Monday, March 21, 2016

6/50 The Handmaiden's Tale

The Handmaiden's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Finally. This had been on my list to read for years. Too many friends had shot me a confused look when I said I hadn't read it yet. Because, as so many of you know I'm sure, this is essential reading. This is Huckleberry Finn, Beloved or Great Gatsby level. You need to read it to understand human society, social movements, the cyclical nature of history, and the entire concept of women in society.

However, I'm installing a new rule in my life in response to how I read this book. I blew through the final third of the book from 11pm-2am. The new rule will forever be known as "Don't read terrifying dystopias before sleeping you idiot." Because it will result in some really upsetting dreams and a crushing sense of hopelessness the following day.

So I went to see Deadpool. Cause in order to destroy the patriarchy, it would probably help to have acrobatic battle skills and a dark sense of humor.

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

4/50: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Lengthy (and damning) subtitle. Lengthy and damning coverage here, too. The authors, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, begin with the tobacco companies' well-known efforts to keep the public from understanding the toxic effects of smoking. Even though scientific consensus had existed for a while, the tobacco industry recognized that "uncertainty favors the status quo," so it worked to make the science seem less certain than it actually was. They enlisted a few scientists: not doctors or biologists, as you might expect, but retired physicists who'd spent most of their careers in the Cold War arms race and had therefore become diehard supporters of the free market. Then those scientists enlisted the help of a few sympathetic news outlets. Then other industries realized that they could do the same thing—in many cases, buying the support of the very same scientists. So those guys (Fred Seitz, Fred Singer, Robert Jastrow, Bill Nierenberg, and a few others) helped keep the American government from acting on secondhand smoke, acid rain, the ozone holes, and global warming.

This is, as you might suspect, a maddening read. (I actually began last year and had to put it down several times for lengthy cooling-off periods.) There's a lot of blame to go around, of course, and it falls not just on Seitz et al but also on the journalists who were too lazy to examine sources, on the industries that refused to address problems they'd created themselves, and the politicians who allowed themselves to be persuaded by obviously non-objective "facts."

One of my favorite aspects of this account is how thoroughly and effectively it details the modern scientific process for the lay reader (sample passage: "Peer review is a topic that is impossible to make sexy, but it's crucial to understand, because it is what makes science science—and not just a form of opinion"). However, that also makes things get a bit dense in certain paper-trail sections, when one person is refuting an early draft of a paper, but then a newspaper picks up a different draft, but the second reviewer doesn't issue a correction... I think, essentially, that the question with so many of these issues is "How could so many people get it so wrong?" And the authors are to be commended for trying to answer that question as completely as possible. But it could be simplified in places.

The political denial of climate change often just leaves me yelling "WHYYYY? WHYYYY?" And there were sections of the book that gave me the same reaction. Which is why there's a bit near the end that I just want to quote at length:

This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn't just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage—real, lasting, pervasive damage. ...To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs—profound costs—that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs—a less reassuring one than [Milton] Friedman's "neighborhood effects." They are "negative externalities": negative because they aren't beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

We all expect to pay for the things we buy—to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits—but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. ...This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues [acid rain, secondhand smoke, etc.] together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them.

"Negative externalities" is not a term I've encountered before, but it's one I needed. I think the American public is confronting it in a very real way with numerous issues right now, as hard-core deregulators poison the water of Flint and keep mortgage bankers from going to jail and work to prevent minimum wage increases. It may be a little too academic-sounding to catch on, which is a pity, because most of these struggles are still playing out, and they involve all of us—whether we want them to or not.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Inner Voice

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida, trans. by  KA Yoshida and David Mitchell

This book first caught my attention because I am a really devoted fan of David Mitchell. But it has the added charm of being a firsthand account of a very particular way of seeing the world that is not often available. It's written by a thirteen-year-old Japanese boy with autism. It's a quick read.

But it reminded me of this fascinating article I read about assisted communication, which I really want to recommend to everyone because it is such a crazy story. This shit is a serious, serious trip. It's so crazy. You have to read it.

March Book Buffet

At first I thought this was a really eclectic assortment of books with nothing in common, but then I realized they are all about women and girls confronting a dangerous, deeply sinister world. So, that's intense.

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll
Spooky scary illustrated short stories! The art is beautifully composed, with subtle but effective detail. One of them, The Nesting Ground, infected my subconscious to the point that I had an actual nightmare. It's about a little orphan girl whose brother's wife is not what she appears to be. One thing I loved about the telling of this story was that it wasn't until midway through that I noticed this very subtle detail that she wears a brace on one leg and has a walking stick -- probably she has had polio -- but it's never actually mentioned in the text.

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne 
My February assignment, turned in just a little bit late! What can I say, it still feels like an assignment to read this book, even though it's an undeniably sturdy classic. One source of resistance for me, I think, is that Hester is just so patient and long-suffering and reformed that she's too much a symbol and not enough of a person.

Rainey Royal, Dylan Landis
This book lives somewhere between an anthology of short stories and a novel. The narrative is loosely hung around the life of Rainey Royal as she matures from precocious preteen to young woman. In some ways, she's written after a stereotype -- damaged artsy seductress -- but the writing here is full of beautiful surprises, humor, fire-branded images, closely observed details, that it all added up to a totally compulsive read.

The Killing Lessons, Saul Black
Before premium cable binge-watching, this kind of genre fiction was the crack du jour. It's a total potboiler of a detective story, but nicely done (if you can stomach seriously disturbing serial-killer-related subject matter.) My husband and I binge watch miniseries like Top of the Lake, True Detective, The Killing, and this book is the exact same formula. Very dark. But thoroughly gripping.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling

Avid Harry Potter fan that I am, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t yet read this. Go easy on me.

I took comfort in the fact that her voice was the same as it was in HP. It was like she knew how hard it was for the world to read a book she’d written that wasn’t about Harry Potter and wanted to ease us into it with the soothing familiarity of her storytelling.

“The soft purr and hiss of the shower was audible from where Shirley and her rosy reflection say facing each other, savoring the news that seemed still to effervesce in the atmosphere, like bubbling champagne.”

The characters are all members of a small town outside of London where a sudden death has left a vacant seat on its council. Rowling rotates through the various characters and their families through the book, giving us a clear grasp of the goings-on of the townspeople. At first, I had to keep going back to remember which characters were which, but once their connections to each other became clear, it was easier to navigate.  In some ways, it reminds me a show like Desperate Housewives—lots of gossip, lots of secrecy.

Rowling had this beautiful way of knowing just when to switch perspective to the character you’re next most eager to hear about.

It’s a little bit heavy at times—especially in the lives of the current and aspiring council member’s teenage children. I appreciated the realistic ending. Many of the conflicts happening at the start of the novel seemed to mostly resolve themselves, but the damage left behind changed the characters and the course of their lives in a way that felt real and human. I’d like to see where they go from here and that’s not something I often find myself yearning for.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

5/50 Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie

This was an unusual read for me; a piece of more hard science fiction than I'm used to. I tend to be more in the Ray Bradbury camp of science fiction that is light on the hard science specifics and much more philosophical about the ethics of technology and progress.

Except that is exactly what this novel is about. The main character is a human that was made into an AI and now is a single consciousness made up of multiple bodies. This consciousness is trying to right a wrong and the mystery of what she is trying to do and why is a compelling reason to pick up the book. The consciousness has several names: Justice of Toren and One Esk.

I would say this novel succeeds in two major ways. First is that the story very subtly completely challenges everything we believe about a gender binary. Characters are not strictly male or female and instead of that issue being biological, it is linguistic. The protagonist moves through different languages that either gender or do not gender things. It's a completely fascinating "feminist" take in that it quietly forces you to see just how male our particular world is.

The second way it succeeds is by forcing you to contend with the idea of multiple consciousnesses in a very relatable way. I can't say that AI is a topic that especially interests me, but the idea of being a multiple body and viewing the world knowing that you are more than a body was fascinating.

This is the first in what is supposed to be a trilogy. I have to be honest and say I don't feel overly compelled to pick up the next book--not because this wasn't exciting and a really stylish experience but because I got a lot out of the premise and I don't know how much more a sequel will offer. But if you are looking for a really interesting story made up of multiple intelligences, revenge and a fascinating culture, I would recommend Ancillary Justice.

Monday, March 7, 2016

3/50: In the Garden of Beasts

Really had trouble putting this one down once I started it. Erik Larson is a compelling storyteller, to say the least. (I keep coming back to one description of a senior Nazi with cheekbones so high and prominent it was like he had golf balls under his skin.) As histories go, this is quite novelistic; it makes no pretense of objectivity and it's following a tiny group of people—one could call them characters, even though they're real-life figures—caught in much larger events.

I think several people in this project have read In the Garden of Beasts already, but for the sake of those who haven't, here's a quick capsule description: This follows the lives of the American ambassador to Berlin and his family, particularly his daughter, in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. It discusses the denial many people felt in the early days of Hitler's power, the way they were convinced that the more level-headed party members would prevail, even as acts of violence became impossible to ignore. It also documents the American anti-Semitism that prevented people in our government from taking actions that might have saved lives; even the ambassador's daughter is at first enthralled by the Nazis and has a romantic dalliance with at least one.

What's really unsettling about this book, though, is reading it at the same time that the news is showing people heil-ing at Trump rallies. There are times when history refuses to stay as firmly in the past as one might wish, and instead becomes (to paraphrase Stephen Dedalus) the nightmare from which we are trying to awake.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Into the Wild

Into the Wild
Jon Krakauer

The structure of the book and the biographical nature wasn’t what I was expecting when I opened it--I assumed that it was a memoir. It’s told in a sort of backwards way, working from his death backwards, but at the same time ends with him in Alaska. The storytelling had a “come full circle” way of ending.
Chapter 4 takes place in places I’ve been on the outskirts of my hometown of Kingman, Arizona. That was cool. The events were taking place a few months before I was born, but I’m the same age now that he is in the book, so that’s a little surreal.

Particularly insightful passages:
“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.”

“It is hardly unusual for a young man to be drawn to a pursuit considered reckless by his elders; engaging in risky behavior is a rite of passage in our culture no less than in most others. Danger has always held a certain allure. That, in large part, is why so many teenagers drive too fast and drink too much and take too many drugs, why it has always been so easy for nations to recruit young men to go to war. It can be argued that youthful derring-do is in fact evolutionarily adaptive, a behavior encoded in our genes.”

There’s a good deal about mountain climbing and adventure that didn’t really interest me. I think if I was a climber or more outdoorsy, it would have appealed to me more. I just don’t think I was the right audience for the story.

EDIT: I'm still thinking about this book weeks later, so on some unconscious level, it did leave an impression on me. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

February Books

Somehow, it's March now and I have a backlog of reviews from the books I read in February.

Me and Earl and The Dying Girl
Jesse Andrews

I’m a huge YA fiction fan and this one is unlike any other I’ve read. It’s told from the point-of-view of an awkward 17-year-old boy living in Pittsburg where his main goal in life is to fly under the radar as to not get on anyone’s bad side. A pretty noble goal, if you ask me. His mother forces him to befriend an acquaintance who was just diagnosed with cancer and he doesn’t develop a newfound appreciation for the gift of life, or at least he thinks he doesn’t.

“My point is: This book contains precisely zero Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts About Love, or sappy tear-jerking Moments When We Knew We Had Left Our Childhood Behind for Good, or whatever. And, unlike most books in which a girl gets cancer, there are definitely no sugary paradoxical single-sentence-paragraphs that you’re supposed to think are deep because they’re in italics…Barf. Forget it.”

I appreciated this atypical approach to death and cancer. 

The self-deprecating humor was my favorite part; it was relatable and surprisingly refreshing.

“I want to eat a power tool.”  YES. I’ve felt that before. The petrifying awkwardness that accompanies much of your high school years is something everyone can reminisce on and that made the characters all the more real to me.

 ‘That is one less guy I have to compete with for the most succulent boobs in the Boob Competition that is high school.”

 “The cafeteria is chaos. First of all, it’s in a perpetual state of low-level food fight. It’s rarely violent enough for the security guards to get involved, but at any given time, someone is attempting to whip a piece of food or condiment at someone else from close range, and half of the time they miss and hit someone else in a different part of the cafeteria. So it’s like one of the more chill battles of World War II.”

For a book about a dying girl, it was light and remarkably funny.

Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again
Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl is one of my favorite playwrights. Her work challenges what contemporary theater can be and her work continuously mesmerizes me. Her approach to theatre and storytelling is, in a word, beautiful.

I’m working as a dramaturg for a production of Ruhl’s Orlando based on the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name and thought this would be an interesting piece of supplemental research.

The entire play is composed of letters between the two, who share a deep intimate friendship over the course of many years. Their conversations are casual and inviting, speaking volumes to each other without saying much at all. Their relationship feels inevitable, but never in an uninteresting or concrete way and I would LOVE to put this script on it’s play.

The Lovely Bones
Alice Sebold

My February pick was stolen right from the theme description. An unexpected beginning. I definitely didn’t have any clue what I was in for. That opening chapter made my throat dry.
I enjoyed that way that I could have an unusual insight into the people who had died and that went into the investigation. Especially being the avid SVU fan that I am, it was a captivating read.

The most uncomfortable thing about the book was that it made me confront my own morality which at 24, makes me want to throw up more than it inspires me to “live life to the fullest.”
The chapters where she talks about Harvey made me angry. Like she was trying to get me to empathize with and understand his actions and I definitely didn’t want to.

It wasn’t knockout amazing, but it was full of characters who are beautifully flawed humans dealing with their grief and that was enough.