Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This book starts strong. Harari clears up the common misconception that the evolutionary progress of humanity is a straight line with stops at neanderthal or homo erectus before arriving at homo sapiens. While our distant ancestors lingered in their cradle in Africa, others left and scattered across Europe and Asia. And when homo sapiens finally decided to leave their home and explore new lands, the other types of human were still out there. From brawnier and bigger-brained homo neanderthalensis to dwarf-sized homo flores. The fact that only sapiens are around now, or indeed any time in the past thirty thousand years, is an ominous hint to what happened when they encountered the other humans.

What set our ancestors apart? Fiction.

Around seventy thousand years ago, home sapiens underwent a cognitive revolution. Prior to this point, we had no problem using language to talk about real things (i.e. “Stay away from the river, there’s a lion!). After this point, we could conceive of things that do not exist (i.e. “The lion-man, whom we should worship, appeared to me in the fire and commanded us to cross the great river to new lands”.) In addition to acting as the genesis for art and religion, this also allowed humans to mobilize and organize in much larger groups than otherwise possible. If a stranger is also a disciple of the lion-man, you can trust and cooperate with him without preamble. This led not only to sapiens triumph over other humans, but also allowed for organized religion, nation states, and international corporations.

Cool stuff.

But once we depart the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and discover agriculture, Sapiens falters in several ways. Foremost is that it ceases to be surprising. While Harari does posit the extraordinary claim that agriculture was a disaster and quality of life for the average person plummeted (disease, famine, etc), most of the rest of it is stuff I’ve heard before. People became stationary, surplus allowed the rise of a specialist class, yatta, yatta.

Beyond that, the narrative also loses focus. It becomes a list of life-changing fictional inventions such as money, religion, and empire. It feels more like a collection of insights rather than a coherent history. The bits on empire are the strongest, and tie closely to the original thesis on the cognitive revolution and using fiction to organize, but the money section is strictly inferior to reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and I can barely remember what went on about religion.

The book closes with some science fiction, despite the author’s spurious claim that “This is not science fiction.” Post-history, wherein we become superhumans of some kind. Cyborgs or AIs or internet-connected hiveminds. Something truly beyond sapien:

Such a cyborg would no longer be human, or even organic. It would be something completely different. It would be so fundamentally another kind of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or political implications.

Sapiens was pleasant enough to read. The first section is legitimately good. The rest of the book brought me to a realization: I’ve read enough generalized non-fiction at this point that, barring a serious historical or scientific breakthrough of some kind, they naturally appear repetitive and in a significant way I’ll be failing at the goal of reading non-fiction in the first place: gaining knowledge. I’ve been reluctant to pick up more specific books about, say the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire or the history of the pitbull. There seems like a higher risk that it will be less “useful” knowledge or that the specificity of the topic will lead the subject-dedicated author to be more a biased source. No matter. I must strike off from the generalized path.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić

In the afterword to his novel The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), Hermann Broch states that political indifference is closely linked to ethical depravity, that is, that politically innocent people are to a considerable degree ethically suspect, that they bear ethical blame, and stresses that the German populace did not feel responsible for Hitler’s coming to power because they considered themselves “apolitical”, in no way connected to what was happening around them. And what about the “apolitical” Croatian populace, which is selectively apolitical? How does it cope with what was happening and is still happening around it? It doesn’t. It enjoys music and applauds. And writes rigged history.

Damn.

This scathing indictment, which can be leveled at virtually all western nations, exemplifies Belladonna, a book about atrocity, about memory, about death. It’s a book that reserves several pages for a list of names of jewish children murdered from one small town in the 40s, a book that wants you to gaze at the abyss, in full (impossible), that fascism rent so deeply into European landscape and consciousness.

Our protagonist is Andreas Ban, a man with a lame leg, a lame hand, a cancerous breast, the spine of a 90 year old, glaucoma, suspiciously red-tinged eyes, and an isolated and troubled soul. Ban battles the truth of his own mortality, rapidly seeping away.  

He skips the first phase, the phase of rejecting the illness, he’s no fool. So he confronts it. The second phase, the phase of anger (fuck off!), settles down, he no longer shouts at the doctor, he’s tame. He rushes into the third phase, bargaining, with one sentence– Give me ten years— to which Dr. Toffetti replies, Perhaps. But then you’ll come back for another ten, and Andres Ban falls silent.

Ban’s health and history are only the half of it. He’s also obsessed with the Second World War. The holocaust looms foremost, yet it’s not simply German maleficence he’s concerned with, but the complicity of all of Europe. Examples include the Balkan states barbaric excecutions of Jewish villagers by their neighbors before the Germans even got there. Or, to take a different tact, the Dutch expelling Germans from the Netherlands post-WW2, even those who had emigrated long before the war and had Dutch spouses and children. It’s not simply the scale of torture and murder that pains Andreas, but the lengths people will go to forget, to shrug into apolitical stupor. They’ll go so far as to spin that loss of memory and responsibility into hero worship of men directly responsible for death camps.

This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read. There is no light at the end of the tunnel — just another train you can’t avoid. People will continue to forget our greatest crimes, even deny they ever occurred in the first place. Holocaust denial is on the rise. Consider this maddening article about Poland ascribing jailtime to telling the truth about its own complicity in the holocaust. It will depend on the reader whether Sadness or Anger is the primary emotion roused by Belladonna. For me, it was bitter anger. The same anger that erupts when watching Americans rewrite slavery or the Civil War. It’s not only a battle for human rights, but one for our collective memory, our history. 

Drndić is a deft writer, and the front and back covers of Belladonna are eager to compare it to the work of W. G. Sebald. Though there are a handful of paragraphs that devolve into an unclear word-salad, especially when delving a little too deeply into Andreas subconscious, most of the book can be opened at random to reveal clever insights: 

Cooking shows have long been universal hits. It might be worth asking why. Particularly since they are becoming increasingly tedious, unwatchable and undigestable. Since there is an ever-greater number of poor people, particularly those for whom TV shows are their only mental superstructure, these shows are also offensive. Lively performances by smiling chefs take place in elegant kitchens where high-quality pots and pans are used, the ingredients are expensive and often exotic. As Andreas fears that when he retires his nutrition will be reduced to chicken wings and innards and that he will, heaven forbid, go to the market just before it is blasted by water cannons to pick up a few rotten apples and discarded salad leaves, he find this nutrition craze nauseating.

Balkan history is unfamiliar to me, like I would assume it is for most Americans. I was a gradeschooler when the Yugoslav Wars broke out and the level of truth and history exposed to children at the time was shamelessly minimal. Yet it is important. As right-wing fascism takes deeper root in America, our own suddenly-confident Nazis scuttle from gutters like the rat on Belladonna’s cover, and we must look to the peoples who have been struggling with it for decades. It’s a disease some thought cured when the allies dismantled Auschwitz, but it lingers as a misshapen tumor, always lurking beneath humanity’s fragile skin. 

Let’s end this review with one of the many different descriptions of Belladonna in this novel:

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows up to two meters high and contains atropine, still used today to dilate the pupils, while in the Renaissance women would drop the atropine into their eyes to make them shine. And so those idle Renaissance ladies, squeezed into their corsets, in their silk, brocade, velvet and cotton dresses walk around with dilated pupils, disoriented, half-blind, winking without knowing at whom and smiling foolishly into space. Their eyes appear dark and deep, but are in fact empty and colorless. They were beautiful women, le belle donne, blinded fools.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

John Brown remains a fascinating, enigmatic, and powerful figure. Celebrated as a hero, vilified as a terrorist. Many have claimed him a fanatic or madman, while others point out the inherent racism in writing off the only white man willing to violently oppose slavery as crazy. He was friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who was sick and could not attend the raid on Harper’s Ferry as she planned, leading to one of history’s great “What If’s?” Emerson and Thoreau sung his praises, mourned his death. Victor Hugo wrote a moving letter seeking Brown’s pardon, ending with this seriously badass line:

“Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus.”

John Brown is one of the few genuine symbols of white resistance. He requires no qualifications nor asides, regardless of the extent the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy attempted to smear his name or erase him from history.  A few months back, when the country was racked with a wave of right-wing Nazi rallies, I joined the counter-protest here in SF and there were dozens of old white people out with John Brown’s face plastered on their T-shirts. Some even had banners. Big banners, taking multiple people to stretch out and hold. 170 odd years dead, John Brown and his cause continues to inspire people.

This brings us to The Good Lord Bird, the last in a set of Civil War era books I’ve read recently. Fictional pre-teen Henry Shackleford is freed and recruited by John Brown, who mistakes him for a girl and nicknames him Onion. Naturally, as these kinds of tales go, Henry/Onion galivants around with Brown, whom he affectionately thinks of as “The Old Man”, receiving a first-person perspective to all his greatest exploits: The Pottawatomie Massacre, meetings with Douglass and Tubman, the doomed raid on Harper’s Ferry itself.

The greatest flaw in this book is one of tone. On one hand its farcical and comedic: John Brown prays for so long, he puts captured rebels to sleep. He can’t tell a boy from a girl and neither can Frederick Douglass, portrayed here as a gluttonous phony. Harriet Tubman alone, “The General”, escapes caricature. There’s a lot of jokey wordplay, especially around Onion’s slang or his misunderstanding of the adult world, like when he accidentally professes himself an expert on “trim”, thinking it means barbering, when actually it was Civil War era slang for prostitution. While delving in humor and hyperbole, it’s also a book about slavery and naturally can’t take it too far, reverting to more a serious or honest tone at times. 

The result renders both the humor and thematic judgement weak. It also makes it difficult to divine authorial messaging. Am I supposed to think Frederick Douglass is a creep and coward only good for puffing up his chest and talking a whole lot? What about all the slaves and freedmen who didn’t commit to the raid on Harper’s Ferry? The narrative seems to be indicting them for their inaction but the waffling tone makes it hard to grasp.

The unevenness extends to Onion as well. Sometimes his perspective is that of 12 year old, other times its that of the 100+ year old man retelling the story. Onion the boy forced to be a girl is more like a Disney movie plot than a metaphor for the personal dislocation of many black people then and now, an idea McBride flirts with but never explores all that deeply. Put all this together and you have me feeling real disconnected from the story. From Onion, from John Brown. From the writing itself, which was honestly pretty good.

(This isn’t all the fault of an uneven tone; the book is overlong and suffers from underediting, leading to some dull segments, especially when the Old Man isn’t in the picture. The raid on Harper’s Ferry itself also feels like a litany of “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”.)

McBride’s acknowledgements at the end of the book, rather the usual skippable bit thanking agents and historians and whomever else, simply thanks all the people who have kept John Brown’s memory alive. That is seriously cool. It also makes me wish for a more tonally serious novel, tossing humor for a more powerful and straightforward account of the story/history. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Abe Lincoln’s young son, Willie, is taken by typhoid fever on the eve of a lavish party thrown by the Lincolns. He awakens in the eponymous bardo: A sort of post-death, pre-reward/punishment limbo, where the dead who absolutely cannot accept their death linger. Such as a fresh suicide who changed his mind at the last instant or a man whose years long passion was left unconsummated. Misers who can’t leave their earthly possessions behind or bachelor dandies who could never settle down, even in death.

I don’t know.

I enjoyed reading this. The writing is good. Charming. Often funny. Occasionally beautiful.  

Yet there’s something dissatisfying about the whole package. Like a beautiful painting that only fills a corner of a canvas. Or that same painting with the corner-portion stretched across the entire mural. Saunders is a short story writer and this feels less a complete novel than a slightly extended story.

The novel plays out in faux-excerpts of histories on the Lincolns and dialogue between the shades skulking around the bardo. The book is at its highest and most exceptional when painting its warm and generous portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Gregarious, kind, principled, exceedingly strange, thoughtful, ugly, grandfatherly, unsure, wise. A loving father who felt the loss of his favorite son so deeply, amid the nation newly at war. It is easy to become attached.

“Oh, the pathos of it!–haggard, drawn into fixed lines of unutterable sadness, with a look of loneliness, as of a soul whose depth of sorrow and bitterness no human sympathy could ever reach. The impression I carried away was that I had seen, not so much the President of the United States, as the saddest man in the world.”

 This is the second book I’ve read in a row that characterizes Honest Abe and demonstrates our shocking good fortune that America’s greatest president was in office simultaneously to its closest brush with annihilation. It’s not just political savvy but the personal attributes and integrity of the man that keeps him magnetic still. When AG Jeff Sessions threatened California recently and swore on the dead of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln’s grave, it made me more furious than your average misuse of history usually does, given how antithetical the current administration is to Old Abe. Felt more personal, especially while reading this book.

Anyway.

The rest of the novel largely concerns three dead characters active in the bardo, denying their own realities whilst trying to help newly dead Willie Lincoln. These three — Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend Early — are well drawn. They’re interesting and likeable guides for this strange new un-world. The rest are forgettable. All the pieces are there but their individual plights and reasons-for-being don’t form a lasting impact.  

This story has been done before. Stories about dead people talking to each other. Stories about tormented souls stuck in limbo, unable to let go of their incomplete, mysterious, or tragically shortened lives. Again, Saunders is an adroit wielder of prose, so it’s a good read, a quick one that took up two halves of a plane flight for a recent vacation. A literary beach read! If better read by a dying fire in a gloomy old New England manor than the beach.

But it’s also the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. When judged alongside some of those greats, or put on a pedestal as the best book of the year, I can’t help but compare to other novels that did a similar topic and wonder what makes this one so much better. The nagging feeling that it’s a short story stretched a little thin gains greater scrutiny. It was good but not that good.

The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Alright back to books! I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in the Civil War, most of it within this comprehensive tome. I chose it because it topped a list written by Ta-Nehisi Coates on what to read to become ‘less stupid’ about the Civil War. Battle Cry is best read in full and I urge all Americans to do so. Here’s some of my favorite quotes and attendant commentary. Clearly the social causes and effects interested me more than battles and the moving of armies. 

* * *

Southern newspapers reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Star which stated that 99 of 100 settlers considered slavery “an unnecessary moral, social, and political curse upon themselves and posterity.

The Battle Cry of Freedom opens with an extensive slate of evidence demonstrating the cause of the Civil War. Slavery. This is of immense importance as the Lost Cause version of history, a fantastic revision of doomed-but-just Southern righteousness, is pernicious. To this day, the teaching of 1860-1865 is warped in American schools, mired in rhetoric on ‘States Rights’. The recent uproar over tearing down Confederate statues reveals both that many people still celebrate that Lost Cause and are only continuing the trend over many years that put those statues up in the first place.

(‘States rights’ is pure bullshit anyway as for the 10-15 years previous the war, the South controlled Congress and had absolutely zero problem enacting federal slave protections in the Free States. When States Rights is held up as a freedom denied the south and thus requiring their reluctant secession, it is merely hypocrisy and lies peddled by wealthy slave owners and lapped up by the regular whites of the South.)

 

* * *

Lincoln’s wit on display:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ’all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” — Abraham Lincoln

 

* * *

Long before the rest of the western world learned that the glory of old-time war was slain by technology — trench warfare, rampant disease, high death tolls with little strategic gain — Americans experienced it firsthand. Famously bloodier than all other American wars combined, the human cost of the Civil War is difficult to grasp. It was not unheard of for entire regiments to be reduced to a dozen men.

“I never realized the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the thing called glorious war until I saw this,” wrote a Tennessee private after the battle. “Men . . . lying in every conceivable position; the dead . . . with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help. . . . I seemed . . . in a sort of daze.” Sherman described “piles of dead soldiers’ mangled bodies . . . without heads and legs. . . . The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

 

* * *

“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

“I will if I live.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

When controlled for population, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the greatest bestseller in American history. It hasn’t aged well, but it can’t be understated how electric it was to the reading public at the time. By alluding to a black man as Jesus, Harriet Beecher Stowe aimed an arrow at shamefaced Northerners reluctant to commit to what their morals and religion supposedly demanded.  It functioned  as statecraft motivating people to abolition while accomplishing what any good fiction does: put people in the shoes of its characters, forcing thoughtful readers to consider what life under the lash would truly be like. 

Everyone read it in the South too. Check out this angry reviewer:

“I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.”

 

* * *

American capitalism had not yet settled in the early-mid 18th century and plenty of people had converging ideas on what it ought to be. This prescient account makes me laugh:

“Banks have been the known enemies of our republican government from the beginning,” they proclaimed, “the engine of a new form of oppression . . . a legacy that the aristocratic tendencies of a bygone age has left, as a means to fill the place of baronial usurpation and feudal exactions.” Banks caused “the artificial inequality of wealth, much pauperism and crime, the low state of public morals, and many of the other evils of society. . . . In justice to equal rights let us have no banks.”

 

* * *

The Confederacy tried desperately to receive diplomatic recognition from Europe, and plenty of the old aristocracy, seeing much in common with wealthy plantation owners, was willing to give it to them. This never occurred, though the rebels still received plenty of help via loopholes in English and French law. Most interesting to me: The South embargoed cotton exports to Britain, presuming that the textile industry reliant on it would clamor to pressure the government to accept their terms. Instead, they received a lukewarm or defiant response from the English working class.

And in any case, a good deal of truth still clings to the old notion of democratic principle transcending economic self-interest in Lancashire. As a veteran Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton . . . it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

“Economic self-interest” is commonly held up as the prime motivator of regular people. “How could the working class vote for Trump when it’s against their economic self-interest?”, wonders the knee-jerk Liberal. It’s a load of crap. Ideology runs politics. When economics are the prime directive, it’s when clever power holders manage to manipulate their economic message into an ideological one. The Civil War encapsulates this perfectly. It was clashing ideals on bondage and freedom and Union and democracy that led to over six hundred thousand dead

Indeed, and I am unforgivably missing a quote for this one, Democracy itself was under attack. Lincoln mused gloomily that if the Union could not be maintained, then the great experiment was a failure. It would prove The People unfit to rule themselves. Northern newspapers echoed this sentiment.

Democracy survived that century and the next, at least. 

Lexicon by Max Barry

My co-worker and former boss recommended Lexicon to me. Recommend is too soft a word. She told me it was good and then plopped it onto my desk the following day with barely a word.

There is a constantly shifting reading-list wedged between the folds of my brain. It is unpleasant and physical when altered by obligations, sort of like getting jabbed in the funny-bone. Luckily, this book was a good ride, though its seams begin to hiss and tear if you think about it too much. 

Two plot threads weave and intertwine through Lexicon. Emily Ruff is taken off the streets of San Francisco to enroll in a mysterious elite school, which initially shares more similarities with Survivor than Harvard. Here, she will learn to be a poet. Meanwhile, Wil Parke is scooped up by shady characters when exiting an airport and is hurled from one car chase or gunfight to the next.

The interplay between the threads is Lexicon’s greatest strength. Both characters are likable, especially Emily. As the onion layers are peeled back, another plot point or mystery becomes obvious to the reader, but rather than delay the denouement, Barry quickly reveals that same truth and dangles new plot points and mysteries ahead. Tension is maintained. Characters don’t stay at one place very long, but are thrust onward, go, go, go.

The book suggests that power comes from mastery over language. There’s interludes containing news articles and forum posts detailing how the public can be manipulated by (fake) news and personally catered newsfeeds delivering precisely what an individual wants to hear. In narrative, there’s references to old-timey wizards and sorcerers who seemed to be practicing magic, but actually they were just good with words. This is too-clever misdirection. Both the modern day characters of Lexicon and the abra-cadabra wizards of yore are using magic. Most of the wordplay invoked throughout the book is one character using magic words to compel another to do something they would not otherwise do. Literally prefaced by gobbledygook magic words. Don’t be mistaken, the plot of book revolves around mind control, not words.

There’s another book, perhaps a better one, where the poets and word-soldiers of Lexicon are highly persuasive to the point of seeming magical. There’s a great chapter early on where Emily is taken out on the street by an instructor and tasked with coaxing people to cross the street, using a new method each time, with failure to reach some unknown number leading to expulsion. It’s tense. I wish that was the direction Lexicon took rather than fake-sciency word bombs. 

I had fun reading. It’s a thrilling thriller. Keep turning those pages. But it’s also a book where the more I think about it, the more problems I find.  More plot holes, more opportunities missed.

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai

The sensation of discovering a favorite author is not gradual. It is a thunderbolt, a swift jab to the heart. I do not read two, three books and have a lightbulb go off. I read a single chapter, even a single paragraph and know. Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver. It did not take long. Literary love at first read.

You can see where this is going. László Krasznahorkai. Add ‘em to the list.

He’s the type of writer who makes waiting in line at the post office gripping, even dreadful. Literally. There is a story about waiting in line at the post office and it is fantastic. Or in my second favorite story, which takes place largely in the back of a car while our timid protagonist is stuck listening to the driver’s vain and voluble friend blather on about his banking career, even the inane babble about middle-management corporate drama is engrossing, and you feel let down when the bored protagonist finally tunes him out.

Krasznahorkai has been a sensation for a while now — his first big success was published the same year as my birth. He won the international Man Booker in 2015. Yet, being a writer allergic to both paragraph breaks and commas, I’m not certain if he is all that widely read. I’ll avoid literary posturing entirely and tell you how I found him: I really liked the cover. And the title.

Thematically, these short stories can broken down to: Mundane life is terrifying. Humanity is a tiny piece of the universe and we may not exist, surely we do not truly understand causality in any meaningful way. Nor history. Most of the main characters are dissociating, locked up in asylums or wasting away their late middle-age in self-inflicted limbo.

“You shrink back slightly from the TV screen. You are incapable of reconciling all that you feel with all that you know.”

What elevates this beyond a (well-written) gallivant through misanthropy is that clearly Krasznahorkai, via his heroes, is desperately seeking some beauty in all this. Whether this be an early story about a guy trying to run faster than the earth, or my favorite piece: Gagarin. As in, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human in space. Like many pieces, the story is filtered through another character. In this case, a once-renowned lecturer, now living in an asylum, obsessively details his theories on the life of Gagarin: How could the first man in space die year later in a routine training incident? He invents clever solutions, backed up mostly by his own imagination.

I finished this book two weeks ago and I’m thinking about it still. Along with what Krasznahorkai novel I will read next. 

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

Come to a place like this, far from the estates and the ring roads and the car parks and the black fields of beet and the screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianized precincts. Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home.

The place like this our nameless protagonist has come to, thirteen months past abandoning his wife and newborn daughter, is a ramshackle house amid the English moor. Here, he spends time contemplating the universe, comparing primeval nature to industrial humanity, and plunging his body into freezing water to surpass pain and selfhood alike. It’s good. Well-written, interesting, and posing uncomfortable but thoughtful questions such as: is it better to live as a miserable, suicidal person or abandon your entire family for over a year to potentially return as a better one?

There’s something primordially compelling about ‘man alone in nature’ type stories. Whether it be reading of this guy patching up a house, heating some sprouting potatoes on an old stove and living in thought and silence or something like William Vollmann living several days in obscenely low temperatures simply to experience it and learn something about himself, I follow along, rapt. I then brush it all off, knowing that I never would go live alone in the woods for years nor spend two weeks in the Arctic, but maybe, even being sure in that knowledge, I am closer to the allure that has captured these men than I give credit to. In any case, I certainly like reading about it and wondering how I would fare in their place. Indeed, the ‘reading’ part is key here. I generally don’t care for movies or reality shows of a similar stripe. I don’t need to see the tree fall, I want to delve into the realm of thought accompanying it. 

Alas, this premise only persists for the first 15-20 pages of Beast. Early on, a storm threatens the patchwork roof of the roughshod house. The protagonist climbs up to fix it. Next, we find him waking up, seriously injured, and more importantly, knocked senseless. The novel shifts, embracing a mixture of vague sentiments and surreality. He no longer thinks in specifics: his family, his former life, or even the saints and martyrs contemplated earlier. We abandon context and specificity, not to mention commas. It’s an encompassing vagueness — foggy landscapes, unclear physical sensations, and yes, a beast.

i had always thought that if i were to jump off a cliff i would be able to fly to control myself with my arms somehow to crash elegantly onto the rocks but no nothing works i flail and flap like i am boneless down and down and i will be eaten and if you have never been eaten then what are you.

While the newly christened refrain “if you have never been eaten then what are you” is kind of funny, it doesn’t hold up like anything the first dozen pages promised. I have never been eaten and honestly I just don’t find it a crucial component to self-actualization. On the other hand, I have observed/been one of those “screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West”. Even though the writing remains strong, it’s impossible not to be disappointed by the content.

I picked this up because I loved The Wake. Beast forms part two of a loosely related trilogy, despite there being a thousand years between them, and even for all of its faults, I’m still greatly anticipating the next one. Kingsnorth’s grasp on a distinct kind of English wildness and the prose he uses to elucidate it transports me. 

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

More of a collection of poetry fragments, parables, and clever wordplay than a regular novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers immerses us in the home of a father and his two boys, recently bereft of their wife and mother, and attended by a grief-eating, grief-healing crow. It’s funny and sad. At one hundred pages and less than an hour to read, it seems excessive to spend many words on a review, so instead I will paste this delightful chapter elucidating the psychology of a crow:

Head down, tot-along, looking
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAHH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p-45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could a learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Short books are strange. I’ve read many good ones and forgotten most of them. It seems like like there is some minimum time investment, something reached only by the repeated labor of turning pages, that is personally required for a book to feel like a book, to be shelved mentally between the memories of thousands of others.