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper Fforde—The final installment of the Thursday Next series, leaving me with naught to do but sit around waiting for the next in the Shades of Grey series. While never losing Fforde’s wit and humor, this seemed to be the one dealing the most with actual issues such as our perception of reality and what makes us ourselves. This, Something Rotten, and the first one, The Eyre Affair, are probably tied for my favorites.

Brave Companions, David McCullough—I’m not generally the biggest fan of McCullough, but this collection of short essays on remarkable people really pulled me in. It covers still-famous people like Charles Lindbergh, formerly famous people like Alexander von Humboldt, and people we should know more about, like Appalachian activist David Plowden. It was wide ranging and incredibly interesting.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson—I’m still not entirely sure what to think of this book. It’s about the MK Ultra projects, and how they transformed into psychological warfare techniques that were seen in the war on terror and in Iraq. I never quite grasped the tone, which was half incredulous and bemused and half incredibly serious and didn’t seem to be sure itself where it was going.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon—Probably time to admit that Pynchon just isn’t for me. This odd take on a noir in a surfing town in California at the tale end of the sixties should have been my jam, but I never got into it.

His Family, Ernest Poole—The first ever Pulitzer Prize winner, this was a very satisfying book. It took a bit to get into, but it was an eye-opening take on life as World War I was opening and its impact. And I don’t know when I’ve last read a woman character I could so identify with.

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, Robert Kuttner— Spoiler alert: No. And Kuttner really dives into the details of why, and why it doesn’t have to be this way. He soft pedals tribalism and racism, but his critiques or capitalism and in depth analysis of how obscure financial rules hamstring democracy make it still highly worth reading. A good companion book to The Shock Doctrine.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer—Decently well-off middle aged American men and their sorrows aren’t exactly my thing, but this was self-aware enough and well written enough that it completely won me over.

American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation, Eric Rutkow—I don’t think the author did enough with the central conceit—a history of the US told through trees—to make it feel that the thesis of the book really held up, but still an interesting retrospective on the use of forests, conservation and preservation in the country.

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett—A cynical, power hungry politician tries to manipulate ignorant, aggrieved citizens and then can’t handle what he’s unleashed. No, this isn’t at all relevant for today’s world, why do you ask?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson—An insanely creepy book. If I had to give a master class on setting a tone with nothing even happening I would assign my students the first chapters of this and of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene—My second time reading this book. As with Fabric of the Cosmos I’m struck that the more I read about string theory and quantum physics the less sense any of it makes. Why is everyone so sure that all the extra dimensions would be space ones, and that strings can’t be wrapped around extra time dimensions? How can a lack of our observation mean that a particle isn’t interacting with anything? And wait, there may be giant strings that haven’t collapsed on themselves floating around? How would we even identify that? Great, now my head hurts again.

The Idiot, Elif Batuman—Not sure why this was a critically acclaimed book. It centers around e-mail, and yet I’m reading about the correspondence instead of what the e-mail correspondence actually says. And I don’t know how characters in a book can have no chemistry, but these people have no chemistry.

Eric, Terry Pratchett—Sometimes you write yourself into a corner and trap your main character in the dungeon dimensions and have to dash off a 100 page novella to explain how he got out. I think we can all identify with that.

The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco—I always love Eco, although this is one of the harder books, I think. An exploration of reality, memory and time as someone searches for longitude, and the point of the meridian where today becomes yesterday.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories, H.P. Lovecraft–Delightfully creepy, and an origin story for so many horror, fantasy, and even sci-fi books today. Basically, if it includes an ancient and unknowable power in a time before comprehension, it owes a debt to Lovecraft.

Travels in Alaska, John Muir—Some of the original travel and nature writing, as Muir explores glaciers and visits much an at-the-time unexplored territory. Filled with an obvious love of place and of wilderness.

In the Distance, Hernan Diaz—This was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2018, and it absolutely should have one. Beautifully written challenging book of a Swedish immigrant boy stranded in San Francisco and trying to find a brother in New York, but that doesn’t even describe it. You just have to read it and lose yourself in his descriptions and language and the surreal nature of this book.

The Three-Body Problem, Ciuxin Liu—I spent two nights being up until 1:00am with my nose in the book trying to finish it that night because it was so good I couldn’t put it down. It deals with contact with an alien civilization and spans the cultural revolution to modern day China. One of the best books I read this year.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson—I went on a bit of a horror kick this year. The original haunted house story, and it has held up for a reason. Do yourself a favor and just try to read the opening paragraph without shuddering.

Why Should the Devil Get All the Good Music?, Gregory Alan Thornbury—The topic—Larry Norman, the grandfather of Christian rock, an artist, someone who grappled with his place, and what his religion and art had become—is fascinating. The book was uneven. It glossed over and elided too much and offered more speculation than I’d like. But I’d warrant this is a topic most people aren’t familiar with, and it would be of interest for the rock history, and the early Evangelical movement that has outsize influence today.

Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett—The mythical old Gods, or something like Gods, of Holy Wood will demand your attention and sacrifice! With all the good and bad that may include. Not many of the familiar Discworld characters, but definitely the familiar Discworld style.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou—Easily one of the most interesting books I read all year. An amazing history of Theranos, a ‘unicorn’ valued at over $1 billion, that had suckered prominent investors, and with no product at all. Everything wrong with Silicon Valley, current capitalism, and a cult like company.

The Dark Forest, Ciuxin Liu—The sequel to The Three-Body Problem this book was a bit harder to follow, and it took us into the far future as we are making actual, physical contact with an alien civilization and struggling towards survival. The plot didn’t make as much sense to me, there was definitely more of just going with the flow. But much to think about and I wish the third book was off hold at the library already.

Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut—World War II, the last arguably good war, made Vonnegut an incurable cynic. You can imagine what watching Vietnam did to him. This is late period Vonnegut, and it was strange to read such familiar phrases and writing but in the late 90s instead of the 60s.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas—Another one of the best books I read all year, this one take on our social impact investing and culture of corporate philanthropy that don’t challenge systems. How much good can one really be doing if you only look for ways to profit and don’t consider any sacrifice? How can we laud corporations who are fighting paying taxes with one hand and then giving pennies to schools on the other? Should ‘first do no harm’ mean more than sharing ill-gotten largesse? From someone who lived in the social consulting/corporate philanthropy world, there are many important questions for us to consider here.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson—This book is like is like Adbusters, Ghost in the Shell, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and those anarcho-punk kids you met at Warped had a crazy dystopian baby. But, like, in a good way.

The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin—Jemisin won the Hugo Award three years in a row for this trilogy, the first person ever to do so, and I can understand why. She is powerful writer. A story of enslaved power and community and loss and sorrow and the end of the world. Another of the best books I read this year and I cannot wait to read the rest of this series.

His Family

his familyHis Family, Ernest Poole

His Family holds the distinction of being the first ever Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, from 1918, and yet, oddly enough, it has more or less disappeared from our national literary consciousness. Oh, I’m sure there are some scholars and historians who are well versed in Ernest Poole and this novel, but one can say that about almost anything. I had never heard of it before, nor the author, which seems surprising for something that was so highly regarded. It’s not at my library, or the library of my neighboring county, indicating that it is not very much read in today’s world. I always find it so interesting how something can mean so much at one point, and then more or less disappear. What makes some books endure and others be relegated into obscurity? Is it just the luck of being place on one large school system’s reading list and growing from there? So much of merit is really luck.

Well, at least I’m here to revitalize the book’s fortunes. His Family tells the story of Roger Gale, a rather average middle class small business owner in New York in the 1910s. His wife has died several years earlier, and after an extended period of depression, he is now trying to make good on a promise he made to his wife on her death bed to connect with their three daughters, now grown, and live on in their lives.

I struggled with this book at the beginning. Gale is likely a character others could identify with, fearful of all the changes he sees in the city, in particular the tenements filled with Jews and Italians and who knows who else, and in general unsure of his place in a new world. And a very self-absorbed character, even only able to view his own children as extensions of himself, with no real sense of other. I spent the first few chapters trying to figure out how the author even intended Roger Gale—was he a sympathetic character with whom I should identify? Was he someone I was supposed to recognize as an architype but vaguely pity as out of touch? Was he an Archie Bunker type to be played off of? This is where my lack of understanding of the exact feelings of everyone in 1918 really held me back. And even outside of that, his lack of, well, what’s the opposite of introspection? Extrospection? Let’s go with that. His lack of extrospection started to wear.

I am glad I stuck with it, though, as the character work was well done in this book. Gale grew more and more, and the book expanded to show more of a perspective of others, and the world as a whole, while still focused on his family. His three very different daughters, one pulled towards hold traditions, one a reformer, and one wanting to throw off everything and yet only for herself, showed very different reactions to the societal shifts at the time. The book goes through the early 1910s to the beginning of the war, and demonstrates the effect on how this, and different reform movements were playing out. I appreciated the way it showed this through allusions to the daughters’ lives outside the house. And the character of his middle daughter, Deborah Gale, a reformer who is also yearning for motherhood and very poignantly wondering what this means for her career—not in terms of a husband who will not allow her to work, but in terms of the still relevant question of how to handle the need to be there for a new person so dependent on you, but also so many others if you’re an activist—was amazing. She was so truthfully written, and it captured the ways women still today are torn amazingly accurately.

I didn’t think the book was perfect. There were a few places where the tone seemed off, or where everything shifted too rapidly and we were pulled from one scene to another in a jarring fashion. But as a whole, I thought the book was interesting and worthwhile, and a valuable perspective on parts of the United States in 1917. I would encourage libraries to carry it once again.

Snow Crash

snowcrash1Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson

This cyberpunk cult classic seems to divide people pretty starkly, as cult classics often do, so let me start by acknowledging that there are many places where I agree with the book’s  critics: the book is too long, the characters’ actions don’t always make sense, it devolves to stereotypes too often, and the plot doesn’t completely hold together. Here is where I depart from the critics: none of that matters, because this book is still a whole hell of a lot of fun.

Snow Crash grabbed me from its opening scene, which had a genuine twist I won’t give away, introducing its main character, Hiro Protagonist, and soon-to-be partner in adventure, Y.T., a 15-year-old courier. Sorry, Kourier, in this world. And let me say—I enjoyed this book enough to completely overlook Hiro’s name after a few chapters, although I definitely had to push my way through that.

Hiro is a freelance hacker in an unspecified future and one of the people who helped create the Metaverse, which can probably most be compared to Second Life. Snow Crash was written in 1992, and it’s amazing to read him explaining how the Metaverse works, and that Hiro is walking around and talking to these people who aren’t really there, but they can interact in this futuristic Metaverse world. The appear in the Metaverse as their avatars, images they’ve decided on to represent themselves. I know you know what an avatar is, but it was still to fun to read Stephenson’s descriptions. Hiro visits an exclusive club, The Black Sun, where he sees an old girlfriend who indicates she’s involved in something big, and his good friend and former employer Da5id, also one of the Metaverse creators and a big deal here. Da5id and Hiro have both been offered Snow Crash by a large avatar outside the venue, and while Hiro refuses, Da5id decides to give it a try, assuming it’s a new drug. It is, in a sense, and ends up not only crashing his avatar but crashing his brain (his main operating system, as it will end up being referred to) in real life.

And from there we’re off to the races, although the book does get a bit draggy and far too expositional in certain points. We end up with a Human Weapon, Raven, who is trying to distribute Snow Crash to destroy American society, a crazy global and perhaps ever so slightly interstellar conspiracy, boat chases, the Mob, ancient Sumerian myths and Gods, and commentary on World War II and Vietnam – two events which make the placing of this event in time far more difficult, and almost suggestive of just-off-to-the-side parallel world rather than a futuristic one.

The book can get a bit disjointed and throws a lot at the reader all at once in many places. Some of the infodumps where you’re gathering what the whole major conspiracy is are just paragraphs and paragraphs of a Metaverse character explaining things, which can be a bit hard to follow. Especially as the aforementioned Sumerian myths play a major role, and it’s not as if most of us have existing knowledge of ancient Sumer we can fall back on if we get lost. One part of the disjointedness, though, that I really appreciated in the book were the small asides, which could almost function as their own short stories. The opening scene works that way, as does a chapter on Y.T’s mom and her terrible job in a government bureaucracy, and a bit on a cyborg dog called a Rat Thing. The bits and pieces that went into the side characters and world building were some of my favorite parts of the book, and I think Stephenson could probably excel at short stories.

Snow Crash operates in a weird place, feeling both incredibly prescient and incredibly of 1992 at the same time. There were parts of the descriptions of the Metaverse, internet stand ins, and a massive library that was just information collected and uploaded by others, that honestly made me go back and double check when the book was written, as it seemed like it should have been late nineties at least. And the vignette about Y.T.s mom was a great piece on efficiency taken to an insane level, with enforced hot desking and constant monitoring.

And then there are ample signs that it was written in the early nineties. Like the fact that skateboarding is incredibly important.  Y.T. is a Kourier, meaning a skateboard delivery person, a group that plays a very distinct rebellious and essential role in this world. And then there’s the world they live in. While we have plenty of corporation problems here, the world in Snow Crash has a particularly nineties-dystopia vibe, from back before we’d entirely given up and people were still worried about what the fall of US manufacturing and small businesses would do to us. The US government is all but expired, corporations have taken on most of the roles, such as building roads and providing security and jails. Most people who can afford to live in Burbclaves, semiautonomous neighborhood/cities that people require citizenship or permission to enter. Many of the Burbclaves are explicitly segregated. Everything, from the Burbclaves to the rented out jails and security people, are franchises of major corporations. The primary religious group is a corporate franchise as well, Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates.  Oh, and everyone has a bar code on them to prove their citizenship or permission to enter different Burbclaves and franchises, just as we were all sure would be required of us soon enough. It’s hard to explain how the texture and the tone were so evocative of the nineties rather that something written today, but it really was. It felt far more like the anti-globalization and Adbusters campaigns I grew up on than the Occupy Wall Street flavor of today, even though those are all of a piece. But as that is what I grew up on, the dystopia it presented was oddly nostalgic and comforting to me.

Snow Crash is not a perfect book. The plot, which I only vaguely got into here, doesn’t 100% hold together, and so it’s best not to think about it too much at the end. But it’s a wild ride while on the way, and I can definitely understand why it’s developed such a following. Stephenson is an uneven writer, but I loved him when he was on. The story itself is gripping and engaging along the way, a really fun journey down early cyber punk. If you let yourself just get swept along, it’s a great adventure you can really enjoy.