Why I post about the books I read

When my brother found out that I post online about the books I read, his reaction was “Why”. Why would anyone care what you read? Are you some kind of narcissist?

Well, maybe, though I don’t think any more than any of the rest of us. Reading takes some amount of time and effort and sharing thoughts, as brief as they are, is one way of recognizing it. It’s also the new equivalent of the massive bookshelf in one’s home, showing off the wide range of interests and knowledge one accumulates over a life time. Especially in an age of digital books where there is no longer a bookshelf to place them to show off (and gather dust) after they’ve been read, posting about them is one way of showing off what I ready.

So, yeah, I can’t deny that element.

But, really, the main reason is for myself, and to have a record of what I read because, honestly, I have a horrible memory. I can’t recall much of anything and having some record is my way of jotting down what I felt was interesting or important in that book. The very act of writing about a book helps store something in my brain about it. It also gives me a potential place to go back and look at what I thought about the book, gives me some record I can refer to in case I want to revisit what I thought. At the very least, it gives me a record of what I’ve read, so I don’t end up rereading something.

This isn’t unique to me. It is generically hard to remember what we read. Especially when it comes in bursts, like on an airplane, in stead of steady, dedicated reading of a text. We all consume lots of information of various sorts, and this is my way of trying to remember, at least a bit, what I’ve consumed.

That I post my thoughts online instead of in a private diary, well, that admittedly is a bit of narcissism. Maybe someone else will read something because I’ve written about it. Maybe not. Maybe someone will follow up with a great recommendation. It really doesn’t matter. Mostly, this is for me and if anyone else gets any benefit, that is gravy.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is set in old Russia, long before there was a Soviet Union and even before a Russia existed. There was only the Rus people and they lived scattered, outposts of people in an otherwise hostile world. A world in which the creatures of fairy tales are real, though very few people can see them directly.

Vasya, the daughter of Pyotr, the leader of one of the furthest settlements, is one such person. She can see these creatures everyone since, in old Rus lore, they literally exist everywhere. Every building has such a creature that tends it — the house, the bathhouse, the stables. Vasya, being one of the very few that can see them and thus interact with them, and unburdened by the harsh interpretation that Christianity imposes about them, becomes their friend and learns from them. They teach her the impossible, such as how to talk with animals, and soon she is riding horses bare-back with a skill that rivals the best warriors of the village.

The plot involves some powerful beings from Russian folklore and Vasya’s role in protecting her family from them. Saying more would give it away. However, throughout the story, Vasya is the strongest character, the one that stands up for what is right even if it means being on the wrong end of scorn and, often, punishment. Her strength is juxtaposed with the weaknesses of her step-mother, who can also see the so-called ‘demons.’ In the end, it is Vasya’s willingness to accept the reality around her and her ability to see beyond the social constructs that dictate the lives of everyone else that enable her to be such a strong protagonist. She doesn’t constrain her beliefs and actions on what is right or wrong by social norms, she simply does what she thinks is right.

Vasya’s world is filled with the supernatural, a world that even her closest relatives are almost completely ignorant of. They have their superstitions and such, but they don’t directly interact with the supernatural. Arden does a great job of bringing the supernatural to life in this story as well as juxtaposing Vasya’s existence in it, on the one hand deeply immersed in a world of fairies and on the other the mundane world of humans. Vasya lives in both worlds and, through her initial innocence, is able to do so without any contradiction. To her, both are part of the natural world. For her, the world of people, and the people themselves, are often more frightening than the supernatural creatures she encounters.

Vasya also lives in a time where women were expected to do one of two things: become a wife and mother or join a convent. “I was born for a cage, after all: convent or house, what else is there?” She sees much more in the real world and longs for a freedom that simply isn’t an option for women of her time.

The supernatural world is handled deftly by Arden. While ever-present, it isn’t overwhelming either. That is, it adds to the story rather than distract from it. Arden also develops an interesting view on magic. One character tells Vasya “Nothing changes, Vasya. Things are, or they are not. Magic is forgetting that something ever was other than as you willed it.” Magic is looking beyond the possibilities the world imposes on us, whether expectations of what things or of what people are. Either can become more than what they were originally intended if you can look beyond that original purpose.

This is the first of three books that follow the story of Vasya. In this one, we mostly follow her life as a child and her growing into her role in the world, both human and supernatural. It seems like it will be a challenge to retain the innocence that drives a lot of Vasya’s character in this chapter of the story. However, that also means that Vasya is destined for even greater things. We shall see.

Spillover by David Quammen

Many, if not the majority, of human diseases are what are called zoonotic. They don’t originate in humans but pass to humans from animals. Ebola, the common flu (“…wild aquatic birds are now known to be the ultimate origin of all influenzas…“), and AIDS are just a few examples. It seems that the rate at which such diseases are making their way to the human population is increasing. In his book Spillover, David Quammen delves deep into this question, traveling the globe, interviewing leading scientists, and witnessing first-hand our response to these diseases.

Spillover is one of those “popular” science books that it would behoove everyone to read. It is accessible, boiling the science down to the essentials and describing it in a way that is understandable. More importantly, it discusses a topic that is often in the news and which will only become more prevalent and newsworthy as time passes. Further, the types of diseases that Quammen investigates are becoming more common and understanding why and how may be a critical step in preventing a future epidemic.

This is one of those books where I was constantly highlighting passages, as I was continually learning something new, interesting, and, seemingly, important. Quammen is a field reporter, having worked with publications such as National Geographic. He doesn’t just report but he participates in his stories. As such, he has a multitude of anecdotes to share. Some of them are very enlightening as he describes, for example, how he helped capture bats to test them for various viruses. Once or twice, his penchant for storytelling goes a little astray, for instance when he hypothesizes the voyage of one of the first HIV positive men in Africa traveling along the river and settling in a city where he spreads the disease. In these instances, I grew a bit impatient and wished he would get to the science. But, overall, his vibrant descriptions broke up what might have been a dull narrative and certainly gives it flavor.

Quammen describes the basics of zoonotic diseases. They have some animal host, that often is unaffected by the pathogen. Often there is an amplifier host, another animal in which the virus can quickly replica and from which it can be quickly injected into the environment and find its way to humans. He goes in to detail about numerous zoonotic outbreaks and how scientists trace the origins of those outbreaks and try to develop vaccines for them. This effort reads like a detective mystery, as scientists have to piece together very fragmentary bits of evidence to build a picture of what is going on. And this is a hard problem. We still don’t know what the host animal is for the Ebola virus, despite the effort put into identifying it.

One of the central themes of Quammen’s book, one that he raises multiple times but doesn’t really beat to death, is that the reason that zoonotic diseases are on the rise is because humans are continuously disrupting the habitat of animals. By deforestation and construction, we encroach into new areas where animal hosts with these diseases have lived maybe for millennia and now we are exposed to them and their diseases. It is our increased interaction with remote species that seems to be the driver. As Quammen puts it “Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly.” By the latter, he means our ease of global travel, where a virus originating in China can make its way through Hong Kong and then to Europe and the Americas before anyone comes down with symptoms. There are also a lot more of us than there used to be. From the planet’s point of view, we might be one of the more successful pathogens… As Quammen summarizes the situation “Ebola virus is not in your habitat. You are in its.” Further, climate change may exacerbate the problem. Drier climates can lead to easier transmission of pathogens as they can carry on the air easier.

Often, the host species are bats. This surprised me to some degree. Why would bats be special? This is a question that is still being understood. Bats are very abundant. One quarter of all mammal species on the planet are bats. They also behave very differently from other mammals in that they can fly long distances and roost together in large communities, enabling the transmission of pathogens. However, the role of bats as hosts seems greater than their shear number. There is something about viruses that are harmless to bats, and so they carry them, that are deadly to humans. This is still an open scientific question.

Quammen goes through the basics of disease science: how scientists model disease spread, how we characterize diseases, and how we use that information to trace the origins of the disease. He provides numerous examples of how we have been able to isolate the nature of the specific virus that is attacking humans and where it might have originated from. AIDS is an interesting example. There are lots of internet rumors and stories about where AIDS started. However, I have to be honest: I have never heard about the current best theory. My knowledge is clouded by the false information or earlier false leads and the current best hypothesis never made it to me. For those who are interested, it seems that the best hypothesis now is that an African hunter likely killed an infected chimp, for meat, way back in the early 1900s, maybe about 1908, way before we first identified the disease in humans. That is, it has been circulating in humans for the better part of at least 50 years before we even realized what was going on.

There are also interesting dynamics between the different levels of animals involved in the spread of disease. Take ticks and Lyme disease as an example. Ticks catch the disease from mammals, most often small rodents, who then pass it on to the next generation of ticks. That is, ticks aren’t born with the disease, they catch it from other animals. As one scientist quoted by Quammen says, “If mammals didn’t make ticks sick, ticks wouldn’t make mammals sick.” Further, the relationship to the animals we might interact with, in this case the deer, is not so obvious. It was thought that culling the deer would make the disease go away. It didn’t. It made it worse, in fact. This is still being studied, but it seems that the more we disrupt the native animal population, the more we increase the risk of spreading these diseases.

To reemphasize the central tenet of Spillover, the increase in these disease is a direct consequence of humans’ expansion across the globe. However, there are a lot of complex and interconnected factors at multiple levels that drive the spillover of a disease from the animal host to humans. “Habitat disturbance, bushmeat hunting, the exposure of humans to unfamiliar viruses that lurk in animal hosts — that’s ecology. Those things happen between humans and other kinds of organisms, and are viewed in the moment. Rates of replication and mutation of an RNA virus, differential success for different strains of the virus, adaptation of the virus to a new host — that’s evolution. It happens within a population of some organism, as the population responds to its environment over time.

Another theme that Quammen emphasizes is that, while we can, with enough diligence, understand and potentially control an outbreak, we cannot predict where the next one will be. There are too many things we simply don’t — and can’t — know, to make such a prediction. Thus, we need high levels of readiness to respond when the next outbreak occurs. “If we can’t predict a forthcoming influenza pandemic or any other newly emergent virus, we can at least be vigilant; we can be well-prepared and quick to respond; we can be ingenious and scientifically sophisticated in the forms of our response.”

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle

The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle, is, at its core, a book about fatherhood, what it means to be a good father. Apollo, who has his own daddy issues, having been abandoned by his dad when he was a young kid, is now a father himself. However, his world is completely shattered when… well, I won’t say more about what happens. Suffice it to say that Apollo undergoes a quest to find out what really happened to him and, more importantly, why.

The Changeling takes place in modern New York City but infuses elements of Nordic mythology. All of this is to examine what it means to be a father, not only from Apollo’s perspective as both a son and a father himself, but also from others, including those of the bad guys. At one point, Apollo self-congratulates himself on being a so-called “new dad”: “New Dads carry the diaper bag — really a big old purse — without awareness of shame. New Dads are emotionally available. New Dads do half the housework (really more like 35 percent, but that’s still so much better than zero). New Dads fix all the mistakes the Old Dads made.” However, later, another character rants at Apollo: “I know you. One of these special new fathers. You’re going to document every moment, every breath of your child’s life. You take videos of them while they’re sleeping and slap them on the computer before the baby wakes up. You think you’re being so loving. You’ll be a better father than the one who raised you!… But let me tell you what I see instead. The neediness of it. The begging to be applauded. As if the praise of a thousand strangers would ever make up for the fact that you didn’t feel loved enough as a child.” This is the real tension in the book: what makes a good father? To what lengths do good fathers go? Even the bad guys are motivated, in some sense, by being good fathers. The entire chain of events that lead to Apollo’s misery begin with an act, centuries before, of a father trying to do right by his family.

Lavalle’s characters come alive through their interactions between one another. Apollo is the central character, but his wife Emma, their son Brian (named after Apollo’s long-vanished dad), his best friend Patrice, his mother Lillian, and others make for a complex set of characters that are all well-developed and add to the richness of Apollo’s world. At various times, Apollo has reason to doubt all of them, emphasizing how we are all ultimately, to some degree, navigating this world on our own. And, especially in his world, Apollo has no idea of whom he can trust.

Lavalle has a sharp wit and keen insight that makes for pleasurable reading. Here are some of my favorite lines :

  • ‘Women only like jerks.’ That’s the mantra of dudes who have made themselves undateable but aren’t willing to take the blame.
  • The only real magic is the things we’ll do for the ones we love.
  • Do you know how much harm ‘happily ever after’ has done to mankind?
  • The last two days had been an uncut drug, an overdose of the improbable.”
  • In America your name must be convenient or it must be changed.”
  • What lengths will people stretch to believe they’re still good?”

This last line emphasizes that, in the world of The Changeling, while there are certainly bad guys, they aren’t evil, per se, in the sense that they are inherently trying to do bad things. They think they are doing good things, they are doing the right thing. They are wrong, but they don’t realize it. They have motivations that, to them, seem reasonable and maybe even right. It is the kind of grey world that most appeals to me.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

One hundred years from now, the United States has collapsed. Big Pharma is more powerful than most governments. Robots are as intelligent as people. It is in this world that Judith “Jack” Chen survives as a pirate, making illegal versions of drugs to sell to those that can’t otherwise afford them.

In this world, Big Pharma has made life “better” for those on the top. Drugs exist that can keep you young, can make you more productive, and can heal wounds. Biotech has also led to the ability to “paint” roads as needed. Most technologies are biogegradable — “somebody had left a throwaway mobile which was now biodegrading into a lump of gray cellulose.” Robots are indeed smart, so smart that they’ve been given the same rights as people. But, as courts decided that robots still could be “indentured,” they also decided that people could, since they are no smarter. A new form of slavery emerges. Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz, explores this world through the adventures of Jack, who has reverse engineered a new drug that has some nasty side effects. Once her drug gets out there, she tries to stop it, any way she can.

Autonomous explores themes relevant for our own times. What is the meaning of freedom? Both literally, in the form of actual bondage to another person, and more abstractly. In a world where the rich can stay perpetually young with their designer drugs, what chance does anyone else have of ever breaking out of the bottom? If drugs exist that can enhance your abilities, make you work better and more efficiently, what choice do the rest of us have but to take them? If big companies control these drugs, what hope do any of us have against being beholden to their demands? Many of these questions we grapple with now.

Take for instance, performance enhancing drugs. We are most familiar with steroids, and athletes who use them both to get a leg up and to heal faster. If all of the other football players are using them, how can a guy not be tempted to follow their lead, to ensure he is on the same playing field in terms of base level of talent? I’ve often wondered, if there was a drug that made me smarter and better able to do my job, would it almost be an obligation to take it? Wouldn’t it be in my employer’s best interest? In my family’s?

At the same time, as such drugs are developed, they are owned, by big multinational corporations. This is exemplified by GMOs. I’m not at all against GMOs from a scientific or health point of view. Humans have been modifying the food they eat for millennia, so little of the food we eat is “natural.” No, to me the bigger issue is who then controls the food supply. If companies own the rights to the genetic material, and we rely upon that material, we lose control of how to grow our own food. And, the next step is that they own more and more genetic material, not just of corn and wheat, but of animals, including people. Where does it end? Who fundamentally owns the “rights” to the DNA structure of humans? What happens when “every living thing and idea [is converted] into property?

In the world of Autonomous, the emergence of intelligent artificial life raises new questions about freedoms. Robots are smart and are aware. But, people still want them to work for them. So, they are kept indentured, or as slaves, effectively. However, there are pockets where robots are “born” free, raised autonomous. One character is just such a robot, and she struggles with identity issues: “How could she understand them [indentured robots], when she’d always been autonomous? She felt like her bot identity was incomplete without that seminal experience.

Autonomous doesn’t delve deeply into these questions. By creating a world in which these issues have become part of the fabric of life, Newitz has the freedom to tell her adventure story within the backdrop of this world, touching on these questions through her characters. I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into the story, but once I knew the characters and the setting of the story, it flowed a lot better. Newitz raises questions that already face us and will only become bigger issues as we go forward.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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