The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

book cover

Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

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Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

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While Davey tugged the rope, Munro, still in the grave, helped to guide the body out of the small hole in the coffin and back toward the surface world, a strange reverse birth for a body past death. Munro successfully removed the body’s shoes off as it left its coffin, but it was up to Davey to strip off the rest of its clothes and throw them back in the grave. Stealing a body was against the law, but if they actually took any property from the grave, that would make it a felony.

It’s the lesson young girls everywhere were taught their entire lives—don’t be seduced by the men you meet, protect your virtue—until, of course, their entire lives depended on, seduction by the right man. It was an impossible situation, a trick of society as a whole: force women to live at the mercy of whichever man wants them but shame them for anything they might do to get a man to want them. Passivity was the ultimate virtue…Be patient, be silent, be beautiful and untouched as an orchid, and then and only then will your reward come: a bell jar to keep you safe.

Ok, so I screwed up. First off, I thought the pub date was 2/22/22 and scheduled my reading and review accordingly. Uh, sorry. Actual pub date was 1/18/22, so I am coming at this one a bit late. Second, I did not do a very thorough job of reading about the book when it was offered. I somehow managed to overlook the fact that it is a YA novel. I have nothing against YA novels. Some of my favorite books are YA novels, but I usually pass on YA books these days unless there is a compelling reason to take them on. Had I seen that it was a YA, I would probably have skipped this one. Finally, yet another failing on my part. I somehow managed to overlook the romance element in the promotional copy. Again, I have nothing against romance elements in books which are mostly of another sort. Quite enjoy them when they are well done. But did not have my expectations primed for the presence of quite as much as there is here, which is not to say that it is huge. It is not. So, multiple failings, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The product of impatience. Won’t happen again. I know the drill, Three Hail Marys and a couple of Our Fathers. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest ands offered fair warning…on to the book itself.

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Dana Schwartz – image from her site

Hazel Sinnett is seventeen. She has always lived in a castle an hour outside Edinburgh. It is 1817. She very much wants to study medicine, has read all the books in the family library on the subject, but lacks actual school-based tuition and hands-on experience. When the grandson of a famous doctor is in town to deliver a lecture, she finds a way to attend. Gender attitudes being what they were at the time, people of her sort were not welcome. Still, she finds a way, with some help, and when the doctor announces he will be offering an anatomy class she is desperate to attend.

Medicine is making some advances but the study of the human body requires actual human bodies, preferably lately late. Executions not providing sufficient resources to fill the need, a profession has arisen to satisfy that demand, resurrectionists, who, for a fee, relieve nearby graves of their residents, and deliver same to their clients with the utmost of discretion. Jack Currer, also seventeen, counts that among his several jobs. He happens to be hanging about near the Anatomists’ Society when Hazel is locked out. Meet Cute as Jack shows this clearly well-to-do young lady a secret way in. Think these two might just cross paths again? Of course, there are impediments.

Hazel is not in line to inherit anything, regardless of her parents’ wealth, bypassed in favor of the male heir. The female thing again. The usual way for a young lady from a god family to secure a future is to secure a husband of means. As it happens, she has a first cousin living not too far away, Bernard. They have known reach other forever, played together since early childhood, and it has been presumed that it was only a matter of time before Bernard would propose. He is not a bad sort, but rather dull and a bit too concerned with his appearance. Hazel recognizes that there are problems with her being allowed to make her own way in the world, so more or less anesthetizes herself to the likelihood that Bernard is her likeliest way out of a life of penury. God knows that is what her mother keeps telling her, and telling her, and telling her.

She manages to attend some of Doctor Beecham’s lectures, and is the star pupil, but the female thing again. Guys, catch up, C’Mon! Beecham at least recognizes her intelligence and they come to an agreement. If she can pass the medical exam at the end of the term, she will be able to get real medical training. Unfortunately, there’s that hands-on thing. Books alone will simply not do. But wait! It just so happens she has made the acquaintance of someone who might be able to help her out, and a beautiful friendship blossoms.

I really thought I was going to go be a doctor,” Dana Schwartz says about her time as a pre-med student in college. “Then I had this panicked moment of realizing I was so fundamentally unhappy. My dream was always to be a writer, but I never thought I could make a living that way.” – from the Forbes interview

But it is not all raw sexism and Hallmark moments. There are dark doings in Edinburgh. A plague has struck, a return of the so-called “Roman fever” which had killed over five thousand the last time it hit, two years before. It had even killed Hazel’s beloved brother, George. She had caught it as well, but managed to survive. Is it really Roman
Fever that is boosting the mortality rate? Jack is aware of far too many acquaintances vanishing, and there are strange doings in the local graveyards as a trio of heavies are haunting such areas, terrorizing the poor resurrection men. Then Hazel begins to see some very strange medical problems when she starts getting to study specimens obtained by Jack, and treating some locals. There is also something decidedly off about Doctor Beecham, who never seems to remove his dark gloves, and demonstrates a mind-numbing drug as a road to pain-free surgery. Then there is Doctor Straine, one eye, nasty skin and a worse attitude, a surgeon working with Doctor Beecham. Seems like a nogoodnik from the build-a-creep shop.

It was the gothic elements that had drawn me to the story. And they are indeed present. But Schwartz has had some fun with them. (For the following I used some of a list from Elif Notes.) Usually gothic novels feature a Desolate, haunted Setting, typically a very creepy castle or equivalent. Here, Hazel lives in a castle, which is a pretty benign home for her. Other sites must serve this purpose. Graveyards work, and certainly provide some chills, and any place where human bodies are being cut up, for purposes educational or malign, will also serve, so, check. Dark and Mysterious Atmosphere? You betcha, plenty of suspect characters and unexplained deaths and disappearances. Something supernatural? Well, I do not want to give anything away, so will say only that there is an element here that qualifies the story as fantasy. Emotional Extremes? Fuh shoo-uh. Although the emotional extremes are as much about Hazel’s lot in life as they are about the actual life-and-death shenanigans that are going on. Women as Victims – absolutely, but in the wider, sexism-conscious sense as well as in the way of a damsels being put upon by dastardly males. Curses and Portents – not so much, except what we all might wish upon some of the baddies. Visions and Nightmares – Hazel has some of the latter, but nothing mystical about them, just recollections of horrors she had seen in real life. Frightening Tone – most definitely. There is clearly something sinister going on in Edinburgh. Frightening Weather – not really. There is a fun early bit in which we are waiting for an incoming storm to deliver some life-generating lightning, but mostly, weather is not that big a deal here. Religious Concerns – social mores are more the thing in this one. Good versus Evil – there is some serious evil going on here. And Hazel is definitely a force for good. A Touch of Romance – yes. Well, more than a touch. Hey, Laddy, you’d better keep those hands to yersel ef ya wan ter keep ‘em on the ends uh yer arms.”

There is Romance and then there is Love. The title even highlights it, Anatomy: A Love Story. There is clearly some romance going on here. Hazel and Jack give off sparks which brings their obvious connection to life. But Hazel’s true love may be more the passion she has for learning, for science, for medicine, for anatomy, for surgery. If she were really faced with a choice between being a doctor or being with Jack, and the two were exclusive, are you confident what choice she would make? Is it possible to have your cake and dissect it too? Not so easy in 1817 Scotland.

The real horrors here are the treatment of women as a subordinate level of human and the joys of the class system in early 19th Century Scotland. Even coming from a family of means, Hazel is refused entry into a profession for which she has passion, and a clear capability, simply because of her gender. She must endure belittling by men, in power and not, who are her intellectual and moral inferiors, as she struggles to find a way forward. Contemplating her life options, Hazel sees her future as a life under a bell jar, whatever that may be referring to. The experience of being poor in the Georgian era is shown not only in the life of Jack, but in the ways the poor and working class are held in their place no less than if they were confined to a castle dungeon, and in the depraved indifference the wealthy show to the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

“The main mystery I wanted to pick at and unravel is who gets forgotten in society and for what purpose,” Schwartz says. “Obviously today, there is a huge wealth gap that continues to grow, but in the 1800s, the aristocracy made that wealth gap explicit. There was a social and cultural line, so I wanted to explore in a way that doesn’t necessarily label the characters as heroes or villains.” – from the San Diego Tribune interview

There are some comedic elements, one of which focuses on a man-eater and is hilarious. There a lovely bit of a secondary romantic sub plot, and some fun references. Hazel is all excited to hear about a lecture/demonstration put on by someone named Galvini. This is a clear reference to the actual Luigi Galvani who was putting on shows in which dead things were animated with electricity from a battery. He provided some of the inspiration for a young writer of that era. The epigraph of the novel is a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose creation has near universal familiarity. A mention of Mary Wollstonecraft, her mom, serves double duty as a reference to a leading light for women’s rights in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and as a reminder that the novel deals with matters of life and death, and maybe life again. Hazel’s younger brother is named Percy, which again reminds one of Mary Shelley. A recollection of Walter Scott reciting his Lady of the Lake epic at her Uncle and Aunt’s house is also reminiscent of the Wollstonecraft/Godwin household, in which Coleridge read his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So, there are many Frankensteinian parts gathered together to help animate the story.

Some parts did not quite fit, however. It was sooo convenient that her father was away on a prolonged naval mission, and that Mum decides to head out of town for an extended period with her other, much more valuable, male child, Hazel’s younger brother. So, Risky Business time for the entire season at Hawthornden Castle. (Although maybe Summer at Bernie’s might be a bit closer, given the issues with dead people.) AND, really? none of the staff rats Hazel out to her mother, the one paying their salary, for running a clinic at the family residence? Maybe we should consider this part of the fantasy element. Re my intro, I was not much excited by the squishy romance bits, but I already told you about that. No biggie, ultimately. It is mostly adorable.

Dana Schwartz has written a strong, literary, YA novel that offers some chills, an historical look at a place and time, and a look at the challenges faced by the poor and by those of the female persuasion, when it was still the rule to treat women as servants, eye candy, or brood mares. It shows a powerful approach and makes me eager to see what she comes up with when she writes a full-on adult novel, but that may not be next up on her board.

…right now, I have an idea for a sequel that I really want to tell and I think will be really fun. I thought this was going to be a one-off, but when I reached the ending, and I sat with that for a few months, I thought that there’s something else here.” – from the San Diego Tribune interview

Review posted – February 11, 2022

Publication date – January 18, 2022

I received an ARE of Anatomy: A Love Story from Wednesday Books in return for a fair review and some help dealing with an uncomfortable neck growth. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter pages

Schwartz came to public notice when she was still in the employ of the New York Observer and Tweeted a criticism of Donald Trump for using anti-Semitic imagery in an anti-Hillary ad. She got viciously trolled by his minions, and wanted to write about that experience. Her boss gave her a green light, but did not really proof the piece, an open letter, which called out Jared Kushner, who owned The Observer, for not interceding with his father-in-law to prevent such things. As an undergrad, she established the “GuyInYourMFA” and “Dystopian YA” parody Twitter profiles. She had internships with Conan and Colbert, and was later was a staff writer for Disney’s She-Hulk, then created and hosted the Noble Blood podcast. Anatomy is her fourth book.

Interviews
—–Time Magazine – Dana Schwartz Wrote the YA Romance She Always Wanted to Read by Simmone Shah
—–Bustle – How My Chemical Romance Inspired Dana Schwartz’s Latest Novel – By Samantha Leach
—–Forbes – 26-Year-Old Dana Schwartz Doesn’t Need To Stick To A Genre by Rosa Escandon
—–San Diego Union Tribune – Dana Schwartz gets skin deep in ‘Anatomy: A Love Story’ by Seth Combs
—–Barnes & Noble – Poured Over: Dana Schwartz on Anatomy by BN Editors

Items of Interest from the author
—–Discussion Questions

Items of Interest
—–Edith Wharton – Roman fever – a short story
—–This very nice bio of Mary Shelley, from The Poetry Foundation, has considerable information about her other works.
—–A nifty web-site on Resurrectionists. Can you dig it?
—–Frankie for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg
—–3/17/18 – MIT Press has produced an annotated version (Print and on-Line) of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It is intended for use by STEM students, raising scientific and ethical questions from the original work. The comments are joined from diverse sources, particularly in the on-line version, with some by scientists, and some by students. The print version sticks to annotation articles by professionals. A fun way to approach this book if you have not yet had the pleasure, or a nice pathway back if you are returning for a visit. It is called, appropriately, Frankenbook. You can find the digital version here
—–NY Times – Reporter Calls Out Publisher (Donald Trump’s Son-in-Law) Over Anti-Semitism By Jonathan Mahler
—–My review of The Lady and her Monsters – This is a must-read book for anyone interested in Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Thriller, Thriller, YA and kids

How to Find Your Way Home by Katy Regan

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…here begins one of the last evenings I remember of my old life. The life I had constructed like the tough, prickled outer shell of a horse chestnut around me, before it was cracked open and the truth of my life was laid bare, as frighteningly untouched and uncharted as that shiny conker hidden inside.

Do we choose our homes? Physically, sure. As adults we can move here or there. Does a chick choose its nest? We are not necessarily bolted to our birthplaces, but they are our first homes, and that initial setting is a very powerful thing, rich with association, memory, and attachment, particularly if we remain there more than just a few years. Many, maybe most people move away, significantly away. We may return annually to see family, or not. Maybe the places to which we relocate become truer homes for us. I shudder, for example, at the thought of ever again living in the neighborhood where I was raised. While I love the city, that particular part of it holds no attraction for me. I got out as fast as I could, and never wanted to be back there again. But for many, like Dorothy Gale, there is a primal bond with that ground. There’s no place like home for Stephen Nelson, as well, as he carries deep ties to the place where he was raised. He has been away from it for a very long time.

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Katy Regan – from her Facebook pages

Emily Nelson has different rootedness issues. A connection to her brother is where home is for Emily. Stephen was an amazing big brother, about five years older. Delighted to have her there, eager to teach her about what excited him in the world, which was mostly birds, an interest his father shared and nurtured in his children. And she was always thrilled to be with “Deebie.” They found a particular Eden-ic magic in the avian-rich marshlands very near their home on Canvey Island, (Essex’s answer to the Mississippi Delta) even camping out there sometimes. She is concerned about his survival.

Their allegiance gained significance when their mother, unhappy with her exurban experience, ditched their father for what she’d hoped would be a more satisfying life. Sadly, her new mate seemed to have a bug up his bum about Stephen, always criticizing him, never recognizing Stephen’s strengths, and generally being a total horse’s ass of a stepfather. The sibs really needed to stick together when they were with Mum and Mitch. But something happened when they were still kids. Mitch was severely injured, and Stephen was jailed, from his teens into his twenties. Once out, things did not go well. He has been living rough for the last fifteen years.

We meet Emily in the today of the novel, 2018. She is 31, living in London, a housing officer in the council’s homeless department. She has had a series of relationships, (failure to nest?) the latest of which is with an architect, but:

She realizes that James will not last, no one will until she can resolve the huge hole in her from the loss of Stephen.

They have been out of touch since shortly after his release from prison. She has been desperate to find him for some time. When she hears his voice in her office one day, the chase is on. She invites him to move in with her.

The story moves along two time tracks. First is the contemporary, as Emily searches for Stephen, wanting to reconnect with him, wanting to help him, wanting to get her brother back after a very long absence. This current-day look is split between Emily’s first-person and Stephen’s third-person POVs. The second time track is a slow unraveling of the past, from Emily’s birth to the tragic event that defines the story. What happened in their lives as kids? What forged their bond? What ultimately caused Stephen to be sent to jail? Why has Stephen been homeless for so long? This is told in ten chapters, named for birds, telling stories from their childhood involving specific birds, or breeds, or just using bird imagery. Stork, for example, is about Emily’s arrival. Mother Duck tells of a Make Way for Ducklings event. Cockatoo refers to someone’s hairstyle.

Stephen struggles with hope, whether to keep on or to fly the coop on possibility. Lord knows, he has had plenty of reasons to. His father has been willing to keep lines of communication open, if with less than total warmth. But his mother, unhappily, stuck with caring for the husband whose tetraplegia is the reason Stephen was imprisoned, is not so eager. Stephen has learned to survive on the streets, kept going by his love of birds. He has artistic ability, and picks up some money selling drawings of them.

Regan first volunteered at a soup kitchen for the homeless when she was 17.

My favorite bit of the shift was to sit down after we’d served breakfast and chat. What surprised me then, besides the sheer resilience these people possessed, was how little there was between my life—a “normal life”—and theirs. A few wrong turns, a relationship breakup, some bad luck was all it seemed to take for you to wind up sleeping on the streets and relying on charity to eat. Most of all, what I learned there (as well as from my research for How to Find Your Way Home) was that the difference between those who managed to dodge homelessness and those who slipped through the net was just that: too-big holes in the net. If you’d burned the bridges of your support network or had been abandoned by the people in it, you were out of luck. When I became a writer, I promised myself I would one day write a book telling the story of a homeless person. – from the Bok Club kit

Bird imagery permeates the novel. In fact, there is enough avian material here to fill a king-size comforter. It is as lovely as one of those too, the feathered supporting cast bolstering the issues among the feather-free characters. A skein of geese, for example, is explained as group members taking turns bearing the brunt of the migratory lead. Swifts faithfully return to the same nesting site every year, maintaining their pair-bond for life. Although birds permeate the novel, the bird-title chapters focus on this imagery most pointedly.

Another motif to keep an eye on is windows. Stephen is an outsider from childhood. Emily feels like one as well. Windows always mark a separation, and what you see through them may not tell a true or a full tale.

That’s what you’d see, if you looked through the window: four thirty-something friends, “upwardly mobile” themselves I suppose, having dinner, chatting, having fun on a Saturday night, me in the middle in my orange top that says “Happy Days” on it. But I’m not happy.

Sometimes, windows offer frightening views.

A dark, tall shadow flashed across the kitchen window and I jumped half out of my skin.

Stephen and Emily have some serious issues between them to contend with, in addition to the challenges that both face with the wider universe. Stephen has good reason to be cautious about the world. He may have been sent to prison for a crime as a teen but he seems a pretty decent sort as a served-his-time thirty-something. Emily may have cut herself off from the world of love emotionally, if not physically, but we come to see that this originates in pain. She seems to have a good heart. So, rooting for these two is easy. And there is a very satisfying twist toward the end. HTFYWH was moving enough that my notes include three instances of TEARS!. There is also some exquisite, lyrical writing here.

I suppose there a few loose feathers that might make one sneeze a bit. Stephen seemed to spend an extreme number of years living on the street. Really? No social service types managed to coral him into a rehab program, maybe got him set up with a social worker. Possible? Oh, sure. But, still. Could Emily really have afforded a London flat in a nice neighborhood on a public employee’s income? Also, the wrap-up seemed a bit speedy. Without spoiling anything, situations were presented that seemed lacking in sufficient preparatory support. And yes, there was certainly a large volume of feathery references. Some might find that a downer. I rather liked it. I will spare you the Emily Dickinson quote, but it is certainly an undercurrent here as Stephen’s ability to carry on is bolstered by his love of birds and birding.

Louise Erdrich this ain’t, but it is a lovely, warm-hearted novel. That said, I found myself always very eager to return to my bedtime book home for the week and a half for which I was able to stretch this out. Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like it.

Stephen loved the sounds as much as he loved the space out here: the wind, creeping through the grasses, that reminded Stephen of rain, when it first, softly, begins to fall; the hum of traffic coming from the A130; and the occasional train, slicing through the countryside with its ghostly sigh. Stephen liked these reminders that the town was nearby. It was as if England and all it had to offer was right here, at the edge-lands—a world within a world. And it had been rolled out like a map, for him to run free over.

Review posted – February 4, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of How To Find Your Way Home from Berkley in return for directions. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Katy Regan was brought up in a seaside town in northern England. She studied at the University of Leeds before moving to London, where she worked as a journalist and as a commissioning editor at Marie Claire magazine. How To Find Your Way Home is her fifth book.

Items of Interest from the author
—–A map of locations in the novel
—–Book Club Kit

Songs/Music
—–The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – chapter 6
—–Robin S – Show Me Love – chapter 13

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

System Error by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami,  Jeremy M. Weinstein,  

book cover

Technologists have no unique skill in governing, weighing competing values, or assessing evidence. Their expertise is in designing and building technology. What they bring to expert rule is actually a set of values masquerading as expertise—values that emerge from the marriage of the optimization mindset and the profit motive.

Like a famine, the effects of technology on society are a man-made disaster: we create the technologies, we set the rules, and what happens is ultimately the result of our collective choices.

Yeah, but what if the choices are not being made collectively?

What’s the bottom line on the bottom line? The digital revolution has made many things in our lives better, but changes have come at considerable cost. There have been plenty of winners from the digitization of content, the spread of the internet, the growth of wireless communication, and the growth of AI. But there have been battlefields full of casualties as well. Unlike actual battlefields, like those at Gettysburg, many of the casualties in the battles of the digital revolution did not enlist, and did not have a chance to vote for or against those waging the war, a war that has been going on for decades. But we, citizens, do not get a say in how that war is waged, what goals are targeted, or how the spoils or the costs of that war are distributed.

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Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein – image from Stanford University

In 2018, the authors of System Error, all professors at Stanford, developed a considerable course on Technology, Policy, and Ethics. Many Technical and Engineering programs require that Ethics be taught in order to gain accreditation. But usually those are stand-alone classes, taught by non-techies. Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein wanted something more meaningful, more a part of the education of budding computer scientists than a ticking-off-the-box required course. They wanted the teaching of the ethics of programming to become a full part of their students’ experience at Stanford. That was the source for what became this book.

They look at the unintended consequences of technological innovation, focusing on the notions of optimization and agency. It is almost a religion in Silicon Valley, the worship of optimization uber alles. Faster, cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, lighter. But what is it that is being optimized? To what purpose? At what cost, to whom? Decided on by whom?

…there are times when inefficiency is preferable: putting speed bumps or speed limits onto roads near schools in order to protect children; encouraging juries to take ample time to deliberate before rendering a verdict; having the media hold off on calling an election until all the polls have closed…Everything depends on the goal or end result. The real worry is that giving priority to optimization can lead to focusing more on the methods than on the goals in question.

Often blind allegiance to the golden calf of optimization yields predictable results. One genius decided to optimize eating, so that people could spend more time at work, I guess. He came up with a product that delivered a range of needed nutrients, in a quickly digestible form, and expected to conquer the world. This laser focus managed to ignore vast swaths of human experience. Eating is not just about consuming needed nutrients. There are social aspects to eating that somehow escaped the guy’s notice. We do not all prefer to consume product at our desks, alone. Also, that eating should be pleasurable. This clueless individual used soy beans and lentils as the core ingredients of his concoction. You can guess what he named it. Needless to say, it was not exactly a marketing triumph, given the cultural associations with the name. And yes, they knew, and did it anyway.

There are many less entertaining examples to be found in the world. How about a social media giant programming its app to encourage the spread of the most controversial opinions, regardless of their basis in fact? The outcome is actual physical damage in the world, people dead as a result, democracy itself in jeopardy. And yet, there is no meaningful requirement that programmers adhere to a code of ethics. Optimization, in corporate America, is on profits. Everything else is secondary, and if there are negative results in the world as a result of this singular focus, not their problem.

How about optimization that relies on faulty (and self-serving) definitions. Do the things we measure actually measure the information we want? For example, there were some who measured happiness with their product by counting the number of minutes users spent on it. Was that really happiness being measured, or maybe addictiveness?

Algorithms are notorious for picking up the biases of their designers. In an example of a business using testing smartly, a major company sought to develop an algorithm it could use to evaluate employment candidates. They gave it a pretty good shot, too, making revision after revision. But no matter how they massaged the model the results were still hugely sexist. Thankfully they scrapped it and returned to a less automated system. One wonders, though, how many algorithmic projects were implemented when those in charge opted to ignore the down-side results.

So, what is to be done? There are a few layers here. Certainly, a professional code of ethics is called for. Other professions have them and have not collapsed into non-existence, doctors, lawyers, engineers, for example. Why not programmers? At present there is not a single, recognized organization, like the AMA, that could gain universal accedence to such a requirement. Organizations that accredit university computer science programs could demand more robust inclusion of ethical course material across course-work.

But the only real way we as a society have to hold companies accountable for the harm already inflicted, and the potential harm new products might cause, is via regulation. As individuals, we have virtually no power to influence major corporations. It is only when we join our voices together through democratic processes that there is any hope of reining in the worst excesses of the tech world, or working with technology companies to come to workable solutions to real-world problems. It is one thing for Facebook to set up a panel to review the ethics of this or that element of its offerings. But if the CEO can simply ignore the group’s findings, such panels are meaningless. I think we have all seen how effective review boards controlled by police departments have been. Self-regulation rarely works.

There need not be an oppositional relationship between tech corporations and government, despite the howling by CEOs that they will melt into puddles should the wet of regulation ever touch their precious selves. What a world: what a world! A model the authors cite is transportation. There needs to be some entity responsible for roads, for standardizing them, taking care of them, seeing that rules of the road are established and enforced. It is the role of government to make sure the space is safe for everyone. As our annual death rate on the roads attests, one can only aim for perfection without ever really expecting to achieve it. But, overall, it is a system in which the government has seen to the creation and maintenance of a relatively safe communal space. We should not leave to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter decisions about how much human and civic roadkill is acceptable on the Information Highway.

The authors offer some suggestions about what might be done. One I liked was the resurrection of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. We do not expect our elected representatives to be techies. But we should not put them into a position of having to rely on lobbyists for technical expertise on subjects under legislative consideration. The OTA provided that objective expertise for many years before Republicans killed it. This is doable and desirable. Another interesting notion:

“Right now, the human worker who does, say $50,000 worth of work in. factory, that income is taxed and you get an income tax, social security tax, all those things.
It a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Some of their advice, while not necessarily wrong, seems either bromitic or unlikely to have any chance of happening. This is a typical thing for books on social policy.

…democracies, which welcome a clash of competing interests and permit the revisiting and revising of questions of policy, will respond by updating rules when it is obvious that current conditions produce harm…

Have the authors ever actually visited America outside the walls of Stanford? In America, those being harmed are blamed for the damage, not the evil-doers who are actually foisting it on them.

What System Error will give you is a pretty good scan of the issues pertaining to tech vs the rest of us, and how to think about them. It offers a look at some of the ways in which the problems identified here might be addressed. Some entail government regulation. Many do not. You can find some guidance as to what questions to ask when algorithmic systems are being proposed, challenged, or implemented. And you can also get some historical context re how the major tech changes of the past impacted the wider society, and how they were wrangled.

The book does an excellent job of pointing out many of the ethical problems with the impact of high tech, on our individual agency and on our democracy. It correctly points out that decisions with global import are currently in the hands of CEOs of large corporations, and are not subject to limitation by democratic nations. Consider the single issue of allowing lies to be spread across social media, whether by enemies foreign or domestic, dark-minded individuals, profit-seekers, or lunatics. That needs to change. If reasonable limitations can be devised and implemented, then there may be hope for a brighter day ahead, else all may be lost, and our nation will descend into a Babel of screaming hatreds and kinetic carnage.

For Facebook, with more than 2.8 billion active users, Mark Zuckerberg is the effective governor of the informational environment of a population nearly double the size of China, the largest country in the world.

Review posted – January 28, 2022

Publication date – September 21,2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Rob Reich’s (pronounced Reesh) Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Reich is a professor of Political science at Stanford, and co-director of Stanford’s McCoy Center for Ethics, and associate director of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial intelligence

Links to Mehran Sahami’s Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Sahami is a Stanford professor in the School of Engineering and professor and associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science Department. Prior to Stanford he was a senior research scientist at Google. He conducts research in computer science education, AI and ethics.

Jeremy M. Weinstein’s Stanford profile

JEREMY M. WEINSTEIN went to Washington with President Obama in 2009. A key staffer in the White House, he foresaw how new technologies might remake the relationship between governments and citizens, and launched Obama’s Open Government Partnership. When Samantha Power was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations, she brought Jeremy to New York, first as her chief of staff and then as her deputy. He returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

Interviews
—–Computer History Museum – CHM Live | System Error: Rebooting Our Tech Future – with Marietje Schaake – 1:30:22
This is outstanding, in depth
—–Politics and Prose – Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami & Jeremy Weinstein SYSTEM ERROR with Julián Castro with Julian Castro and Bradley Graham – video – 1:02:51

Items of Interest
—–Washington Post – Former Google scientist says the computers that run our lives exploit us — and he has a way to stop them
—–The Nation – Fixing Tech’s Ethics Problem Starts in the Classroom By Stephanie Wykstra
—–NY Times – Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It
—–Brookings Institution – It Is Time to Restore the US Office of Technology Assessment by Darrell M. West

Makes Me Think Of
—–Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks
—–Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
—–Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Non-fiction, programming, Public policy

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

book cover

It wasn’t the desolation or the darkness or even the climate that had persuaded him to invest in this trip. It was that name…Official maps referred to it as R504. It wasn’t much of a road. The pavement started at both ends but not long thereafter the pavement gave way to packed gravel…In many places, the road was barely wide enough for two cars to scrape the paint off each other as they passed. The landscape consisted of snow, skeletal trees, mountains, and the occasional guardrail, as well as settlements that were considered urban but many of which were made up of a few dozen buildings and the hardy souls who went along with them.

It seemed like these people lived in a haunted, frozen hell.
To them . . . it was just home.

The Russians have a thing for giving characters in novels, and, it appears, real-world things, multiple names. R504, for example, is also known as P504. (no idea, don’t ask). It is also known as Federal Highway R504 and The Kolyma Highway. Locals call it The Kolyma Route. Plenty? Da. Complete? Nyet. It is also known as The Road of Bones. Construction began in 1932, during the Stalin era, using labor camp inmates. It continued using gulag prisoners until 1953. Workers die during construction? Permafrost in Siberia makes digging holes problematic, so the bodies were laid to rest under and near the road. Just a few, only somewhere between 250,000 to one million. Any chance a mother lode like that might attract a ghost hunter?

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Christopher Golden – image from The Tufts Daily – photo by Shivohn Kacy Fleming

Not all the dead along the road were planted there due to construction. There are probably a million ways to die on the Road of Bones in winter. Run out of gas? You die. Flat tire? You die. Accident? You die. Vehicle breaks down for any reason? You die. Don’t go outside wearing glasses. They will get frozen to your face. Have a medical emergency that cannot wait three hours until you can get to the nearest ER? You die. And guys, don’t even think about stopping by the side of the road to pee. Bring a diaper or a container of some sort. Sounds fun. When are we leaving? (I love writing stories set in places where people shouldn’t live. Like WHY DO YOU LIVE THERE? – from the Dead Headspace interview)

Felix Teigland is a maker of documentaries. He has had some ups and downs in his career. He managed to build his own production company but he is still waiting for the breakout show that will keep him and his company above water for more than just now. He is a charmer and professional bullshitter, who means well, and has a rich imagination, producing a lot of interesting ideas, but far too often he is unable to make good on his promises. Felix needs a hit. But he needs a backer to fund it. Thus, his presence in this godforsaken land. He wants to take enough video, get enough of a story that he can persuade those with deep enough pockets to reach into them and toss enough rubles his way so that he can actually produce the project.

Teig was a fast talker, always with a scheme he would trumpet with unfettered enthusiasm—a feature documentary from a fourteen-year-old director out of Argentina, salvage rights to a Spanish galleon, a TV series about World War II comic book artists who were secretly spies, a mock-umentary in which the history of Scooby-Doo and his gang would be investigated as if they’d existed in real life.

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Here the broken landscape of Stalin’s Kolyma Highway is pictured. Without a rail link to the city, the highway remains the only major land route into & out of Yakutsk… – image and text from Weather.com – photo by Amos Chapple

And what a project it is. Life and Death on the Road of Bones. Surely there are ghost stories aplenty, not to mention compelling survival tales. Teig has a background in supernatural work, having labored for several years on a TV show called Ghost Sellers.

He had reason to want to find ghosts, but he’d never seen evidence of one, despite the show confirming twenty-seven “official” hauntings while he’d worked with them.

He is skeptical of such things, has doubts, but even more importantly, hopes. Maybe the ghosts he finds in Siberia will help him find the spirit he truly seeks.

The grieving kid who’d lived inside him for more than twenty years had always longed for proof of the supernatural.
Careful what you wish for, idiot.

Teig is joined in this insane adventure by Jack Prentiss, a bear of an American, complete with a beard that would be at home in Brooklyn or the Yukon, a beer belly, and an imposing frame. Teig owes Prentiss a considerable sum of money, which gives Jack a bit of incentive to help make sure this project succeeds. Prentiss may be Teig’s only friend.

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A view of Stalin’s “Road of Bones”, the route to Oymyakon (Oy-vey-myakon?, is pictured on a -50c evening – image from Weather.com. photo by Amos Chapple

You can probably leave your swimsuit at home. There are only five hours of daylight this time of year, and even when it is above the horizon, it remains hidden behind clouds. Get used to the darkness. The average daily temperature in Winter is -47F.

They begin in the port town of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk, heading to the community of Akhust, the coldest inhabited place on Earth. I did not find an actual Akhust in my Googling, so presume it is a made-up name, standing in for Oymyakon, a twenty hour drive according to Google directions. Teig’s journey is supposedly sixteen hours, so maybe it is somewhere between the two locations. Guess it depends on extant conditions.

They make a stop to pick up a twenty-something guide, Kaskil, an actual local. He will not be their last passenger. There is a lovely lady in distress, Nari, with “cherry black hair.” Vehicle broke down and she needs a lift. When they arrive in Akhust, the coldest place on Earth, the entire town of several hundred is abandoned. Only one inhabitant remains, Kaskil’s nine-year-old niece, Ariuna, in a catatonic state. Shock most likely.

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Oymyakon, Sakah Republic, Russia Avg. temperature of 3 coldest months: -47.0 F Coldest month: January (-53.3 F) – image from USA Today – photo by Zac Allan / Wikimedia Commons

And then there are the odd things they have been seeing in the woods as they drove along. Trees moving strangely, oversized beasts, of uncertain shape, a Siberian tiger, of very certain shape, among them. Teig has odd thoughts urging him to give in to the cold. Whatever had driven or lured the residents of Akhust from their homes was now coming for them. And the chase is on, an army of creatures, led by a very large, human-like shaman is in hot pursuit. But why? Check, please.

The story is told through alternating POVs, not including everyone, but more than a couple. This kept things fresh, while also giving us the characters’ backstories, and reasons to care about their fates, maybe some understanding of their motivations. The action is pretty much non-stop. It is not a long book, but you might be out of breath by the time you finish reading. Lots of peril, lots of fleeing, a fair bit of fighting back. And questions. Um…why? I understand that the victims of Stalin might be pissed, but at people with no role in their killing? Are the members of this spirit army Stalin’s reincarnated roadkill? There is a character Kaskil refers to as ghost he has actually seen, who prays over the frozen dead. Does she have a role in this? The animal-like nature of the pursuers suggests also a rebellion of the natural world against a feckless humanity. Wrong place, wrong time. Who are those guys? Or is it something else? So what is the deal? Why are these spirits-made-material so intent on catching our small company?

Gripes are minimal. While there were multiple POVs, they did not all succeed in generating much interest in the characters. One character’s deep religious feelings define a life in an interesting and unusual way. Teig’s tale is given the most ink, and creates the strongest bond. The others? Some.

This is a chilling, acti0n-filled horror story, and it succeeds very much at that level. There is a lot of creativity on display in portraying these dark forces. And enough nuance to make them less than one hundred percent evil. Sound, in particular, plays a role here, not just in the songs noted in the text, but in the way sound can get into your head.

I’m…always intrigued with the idea of turning the concept of monstrosity on its head, of looking at a conflict through the eyes of the character that we would normally presume to be evil or cruel. – from the Nightmare Magazine interview

You will want to dress warmly while reading this one. You may shudder along with the characters at the death-dealing cold they must face for the entirety of the tale, and add a quiver or three for the spirits on the warpath. Consider having at hand either a mug of something very warm to drink or a bottle of Stoli. A favorite pet on your lap might help as well, at least as long as they do not start to look at you funny.

Here in this little scattering of human structures they could still convince themselves they were in the world of people, but once they passed into the woods, it would have been impossible to pretend they had control or authority over anything. Hunters and herders went into those woods or up that mountain from Akhust, and when they did they were surrendering to the primal nature of the world. Akhust stood as a stark reminder of how small a thing it was to be a human being.

Review posted – January 21, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

I received an ARE of Road of Bones from St. Martins in return for a fair review and some extra warm mittens. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Golden is a monster of an author who got started, and found success, very early. He has a gazillion publications to his credit, an encyclopedic host of teleplay credits from his years writing for Buffy with Joss Whedon, and plenty more. And then there are the comics. You may have heard of Hell Boy, among those. Here is a list of what he has published, from Fiction DB. I personally think he has elves, or more likely, goblins chained to computers in his basement helping him crank out such volume.

Interviews
—–Nightmare Magazine – Interview: Christopher Golden by Lisa Morton – January 2014 issue
—–Dead Headspace – Ep. 126 – Christopher Golden – video – 1:51:56 – this is a long, fun interview that covers a wide range of subjects. The part dealing specifically with The Road of Bones goes from about 1:20:00 to about 1:29:00

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the Kolyma Highway. Yes, it is a real thing
—–Weather.com – Breathtaking Photos of the Coldest City in the World by Nicole Bonaccorso – March 25, 2021

Songs/Music
—–Prince – Purple Rain – chapter 8
—–Bruce Springstein – Drive All Night – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Western Heroes – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Rosalita – chapter 14
—–Bruce – Somewhere North of Nashville – chapter 15
—–Elmira Terkulova – Million Scarlet Roses – English version – chapter 8
—–Alla Pugacheva –Million Roses – Russian version – chapter 8

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Suspense, Thriller

The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

Never tell.
It was an oath she had broken first, many months later, the words heaved from her in sobs, her parents’ expressions frozen, Ethan stumbling from the room, his face ashen. The secret once shared—once detonated—had destroyed them. Not in the first blast, but slowly, inexorably. A sickness in the heart of their family. A poison that lived for years, quietly working in each of them.

It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
———-Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe

Damn, did he have that right. The Iowa of Erin Young’s The Fields is a hell of a lot closer to The Children of the Corn than it is to any Field of Dreams. After spending some time in Cedar Falls and it’s larger sibling, agro-urban-wasteland town, Waterloo, where the rust-belt meets the corn-belt, you might swear off dreaming altogether. Well, town might be down-playing it a bit. Between the two (both are real places) they total about 100,000 souls (not counting livestock), so maybe small cities rather than towns. Abba may have been on to something when they referred to Waterloo. (Couldn’t escape if I wanted to) Some truly can’t. One of those turns up dead in a cornfield.

If not for the University of Northern Iowa—where she’d majored in criminology—with its annual influx of students and money, Riley guessed Cedar Falls would have slumped into the same depression as Waterloo. There had been some brave attempts at regeneration in recent years—microbreweries sprouting on weed-covered lots, kayaks for hire on the Cedar River and an annual Pride festival, fulminated against by local churches. But they were fighting a strong downward pull.

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Erin Young, nom de plume for Robyn Young, showing off her Thriller-writer pose, or her “You expect me to believe that? Come on now.” face – image from her facebook pages

Riley Fisher is local, mid-thirties, single, grew up in Cedar Falls, her grandfather a former head of the Blackhawk County Sheriff’s Office. She knew early on that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, after a detour or two along the way, she is head of investigations, to the consternation of others who had hoped for the promotion. The new-found body is in a field owned by the Zephyr Farms cooperative.

Cooperatives were how some smaller Iowa farms had been able to survive the relentless advances of Big Ag. By dominating the market in hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides—the holy trinity of crop production—through aggressive trademarking, swallowing up the competition and tactical lobbying at the highest levels of government, giants like Agri-Co had come to control much of the nation’s agricultural wealth.

Been out there for days, been ripped at in an unusual way, was maggoty, ripe, and unsettling. No problems with an ID, though, once Sergeant Fisher arrives on the scene. Chloe Miller (nee Clark) was one of Riley’s besties two decades back, in high school. But they’d gone their separate ways. Seeing Chloe brings back a terrible time from Riley’s youth, a time that had derailed her life, a time she could never forget.

So, we are faced with two mysteries. What happened to Chloe in that field and why, and what is it about Chloe’s death that has brought Riley to such a state of emotional turmoil? Something happened back when they were still friends, something major. And the revived memories are not exactly a source of comfort. Both mysteries are peeled back like leaves on a lovely ear of you-of-what, bit by bit, the present-day crime via procedural investigation; the personal mystery through intermittent, mostly small recollections.

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

But wait, there’s more. The discovery of Chloe’s body is the spark that starts the action, but Young has a wider field of view in her sites. A writer of very successful (over two million sold) historical novels, she wanted to have a go at writing thrillers, finding inspiration in

an article she read about the menacing power of Big Agriculture. A decision to set the novel in Iowa, corn-capital of the world, led her to make a fascinating journey across the state – from chance encounters with cops and farmers, and an audience with a local mayor, to shooting Glocks and getting caught in supercell storms. – from her website

A voice is given to concerns about the darker implications of increasing concentration in the age of the agro-industrial complex.

A necessary evil, some called them. Progress, said more. But to those whose forefathers had farmed this land since the days of the first families from New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, who’d settled here after the Black Hawk War when the Ioway had been driven west, these corporations were vultures, polluters and thieves.

(Entirely unlike the settlers who drove out the natives, I presume.) So, not exactly a tension-free relationship between local growers and the bigger side of the farming industry, personified here by the Agri-co corporation. We get a strong oppo position from an activist determined to head off even more governmental pro-corporation actions.

Companies like Agri-Co only care about profit, not the soil and water they infect with their chemicals, or the wildlife they destroy. Cancer rates are rising from pesticides, and, still, their political allies and lobbyists help them sow their poison.

She blames the current governor, up for re-election, for his role in this. Concern with big-Ag concentrating power at the expense of smaller producers and fouling the environment in the process finds an echo in another part of the country.

It was almost a year since Logan joined the department, moving with his folks from Flint. His father, niece, and nephew had been badly affected by the crisis there—when lead seeped into Flint’s water supply after city officials changed the system in an attempt to save money, then tried to cover up the devastating consequences.

It is clearly impossible to run from the national corporation-led degradation of our environment, or from pervasive public corruption.

Riley is an engaging lead, clever in the way we expect our fictional detectives to be. We also expect our lead to carry some personal baggage, challenges at the very least. Her beloved grandfather, Joe, has been in decline for quite a while, coherent and in possession of his memories on an increasingly part-time basis. Her brother Ethan is a bit of a disaster, divorced, a ne’er do well with some substance issues. Riley can usually count on Ethan to step back whenever she needs him to step up. Ethan’s daughter Maddie is a teenager, a decent sort, overall, in a tough situation, but, you know, a teenager, so offering the family their RDA of stress. And Riley still carries the weight of what happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, Riley is saddled with the addition to her team of Officer Cole, an asshole cop straight from central casting, toting the usual bigotries, inflated self-view, and presumptions, with an extra dose of jealousy. Thankfully, Riley’s other partner, Logan, is another good cop.

And then a second body turns up, (not in a field) also not discovered until well past passing, also in very nasty shape, also featuring some remarkable damage. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

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Abandoned meat-packing plant – image from sometimes-interesting.com

Thrillers have tropes like Ruffles have Ridges. Black SUVs put in an appearance. Are they good SUVs or bad SUVs? Ya gotta figure, when Riley spots a large poisonous snake on her property, (Chekov’s snake?) that it will rattle into play at some point. The question is how, when, to whom, and to what effect. News of a coming storm is another one. Usually this signals that the violent final resolution will occur against an atmospherically dramatic background. Young preps us with a mention of eight twisters having touched down in Iowa since April. Will one drop down into the mix here? Now, that would be a real twist. The upcoming Iowa State Fair is also noted, and gave me visions of snakes dropping on fair-goers, transported by a tornado, as everything is revealed in a climactic disaster scene. But Chekov surely does not have to take ownership of all these things. They could also just be foreshadowing images or external representations of the fear and turmoil Riley is experiencing, or the dangers she is facing. (But I sure do like that State Fairground snakenado notion).

So how does the historical novelist fare at the thriller genre? Young ticks off many of the usual boxes that make up the type. The author has to make good with the reader on explaining things at the end, the main things, anyway. Check. A ticking clock? “I’ve had the county attorney on the line already. Less than two months from the state fair and with the gubernatorial coming up? You know how vital this next budget is to the department. I want this case handled quickly. Efficiently.”, so, check. Our hero must face an increasingly perilous set of challenges, no escaping, victory can only be had by overcoming. What’s she gonna do when all those snakes start dropping out of the sky (Ok. I got carried away, again.) But yeah, Riley rolls, doing battle on multiple fronts. An element of suspense? Sure. Got that. Whodunit, why, and who’s next. An appealing hero? Sure. A reliable sidekick with an alternate skill set? Yep. Logan fills the bill. Plot twists? Of course. Red herrings? Bring your fishing pole. There are a few swimming about. Alternate POVs? The story is told in third person, but there is one first person POV that appears a few times. Cliffhangers? That is what made it tough to read only 20-30 pages a night of this book. An exciting climax? Yeah, for sure, even though I was really kinda hoping for the snakenado thing, even though I know it would have been really cool silly.

I quite enjoyed Young’s simple, but dark descriptions.

Waterloo was lifeless in the stagnant air. Smoke seeped from factory chimneys and the Cedar flowed sluggish and brown. Although the roads were clogged with trucks and trailers, there were few people about, just a few vagrants shambling along broken sidewalks, and cleaners and hospital workers trudging to or from shifts…It wasn’t long before she saw the old meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city…Its twin smokestacks were dark fingers against the pallid sky, old bricks the color of rust. The bottom windows were boarded over, the ones higher up mostly shattered. A chain-link fence surrounded the site, bristling with barbed wire…stepping over heaps of rubbish, she found herself in a cavernous hall. Metal steps ascended to gantries that crisscrossed in between pillars and snaking pipes, conveyor belts and wheels. It all looked like some complex ride at the state fair, only made of metal and rust, fractured glass and hooks. She imagined the steers and hogs shuddering round, the iron spike of blood, steam from spilling guts. Parts of the gantries had collapsed. In places, the floor yawned into darkness.

A good book should teach you something about the world while delivering a good story. You will certainly get a sense of the perils of Big Ag, the history of how such concentration got started, and the impact it has had on the economy and the people of this area (presumed to be comparable in all farming states) You will learn a bit about the potential and potential dangers of genetic research for crops. And will learn some Ag lingo.

Good writing is good writing whether it is for historical novels set across the pond (well, across for us in the Western Hemisphere. For her, living in Brighton, the pond is right there.) or for a gritty thriller set in America’s heartland. Young has made the transition smoothly, with an engaging procedural-cum-political-thriller, featuring a strong lead, a diverse supporting cast, well-paced action, and plenty of mystery to keep one’s curiosity on high alert, all while offering a bit of information about the world, and highlighting very real issues concerning Big Agriculture. I am looking forward to the further fleshing out of Riley’s story and those of her supporting cast. Seeds have been planted. The soil is fertile.

The shoots are emerging for the Riley Fisher series, and look very promising. A bountiful annual harvest is forecast. Volume #2 will be set in Des Moines. I am betting that when she writes it, readers will come.

The lifeblood of rural America was being drained, leaving husks of cities, where poverty and crime rushed in to fill the void. It was a legacy all too visible in the boarded-up factories and processing plants that loomed like broken tombs around the city, haunted by vagrants and hookers, and cruised nightly by the squad cars of Waterloo PD.

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

I received an ARE of The Fields from Flatiron in return for a review that was not too horribly corny. Well, I tried, ok. Thanks, too to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Erin Young and Robin Young personal,
FB, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Ruffles have Ridges
—–Master Class – Masterclass: What is the Thriller genre?
—–A bit of silliness
—–Reedsy Blog- Chekhov’s Gun: Don’t Shoot Your Story In the Foot
—–Crop Prophet – Corn production by state
Corn Production Rankings: 2020
Rank State Production (M bu)
1 Iowa 2296.2
2 Illinois 2131.2
3 Nebraska 1790.1
4 Minnesota 1441.9
5 Indiana 981.8
6 Kansas 766.5
7 South Dakota 729.0
8 Ohio 564.3
9 Missouri 560.9
10 Wisconsin 516.8
11 Michigan 306.5

Items of Interest from the author
Young has a few items coming up for publication soon, one in CrimeReads on her research trip to Iowa, and another in The Big Thrill Magazine. There is also an interview upcoming on Jeff Rutherford’s Reading and Writing podcast

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Cops, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

book cover
1968 was certainly an interesting time. Laguna Beach was an interesting place, an artist colony and tourist destination of about 13,000 residents, and, these days anyway, about six million visitors a year for a current local population of a bit over 20,000. So, even with a temporal discount it had to have been a lot back then too. T. Jefferson Parker lived there for a stretch. It inspired his first, very successful, novel, Laguna Heat, so he knows the territory into which he places his young hero.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony is a hard-working, pretty decent kid. Holds down a paper route for money, building muscle and character on his Schwinn Heavy-Duti bike. Single mom, Julie, holds down a crappy job at a Jolly Roger restaurant. (Might be better named Davey Jones’ Locker?) His older brother, Kyle, is a short-timer in ‘Nam, terrified that something will happen to him in his remaining weeks. Their father, Bruce, a former cop, has been mostly out of the picture for years, but maintains occasional contact. Mom has issues with substances, which are dramatically available in southern Orange County, and her issues are growing more alarming. Matt’s body is going through some changes, which is always a joyous experience. And then his sister, Jasmine, a recent High School graduate, gorgeous, straight-A student, in-crowd, rebellious toward the usual authorities, goes poof! Stayed out overnight (not alarming in itself) but has remained MIA and the local fuzz are uninterested.

I was fourteen-years old in 1968 so I experienced the strange, beguiling world of Laguna Beach as a very impressionable, wide-eyed, wonder-struck boy. When it came time to create a hero/protagonist for A Thousand Steps, I just aged myself—that fourteen-year old boy—into a sixteen-year old on the cusp of getting his driver’s license, and let him take off in his mother’s hippie van! – from the Mark Gottlieb interview

Bill Furlong personifies that disinterest, a large officer, with an interest in Julie for things other than possession of illegal substances. Brigit Darnell is the good cop, young, a mom, willing to listen to Matt. It may or may not matter. He knows his sister. Does not accept that she had simply run off. And one more piece. Bonnie Stratmeyer, 18, missing two months, posters proclaiming the fact up all around, has just been found at the bottom of the stairs at the Thousand Steps Beach. (Last time Parker actually went up, or down, or both, he counted 224, but the number changes with each attempt. It’s 219 in the book.) Bonnie had not taken the usual route down. Thus Matt’s panic about Jazz.

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T. Jefferson Parker – image from Laguna Beach Independent – photo by Rita Parker

The thousand steps of the title is a notable waterfront location, but it might also be what Matt sets himself to take on, in the absence of official interest. The plot is Matt continuing to search for his missing sister, continuing to turn up clues, continuing to pester the cops to do their job, while trying to cope with chaos at home, and while coming of age, physically, socially, and emotionally. Although it may be less of a journey for Matt than other teens. He is a pretty grounded kid. And then there is the local color. A holding pen of new agers, con-men, regular crooks, a biker gang, drug dealers, drug abusers, and feckless teens. There are enough shady goings on here to blot out the California sun.

Mystic Arts World is a bookstore/head-shop/local institution that offers classes on meditation, among other things. Johnny Grail, the owner, is a bit of a local legend, a slippery sort, well able to keep a step or two ahead of the police, (who are desperate to catch him holding or doing anything illegal) to the delight of area residents. The whole New Age thing was not particularly popular with the constabulary. Go figure. But despite their clear prejudice, they actually may have something. Johnny is about as clean as a public crash pad.

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Mystic Arts World (1967-1970), a head shop in Laguna Beach, was ground zero for psychedelic culture in southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there that a loosely organized group of artists interested in alternative culture, mystical experience and the transformation of society, “The Mystic Artists”, congregated and exhibited their art. Their artistic expression ranged from Beat assemblage to figuration to psychedelic art. – image and text from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love site

Local color extends to the presence of Timothy Leary, offering lectures at the MAW, and a Swami who has attracted a bit of a following. He offers increasing levels of instruction to his followers. Some reside at his compound, a former seminary. Matt and his brother used to play there when they were kids and it was unused.

The town hosts an annual tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Matt likes this. He is a budding artist and draws a passel of scenes from his experiences to help police in their frail attempts to look for his sister, and address other crimes. He is particularly fond of the work of Edward Hopper.

Working class life contrasts with the lifestyles of the rich, corrupt, and horny. We get a peek at some excusive locations hosting some very dodgy goings on. Matt fishes less for recreation than for a supply of protein, which mom cannot always provide. They live in a clapboard rental, for which Mom struggles to make rent, Matt sleeping in the garage. But we see great wealth on display as well. There is a part of town called Dodge City, for its casual relationship with the law, general run-down-ness and general hostility toward people toting badges. Get out of Dodge? Sure, ASAP. But up-slope and down-slope have plenty of criminal intent in common.

So what happened to Jazz? Is she still alive? As the days pass the odds seem worse and worse. Is Matt’s mom serious about stopping her drug use? He gathers help where he can, and pedals on, but we wonder if he might be wasting his time. Why does Mom want to move to Dodge City? Will his father ever show up to help? He keeps promising. And even if he does, would he be more hindrance than help? Is the Swami as nice and wise as he seems? Girls are becoming more a part of his life, and maybe even some activities that often accompany such associations. Will Matt’s permanent crush on Laurel ever go anywhere?

I am roughly the same age as Matt, so can relate to being a teen in that era. It never hurts to add that into the reading enjoyment mix. On the other hand, my east coast experience was quite different from his Cali life, including the degree of drug exposure. My older brother was in the army too, but not in Viet Nam. My father was around. My mom’s drugs of choice were Tareytons and tea. But still, we all go through adolescence, so there is the coming-of-age element to relate to. Sounds like Matt skipped the parts where your voice goes to hell, your face resembles a moonscape, and embarrassing body parts pop up for no discernible reason, for all to see. Whatever. It is impossible not to love Matt. There is one gripe I have about him, though. For someone who was so smart and intrepid about tracking down his sister, he is startlingly blind about some items, which I will not spoil here, that were jumping up and down and screaming from the pages. Yeah, he is just an unworldly teen, so could easily miss some things, but he seems pretty sharp about other stuff, so it rankled.

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Matt’s bike – image from TJP’s Twitter cache

Parker has been at this for a while. Steps is his 27th book. His first, Laguna Heat, was an instant success, and was brought to the screen by HBO. His work includes multiple series, and has earned him THREE EDGAR AWARDS! So, no slouch. He started his writing career as a cub reporter. In the Internet Writing Journal interview Parker was asked how his journalism background informed his writing.

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It’s not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It’s the exposure that’s valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police — everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

He knew he was not a journalistic long-timer, but being a reporter did hone his skills, and also allowed him a venues in which he could collect plenty of details to include in his fictional writing. His craft has grown as well. Keep an ear out for the soundscape Parker has incorporated. It enriches the reading experience.

I read this one at bedtime, 20-30 pps a night, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending. Every day I was reading this book I was eager, very eager to tuck my lower half under the covers, (also good for hiding the cloven hoofs) crank up the laptop for my notetaking, switch on the lights to make reading my hardcopy ARE possible, and reveled. You all know that feeling when you are truly enjoying a book, and look forward to getting back to it every day. Well, presuming that you do not just scarf down the entire thing in one ginormous gulp. I prefer to spread out that joy. So, a couple weeks, and it delivered every night.

Bottom line is that I totally enjoyed this book. Appreciated the portrait of a time and place well known to the author, loved the lead character, and had fun trying to figure out who had committed (was committing?) which crimes, how, and why. A few of those will quickly succumb to your investigative instincts, but the rest will keep you guessing. Mystery, suspense, thriller, coming-of-age? Use whatever adjective suits or mix and match. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, A Thousand Steps will remain a pretty good read. You will not need any LSD or opiated anything to get off on or get into this book. Go ahead. Be a tourist in Laguna Beach for a bit. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

I received an ARE of A Thousand Steps from Macmillan’s Reading Insiders Club program in return for a couple of hits of that sweet product. Righteous, man.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Parker’s personal, FB, GR, and Twitter pages

What does the T. stand for?
Not a thing. No, really. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Jeff’s mom always explained it by saying she thought the T. would look good on the President’s door.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

Interviews
—–Mark Gottlieb Talks Books – Three-Time Edgar Award-winner and New York Times Bestselling Author T. Jefferson Parker
—–2007 – Bookpage – Only in California by Jay MacDonald
—–The VJ Books Podcast – T. Jefferson Parker – A Thousand Steps by Roger Nichols
—–2018- Bookbrowse – An interview with T Jefferson Parker
—–The Internet Writing Journal – A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker by Claire E. White
—–2002 – Orange County Register – THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE by Amy Wilson

Songs/Music
—–The Rollingstones – Satisfaction
—–Cream – Tales of Great Ulysses
—–Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
—–Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady – Hendrix performs in front of an audience of the sitting dead in Miami
—–The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

Items of Interest
—–The Brotherhood of Eternal Love – their site
—–Brotherhood of Eternal Love – Laguna Beach – Wet Side Story – a bit of Laguna Beach history
—–All That’s Interesting (ATI) – An interesting article about the BEL in the 1960s
—–Wiki on Timothy Leary
—–Wiki on the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event held in Laguna Beach, featuring tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Here is a nifty video promoting the event today.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

book cover

Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden.

Milley summarized and scribbled. “Big Threat: domestic terrorism.”
Some were the new Brown Shirts, a U.S. version, Milley concluded, of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party that supported Hitler. It was a planned revolution. Steve Bannon’s vision coming to life. Bring it all down, blow it up, burn it, and emerge with power.

The title, Peril, is drawn from President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, in which he says “We have much to do in this winter of peril…” It is the epigraph for the book. Winter is not coming. It is bloody well here, and has been here a lot longer than most folks realize. Woodward and his much younger partner, Bob Costa, national political reporter for the Washington Post, look over some of what we have endured, consider the peril we face today, and give us plenty to think about concerning what lies ahead. Biden’s speech addresses not only the threat to our democracy, but the threat to our safety from COVID variants, the cry for racial justice, and the threat to our planet from global warming. This book focuses on the threat to American democracy.

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Bob Woodward and Robert Costa – image from CNN

It rolls along on two parallel tracks. One is Trump’s attempt to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. The other is Joe Biden’s determination to preserve the soul of our nation, focusing on his campaign, and the first few months of his administration. The chapters alternate, more or less between Trump and Biden.

“Was that from this book?” One peril to be faced in reading this book is that of fixing what one read, when, where, and by whom, given the firehose flood of books on the Trump era. I addressed that in my review of I Alone Can Fix It. If this is of interest you can click here for a look.

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Trump’s mob assaults the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – image from Business Insider

January 6, 2021 is a date which will live in infamy. That was the day on which American democracy was nearly bombed into surrender by a sneak attack on the citadel of our national values. That was the day on which a failed Trump-led coup could easily have made moot the election he had just lost, and rendered American elections, certainly presidential elections, meaningless. It was the coming out party for an American brand of fascism that has long been an undercurrent, and sometimes much more, in our political life as a nation, a dark but always-present element in our population that Trump had recruited and encouraged for years, even before he ran for office.

It is clear that, to the extent that we will ever know all the details of the coup plot, it is likely to come from the Congressional January 6 Committee’s final report, in combination with unredacted testimony given to that committee, testimony given at what we hope will be very public trials of those in charge of the effort, and intrepid reporters. The authors count among that final group. While offering far from a complete portrait of the plot, they have given us an insider’s look at what people in the administration and the government beyond that faced on 1/6 (which I personally think should be called Desecration Day.) And what they had to deal with in the months leading up to it.

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Milley speaking with Trump – image from DNYUZ

It was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley whose intercession with his Chinese counterpart talked the Chinese military down from a concern that Trump might launch an attack on China in order to remain in office, not once but twice. As the Chinese were again concerned what our imbalanced president might do after his coup attempt failed. There was also concern that Trump would attack Iran in an attempt to secure his own position. I doubt Israel would have appreciated the incomings such an action would have surely generated. He also floated the idea of evacuating troops from Afghanistan in January, 2021, with minimal planning. Thankfully he was dissuaded from that impulse as well.

Milley is the official most in the limelight here. He was appointed to that post by Donald Trump. In Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book I Alone Can Fix It, Milley told them of his concerns about the dangers of a right-wing coup. There is plenty more of that in this book as well. We hear a lot from Trump-whisperer Lindsey Graham about his conversations with Trump, who appears to have actually convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He is a fine representative of those who, while remaining loyal to Trump, try to counsel him to sane courses of action.

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Donald Trump pretends to check his watch as Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at the White – image and text from The Guardian

We get a look at the conversations among the cabinet level officials, unwilling to allow him to use the US military as his private army. We learn what analyses they shared about the dangers facing the nation, what agreements they came to among themselves, what steps they took, and what mistakes they made. We get a look at how these and other level-headed adults in the administration did whatever they could to keep Trump from causing irreparable harm to the nation with his impulsive-driven, self-serving, poorly-informed decision-making. Part of all this included making certain that proper chains of command would be followed should Trump decide to start a war as a Wag the Dog self-preservation move, or command the military to take actions that were illegal.

Days after the election, Trump fired Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, in large part for his public opposition to the use of the military to suppress BLM protests. It was certainly clear to those tracking Trump’s actions that Trump wanted the US military to be his personal security force, and Esper was an impediment. In fact, it was appropriate for the military to be brought to bear to battle an insurrection, and the delays in the military’s response can be traced to the Department of Defense, by then Esper-free, sitting on its hands for far too long.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper – fired after the election – image from Reuters via BBC

One item that becomes clear from the telling here is that Mike Pence did his best to find a way to Yes for Trump, but was unable. It is also clear that Trump pushed Pence a step too far when he issued a press release claiming that the Vice President agreed with Trump’s lie that the VP had the legal right to refuse to accept the electoral votes of any state. It was the only thing, apparently, in four years in office, that generated a spine in the relentlessly invertebrate Pence, driving him into bunker mode. It is unfortunate that Pence will likely be remembered more for this single act than for his years of pathetic subservience to and enabling of an American Mussolini. It is chilling to consider that had there been alternate slates of electors ready to bring to bear, Pence might have actually done the deed. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi called him repeatedly after the insurrection, wanting him to invoke the 25th amendment. He refused to take their calls, calling a quick halt to his vertebrate moment.

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Mike Pence flees the mob on 1/6 – image from The Guardian

The book will (it certainly should) make your blood boil. The Founders put together a guiding document and a set of rules that presumed they would be carried out by honorable officials. They did not count on the possibility of a sociopath being elected president. Someone with not only no respect, but outright contempt, for the rule of law. He really claimed, and maybe even believed in his diseased mind, like Louis XIV, who famously said “L’etat est moi,” that he, personally, was the state.

Bottom line is that when you see Woodward and Costa being interviewed about this book, or talking about the events they covered, their hair is on fire. They understand what it was that happened, namely that not only did the nation narrowly avoid a fascist coup that would have made the USA a dictatorship, but that the party of the guy who ordered it is all lined up and ready to goose-step their way to another try. We may have survived Trump’s 2021 coup attempt, but it is clear that he will try again, and there are far too many who are more than willing to go along, whether actively or passively.

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Trump with Steve Bannon – image from CNN

Now, as for the other part of this book. It should come as a salve for the angst generated by the reporting on Trump. They follow Biden’s decision to run, following the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” outrage, convinced that the very soul of the nation was imperiled, and that he could offer a way out of this very dark cloud, more so than other extant or potential candidates. We get to see a very human Biden, sincere, knowledgeable, willing to listen to well-informed and well-meant advice, willing to make needed adjustments, willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, and unwilling to be baited by Trumpian taunts and lies. We are let in to some of the family troubles the Bidens have endured, that they continue to endure. Biden is shown as the anti-Trump, an incredibly decent person, gifted at making personal contact with people, caring about people, remembering them, willing to spend unheard of amounts of time with people who could offer him nothing but their shared pain. It shows candidate Biden behaving in a presidential manner when the actual president would not. It is a warm portrait of a man the authors have certainly seen enough of to know. They also show him getting tough in legislative negotiations, and showing his exasperation when sanity, and decency, seem insufficient to accomplish a goal. The book continues into March 2021, so shows Biden as president as well as merely a candidate.

But, of course, being Washington reporters, they feel it necessary to take a swing or two. In one instance they report on Biden snapping at a reporter who was being particularly dickish as if there was something wrong with that. That Biden later apologized was the real fault here. The reporter merited being smacked down. Their portrayal was that this was a kind of gaffe. Take a moment to roll your eyes here. The Beltway media have particular story lines that they adhere to, regardless of the facts. Reporting Biden as particularly gaffe-ridden is among them. He is no more so than most other people. We all misstate things at times. But they seem eager, drooling even for a chance to catch another one and reinforce the image. Their treatment of Biden’s entirely appropriate reaction to a hostile reporter is of a cloth with that mindlessness.

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Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes a picture with the Downs family after campaigning in Rehoboth Beach. – image and text from the Cape Gazette

Gripes (in addition to the one above)
As happens far too often in books of this sort, namely political history books put together largely through personal interviews, the authors sometimes slip into stenography mode. They report, presumably straight-faced, about Senate Majority, now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trotting out his spin about tax cuts for the rich being “tax reform” and crediting Trump for an economy that had been humming along quite nicely when he took office. I call BS. They continue in this mode about McConnell working with cabinet members trying to push Trump to some semblance of normal. Take nothing McConnell reports himself saying at face value. Second-party confirmation is always needed there. Ditto for Lindsey Graham.

Former Republican and Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt issued a statement about Graham…saying that many people have tried to understand Graham over the years. He encouraged people not to look at it “through the prism of the manifest inconsistencies that exist between things he used to believe and what he’s doing now.”
Instead, Schmidt said, “The way to understand him is to look at what’s consistent. And essentially what he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers around a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump is the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.”
– from Salon article

Graham is quoted at length here, and it is all self-serving. Douse that with salt before consuming.

Gripes, notwithstanding, Peril is an important book, another in a large library of reporting on the workings of the Trump administration, and particularly at how close Trump’s attempted coup came to succeeding.

There are many lessons to be learned here. One is that the January 6th Committee should interview, whether via subpoena or not, all the players involved in orchestrating the insurrection, including Trump, and that they need to complete their report and make all necessary criminal referrals to the Department of Justice before Republicans have a chance to regain control of the House and shut them down. We learn that the norms and rules of American government are fatally flawed, allowing the dark-hearted to game the system for their political and personal advantage. We learn that even in dark times there are officials willing to put their careers, and even their lives on the line to stand up for the ideals and institutions, that Americans claim to admire and respect. We learn that there need to be fixes made to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make sure that each state’s electors truthfully represent the decision of the voters.

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Attorney John Eastman, left, speaks next to Rudy Giuliani at Donald Trump’s rally on 6 January – Image and text from Reuters, by way of The Guardian – photo by Jim, Bourg

The book’s epigraph cut short Biden’s inaugural statement. The full sentence reads We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Despite the subsequent COVID variants that have killed or damaged so many in our nation, and the world, a major relief bill made it through a very marginally Democratic Congress. Other measures are needed, but hope that more can be done remains alive, despite Joe Manchin. There are hopeful signs in many parts of the nation that democracy is on the rise.

But the forces of darkness are indeed on the march, with shameless efforts, far too often successful, to suppress the right to vote of people unlikely to vote Republican, and to seize partisan control of state vote-counting mechanisms to make sure that if that suppression is not enough there is a second way to cheat their way to victory. What we are looking at in America is the rise of a fascist party that wears the name-tag Republican. Do not be fooled. These are the same sorts of people the Allies fought in World War II. The same sorts of people who seized control of Turkey in 2016, and who have gained power in far too many nations. The same sorts of people who admire corrupt autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Woodward and Costa have offered us a look at how such people operate when they find themselves in a position of power. No law is too sacred. No act too extreme. Thankfully, they were not as organized as they needed to be on 1/6 to succeed in their goals and they do not yet have enough power to implement their dark desires. But have no doubt that should they achieve their electoral goals, fairly or not, they will usher in a new Dark Age in America.

We as a nation are in mortal danger. We need to continue reading, learning about what has happened, and what has been hidden, so that we can be better prepared for the challenges that await. Woodward and Costa’s book helps us see what has gone on, and helps us prepare, offering one Peril we should all welcome.

Five years ago, on March 31, 2016, when Trump was on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination, we worked together for the first time and interviewed Trump at his then unfinished Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
That day, we recognized he was an extraordinary political force, in many ways right out of the American playbook. An outsider. Anti-establishment. A businessman. A builder. Bombastic. Confident. A fast-talking scrapper.
But we also saw darkness. He could be petty. Cruel. Bored by American history and dismissive of governing traditions that had long guided elected leaders. Tantalized by the prospect of power. Eager to use fear to get his way.
“Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Trump told us.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”
Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?
Peril remains.

This review has been cross-posted, well, most of it, on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Woodward’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Links to the Robert Costa’s Instagram and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Washington Post – Transcript: “Peril” with Co-Authors Bob Woodward & Robert Costa by Karen Tumulty – transcript of a Washington Live interview
—–The Guardian – ‘American democracy will continue to be tested’: Peril author Robert Costa on Trump, the big lie and 2024 by David Smith
—–NPR – Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 election didn’t work. Next time it might by Terry Gross

My reviews of other books by Bob Woodward
—–2020 – Rage
—–2018 – Fear
—–2010 – Obamas’s Wars
—–2008 – The War Within

Some other related books to check out
—–I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker
—–Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump
—–Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine K. Albright
—–Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
—–Unbelievable by Katy Tur

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, True crime

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

book cover

Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

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Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

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7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

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Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

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Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

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Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB
—–The Guardian – How to kill a god: the myth of Captain Cook shows how the heroes of empire will fall – an edited excerpt

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society
—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

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The Social Leap by William von Hippel

book cover

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature