A thought of Thanksgiving

A year ago I was hospitalized with what could have been a life-ending illness. When I was told that I had chronic kidney disease and would need to be on dialysis for the forseeable future, I thought my life was pretty much over. Instead, a year later I’m the undeserving recipient of a kidney transplant. I’m in a meaningful relationship with a wonderful woman, and I’ve collected a few IT certifications. More importantly, I’ve developed a greater and more intense appreciation for life, the people within mine, and the zeal to make the most out of every day. Even if I hadn’t received the transplant, I could only stand in awe of the blessings of the last year — the people I’ve met, the strength I’ve found and been given. It has been a humbling experience, and I can only respond with gratitude and the resolve to live more worthily.

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Top Ten Tuesday & Teaser Tuesday

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is “Favorite Bookstores”, or “Bookstores You’d Like to Visit”. As a child of rural post big-box America, I’ve only ever known places like Bookland, Books-A-Million, etc, and until recently could only visit ‘real’ bookstores while on vacation. COAS Books in Las Cruces comes to mind, as does Second Read Books in St. Augustine. Within the last year, though, a retired academic dean and community-minded gentleman has opened up Broad Street Books in downtown Selma — and it’s one of my very favorite places in the city, with a ‘living room’ feel to it. I visit it every Saturday morning and always find good company, coffee, and the odd treat there. The proprietor also uses the space to host book talks and poetry readings. It’s a treasure! If you’re ever in Selma, do drop in.

These shots are all from my instagram ,which is all nature or ‘community life’ type shots. On the subject of Tuesday memes, I used to participant in one called “Teaser Tuesday”, in which members would share a two-line excerpt from their current read. Although the original host has long since hung up her book-blogging hat, and there’s no successor to my knowledge, I always enjoyed going back to see what funny, surprising, or interesting lines I’d shared — so I’m going to start posting teases here again!

From Ed Yong’s An Immense World:

The scale of a whale’s hearing is hard to grapple with. There’s the spatial vastness, of course, but also an expanse of time. Underwater, sound waves take just under a minute to cover 50 miles. If a whale hears the song of another whale from a distance of 1,500 miles, it’s really listening back in time by about half an hour, like an astronomer gazing upon the ancient light of a distant star. If a whale is trying to sense a mountain 500 miles away, it has to somehow connect its own call with an echo that arrives 10 minutes later. That might seem preposterous, but consider that a blue whale’s heart beats around 30 times a minute at the surface, and can slow to just 2 beats a minute on a dive. They surely operate on very different timescales than we do. If a zebra finch hears beauty in the milliseconds within a single note, perhaps a blue whale does the same over seconds and minutes. To imagine their lives, “you have to stretch your thinking to completely different levels of dimension.”

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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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© 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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