Encounters with the Archdruid

encounters with the archdruidEncounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

For anyone engaged in the environmental movement David Brower does—or should—loom large. The first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower turned it into a political powerhouse. He was responsible for stopping dams in the Grand Canyon, in establishing nine national parks and seashores, and passing the Wilderness Act. More than that, he fought for a vision that is still debated, a vision of wilderness, of places that are untouched (as much as possible) by human intervention. He wanted to protect nature for its own sake.

Brower is the Archdruid of the title in McAphee’s book, from a developer’s sarcastic comment that he calls all preservationists druids. The book follows Brower and others on three expeditions—a mountain hike, an island off the Georgia coast, and down the Colorado—with people with wildly differing views. One a geologist for a mining company who thinks the only way possible for humanity is to continue to use minerals, especially copper, in great quantities and mine wherever we can, another a developer who has been pioneering beauty and nature in development and wants to build on an almost entirely uninhabited barrier island, the last the person who would be closest to Brower’s archnemesis, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who led almost every one of the dams that Brower opposed.

I don’t know exactly what I expected with this book, but it wasn’t this exactly. I suppose I expected more nature writing, and less of the debates I remember from school on conservation vs. preservation. Many of the debates did seem a bit rote, with people—Brower and his foils in each section—falling back on sound bites and the same arguments many have heard before. Often, surprisingly, the developers are given more free rein to talk in the book than Brower, with him seeming to be assured in his path and offering only that he resists their arguments, and their view of humanity and what we need.

That being said, I still found the book fascinating. McPhee lets the subjects, and the natural world, speak for themselves, and doesn’t vilify the developers on the other side, so to speak. And it’s a wonderful history of environmentalism in the country, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone engaged in these debates today. As the Brower argues preservation with those who say that a bit of development won’t hurt, that we can build houses but keep most of nature, build a small mine and be responsible with the tailings, flood only a small percentage of the Grand Canyon, it was hard not to think of how much more we’ve learned about ecosystems, how important it is to have large tracts undisturbed, how even a responsible developer will by necessity kick out parts of nature we don’t even know we need. 

I also found that I greatly appreciated Brower’s arguments for preservation: That it’s what we should do. That we need wild places. That we need beautiful places. That we don’t need to build a dam. That our short-term gains are destroying things that took millenia to come into being. This was a criticism of

sierra club ad

A Sierra Club ad from Browers Time. 

Brower during his time. He pioneered using emotional ads to rile up environmentalists to save the west, even going so far with some to see Sierra Club lose its tax exempt status. (And while they lost that status, and were accused of being unreasonable and unfair and pushing away moderates, they went from 2000 members to 77000- nearly 2 million today- and became the leading environmental organization. Consider that the next time you read an article about a lefty group being uncivil or worried about losing moderates.)

 

In a day and age where we assign a cost and a benefit analysis to everything, where everything is talked about in investment, where even a question about whether or not to raise the sea levels enough that entire countries may disappear is caught up in the short-term price, reading a full-throated defense of nature for nature, a steadfast belief in intrinsic value, and a rejection of our utilitarian way of thinking refreshing. We could use far more David Browers today.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
— David Brower

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My Year in Books

There was a time, before I had kids, when I looked at the 50 Books challenge and scoffed. Not even one book a week? How was that a challenge? Try to stretch yourself people! Now I find myself in a position where 50 books a year isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossible dream. But still- I did 37. While working, raising three kids, and #resist-ing. So that’s not too bad, right? Right?

I hope for 40 next year. But my real challenge for 2018 isn’t for 50 books, it’s 52 blog posts. One review a week shouldn’t be too much to ask of myself. I didn’t come even close to that schedule—or keeping up with my reading habit—this year. But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for, I suppose.

So, without further ado, my incredibly brief reviews of the books I’ve read this year. With links to a full review on the rare occasions they’re available.

Earth is Room Enough, Isaac Asimov—A collection of Asimov short stories, all of which take place on Earth. Asimov is at his best at a short story writer, and this was entertaining enough. I don’t think any of these are my favorites that he’s written, but they were a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys through Knowledge, James Burke—In the vein of How We Got to Now and other such stories, this book aims to explain how discoveries in one era can lead to unintended inventions and discoveries elsewhere. I thought that the connections were less compelling than those in other, similar books, and Burke isn’t the best of writers. There are other such books and miniseries done better.

The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris—A while back there was a Facebook quiz thingy asking people to list the 10 books that had most influenced one’s life. Two of my friends listed this. I picked it up at a library book sale and it was fascinating and beautifully written.

The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a life in academia wasn’t for me, and that academic writing tended towards pointlessness and preening with no meaning. Sometimes I regret that decision. Then I read a ‘popular’ philosopher like Žižek and realize all my worst thoughts of academia are correct and I made the right decision. And on a related note.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards—The book opens (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s on the back cover and everything) with a doctor’s decision in the 1950s to tell his wife that one of their twins, born with Down syndrome, was stillborn, and asks his nurse to take the girl to an institution. The book covers how this lie affects everyone’s life for years. It was poignant and well written, and I’ve been talking about it with others all year.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson—Bryson is always hilarious, and his tangents informative and fascinating. My mind is also a weird musty attic for pieces of trivia, so anyone who provides as much as he does is a valued companion to me. Sadly, Bryson is also a grump and, in his old age, a curmudgeon who turns his astute judgments on the absurdity of society to complaints about Kids These Days and their clothes. This book was fun enough for a Bryson fan, but if you’re a newcomer pick up a younger and more cheerful book first.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein—There’s a prison colony on the Moon that wants freedom, and so a super computer and three unlikely leaders plot a rebellion. I’ve read other Henlein books and this is similar in that it starts off interesting enough and then gets sort of strange and goes off the rails. Also this was written when he was quite firmly in his extreme libertarian phase, so there’s that. He has some… interesting… ideas about government and feminism, I’ll give you that.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke—Until I was looking through my Goodreads list of books I’d read this year, I completely forgot this book. Which should probably tell you all you need to know.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jossi Adler-Olsen—A Scandinavian murder mystery! This was an enjoyable thriller, and I enjoyed the troubled detective enough for his type. If you enjoy the genre you’ll likely enjoy this book. I’ve read a few of these types now, and personally I find the Scandinavian thrillers to just be a bit too tortured and cruel, but I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than most.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan—This book was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was basically created from whole cloth to center around uranium enrichment factories. It was a secret city that didn’t even appear on maps until well after the war ended, and women and men were employed there in almost every conceivable position. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this book.

Armada, Ernest Cline—Ready Player One was absolutely amazing. I loved it. But you can only go to the well so many times, you know?

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi—This was, hands down, the most creative book I have read in a long, long time. I read a lot and it is rare that I read something that is entirely original, but this is. I have spent all my time since I read this book wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it and how amazing it is.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks—There is always interest to be had and things to be learned with Oliver Sacks. That being said, this wasn’t my favorite of his books. It didn’t have quiet enough variety and just didn’t capture my attention they way others have.

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay—This was a book I took with me on summer vacation, and about where I would assign it. It kept me entertained, it passed the time. It didn’t do much more than that.

Flight, Sherman Alexie—I had never read anything by Alexie, and this showed up at a library book sale. It was something, that’s for sure. I read it a few months ago, and I’m still working out all of my feelings, which I take as a good sign in a book. A troubling read, but a worthwhile one.

Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood—I *love* Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS. Because I am a white, upper-middle-class woman and we are obsessed with British* crime dramas. This was the first of the books I’d read, though, and it was great fun. If I ever have time to dive into a series again, I’ll definitely pick them up.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Charles Chaput—Not to be confused with Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein, a very different book indeed. Chaput thinks that traditional Christianity is under attack, and that liberal views, particularly those on sexuality, are to be blamed for most of our current ills. He also thinks that civil authorities letting gay people be married is a far greater threat to our Church than, say, objectivism. He has some great things to say about the ideal society and civics, he just seems to have trouble identifying the actual problems.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep TufeckiAre you part of the #resistance? Good. Get this book. Read it. Bring it to your Indivisible or Flippable or Swing Left or whatever group and have them read it and talk about it together. And follow Tufecki on Twitter. I didn’t think everything about this book was perfect, but she has important things to say and we need to think about the questions she’s raising.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrecht—A moving tale told through the perspectives of a woman in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and her grandfather. It tells the history of the place, and the story itself, and is imbued with magical realism and a painful sympathy for the region.

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon—A suspenseful thriller and a modern day ghost story. The genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the book was a page turner, and if you enjoy this type of book I think you’d love this one.

Getting Better, Charles Kenny—I know everything is horrible right now, especially in the developed world. But that’s exactly why a book like this is important. For one thing, it gives you some hope. For another, while so many on the right are trying to tear down the current order, and many of the far left (my political home) are too disillusioned and disappointed to vigorously fight for it, this book reminds us of the tremendous successes of post- WWII liberalism. I’d like to give a copy to everyone.

Nightfall and Other Stories, Isaac Asimov—Asimov is amazingly prolific, and as I mentioned about another collection (old sci-fi paperbacks are usually $.25 on half-price day at the library book sale, so I have several) he wrote so much that his short stories can be hit or miss. But “Nightfall”, the title story of this collection, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Reading the whole book was worth it just for that.

The Best American Essays, 2003, Ed. Anne Fadiman—I love the “Best American” series, and I adore essays and long form articles, so I loved this book. My favorites were Katha Pollit’s very honest “Learning to Drive”, and “Home Alone”, which surprisingly had me cheering on a defense of Martha Stewart and her fans.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene—God, this book is amazing. I kind of want to read it again right now. Why Greene isn’t more held up as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I don’t know. An amazing spy novel against the backdrop of Viet Nam, before Americans were even in the thick of it. It’s less than 200 pages and has more to say about colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution, and human nature than almost any other book I’ve read.

Disarming Beauty, Julian CarronDisappointing. This collection of essays circled back and occasionally repeated itself, but never built on itself. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire, Richard Adams Carey—An incredibly engaging read. Carey does a wonderful job of talking about the history and future of caviar, going into detail regarding high end importers, the agents enforcing endangered animal treaties, environmental regulators, organized crime, and the politics of biologists. A great example of the genre of digging down into a rarely examined piece of life.

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher—Rod Dreher thinks that Christians need to remove themselves from current society to the extent possible to defend the faith because traditional Christianity is under threat from people wanting cakes at their gay weddings and gender theory in schools. It’s basically just like communist Eastern Europe, an analogy he actually uses. But let’s leave that aside for now. The bigger issue is, how does one write an entire book about having lay people exercise a Benedict Option and never once mention lay Benedictine Oblates! I mean, that just seems obvious.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009 ed. Elizabeth Kolbert­—The Science and Nature writing series is my favorite, and this was no exception. It’s a bit depressing—Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, and her knowledge of and interest in ongoing environmental catastrophe shows. But there’s plenty of other topics to round it out. Try reading Atul Gawande’s “The Itch” without scratching for weeks. I’m itchy again just thinking about it.

A Long Way Down¸ Nick Hornby—Four people contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve meet each other and form connections instead. Entertaining, if you like Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) you’ll like this one, too.

Arkwright, Allen Steele—You know all those books by Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein that start out with humans on a planet we colonized long, long ago? This is the prequel. It should be a must read for any sci-fi fan.

Murder at the Dacha, Alexei Bayer—A murder mystery in Soviet era Moscow. Well paced, well written, and a good mystery novel that also paints a picture of life at this time and place.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett—The first in Pratcett’s Witch series in Discworld, it follows a girl who was accidentally made a wizard when women clearly can’t be wizards. I still don’t understand how I made it so far in life without reading Pratchett, but I’m doing my best to make up for it now.

Well of Lost Plots, Jasper FfordeThird of the Thursday Next series, our protagonist has taken refuge in Book World while she tries to un-eradicate her husband and plot how to take out Yorrick Kaine, a would-be dictator who’s escaped from fiction to the real world. And if none of that made sense, just start with The Eyre Affair and keep reading.

St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, Marie Dennis, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor—My only problem with this book is that it was clearly written to be studied at a prayer or small faith group, with discussion questions and everything, and it wasn’t presented that way up front. There’s limited utility if you’re reading it on your own.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian GreeneGreene traces the history of the scientific quest to determine reality and its beginnings from Galileo and Newton and on through modern string theory. It’s fascinating. Also, the difference between discussions at physics conferences and weed intensive college dorms is apparently just how many math equations are used.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde—Having left the safety of Book World, Thursday Next is now back in real-world England trying to take down Yorrick Kaine by ensuring Swindon wins the biggest croquet match of the year, deal with a mopey Hamlet, and find reliable child care.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco­—Umberto Eco is amazing. I still think Baudolino is my favorite, and a far too underrated book, but I will always have great love for this one. My fourth (?) time reading it, and I always discover something new.

And that’s it! I suppose not a bad showing on my part, but I could certainly do more writing. My main goal for the coming year.

Happy New Years, all, and Happy Reading.

 

*Okay, technically this one is Australian, but it’s on our PBS station that shows entirely BBC shows, so I think it counts as British Crime Drama.

^My youngest is 19 months, so I figure another 16 years or so until I have spare time.

The Benedict Option

benedict optionThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher

 

How can one be a faithful Christian in a world that is hostile to Christianity? That is the premise of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, a premise which has a pretty huge assumption baked into it, as you may notice. Dreher’s answer is to withdraw into our own small faith communities, following the example of St. Benedict and the Benedictine Monasteries. He suggests we support Christian* businesses, pull our kids out of public schools immediately, and create our own culture where we’ll be as cut off as possible from the impacts of the world. He think we need to brace ourselves for further attacks on Christianity*, and see Christians* continue to have to choose between being good Americans and good Christians*, and the continuing decline. The only way to survive, according to Dreher, is to withdraw into our Benedict Communities, a sanctuary, so to speak, to protect our endangered Christianity*.

Let me say upfront that I did not dislike this book as much as I expected to! The general concept of small faith communities is one that I am wholeheartedly in support of, and I think people trying to be good, to be faithful, and to do the right thing do need to support one another. I think that our current culture looks down on community and tends to discard anything that inconveniences us, and this is a problem. And I’m sympathetic to the challenges of raising children in a culture that seems to criticize my own values. I’m a parent, and I’m trying to raise my kids Catholic, raise them to be kind and giving to others, to realize they can’t have everything because its wasteful, to not be violent, and so on and so forth. And I was raised that way as well, and it was difficult! The outside culture tries to get in, and it can’t be avoided altogether. (Mom, Dad, I’m sorry for all of the times that we snuck out to go to Dougie Olson’s place to play Mortal Kombat.) (Also, I’m still not sorry for all the times I watched MTV. I maintain that that ban was unnecessary.) In my own house, we have constant parenting discussions about how much to let the kids pretend to shoot each other, what video games and shows to watch, and on a grown up level what it’s okay for us to invest in, and how much its okay to invest instead of donate.

So I can understand where Dreher is coming from. And I am a fan of the concept of small faith communities, and living intentionally.  Building stronger lay communities is incredibly valuable and important, both to strengthen the Church and for individuals looking for spirituality, friendship, and living out their values. All that said, though, everything about the way Rod Dreher seems to approach this is off. Let us state from the beginning that Christianity, and even Christianity*, is not under threat here in the United States. No one is going to be hauled off to jail for being Christian, there are no pogroms, no one is being fed to the lions. This is not the time of the martyrs (a time that is likely overstated anyway.) There are pressures against Christianity in our society, but threats against Christians—at least in the United States—are far overstated by the Drehers and Chaputs and Grahams of the world.

Then, again, a common theme among the Drehers of the world is that there is really only the one way that Christianity* is under threat, and that’s from the legality of gay marriage. Oh, sure, he makes a couple feints towards the importance of helping people, and of standing up to racism, but these are clearly thrown in. Again and again the horrors of legalizing gay marriage, of teaching respect for transgender individuals, and otherwise going against natural law are held up as the way Christians* will be wiped out.

I don’t understand this. At all. No one is making other people get gay married. And for all the fear that is brought up about this, no one will ever say the Church has to recognize gay marriage. Right now, a religious leader can refuse to officiate the marriage of anyone for any reason—notice how divorce has been legal for a very, very, very long time, but the Catholic Church still won’t remarry someone who’s legally been divorced? There are the constant fears of how religious liberty is being attacked because there may be laws saying that business owners have to serve someone with different religious beliefs, which are being fought over right now, true. But other than that changes to our beliefs, and changes to Church teaching on sexual issues, are for the most part not being forced on us.

And even if the sexual mores of our society have diverged from Catholic teaching (which happened a while ago, really), is this the greatest threat to Christianity? They have often diverged to a certain extent, at least in practice, but we go forward saying what the ideal is and what the Church teaches, and hope that at least the people in the pews will get it right. The Church has survived several societal shifts, major cultural changes, and massive amounts of corruption within our ranks (see, for instance, everything about the Renaissance, Inquisition, etc.).

Meanwhile, nationalism is on the rise, with increased antisemitism and racism. These are sins we have fought before, but there is ample evidence they are infecting our Church, as well as other Christian communities.  And worse, there is a seeming fear of addressing racism within our Church and an absence of clergy in the fight in a way that other social issues do not suffer from. From a religious liberty perspective, there were several bills introduced over the past few years in different states, and even in the US Congress, that would have made it illegal for church workers to assist undocumented migrants in need. To its great credit, the Church has been much stronger in standing up for migrants and refugees, but it was startling to see the conservative voices calling for the religious liberty to ignore this direct affront to our Church’s mission.

A capitalist, individualist society that tells us not to help people we see in need is a danger to our Christian identity. When businesses are penalized for paying workers a living wage, how can a committed Christian treat their workers fairly? Society based on convenience, rather that responsibilities and togetherness, is a great threat to the Church (probably one of the biggest reason people don’t show up in the pews.)  Society that is soaked in violence is a threat to the Church. There are many challenges we face.

And many small groups that have risen to address them! I was surprised that “third orders” didn’t come up at all in the book, basically lay people who have still taken vows and agreed to live by a religious orders rules, since they seem ready made for this discussion. The largest of the Third Orders currently the Lay Franciscans, who are dedicated to social justice principles. There are also lay Benedictines, though, and they don’t even get a mention. I’d think he’d want to give them a boost. Catholic worker houses seem to be relevant to this discussion, but I imagine they don’t conform to his idea of Christianity*. Heck, Amish communities seem to be dedicated on pulling away from society that would damage their religion. This idea of pulling away and creating your own faith community isn’t unique, and it’s a glaring absence that Dreher doesn’t discuss them.

One a broader note, though, pulling away entirely—and I should mention that the Catholic groups above still work within society constantly, they aren’t isolated—is antithetical to what it means to be Christian. Even if I agreed with Dreher on the worst threats facing Christianity* today; even if I agreed that we were facing an existential threat; I still wouldn’t be able to condone his suggestions. Because the fact is that we are called to be part of the world, to minister, to evangelize. And most of all, throughout Catholic teaching, we are taught that we are an Advent people. We are people of hope. We are not allowed to withdraw, to only tend to ourselves, to despair of society. We must live in the world and be a public witness, and do what we can to call others to us. And doing this while holding true to our teachings is a challenge, but it is ours to live. It does not matter the difficulties we may face, we are not called to despair and withdrawal, we are called to be Salt and Light.

*Relevant only for his particular brand of socially conservative Christianity.

Twitter and Tear Gas

twitter and tear gasTwitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests, Zeynep Tufecki

Protest is the new brunch, here in Washington, DC. There’s plenty to protest, after all, and it’s easy to find one even for someone who wasn’t that involved before January 20, 2017.  A list of public events in Washington, DC will easily turn up half a dozen lunch time or after work protests for this week alone. The question that doesn’t always get answered, though, is what comes next.

For any engaged activists, Zeynep Tufecki’s book should be required reading. A Turkish national and long time activist and scholar–she’s been at encuentros with the Zapatistas and was part of the Battle of Seattle–Tufekci is broadly supportive of  left wing protests and uprisings, but wary of the new tools that we’re using. She celebrates how many people can be turned out for a march, or to show up in Gezi Park or Tahrir Square, or how activists can find each other, but is painfully aware of the limitations and new challenges these tools provide.

The primary limitation, as Tufecki, points out, is that 1) when activism is easier, it has less meaning–those of us who are activists know this already. A form e-mail has very little weight, since all politicians know it took two seconds to send. A call is better. A personal meeting is best. We’re seeing now an ease to turning out hundreds of people at a time that lessens the impact. 2) The work that went into organizing protests previously, the dozens of meetings, the hours of planning, the discussions, the time spent together, was valuable in and of itself in terms of building trust and building leaders. When we lose that, it makes it harder to move beyond the protest part of the movement.

Tufecki’s analogy here is how modern mountaineering equipment and oxygen tanks make it easier for a novice to climb Mt. Everest. More people than ever before can climb up the mountain, and it maintains impressive, even if less impressive than it was 70 years ago. But when a novice climbs, they’re less likely to be able to adapt or succeed if the run into trouble, even minor trouble that a more experienced mountain climber could overcome. Because someone with more experience and practice has developed the muscles and knowledge they need. Similarly, when a protest encounters a challenge or needs to enter its next phase, those organizing muscles are useful to adapt and move forward.

Twitter and Tear Gas is an incredibly insightful, and well researched, document of the new challenges that activists truly interested in change need to overcome. Tufecki celebrates some of the changes, including how much easier it is for activists to find each other, and the way that social media was able to break through some of the censorship that existed in middle Eastern and other countries. She’s very clear on the issues, though. One is that protest has an attraction in and of itself that brings people together, but it has limitations in moving things forward. There can only be sustained change if there is a goal and people know how they are going to achieve those goals. Instead, protests are attracting attendees who want change but don’t think that voting or participating in institutional options will ever change anything, a common thread among attendees at Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, making it difficult to do anything besides protest. Additionally, protests that have sprung up suddenly with no central leadership or plan, which she refers to as “adhocracies” have the challenge of moving forward. She details how when the Turkish government wanted to negotiate with protestors at Gezi Park the movement couldn’t identify anyone, leading the Turkish government to invite people–meaning the leaders were decided by the government, not the movement.

She is also very clear on the power of protests. They can bring additional attention to an issue, as happened in the Arab Spring. They can also introduce activists to one another. She cites a fascinating study showing that after the initial Tea Party protests that happened around the United States, locations that had heavy rain–which depressed protest attendance–saw less subsequent turnout from Republicans than areas that had good weather, which swung Republican in the next election to a greater degree. Tufecki points out, however, that there was a clear engagement with attendees after the protests. She cites another study showing that while Tea Party members may be uninformed about what policies would actually do, or the actual statistics on immigration, crime, and so forth, they were more educated than many career politicians on the intricacies of how legislation was made, when the votes were, who was on each committee, etc.

As shown in the above example, the limitations of networked protests are ones that can be overcome, with effort, by movements. More challenging are the direct negatives of social media. Having only one or two companies with such control over spreading information is a huge challenge, as we already know. Facebook’s “real name” policy, one enforced only when there is a complaint, means that anyone can be targeted and have to jump through hoops to prove their name. Even more important, it means that LGBT activists, activists in oppressive governments, and others can be outed placing their lives at real risk. Twitter has its own issues regarding harassment, as almost everyone knows. One tweet noticed by the wrong person results in death threats, rape threats, doxing, and threats to one’s family. Twitter is unwilling to step in and put up meaningful barriers, pushing many people off of the platform, and giving others pause before they are engaged in advocacy.

And, of course, the way that social media can be used to push false information. Twitter and Tear Gas came out in 2017, but was written in the preceding two years. Given that, it’s a bit squirm inducing to read about how Turkey, Tunisia, and even China have moved from straight censorship to instead working to muddy the waters, pushing their own versions of stories, questioning media leaders, and seeking to make it difficult to know what’s happening by producing hundreds of questionable news articles. And reading of how Russian troll armies spread disinformation about NATO ahead of Sweden’s NATO vote was enough to send chills down my spine. What was incredible here was learning how every thing that was done to undermine the US elections was well known and documented in other contexts even before 2016, and yet we were fully exposed with no precautions, no challenges to the way Facebook did business, and no, or minimal effort, to track down and close down Russian trolls and bots.

There were areas I found lacking. She is a student of activist movements and history, clearly learning from US movements as well as others, and given that I would have hoped for a bit more on how people have overcome such issues before. The US has faced threats to trust in our institutions before. We were lied into a war before. Radio changed the way we interacted with the world once again, giving people more access to the outside world but also quickly taken up by people like Father Coughlin spreading vile lies. Pamphleteers and snake oil salesman showed that not everyone could be believed. What changed? Did the fever break on its own, or were their concrete steps that helped? If the latter, how can we adapt those steps for today’s world? And in general I would have liked more suggestions for change. Her chapter on the challenges of Twitter seemed to boil down to, “It’s good and bad, it’s hard to know what to do.” A position with which I sympathize, but I also know there are many people thinking about how to overcome that challenge and it would have been helpful to have an overview of some of their thoughts.

Overall, though, I thought this was an incredibly useful and insightful book that should be spread far and wide. In an era where we have five calls, Facebook Town Hall, and dozens and dozens of organizations to send us action alerts, while at the same time a bill polling at 12% passes the House and is stopped by the Senate by only 1 vote, it feels as if we are more connected and more separated from our elected officials than ever before. Twitter and Tear Gas helps to identify the new challenges we face so that we can organize more effectively and start to move forward and make change. Read this book before your next brunch.

The Road to Little Dribbling

road-to-little-dribblingThe Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I will read anything Bill Bryson writes.  So when I saw Road to Little Dribbling on a “Buy 2 get the 3rd free table” only a few weeks before going on a family vacation, well, how could I resist?

One of Bryson’s earlier books is Notes from a Small Island, about his time as an American expat living in Britain.  Oddly enough, I have never read that particular book.  This is probably because once my to-be-read collection exceeded two shelves, the only new books I acquire are from the library book sale, gift-receiving and gift-giving* occasions, and the two for three table at a bookstore.  That’s a shame, as Little Dribbling is a successor to Notes and references it on several occasions.  It wasn’t at all difficult to follow the newer book, mind you.  I just wish that I could have caught all of the call backs.

Notes from a Small Island was written after Bryson, originally from Des Moines, IA, had been living in Britain for a few years.  He’s ended up marrying an English girl and living and working in Britain for over 20 years, with occasional breaks to live in the US.  In Little Dribbling he is preparing to officially become a British citizen, and so decides to travel from one end of the island to the other.  His rules in the beginning of the book were that he would go to new places rather than just recapping his travels in Notes, but he seemed to also spend an awful lot of time recapping his travels from Notes.

I always enjoy Bryson’s writings, and when he is good he is very, very good.  He has a dry wit, an eye for details that others would miss, obvious delight in the things he enjoys, and a liberal dosing of random information and trivia that I always find fascinating.  A reviewer once criticized one of my favorites, One Summer, America 1927, as a “unusually slight…highly amusing encyclopedia” and its hard to disagree, but that’s what I buy the books for.  In this book alone I learned about the odd British craze of holiday camps, the oldest hominid in Britain, how the green belt system works, the arrangement of municipalities in the country, and loads about railroad history.  Who doesn’t want that in their vacation reading?

For all that, though, this wasn’t my favorite of Bryson’s books.  For one thing, while I do enjoy reading about the parts of Britain that he loves-and a walking tour there does sound absolutely lovely, now I want to go on one-it did start to get a bit redundant.  I lost track of exactly how many places there are the loveliest scene he’s ever beheld.  I know how he feels, though.  Every bend in the drive around the California coast will take you to the most breathtakingly beautiful sight you’ve ever seen in your life.  A wonder to drive, but if I’m describing it at some point I would run out of adjectives for “gorgeous” and “spectacular” and start to bore you.

And sometimes the book swings too far in quite the opposite direction.  I regret to note that in his old age Bryson has turned into a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s always been a bit of a curmudgeon, and sarcastic complaints about society turn up always.  They’ve moved away from creative and humorous and more towards “get off my lawn!” space.  There is actually a complaint about what kids today wear in this book, as well as the rather unoriginal observation that pop culture is vapid.  I feel that he could do better.

Lastly, it was a bit odd reading this book now, one month into the Trump administration, a year after Brexit, and realizing it was written in 2015 as these things are beginning to get started but we still thought they wouldn’t happen.  Bryson is never really political, other than in the commonsensical way people in the midwest used to be-a belief that things should work properly, that they require a bit of involvement and money in order to do so, that people should treat each other decently, and more or less mind their own business unless there’s a reason not to.  But these are all controversial statements now, and his irritation with shortsighted austerity programs, and extremely gentle defense of immigrants-after all, he is one-are impossible to read without thinking of where they in context of a society that will continue down that road.  At least for me.

For all that, though, this book was still an enjoyable distraction.  I read it while on vacation and watching three small children, and it was good for that.  Not so taxing that I couldn’t read it while my attention was divided, and not so light that I forgot to pick it back up.  Perhaps not Bryson’s best, but all in all worth the purchase price.

 

*I often buy my husband books that I’d like to read.  Usually I also think he’ll like them.

 

Revenge of the Lawn

revenge-of-the-lawnRevenge of the Lawn, Richard Brautigan

I adore Richard Brautigan.  There’s something about his writing that I just want to sink into and reread again and again.  Somehow, his books can create a picture with just a few short words.  With stories that are surreal and playful and don’t always make sense in a logical way, they nonetheless feel real.  His descriptions are short and unique, I doubt anyone else would write the way he does.  Yet they are so evocative of time and place- late 60s/early 70s and the Pacific northwest-that I can smell pine trees and ocean spray and feel moss and loam under my feet when I read his books.

I suppose the proper description of Revenge of the Lawn is a collection of short stories, although that’s not quite right, primarily about his life in San Francisco.  It’s so odd that his work is divided up into his poetry and his novels and short story collections.  Because his prose is still poetry–his sentences are meaningless, all that is important is the rhythm and sound of the words and how they roll around on your tongue or in your mind.  And even if we are to classify the writing as prose, “stories” is a strong word.  Snippets is more like it. Most of the stories are no more than 2 pages.  Some are much shorter. Here is the entirety of one of them, “The Scarlatti Tilt”:

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.”  That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

This portrait is perfect in its way.  After all, what more needs to be said?  Other snippets involve a woman who buys liver and lives with bees, drinking coffee, Ernest Hemingway’s typist, and the problem’s that occur when you replace all of your pipes with poetry.  Unsurprisingly, it poses a lot of problems.

I encourage everyone to read at least one Brautigan book in their life.  It’s important because you’re not going to read anyone else like Brautigan, there’s just him.  Words work differently for him.  The order that the words go together and the picture they paint don’t seem that they would make sense, and they wouldn’t if you or I wrote them, but for Brautigan they do.  I don’t know why a story of people forever trying to bury their lion (who accepts in stoically) is a good story to read, but it is.  His descriptions are brilliant, such as describing a woman “adorned in yellow and jewelry and a language I don’t understand,” and he pulls you into the countercultural life of California at the time while blending the real and unreal.

Brautigan is delightful and original and he taps into something true somehow in everything he writes.  And unlike some surreal writers, there’s no struggle to understand.  The words are just there for you to pick up or not, as you will.  And if you do pick them up, I promise, they’re quite a treat.

 

 

The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

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So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you’ve avoided it so far, definitely grab it now.