September 2022 in Review

Well, this was….not a month for being productive on my reading goals, but at least I had fun. I revisited some favorite history books from my teen years and stumbled on two authors who were fascinating and a delight to read, despite being in very different genres (eudaimonia and science fiction). Review in progress for the eudaimonic books.

Classics Club
Persuasion, Jane Austen

Climbing Mount Doom
The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, Tom Woods
The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century, Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz

New Acquisitions

  • Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto. This is a 2023 Science Survey read, for Local Astronomy
  • Invasion! They’re Coming! The German Account of D-Day, Paul Carrell.
  • Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, Arthur Brooks
  • Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his Own Time, Sarah Ruden. I can’t remember what prompted this — I think I was reading an article and the author said “Read Ruden”, and I replied “Okay!”.
  • Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class, Thaddaeus Russell. Considering the subject and the author, this should be…fun.

Coming up in October:
October should be a fun month, I think. I have two Halloween-appropriate science reads, a small stack of SF and fantasy titles with possibilities, and some….interesting history titles. I’d like to read something for Mental Health Awareness month, as well.



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On Love

On Love / The Course of Love / Essays on Love
© 2006 Alain de Botton
240 pages

“The philosopher in the bedroom is as ludicrous a figure as the philosopher in the nightclub,” Alain de  Botton offers in On Love,  a novel in memoir form chronicling the course of a love affair over several months.  The memoir is less a story about two people falling in love, and more a prolonged reflection  on what stirs love in the first place, what people look for in the experience, and how such emotionally powerful affairs    can come to an end.  As the course of love proceeds, we witness the pair meet, bond over an airline flight, and hasten into a full relationship that grows for a few months before suddenly peaking and withering.  De Botton’s main character is both intensely thoughtful and introspective, but often  self-defeatingly irrational. Insecurity marks him, from his desperate inflation of subtle clues in his object d’amor’s behavior or mannerisms, to his suspicion that if she likes him,  there must be something wrong with her.    Given that the reader is hardly introduced to the lead before he falls in love, though, it’s hard to say if the insecurity was present before or if the sudden infatuation just “un-bloody-hinged” him, to borrow from Chasing Liberty.    Two observations of de Botton’s stood out for me, though – first,  that we often admire and ‘love’ others for the qualities we see or imagine in them, but that we don’t ourselves possess in sufficient measure  (something true in friendship and romance, I’ve found), and that every relationship (again, true in love and romance) brings out different qualities in the observed parties.  Lewis remarked in his The Four Loves that every friendship has a unique effect on the members involved:   if Tollers, Jack, and Warnie are friends, Tollers brings out aspects of Jack that Warnie would have never otherwise seen, and ditto for qualities within Warnie brought out by Jack that Tollers would have been blind to.  (Names mentioned in this example are purely fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. I pinky-swear.)   Personally, though the main character  is both pompous and insecure,  and his love affair seemed to be more mutual infatuation than anything substantial, I couldn’t help but enjoy the book.  I’m always magnetized by de Botton’s writing, and recognized in his lead’s foibles my own and other’s frailties.

Some quotations:

Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of our faults. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.

[…] if you asked most people whether they believed in love or not, they’d probably say they didn’t. Yet that’s not necessarily what they truly think. It’s just the way they defend themselves against what they want. They believe in it, but pretend they don’t until they’re allowed to. Most people would throw away all their cynicism if they could. The majority just never get the chance.

Perhaps because the origins of a certain kind of love lie in an impulse to escape ourselves and our weaknesses by an alliance with the beautiful and noble. But if the loved ones love us back, we are forced to return to ourselves, and are hence reminded of the things that had driven us into love in the first place. Perhaps it was not love we wanted after all, perhaps it was simply someone in whom to believe—but how can we continue to believe in the beloved now that they believe in us?

“Is it really her I love,” I thought as I looked again at Chloe reading on the sofa across the room, “or simply an idea that collects itself around her mouth, her eyes, her face?” In using her face as a guide to her soul, was I not perhaps guilty of mistaken metonymy, whereby an attribute of an entity is substituted for the entity itself (the crown for the monarchy, the wheel for the car, the White House for the U.S. government, Chloe’s angelic expression for Chloe . . .)?

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Act of Oblivion

Act of Oblivion
(c) 2022 Robert Harris
477 pages

The puritan despot Cromwell is dead and the English king restored, but the balance books of history are not yet straight. There remain in England still breathing the men who presumed to put their king on trial, and who doubled down on their arrogance by executing him for crimes against ‘the people’. The Privy council is engaged in a hunt for the remaining regicides, and for one of their agents in particular — Nayler — it’s personal. He himself fought in defense of the King during the civil war, and it was at a celebration of Christmas Mass that he was arrested by the puritan fanatics, the stress of which caused his beloved wife to miscarry and die. Nayler will not rest in his hunt for two regicides in particular, even if he must comb the American colonies for years. Such is the premise of Act of Oblivion, which begins as an exciting thriller, as two would-be martyrs flee from England and seek shelter in the more Puritan of the American colonies. Unfortunately for the reader, and for Mssr. Nayler, the colonies are large and wild enough that the scent is lost, and most of the second half of the book sees the targets simply hiding in a basement (for years), and the increasingly dispirited Nayler resigned to killing time in England, with no real enthusiasm for life. Harris does his best to liven things up by having one of the regicides give us flashbacks from the Civil War, allowing us to witness the rise of the tyrant Cromwell, but things don’t get exciting again until the last chapter. Still, the story can’t help but command interest, spanning two continents and featuring some interesting moments in American and British history, like the Great London fire and “King Philip’s War”, also known as the First Indian War.

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Dark Matter

Dark Matter
© 2016 Blake Crouch
352 pages

“There’s something horribly lonely about a place that’s almost home.”

Jason Desseys is a first-rate physicist, one who could have earned his place in the history books alongside Feynman,  Planck, and Hawking.  He chose instead to focus on an unexpected role as a father, and has built a happy if not extraordinary life for himself – but that life is suddenly stolen from him one night on a walk home. A masked stranger whose voice and build seem oddly familiar kidnaps Jason, injects him with something mysterious, and he wakes, it’s to a stranger’s life. Jason is surrounded by ambitious, aggressive people who believe him to be someone he’s not, and he knows his life to be in danger –  and as he begins to put the pieces together of what happened,  Jason realizes the truth is even worse than he suspected.  In Dark Matter, Blake Crouch delivers another emotionally powerful thriller with its feet solidly in quantum mechanics.

It’s practically impossible to comment on the plot here without dropping spoilers, so let me describe it simply: think Nicholas Cage’s The Family Man, but as a science fiction film relying on theories about the multiverse, and  in which the main character is both the protagonist and one of the antagonists.  Moving further into spoiler territory….

Dessen as a young man made a choice, whether to prioritize his family or his career. He chose his family, but another instance of him chose the career – and while both  Jasons have wondered what their life might have been like had they gone a different route, the ruthless and  career-focused Jason was able to create the means to find out, and was obsessed enough with what he saw in his alter-ego’s life to attempt to exchange places with him.    Similarly ruthless are the people alt-Jason worked with,  which is why Jason’s life is in such danger: the technology employed is still in the initial testing phase and is so concealed that even key members of the project don’t know what their contributions were used for.   After being exposed and captured,  Jason escapes into the very machine that stole his life, and tries to find his way back home through a soul-crushing series of alternate lives. Even when he finds his beginning, the drama isn’t over. It isn’t as simple as finding the man who replaced him and introducing him to a six-foot hole in the forest; Dessen’s extended journeys through the multiverse have resulted in dozens of nearly-identical instances of himself converging, all with the same goal: to get back to ‘their’ wife and child. 

Although thematically Dark Matter is very similar to Recursion, in that they both address regret,  suffering, and the need to come to terms with one’s choices,  Dark Matter’s plot is more straightforward.  It’s no less interesting for that, though, considering that Jason is fighting not only the inherent confusion of navigating the multiverse, but himself –   many versions of himself,  most with the same passion and intelligence as he but at least a few whose minds have been made sharper and who have lost more of their moral scruples along the way. Dark Matter is my second Crouch in the past week, and I’ll definitely continue reading him. He’s very good at attaching readers’ sympathies to his main characters, throwing them into fascinating situations, and making the reader think about not only technical possibility, but the importance of valuing the people in our lives and making the most of every moment.

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The rat race

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Recursion

Recursion
© 2019 Blake Crouch
324 pages

Imagine a sudden headache, a nosebleed, and the instantaneous arrival of a lifetime’s worth of memories that are yours — and yet, not. Imagine remembering being married to someone for decades, having children with them, but also knowing and remembering that you lived another life — a life not married to them, a life where they remain a stranger with their own spouse and a history far removed from the one you remember the two of you sharing together. Imagine, too, you are not alone — there is a rising epidemic of ‘false memory syndrome’, and those affected are often overwhelmed with such confusion and emotional turmoil that the only way out is to throw one’s self off the building, or to wander into the cold ocean weighted down with stones. It’s such a life’s ending that Barry Sutton is faced with: a weary cop, living with memories of a dead child and a sundered marriage. Sutton knows in his gut that there’s more to the story than a mind-virus, or whatever the media is explaining the rash of suicides by — and his pursuit will connect his life to another’s, that of a brilliant scientist named Helen Smith who created an apparatus capable of saving and reactivating memories in the minds of those afflicted with Alzheimers. The combined story of these two people results in a captivating SF novel about memory, consciousness, time, and the inevitability of suffering. It’s easily the most interesting novel I’ve read all year.

I shouldn’t be surprised to be so captivated by Crouch: his “Summer Frost” was far and away my favorite in Amazon’s “Forward” collection, and its theme of sentience and artificial intelligence is not far from the topic here. Crouch drops the reader into the middle of two seemingly disconnected stories — a police mystery and a technical drama — that prove to be joined at the hip. From the start, it’s easy to bond with the two lead characters: Helen, the genius daughter anxious to save her mother’s mind, concerned about her generous benefactor’s motives but determined to create a solution to the disease that’s so harrowed her family; Barry, whose past pain makes him more sensitive and curious about the woes of others, even in a profession where cynicism quickly takes hold. Helen and Barry only grow more interesting as the story matures and we realize how interrelated their two queries are — learning, in fact, that Helen has invented the device before, and that a third party has hijacked her work for his own ends. Through Barry, who unwittingly becomes a subject of the machine, we experience both the promise of the technology — and the horror of it, when he’s exposed to the technology’s unintended consequences. He and Helen’s lives converge as they both attempt to prevent the potential power unleashed by the technology, and things spiral wildly out of hand, with a lot of emotional weight riding on the ending.

I’m very much impressed by Crouch’s storytelling here, managing to create enough disorientation in the reader to lure us forward in hopes of finding answers, without so much that it becomes overwhelming. I’ll be reading him again!

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A Preface to Paradise Lost

A Preface to Paradise Lost
© 1941 C.S. Lewis
192 pages

Although I’ve read much of C.S. Lewis, I’ve never encountered him in his chosen role as a master of English literature. I spotted some discussion about this Preface on Classical Carousel and was instantly intrigued, both for Lewis and for the fact that Paradise Lost is on my current Classics Club list. The Preface is a collection of essays given by Lewis, partially on the subject of epic poetry and partially on Paradise Lost itself. The book opens with Lewis’ lectures on the Epic as a genre, and gradually shifts into commentary on the characters and themes of Paradise Lost. I found the second half far more interesting than the first, in part because epic poetry has never ensnared my imagination properly: when reading works like The Aeneid, I’ve ‘cheated’ by encountering the story first in prose form! One particularly interesting part of this first half, though, was the lecture on the human heart in which Lewis asserts that we must abandon this notion of there being a Universal Man who we can find if we strip away all of the contemporary context around a given person. That context is essential to understanding the person: one can’t understand historic or literary figures if one doesn’t appreciate the culture around them. A knight without armor and chivalry is no knight at all. Instead of indulging in the vainglorious enterprise of removing everything about a character, an individual, or an author that makes them different from us — creating some pale imitation of ourselves — we should instead try to enter into their lives, attempt to see the world through their eyes. Lewis discusses the theology of the poem, which varies more from orthodoxy than is generally known, and delves into the character of Satan at length. Lewis’ analysis of Milton’s Satan will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce: Satan is a creature obsessed with himself, and therein lies his doom: such myopia is its own punishment. We author our own hells. Also of interest were Lewis’ comments on Milton’s treatment of Adam, Eve, and the angels.

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Overlord | Victory in the Pacific

Many years ago when the world was new, the Twin Towers stood over Manhattan, and Europe was just starting to adopt the euro, I discovered a trilogy of books in my high school library about World War 2. They formed the basis of my knowledge of World War 2 and have, through repeated readings, merged into one composite tale. I was recently itching to re-visit them, so I hunted down copies of the two volumes I didn’t have.

In Overlord, Marrin combines details with narrative storytelling to deliver a sense of the importance of the mission of D-Day, the insane amount of prep work and logistics required to support it, and of course the outstanding courage of the men who broke through the walls of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”. We learn about the extreme measures adopted to prevent the Nazis from learning about the plan, and take a look at pre-D-Day Britain, which suddenly had to host thousands of young Yanks and provide parking for an unbelievable amount of war material — planes, trains, and automobiles. (Yes, trains. The Allies anticipated the Germans destroying existing rail stock and were bringing their own, long with improvised harbors.) Once the action starts, Marrin covers everyone — the paratroopers, the glider crews, the men on the beaches. There are ample photos, though the quality is wanting. For a younger reader who wants an overview of how important D-Day was and how it was accomplished — and needs interesting details like Patton’s decoy army — Overlord remains a terrific read if you can find it.

Marrin’s story-like narrative with immersive details, and side explanations as needed make Victory in the Pacific especially valuable to those who know little about the conflict. This particular volume, in addition to including the expected (the story of the war, recollections of Marines doing the hard fighting in Tarawa, Iwo Jima, etc, small biographies of major military leaders) also explains how the machines involved in the war worked: there are illustrations of battleships’ firing anatomy, and of submarines’ double hulls along with information as to how their crews initiated dives and returned to the surface. There’s much color here, too — sailors’ songs and funny anecdotes that leaven the seriousness of the Navy/Marine mission to end the Japanese Empire’s dominion over the Pacific. One of my favorites was Marrin’s inclusion of a story about a Marine who, after his company had been briefed on how full their target island was full of venomous critters and nasty predators and the like, inquired — “Why don’t we just let the Japs keep it?” What I most remember about Marrin is his combination of technical details and emotional heft — so that we not only know how the machinery of war worked, but we get some sense of what it was like to be immersed in the war — to be bored, terrified, tortured by heat and pests, or ecstatic to hear the big guns of the US Navy driving away the enemy that relentlessly bombarded your camp.

My favorite in this series, of course, is The Airman’s War — but it merits its own post. (Also, I’ve misplaced it in my library. I took it out to read it, laid it down somewhere, and now it’s hiding.)

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Confessions of a Recovering Engineer

Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town
© 2021 Chuck Marohn
272 pages

Chuck Marohn is a licensed engineer and urban planner who, in 2008,  began sharing his concerns that the current approach to both building and financing the American urban landscape was disastrous.  His one-man blog became a national organization devoted to educating and inspiring citizens, civic leaders,  developers, and engineers to create better places and Strong Towns.   Prompting his profession to do better was a vocation that grew not only out of Marohn’s concern for the world his daughters would navigate and live in as they grew older, but professional shame. As a young engineer, he built bad places and did it with pride, knowing he was following The Standards as laid out in the engineering manuals.  Confessions of a Recovering Engineer  attacks Those Standards, the overweening confidence the profession has in them, the domineering way in which they are applied, and the results this has had – not just on our urban form, but in fostering social problems like the disconnect between law enforcement and the communities they’re meant to be serving.   Although as first glance a book on engineering  and social ills might strike the lay reader as potentially too technical to be of interest, Marohn writes as a citizen to fellow citizen, and his subject concerns virtually anyone living in the United States or in places with comparable design, like Canada.

Confessions opens with the tragic story of a young woman and her family who were struck by a drunk driver while crossing  Springfield’s State Street  in the middle of a large block.  The family were crossing mid-block and the driver moving at highway speed for the same reasons:  the sheer scale of the block meant that walking through the rainy night to the next intersection with kids in tow was impractical to say the least, and that same scale allowed the driver to achieve highway speeds despite being in an urban environment where pedestrian and crosstraffic activity were common.  It has become the norm in American urbanism for suburban streets to be built with the same principles that guide highway construction: wide lanes, gentle curves, broad clearances on either side so that cars that go off the road have space to recover without immediately striking trees, people, bike racks, and those other things people insist on cluttering cities up with.   But highways and city streets are two very different forms, Marohn argues: a highway is a road,  which is valuable  for its ability to connect two or more places.  A street is a platform for human and economic activity.  Roads and streets are symbiotic,  allowing for valuable places to grow and connect to other valuable places,  making each the better.   The great error engineers have done is attempting to create street-road hybrids, what Marohn calls “stroads”:  they are ubiquitous in the United States, and each looks much the same,  partially inspiring Jim Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere.   Stroads, Marohn writes, are the futon of traffic infrastructure:   they attempt to serve two functions at once and serve neither adequately.   A stroad like State Street is so dominated by cars moving in aggressive spurts that the cultural and economic activity the dominates pedestrian environments like downtown Sante Fe or St Augustine  are diminished – but the amount of crosstraffic and pedestrian activity also inhibits the free flow of traffic along the road, meaning that the vehicles are in a hurry to go nowhere quickly. They rage from light to light in a manner that might be comic if this environment didn’t foster accidents so effectively.  Even more of a tragic comedy is the way we build spaces that encourage speed, realize people are speeding, and then spend more money adding speedbumps to slow people down.

Marohn argues that urban engineers have lost sight of the reason we engineer in the first place: it is not for the structure, but for whom the structure serves.  Engineers raised on the gospel of creating wealth through road connections assume that the highway standards of roads should be applied everywhere; they prioritize the fast and ‘safe’ flow of traffic regardless of what it does to the human habitats that roads flow through, ignoring  the fact that those same human habitats invariably make their roads slower and more dangerous.   Most of the danger stems from the sheer unpredictability  of the urban environment mixed with the speed of traffic, but there are other complications. One particularly salient example when Marohn was writing was that the scale of urban development in the United States has forced law enforcement to become a motorized, isolated, and spread-out body: instead of beat cops walking neighborhoods and establishing relationships with those they protect,   we have created an urban form that makes the only interaction cops have with most people to be the traffic stop – a notoriously dangerous scenario that both cops and many citizens fear, where petty infractions like broken taillights can spiral into violence when both parties assume the worst of the other. Because the design of cities facilitates — encourages — speed, nearly everyone does it, and officers exercise a broad amount of discretion as to who they pull over and who they don’t, greatly increasing the use of profiling. Profiling can be useful, but it can undermine public trust in the police force. Marohn then shifts to examining prospects for  improving transportation within cities: he urges city officials to convert stroads into either proper roads or proper streets,  and focus on incremental growth instead of massive projects. He also reviews various options for the transportation future, from the practical (walkable cities, bicycles) to the faddish (autonomous electronic vehicles). The good news is that change is possible: State Street is being actively fixed, and Strong Towns recently posted an article on seven other stroads that have been converted to more humane streets.

Confessions is solid reading for citizens who are concerned about dysfunctional, ugly, and dehumanizing urban design. Marohn writes earnestly and largely manages to convey the details of problems without overwhelming lay readers with technical information. Given that I’ve followed Marohn since he was just a dude with a blog, I was eager to read this — and happy to recommend it to others.

Related:
Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn
It’s a Sprawl World After all: The Human Costs of Unplanned Growth, Doug Morris
Walkable Cities, Jeff Speck
Happy City, Charles Montgomery
The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of America’s Manmade Landscape, Jim Kunstler
Strong Towns blog
Strong Towns podcasts
Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, Angie Schmitt
Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars, Chris and Melissa Brunlett

A practical example of what Marohn is writing about in regards to design can be found in comparing two cities both 20 minutes from me. Both are on an Alabama state highway, and both change the speed limit within their borders from the highway speed of 55 MPH to 30 MPH. In one, the speed limit is observed by most of the traffic, and even those who exceed it don’t do so by much. In the other, the speed limit is universally ignored unless there’s a police officer near by. I’ll leave you to guess which is which.

Autaugaville, Alabama
Maplesville, Alabama
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Alabama’s Amazon

Saving America’s Amazon: Our Most Biodiverse River System is Under Siege
© 2020 Ben Raines
200 pages

The Mobile river delta is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, but few know and still fewer appreciate this: for thousands of years, Alabama has served as a haven for many species found nowhere else, kept warm and rainy by generous sunshine and Gulf breezes. In the last century, though, and especially more recently, Alabama’s record-number of natural species has been rivaled by a record number of extinctions: dams, logging, and industrial development have been disrupting species migrations, destroying habitats, and poisoning broad areas. Ben Raines, E.O. Wilson, and others have suggested that Alabama is at a crossroads: either Alabamians began taking stewardship of this incredible treasure more seriously, or it will be lost. The scope of the problem is significant: speaking as an Alabamian who delights in exploring the state’s wild places and reading books about science and nature, even I was unaware of how unique the Mobile delta is until reading an article in the NY Times a few years ago. Raines’ gift for photography is employed to good effect here, with shots of staggering beauty showing off both the landscape and the unique I hope that Raines and other’s activism will help turn the tide, but his argument here would have been better served had he not frequently used ‘conservative’ as a bad word: given that his intended audience is Alabamians, demeaning the reader probably won’t help. If pictures are worth a thousand words, though, those included here will more than make up for Raines’ failure to read the room and convince readers that the Delta is a jewel worth cherishing and protecting.

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