Recently in a class I teach a student summed up an article that concluded climate change could lead to a 2% decline in food production each decade of the 21st century. The article and the student proposed solutions that were all predicated on the premise that food production had to be increased to feed the increasing human population. Neither the article nor she proposed doing something about population. Countdown makes the case that humans may be about as intelligent as algae in a pond about to suffocate themselves with overpopulation. If people don’t do something about population nature will intervene. The combination of a (perhaps) climate change induced superstorm in the Philippines and the population of that island nation is a case in point. Weisman discusses the Philippines intransigence to population control and the involvement of the Catholic Church as a bulwark of opposition. The Philippine population was 7.9 million in 1900. By 2010 it has exploded to 94 million and projected to grow to 150 million. Seven children per woman is not unusual. The TV footage of the typhoon destruction and the narrative brings up examples of women who lost 5, 6, 7 children. Our DNA pushes us to reproduce ourselves creating a tragedy of the commons. Weisman illustrates that well when he compares the prolific ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel with the Palestinians urged by Arafat to overwhelm Israel with population growth. In recent times worldwide access to family planning has improved but is it too late? Male driven cultural imperatives to have large families also are slow to change. Enraged social conservatives in the US are intent on limiting and even abolishing abortion rights while curbing access to contraception. This all ties into climate change as a corollary to Paul Ehrlich’s formulation that implies an impossible technological leap would be required for projected global population to avoid food shortages and the very real prospect of warfare and civil unrest. Is there hope? Weisman points out reducing birth per woman to 1.5 children would bring global population down to 1.6 billion by 2100. Are we heading there? It seems unlikely. China has reversed its draconian one child policy though economic constraints will probably keep child bearing below replacement. Religion and tradition are impediments to controlling persistent population increase. And, of course, our capitalist system that demands growth. The source of that growth is largely a growing population. We need to rethink our economics and our cultural norms or we’ll be proving Malthus was correct but his timing was off by a bit.
Many parts of this book depicting the harsh reality of life and death in Japanese work camps are brutal. For the Japanese there is the duty to the emperor; the railroad through Burma must be built no matter the cost. No matter that the Australian prisoners are sick, malnourished, without adequate medicine and dying. Double shifts are necessary to complete the railroad. Prisoners are simply the means to an end; the task must be completed. Dory Ryan, the Australian physician trying to keep as many alive as possible with limited resources sees himself as a phony. The men look up to him as the “big man” but he doesn’t feel as heroic as they make him out to be either in the camp or subsequently in his postwar life. Two lies keep him from happiness and reuniting with his lover, his uncle’s younger wife. Lies he will never know.
Flanagan moves easily between the camps, post and prewar to fill in the story of Dory and the other men including the Japanese. Rationality convinces the Japanese camp officer that he was a good man even with the stain of his brutal actions in the camp. He is fond of Haiku to poignantly express the essence of life even as he is not quite living in the moment the Haiku is capturing.
For the Aussie prisoners the indelible mark of the war haunts their lives. For many it is the only real glimpse of life; the postwar world is a shadow of reality. They won’t or can’t talk about their experiences. Ryan is a successful surgeon and a war hero adulated by the public. He is also a serial adulterer who doubts his own value.
Flanagan’s penetrating insight into the men’s suffering and the rationality of their taskmasters along with their postwar lives make this an exceptional book. Finally there is time that blurs memory like the Thai jungle taking back the worthless railroad. Life’s irony is captured in a yard sale transaction of a bugle trumpet used to play a finally dirge for the dead in the camps. The bugler is dead having been unable to explain to his daughter the importance of the bugle.
The police procedural is well done and holds together. The investigative team confronted with what has become a cold case, a year old murder at an elite girls’ school, tries to ferret out who was involved after one of the girls comes forward with an anonymous note claiming the writer knows who committed the murder. French divides the book into the story from two sides, one side from the detective eager to break into the murder division and his partner, a hardnosed female detective, and the girls at the school. The narrative from the detective side works well; the girls side, not so much. First there is the voice portraying the girls. I suppose the attempt to sound like a young teenage girl is made to provide a touch of reality. Instead it is quite annoying particularly when the girls say things like “hello” in their girlishly sarcastic manner. It was so bad I almost stopped listening. That was a deal breaker for an otherwise reasonable tale. Perhaps reading it would work better?
The author got carried away into the realm of the fantastic that wasn’t a pleasure to listen to. Mitchell started out following a possibly disturbed teenage girl with a dream inhabiting character occasionally entering her consciousness. But wait, it’s not the girl that is disturbed it is the very nature of reality. Enter the evil anchorites who live forever as long as they can maintain their diet of souls. Counterbalancing the anchorites are the horologists; a small group of folks who are reincarnated ad infinitum under various strict rules and regulations though no ultimate regulatory authority was imagined (thank god). It turns out our teenage girl is in the horologist camp. Mitchell occasionally shines when he delves into past horologist lives reprising the excellence he achieved in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet only to return to the bizarre unreality he has created in Bone Clocks. When Mitchell introduced hiatus as a verb I had had enough of what had become a series of comic book like battles between entities inhabiting humans. Perhaps Mitchell was influenced by the popularity of vampires hence the soul munching anchorites. If you like this kind of fantasy then this book is for you. It wasn't for me though the relatively good writing kept me going through much of it before I took a complete hiatus.
This is a grim book reminiscent of Russell Banks’ brooding books of boyhood in New Hampshire (e.g. Affliction). Told from the perspective of Pete, a Montana Department of Family Services caseworker who himself would be a prime candidate for psychiatric services, the book details the travails of Pete’s broken family, run away prostituted daughter, on the lamb brother and more centrally Jeremiah Pearl and family. Pearl has banished himself to the Montana wilderness on the strength of his wife’s vision of the end of the civilized world. Pete encounters Benjamin Pearl when he wanders into a local school. Jeremiah’s son is in bad shape, undernourished and wearing threadbare clothes – life in the Montana wilderness is no picnic. Jeremiah snatches him back and rejects any assistance from Pete. It is quickly apparent that Pearl is a right wing nutcase though exactly how much his act is composed of real violence and how much bravado is unclear until the book’s conclusion. When confronted with a dinosaur bone Benjamin finds (there are such bones in Montana) Pearl insists the earth is six-thousand years old and that such “evidence” of prehistoric remains are the work of Satan. Typical of survivalists who surround themselves with guns, Pearl believes the dollar is fiat currency that will soon collapse. He drills holes in the heads of presidential coins and dresses them up with minute symbolism including swastikas and ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government). The coins are popular with fellow right wing travelers in the Northwest. The feds move in to try to find Pearl. In their search some are decent but a few treat the locals, including Pete, with disdain and occasional violence lending credence to the arguments of Pearl and his ilk. The book is bleak, no way around that, but the plot holds together with a bit of a conclusion that wraps things up albeit somewhat on the pull it out of the fire before it melts side of things. Pete goes on with his work although his life is shattered and the lives around him are likely only temporarily in tenuous equilibrium.
First I am not an adult fan of the Harry Potter series. It’s great for children but for adults? Fuggedaboutit. But I was willing to give Rollins (aka Robert Galbraith) a try since I’m a fan of mysteries. She does a pretty good job putting together a believable set of characters, particularly Cormorant Strike, the protagonist down-on-his-luck detective. And the plot moves forward nicely (and linearly). Peripheral characters are somewhat flat but that’s ok. This is not great literature but an almost passable mystery with a good series of twists and turns. A major downside is the assumption the author makes about Bristow’s concern for finding out the truth about his adopted sister’s (Lula) apparent suicide. Without treading into spoiler territory I’ll just say my own reaction at the conclusion was a big “huh?”
Imagine being stranded on Mars. How would you survive? Andy Weir imagined it and he did so w/o miracles or divine intervention. Mark (the stranded astronaut) uses science to solve problems. Thanks to NASA’s high quality equipment, redundancies galore and a cache of potatoes Mark figures out each problem he encounters. Is it all plausible? Yes, plausible enough to have kept me very much engaged. There’s plenty of interesting scientific insights and maybe some exaggeration on the survival abilities of stranded Mark but things work out to make an exciting listen as long as you are interested in science and haven’t visited the creationist museum recently.
Warning: there is a description of a Holocaust atrocity in this book. Personally I tend to avoid books with details on atrocities. If you can get past that the book is strong on atmosphere replicating in print and in Istanbul the ambiance of the movie Casablanca. It’s post WWII and spy vs. spy is undergoing changing allegiances. Leone, an occasional hired hand of the US consulate conducts clandestine operations. He is asked to pick up and deliver freight.” The freight is a Nazi with information of interest to the US. The intrigue begins and gets complicated but easy to follow. The writing style is a few notches below literary and is at times melodramatic. Occasionally it skirts the edge of pulp fiction before scampering back to first rate descriptions of Istanbul. The ending is a bit drawn out with a surprise that many readers will surmise prior to its revelation. All in all the book is not a bad rendering of the first freeze of the cold war in a colorful setting.
This book might work as a half hour monologue that would be funny for five minutes. As it is Shteyngart drones on and on about a character (himself) that is at once repugnant and boring. Do you want to listen to hours of complaining punctuated by an occasional admission of nasty behavior such as torturing another little boy a la Winston in 1984? If so you might like this book. I could not finish it.
Doris K-G makes the Roosevelt & Taft years come alive. Names change but politics in a capitalist society stays the same. There are those who are eager to serve the very wealthy, make excuses for them, and pass legislation that increases their monopoly rents while claiming it is for the good of all. Roosevelt was the great reformer seeking to limit the power of the monopolists, first in New York State where those in power sought to park him in the least influential position, the vice presidency, and then in the White House when McKinley was assassinated. Teddy was a superstar in his day, commanding huge audiences and positive relationship with the press including the muckrakers. He worked hand in hand with reform minded journalists in effect creating a bully pulpit. Taft yearned for acceptance and praise. He did well in his stint in the Philippines but he preferred making judicial decisions. K-G describes how the two became fast friends and collaborators in the reform movement so much so that TR saw Taft as his successor. Things did not work out so well. Taft was an easy mark for the enemies of reform who found him open to manipulation. Roosevelt grew so disgusted with Taft that he ended up forming the Bull Moose Party in 1912 allowing the Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency against a split Republican party.
The book is a sprawling work with lots of background details on the historical figures. At 800 pages it tips the scale a bit too heavily toward too much detail. Nevertheless it is an insightful book. It would probably be better read than listened to since skipping some of the voluminous details would be easier to do in the print version.
Dave Eggers The Circle is an updated look at a not so distant future when an omniscient overlord is all intrusive. Is it for good or evil? Unlike 1984 where the omnipresent TV eye was the government these eyes and ears are corporate aided and abetted by all those in the Circle. The Circle is a ubiquitous Facebook infused with a religious fervor summed up with the phrase “privacy is criminal.” Mae is so enthusiastic about letting people into her life she “goes transparent” wearing a camera and microphone broadcasting to the world except for bathroom breaks. Her wrist sensor in addition to monitoring all bodily functions also tracks how many people are watching. Stamping out privacy becomes a crusade for her. Mae’s ex-boyfriend is completely disgusted with the hive like mentality of the Circle and tells her he is going to live in the woods, off the information grid, hidden. No such luck. With the ability to capture millions of people’s attention and their support in locating him, Mae finds him in a few minutes. He’s angry. Not unlike the savage in Brave New World, he rejects the "modernity" of completely open access of a linked life.
This an interesting book. Sure, it’s a rehash of quite a few ideas and books but it is original in using a linked and transparent world through an internet medium to demonstrate that Google’s “do no harm” vision can have the opposite impact. Think of all those Google vehicles cruising neighborhoods taking pictures of everything being replaced by personal $59 cameras placed everywhere with 2 year battery lives on all the time. The world is live, there is no privacy. Closing the Circle is the aim of the coterie of Circle founders. Unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a connected world leading to a super organism in Childhood’s End closing the Circle is a much darker vision more akin to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
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