Tag Archives: books-of-the-year-2022

They Want To Kill Americans by Malcolm Nance

book cover

There is only one way out of this. The only way out of this outcome is that the November midterms are the final referendum on whether America truly stays America and a democracy or if it becomes a fascist dictatorship. If the Democrats lose the House and the Senate, then it is all over. There may never be another free and fair election in America. If the Republicans take control, we may be teetering on the edge of an American dictatorship. – from The Guardian interview

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call “The Twilight Zone.” – One of several introductions used for the show

It does not take a lot of imagination to see what is happening in America today. They are coming for you. They are coming for your voting rights, your right to have your vote counted, your right not to be gerrymandered into a Jackson-Pollock-designed district that renders your vote moot, your right to be able to vote without having to stand on line for hours, your right to vote without having armed men and women watching you, intimidating you, your right to vote by mail, by drop box, your right to have someone bring your ballot to the election board if you are unable to do it yourself. They are coming for your right to privacy. An extremist religious SCOTUS whose members lied when they swore they would uphold precedent, reversed that very precedent and removed your right to do what you need, what you want, with your own body, blithely leaving hungry state foxes in charge of the abortion hen-house.

They are coming for your money. Trump could not seem to do much to improve infrastructure, get us out of Afghanistan, deal with global warming or COVID, or seriously address any real public policy issues, but he managed to pass a massive tax cut for the wealthy and corporations. One guess who is supposed to make up that lost revenue. They are coming for the safety net programs that vast numbers of Americans rely on, while raising taxes on the middle class, on the working class and the poor.

By Election Day 2020, the Trump-dominated Republican Party solidified itself for what it perceived was a battle to change the soul of America permanently. Trump’s financial backers saw endless opportunity for tax cuts and limitless, tax-free profits. The stock market saw a president who would ruin nearly a century of regulation and allow them unimaginable capital gains that they could pass on to their children without paying taxes. The party investors saw a middle and lower class that would pay for virtually everything Republicans wanted and divest from virtually every social program liberals wanted. In their eyes, the average American would see none of the profits of America but literally pay for the wealth and prosperity of the richest of the rich. In fact, Trump and his lieutenants managed to do precisely that in his first four years. By the end of his administration, money allocated for education, childcare, and mental health would pay for mega yachts. In Trump’s America, executive jet purchases were tax free.

They are coming for your right to remain alive. Republicans have fought every attempt to enact sane gun control, untouched by the daily slaughter from these weapons. They are apparently just not that into you. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the rights and benefits that they want to take from you, from us. The right to marry, to love who you want, the right to define for yourself, and not allow the government to define your gender. Yes, they are coming for inter-racial marriage. They are coming for your right to use birth control. And they will not stop there. You have not just woken from a dream in an episode of The Twilight Zone (TZ). This is the terrifying reality of America today. Forget the reality you know, or thought you knew. You have been dragged, or maybe you ran into it. (Some superstitions, kept alive by the long night of ignorance, have their own special power. You’ll hear of it through a jungle grapevine in a remote corner of the Twilight Zone. – from episode 3.12 – The Jungle)

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Malcolm Nance – image from Macmillan

Malcolm Nance is an intelligence professional, who has been dealing with foreign enemies for decades. What he has seen in analyzing terrorism and insurgencies abroad has given him a unique insight into what is now an ongoing domestic insurgency, an insurgency that is the means by which the fascist Republican right will take what it wants from you. They will try to win elections, and will win many, some fairly. But they will try to win by cheating, wherever playing fair will not get the job done. Once in office they will steal your rights, and legislate permanence to their position. What they cannot win at the ballot box, they will try to seize at the end of a gun. He calls this movement TITUS, for the Trump Insurgency in the United States. If you are among the remaining sane Republicans you might feel like the guy in TZ episode 1, who finds himself all alone in an abandoned town.

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Earl Holliman as Mike Ferris in TZ episode 1, Where is Everybody – image from Do You Remember

Nance presents a group-by-group look at the organizations involved in promoting and perpetuating chaos in our country, with the goal of seizing power. Many of these will be familiar. (Proud Boys, Three-Percenters, Oath Keepers Boogaloo Bois) Some were news to me. (e.g. Atomwaffen, the Base, Panzerfaust) He offers some history, showing how the bigotries of the past have persisted, albeit with some costume changes. He shows how the unspeakable monsters of the far right have gained increasing publicity from the right-wing media echo machine, and the main-stream media. And sadly, how the views expressed have found a home in a large portion of American households. He notes Trump’s rapid transition from distancing himself from the crazies to fully embracing them. No, this is not a Rod-Serling-generated fantasy land. The Proud Boys really are the khaki’d descendants of the skinheads.

TITUS is a pre-rebellion political-paramilitary alliance that intends to use politics, instability, and violence to meet its goals. The number one goal is reestablishing the Trump dynasty as the primary operating system for America. Then they will use the power of the government to punish their enemies. The political wing of TITUS, the Trump-dominated Republican Party, has already initiated a dangerous plan to embrace the launch of protracted political warfare in America.

Recent reports are that Trump even dreamed of having generals as loyal to him as Hitler’s were to Der Fuhrer, not realizing, because he is an ignoramus, that Hitler’s generals had tried to kill him on multiple occasions. It is pretty clear that this is not the only thing about Hitler that Trump envies.

What we are looking at is a world in which there are people hoping to put Anthony Fremont into the Oval Office, again. You don’t remember Anthony? If you are a Twilight Zone fan you might. He was a monster, the star of one of TZ’s most famous, and chilling episodes. He was six years old, and lived in Peakesville, Ohio. But he was born with an unusual talent. He could make things vanish or rearrange them in horrible ways. He has already made all the world around Mar-a-Lago, sorry, Peakesville, disappear, and if you harbor any unhappy (UnMAGA?) thoughts he will do terrible things to you. The episode was called It’s a Good Life, taking its title from the ironic statement of an adult who knows it is anything but.

Discussing the impeachment of President Trump on Meet the Press, Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado, said most members of the GOP are “paralyzed with fear.” He continued: “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues. . . . A couple of them broke down in tears . . . saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.

This is what TITUS wants.

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Billy Mumy as Anthony Fremont in It’s a Good Life, TZ season 3, episode 8 – image from NY Post

Nance goes through what he calls the Psychodynamics of Radicalization, pointing out characteristics that well describe many on the right. They all see themselves as victims, are emotionally reactive, internalize negative stimuli until they burst, embrace conspiracy theories, have flexible ideological identifications (meaning there is no there there, any excuse will do to back up whatever it is they want, or are being told to do.) It goes on, but offers a fair description of many of the TITUS horde. There is certainly a lot of thinking inside the bubble going on, which leaves them with reduced capacity to think critically about the propaganda they mass-consume from the likes of Fox and Breitbart.

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TZ Season 1, episode 22, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street – image from Noblemania – two aliens are amazed that simply by fiddling with a local electricity grid, they can cause the residents of this place to reveal their inner monsters and destroy each other

One thing that I hoped would be addressed is the role Russia might have played, or is still playing in organizing or supporting some of these nut farms. Personally, I believe that Russia was instrumental in the creation of Q-Anon, but do not claim that to be a fact. It would be consistent with Russian cyber-war attacks against the West over the last few decades. There is a strong connection between Putin and disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who has been rumored to be “Q.” Nance might be in a position to have an actual informed opinion about who Q is. He does, however, offer a provocative scenario in which Q-Anon evolved from a live-action-role-playing game.

An even more provocative scenario depicts a theoretical nation-wide assault on governments by the armed right. It is chilling.

The violence of today’s right has been bubbling for a while. He reports on increasing white-nationalism in the police and military. The significance of this is that instead of bumbling amateurs trying to storm governors’ mansions, many of the assaulters will be combat trained, able to organize assaults, and comfortable using weapons. Military-style training camps have been increasing in number. Insurrectionist-oriented organizations joining together, or coordinating, can form a serious threat to the nation. Another huge threat is the propagation of lone-wolf terrorists, fooled by right-wing media lies into taking action against non-existent crimes. Remember Pizzagate? In its ability to inspire low-information followers to commit mortal acts of violence TITUS very much resembles ISIS.

Violent extremists in the United States and terrorists in the Middle East have remarkably similar pathways to radicalization. Both are motivated by devotion to a charismatic leader, are successful at smashing political norms, and are promised a future racially homogeneous paradise. Modern American terrorists are much more akin to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) than they are to the old Ku Klux Klan. Though they take offense at that comparison, the similarities are quite remarkable. Most American extremists are not professional terrorists on par with their international counterparts. They lack operational proficiency and weapons. But they do not lack in ruthlessness, targets, or ideology. However, the overwhelming number of white nationalist extremists operate as lone wolves. Like McVeigh in the 1990s and others from the 1980s, they hope their acts will motivate the masses to follow in their footsteps.

He also points out that the right has an advantage in camouflage. The January 6 insurrectionists were able to get as close as they did to the Capitol largely because they were white. Had a black mob of comparable size been breaking down barriers in DC that day, the response would have been very different. The whiteness of the assaulters allowed them to get close. Will that work in state capitols too, or again in DC?

You will pick up some of the terminology used by the right, terms like accelerationism, ZOG, The Storm, zombies, sovereign citizen, constitutional sheriff, and plenty more.

You will also learn about some of the books that inspire these folks. You may have heard of The Turner Diaries, but maybe not about The Great Replacement, by Renaud Camus, or Siege, by James Mason (no, not that one).

They Want to Kill Americans is Malcolm Nance, with his hair on fire, trying to get everyone to see what is coming, pleading with us to take measures to forestall a bloody American insurgency. The book works in two ways, both as a warning of imminent peril, and as a resource. Use this book to learn who the relevant right-wing groups are, what they are about, who their leaders are, what their goals and methods are. There are many names named in this book. It would be good to learn as many of them as possible.

Sadly, we are not in a dimension beyond time and space. We are in the dark place in which millions around the world find themselves facing hordes of fascists determined to destroy democracy as we have known it, substituting authoritarian rule. The threat is real, and unless we can fend it off we may never be able to find our way out of The Twilight of Democracy Zone. (with apologies to Anne Applebaum)

…several Republican legislatures including in Florida, Oklahoma, and Missouri have made the murder of protesters by running them over in a vehicle legal.

Review posted – August 12, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

I received an eARE of They Want to Kill Americans from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, Sara Beth and Michelle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

The focus on his personal site at present is Ukraine, where Nance is working with the government to fend off the Russian invaders.

Interviews
—– The Mary Trump Show – Malcolm Nance & Mary Trump: They Want To Kill Americans – VIDEO – 41:21
—–Malcolm Nance: ”The Republican Party is an insurgent party” – By David Smith
—–Salon – Malcolm Nance on the Trump insurgency: Jan. 6 was a “template to do it correctly next time” by Chauncey Devega
—– The Commonwealth Club – MALCOLM NANCE: BEHIND THE IDEOLOGY OF THE TRUMP INSURGENCY – video – with Pat Thurston – 1:16:52

My review of another book by the author
—–2018 – The Plot to Destroy Democracy

Item of Interest
—–University of Ohio – Twilight Zone Introduction

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Filed under American history, Non-fiction, Public policy

The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter

book cover

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story.Angel of Rome

First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.Famous Actor

You know that guy in the second Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, the Thuggee priest Mola Ram? Questionable taste in haberdashery, but possessed of a special power. He could reach his hand directly into a person’s torso, secure a grip on the heart, and rip it directly out of the body, not a procedure certified by the AMA. While I expect Jess Walter has better taste in hats, he is possessed of a similar power. Of course, when he rips out your heart, you won’t, unlike Mola Ram’s victims, actually die. You will get your heart back. But you will feel deeply, sometimes painfully, and the experience will stay with you.

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The author? No. Heartbreaker Mola Ram doing his thing in The Temple of Doom – but clearly a relation – image from Swarajya

It has been nine years since Jess Walter’s last short story collection, We Live in Water, but he has continued to write them, publishing in a variety of journals and other outlets. When it was time, he looked through the fifty or so he had written since his last collection and managed to cull that down to a dozen, well, fourteen, but his editor made him cut two more. (Boooo! So mean of her!)

like many novelists, Walter got his start in fiction writing by crafting short stories and selling them wherever he could – Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, ESPN the Magazine. Despite his success as a novelist, he still loves writing short stories. After all, he said, they’re no more difficult to write than novels, “they’re just shorter,” he said.> – from the Spokesman Review print interview

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Jess Walter – benign twin of Mola Ram? – image from The Spokesman-Review – shot by Colin Mulvany

Just for the record, Jess Walter is one of the best writers working today, and this collection is a fine representation of a master at the pinnacle of his power. His work is engaging, powerful, moving, literary, and often LOL-funny.

There are several motifs that repeat through multiple stories but the overall theme here is hope. While there are no overt feathers floating about in the stories, still, there is a comforter’s worth of downy literary substance in the air. Faced with challenging circumstances, many of the lead characters find a way to a hopeful place.

It sorta surprised me because I think of myself as someone who likes to plumb darkness, but I kept coming across dark situations that led to moments of hope, and moments of connection between characters that I found surprising. I look back on those years, from 2013 to now [2022], losing a close friend, having my father suffer from dementia, and I can see different themes. A mother passing away from cancer and cancer always works its way…and I can see these themes that in almost all the stories that I ended up choosing, there was a surprising figure. Like Mr. Voice in the first story. And I think I was finding that I was finding such connection in my family and in my friends, even during a hard several years, personally and politically for a lot of people, I think I was looking for those places where you felt some refuge. – from the Spokesman Review print interview

A subset of this is characters, particularly young ones, coming to define themselves, to mold themselves into the people they want to be, rather than simply accepting the pre-fab path that has been laid out for them.

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story. – The Angel of Rome

In To the Corner, one youngster seems to find a way forward, out of the despair that permeates the place where he has been growing up. Before You Blow centers on a young woman who finds an unexpected career option in her future, In Fran’s Friend Has Cancer, a character wonders just how much of their life it is possible to control.

Place is important to Walter

Growing up, the geography of New York was imprinted on me in the literature that I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do that for the city I live in. I think as writers, we mythologize these places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of mythology of Eastern Washington. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also just love it there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and set literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way. – from the Seattle Times interview

More than half the stories are set in Spokane, with one in Boise and another in Bend, Oregon. Three travel farther afield, with one each in Manhattan, Rome, and Mississippi.

Fame
There are several famous characters in the collection. Mr Voice is a household name in Spokane for his voice-over work there. The Famous Actor is both impressed by his own fame, and massively insecure. One of the characters in Before You Blow is destined for fame, of a sort. The Angel of Rome features two stars, an Italian actress and an American TV actor. Walter manages to give them all personalities, for good or ill (mostly good).

Angels
Maybe not the magical sort, but no less benevolent. Mr Voice turns out to be so much more than meets the eye. An American actor in Rome takes a shaky American scholar under his wing. An old friend comes to the rescue of a woman in great need. An old man turns his despair into a pointed generosity.

Teens
Most of the stories focus on characters in their teens and twenties, some adding a POV from the character looking back decades later. A couple focus on older people

Thematic threads, and literary gifts are of no matter if the characters do not gain and hold our interest. Thankfully writing characters you can relate to is yet another tool in his shed. Jess Walter can be counted on to write tales that are both image-rich and accessible. But he also gives us relatable characters, heart-rending tales, great twists, and a comedy-club-night-out worth of raucous laughter. You will be charmed, moved, and very satisfied. A triumph of a collection, The Angel of Rome, I am sure even Kali would agree, is simply heaven-sent.

“I guess it seems to me”—Jeremiah pauses, choosing his words carefully—“that you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.”

Review posted – July 15, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

======================================THE STORIES

Story 1 – Mr. Voice
Tanya’s father has been out of the picture forever. Mom eliminated boyfriends like they were murder suspects. A looker, she was never short on male attention. But at some point you make a choice and hope for a life. Mom chose Mr. Voice, older, a voice-over performer well known in Spokane. Tanya looks back from forty-nine on her years with her Mom and stepfather from when she was nine into her teens. An intensely moving tale of parental sorts connecting, or failing, and lessons to be learned about relationships, with a gut-punch finale.

Story 2 – Fran’s Friend Has Cancer
On aging, lives being reduced to feeling-free stories
Sheila and Max, an older couple, are having lunch before a Broadway matinee when they notice something strange.

In that story there’s somebody doing what I used to do when I wanted to learn how to write dialogue, sitting in a restaurant, recording the way people speak. I really just wanted to get patterns of speech down. And I started thinking about the…kind of arrogance of that, and…just what sort of flawed thinking it is that just by overhearing a conversation you could create a whole human being. – from the Spokesman Review video interview

…most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the process of writing, and sometimes you feel this ideal, like you’ve created life. And then other times it seems like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was sort of just playing with that idea. – from the Seattle Times interview

Max confronts the writer and finds a whole other layer of concern.

Story 3 – Magnificent Desolation
Jacob is a 12-yo with an attitude problem. His constant smirk accompanies his constant challenging of career science teacher Edward Wells over basic scientific truths with “We don’t believe in that.” When Wells has had enough he e-mails Jacob’s parents. What to do when he is instantly smitten with Jacob’s mother? There are wonderful references here to two contributions to the world by Buzz Aldrin.

Story 4 – Drafting
Myra is 24, way too young to have cancer, to be facing the possibility of an early reaper. Needing a way back to living, she gets in touch with an ex, someone who provided her a highlight film of her emotional life. Beautiful, moving ending.

…so Myra told the carpenter’s wife how, during radiation, there was a moment when she thought it might be okay to die. “In fact, it was like I was already gone—like I was looking back at my life. And I could see the whole thing laid out, like, I don’t know, a straight line. You’re a kid. You go to school. And you see where the line is supposed to go: boyfriend, job, husband, baby, whatever. But when I looked at the line…the only parts that really meant anything to me were the jagged parts…the parts that everyone else saw as mistakes.

Story 5 – The Angel of Rome
is a coming of age story that very much reminded me of the amazing film, My Favorite Year. It is the longest story in the book, more of a novella really, at 65 pages. Nebraska twenty-one-year-old, Jack Rigel, has somehow signed up for a Latin class being taught at the Vatican. He is, of course, in way over his head. About to pack it in and return home he stumbles across a magical scene.

It was like looking into another world, the room so bright as to seem luminescent, like a religious painting, the sparkle of bejeweled patrons, swirl of silverware and wineglasses, gleaming white-shirted waiters carrying trays of rich food, every table filled with beautiful people. They laughed and gestured and smiled like movie stars.
It was as if some kind of dream has been constructed on the other side of this glass. And then I had the simplest realization: I have always been on the outside.

But what if you are invited in? An American TV star, believing Jack is fluent in Italian, and wanting to say something to a woman on his film, hires Jack as his interpreter. This is a hilarious, heart-warming tale that really, really deserves to be made into a film. It began as an audio original, and is the only story in the collection to have a collaborator. Walter had worked with actor Eduardo Ballerini before. Ballerini had read other Walter works for audio books. The paired work, a rare, maybe singular event on Walter’s career, turned out to be hugely satisfying. Walter’s love letter to Rome, this is one of the most fun stories I have ever read, LOLing throughout. You will be charmed, una dolce favola.

Story 6 – Before You Blow
Jeans is seventeen, a high school senior, waitressing in a local Italian restaurant. Joey is 22, works the pizza over Friday and Saturday. There will be flirting and more as Jeans is deciding whether to give this guy her V-chip. There are issues with Joey, but he is pre-law, from a long line of lawyers, which impresses her parents no end.

Your older brother Mike wanted to be a motorcycle cop; that’s what passed for ambition in your family. It was the first time you really thought about a career having anything to do with your station in life. Before, you always thought of careers as simple job descriptions, like figurines in an old PlaySkool town. This one’s a fireman. That one’s a teacher. It didn’t occur to you that a certain profession might make you a more important person, a better human being.

But there are some concerns. Maybe he’s a catch, maybe not. All it takes is a high-stress situation to put it to the test.

In the video interview linked in EXTRA STUFF, Walter reads this story, beginning at about 25:00. It is delicious.

Story 7 – Town and Country
Jay’s father is losing his grip, memory becoming increasingly dodgy, wandering off, mostly to bars. He has not lost his appetite for booze, cigarettes and women. When it becomes too much Jay looks into residential care facilities for him, most of which suck. But then he learns about a very special place, Town & Country, which is both an original kind of care place for a declining population in need of the comfort of an imagined familiarity and a powerful metaphor for a larger senescence.

He wouldn’t know an email from an emu. But this is what happened with him now—he would hear some phrase on TV (Hillary’s emails, slut shaming, Make America Great Again) and it would rattle around in his brain until it became real.

Story 8 – Cross the Woods
Maggie, a single mom, was in a relationship with Markus that seemed more a serial hook-up than anything else. But she had feelings for the guy, despite his fondness for bolting before dawn. After a year of not seeing each other, he shows up at her father’s funeral, and she feels drawn to him again, despite their past. Has she really changed? Has he?

Maggie wondered then if there wasn’t just one ache in the world: sad, happy, horny, drunk, sorry, satisfied, grieving, lonely. If we believed these to be different feelings but they all came from the same sweet unbearable spring.

Story 9 – To the Corner
Leonard is an old, depressed widower, wondering about the point of living. A group of kids hang out on the corner, and indulge in some awful behavior He despairs for them as well. His ditto-head son has given him a gun, supposedly for protection against these middle-school desperadoes. Is there really no way out of this descending spiral?

Walter had been a reading tutor at a local Elementary School

“I would see the kids I tutored in the park,” he said. “Scary kids are a lot less scary when you’ve read ‘Johnny the Turtle’ with them sitting next to you.” – from the Spokesman-Review print interview

Story 10 – Famous Actor
The rich and famous are different from the rest of us, aren’t they?

Story 11 – Balloons
Ellis is 19, and the bane of his parents for not having a paying job. Mom gets him a gig checking up on Mrs Ahearn, the 40-something widow who lives across the street, doing a little shopping, raking leaves, being tongue kissed and having his ass grabbed. Life is not made any easier by having a sainted genius brother in U of Wash law school. Over the course of a few months, Ellis learns some things, and comes to a new appreciation for the experience of others.

That’s the thing, I guess—how impossible it is to know a thing before you know it. What whiskey will taste like. What it’s like to kiss someone. Probably even what it’s like to lose a husband.

Story 12 – The Way the World Ends
Two climate scientists interview for a teaching job at a Central Mississippi college. It gets raucous, which is a challenge for recently out Jeremiah, who is in charge of the guest house where both applicants are staying. Amid the partying there is much conversation about the despair of scientists, but also of reasons not to give up.

Among climate scientists, it’s called “pre-traumatic stress disorder” but the feelings are no joke: anger, hopelessness, depression, panic—a recurring nightmare in which you see the tsunami on the horizon but can’t convince anyone to leave the beach. She knows scientists who have become drunks, who have dropped out and moved to the desert, who have committed suicide.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

My reviews of earlier work by Jess Walter
—–2020 – The Cold Millions
—–2013 – We Live in Water

Interviews
—–Seattle Times – Spokane author Jess Walter on writing short stories, his working-class roots and his hometown by Emma Levy
—–The Spokesman Review – Northwest Passages: Jess Walter and ‘Angel of Rome’ – with Shawn Vestal – video
—–The Spokesman-Review – Finding truth and keeping it real: In Jess Walter’s new collection ‘The Angel of Rome,’ the Spokane author lets character shine through by Carolyn Lamberson

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Short Stories

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

book cover

The disaster goes by different names. Sometimes it’s called the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. For years, it was called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Reptiles and the beginning of the third, Tertiary age of life on Earth. That title was later revised according to the rules of geological arcana to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, shorted to K-Pg. But no matter what we call it, the scars in the stone tell the same story. Suddenly, inescapably, life was thrown into a horrible conflagration that reshaped the course of evolution. A chunk of space debris that likely measured more than seven miles across slammed into the planet and kicked off the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs and all other life on Earth. This was the closest the world has ever come to having its Restart button pressed, a threat so intense that—if not for some fortunate happenstances—it might have returned Earth to a home for single-celled blobs and not much else.

The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.

This is a story about two things, Earth’s Big Bang and evolution. K-Pg (pronounced Kay Pee Gee – maybe think of it as KFC with much bigger bones, where everything is overcooked?) marks the boundary between before and after Earth’s own Big Bang, manifested today by a specific layer of stone in the geologic record.

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Riley with Jet – image from The Museum of the Earth

Ok, yes, I know that the catastrophic crash landing of the bolide, a seven-miles-across piece of galactic detritus, most likely an asteroid, that struck 66.043 million years ago, give or take, was not the biggest bad-parking-job in Earth’s history. An even bigger one hit billions of years ago. It was nearly the size of Mars, and that collision may have been what created our moon. Black makes note of this in the book. But in terms of impact, no single crash-and-boom has had a larger effect on life on planet Earth. Sure, about 3 billion years ago an object between 23 and 36 miles across dropped in on what is now South Africa. There have been others, rocks larger than K-Pg, generating even vaster craters. But what sets the Chicxulub (the Yucatan town near where the vast crater was made, pronounced Chick-sue-lube) event on the apex is its speed and approach, 45 thousand mph, entering at a 45-degree angle. (You wanna see the fastest asteroid ever to hit Earth? Ok. You wanna see it again?) It also helps that the material into which it immersed itself was particularly likely to respond by vaporizing over the entire planet. An excellent choice for maximum destruction of our mother. And of course, its impact on life, animal life having come into being about 800 million years ago, was unparalleled. In the short term, it succeeded in wiping out the large non-avian dinosaurs, your T-Rex sorts, Triceratops grazers, brontosaurian browsers, and a pretty large swath of the planetary flora as well, burning up much of the globe and inviting in a nuclear winter that added a whole other layer of devastation. Aqueous life was not spared. You seen any mososaurs lately? Even tiny organisms were expunged en masse. (Cleanup in aisle everywhere!)

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Image from Facts Just for Kids

Here’s what the Earth looked like just before, just after, and then at increments, a week, a month, a year, and on to a million years post event. It is a common approach in pop science books to personalize the information being presented. Often this takes the form of following a particular scientist for a chapter as she or he talks about or presents the matter under consideration. In The Last Days… Black lets one particular species, usually one individual of that species per chapter, lead the way through the story, telling how it came to be present, how it was impacted by the…um…impact, and what its descendants, if there would be any, might look like. She wants to show why the things that were obliterated came to their sad ends, but also how the things that survived managed to do so.

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Quetzcoatlus – image from Earth Archives

But as fun and enlightening as it is to track the geological and ecological carnage, like an insurance investigator, (T-Rex, sure, covered. But those ammonites? Sorry, Ms. Gaea, that one’s not specified in the contract. I am so sorry.) is only one part of what Riley Black is on about here. She wants to dispel some false ideas about how species take on what we see as environmental slots.

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Mesodma – image from Inverse

Some folks believe that there are set roles in nature, and that the extinction of one actor (probably died as a result of saying that verboten word while performing in The Scottish Play) leads inevitably to the role being filled by another creature (understudy?) As if the demise of T-Rex, for example, meant that some other seven-ton, toothy hunter would just step in. But there is no set cast of roles in nature, each just waiting for Mr, Ms, or Thing Right to step into the job. (Rehearsals are Monday through Saturday 10a to 6p. Don’t be late), pointing out that what survived was largely a matter of luck, of what each species had evolved into by the time of the big event. If the earth is on fire, for example, a small creature has a chance to find underground shelter, whereas a brontosaurus might be able to stick it’s head into the ground, but not much else, and buh-bye bronto when the mega-killer infrared pulse generated by you-know-what sped across the planet turning the Earth into the equivalent of a gigantic deep fryer and making all the exposed creatures and flora decidedly extra-crispy.

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Thescelosaurus – image from Wiki

Black keeps us focused on one particular location, Hell Creek, in Montana, with bits at the ends of every chapter commenting on things going on in other, far-away parts of the world, showing that this change was global. When the impact devastates the entire planet, it makes much less sense to think of the specific landing spot as ground zero. It makes more sense to see it as a planet-wide event, which would make the entire Earth, Planet Zero. It was not the first major planetary extinction, or even the second. But it was the most immediate, with vast numbers of species being exterminated within twenty-four hours.

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Thoracosaurus – image from artstation.com

I do not have any gripes other than wishing that I had had an illustrated copy to review. I do not know what images are in the book. I had to burrow deep underground to find the pix used here. I expect it is beyond the purview of this book, but I could see a companion volume co-written by, maybe, Ed Yong, on how the microbiomes of a select group of creatures evolved over the eons. For, even as the visible bodies of critters across the planet changed over time, so did their micro-biome. What was The Inside Story (please feel free to use that title) on how the vast array of bugs that make us all up changed over the millions of years, as species adapted to a changing macrobiome.

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Purgatorius – image from science News

I love that Riley adds bits from her own life into the discussion, telling about her childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and even telling about the extinctions of a sort in her own life. What glitters throughout the book, like bits of iridium newly uncovered at a dig, is Black’s enthusiasm. She still carries with her the glee and excitement of discovery she had as a kid when she learned about Dinosaurs for the first time. That effervescence makes this book a joy to read, as you learn more and more and more. Black is an ideal pop-science writer, both uber-qualified and experienced in her field, and possessed of a true gift for story-telling.

Also, the appendix is well worth reading for all the extra intel you will gain. Black explains, chapter by chapter, where the hard science ends and where the speculation picks up. Black incorporates into her work a wonderful sense of humor. This is always a huge plus!

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Eoconodon – image from The New York Times

Pull up a rock in the Hell Creek amphitheater. Binoculars might come in handy. An escape vehicle (maybe a TVA time door?) of some sort would be quite useful. Get comfortable and take in the greatest show on Earth (sorry Ringling Brothers) There literally has never been anything quite like it, before or since. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, is one of the best books of the year.

From the time life first originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment. Think through all those eons. The changing climates, from hothouse to snowball and back again. Continents swirled and bumped and ground into each other. The great die-offs from too much oxygen, too little oxygen, volcanoes billowing out unimaginable quantities of gas and ash, seas spilling over continents and then drying up, forests growing and dying according to ecological cycles that take millennia, meteorite and asteroid strikes, mountains rising only to be ground down and pushed up anew, oceans replacing floodplains replacing deserts replacing oceans, on and on, every day, for billions of years. And still life endures.

Review posted – May 13, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs from St. Martin’s Press in return for working my ancient, nearly extinct fingers to the bone to write a review that can survive. Thanks, folks.

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

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

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

Profile from Museum of the Earth

Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Writer
Riley Black is a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer. She is passionate about sharing science with the public and writes about her experiences as a transgender woman in paleontology.

Riley began her science writing career as a Rutgers University undergraduate. She founded her own blog, Laelaps, and later wrote for Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more. Riley has authored books for fossil enthusiasts of all ages, including Did You See That Dinosaur?, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone.
Riley loves to spend time in the field, searching the Utah landscape for signs of prehistoric life. Her fossil discoveries are in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Riley’s work in the field fuels her writing. She believes doing fieldwork is the best way to learn about paleontology.

In your own words, what is your work about?

“What really holds my work together is the idea that science is a process. Science is not just a body of facts or natural laws. What we find today will be tested against what we uncover tomorrow, and sometimes being wrong is a wonderful thing. I love the fact that the slow and scaly dinosaurs I grew up with are now brightly-colored, feathered creatures that seem a world apart from what we used to think. I believe fossils and dinosaurs provide powerful ways to discuss these ideas, how there is a natural reality we wish to understand with our primate brains. The questions, and why we’re asking them, are more fascinating to me than static answers.”

Interviews
—–IFL Science – IFLScience Interview With Riley Black: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs – video – 15:40 – with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti – There is a particularly lovely bit at the back end of the interview in which Black talks about the inclusion in the book of a very personal element
—–Fossil Friday Chats – “Sifting the Fossil Record” w/ Riley Black” – nothing to do with this book, but totally fascinating

Items of Interest from the author
—–WIRED – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Scientific American – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Riley’s site – a list of Selected Articles
—–Science Friday – articles by the author
—–Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Earth Archives – Quetzlcoatlus by Vasika Udurawane and Julio Lacerda
—–NASA – Sentry Program
—–Science Friday – Mortunaria – a filter-feeding plesiosaur
—–Biointeractive – The Day the Mesozoic Died: The Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs – on the science that produced our understanding of how the dinosaurs died out – video – 33:50
—–Wiki on the Hell Creek Formation

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Filed under Non-fiction, paleontology, Science and Nature

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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I had a hand in breaking all of this. I had to have a hand in fixing it.

When does helping become controlling? When does loving become smothering? When does zeal become interference? How does one do what one knows is best without crossing the line? Civil Townsend, a 23-year-old nurse in the Montgomery Alabama of 1973 has to figure all that out. Working for a federally funded family planning clinic, Civil is one of several nurses responsible for administering Depo-Provera shots to young women patients. The Williams family is her first case. They live in a cabin that is little more than a shack on a farmer’s property, Mace, the father, Mrs Williams, his mother, and two girls, Erica and India. Civil does her job, but after having administered the shots learns that neither eleven-year-old India nor thirteen-year-old Erika has had her first period. In fact, neither of the girls has even kissed a boy yet. So why are they receiving birth-control shots? She learns as well that there are questions about the safety of the shots, which had been found to cause cancer in test animals. She starts looking into what might be done about this.

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Dolen Perkins-Valdez – image from American University

Civil has the hard-charging enthusiasm of a rookie, eager to do all in her power to help those in need. Her background is nothing like that of her patients. Her father is a doctor, and her mother an artist. They raised her to do good, even named her for their aspirations of achieving civil rights for black people.

Civil learns how hard it is to go up against authority
She is complicated. She does not always do the right thing. She stumbles in her zeal.
– from the Politics and Prose interview

Civil does everything she can to help the family, gets them some public services, a decent place to live, schooling. And she has an impact, but, on a day when Civil is not working, the head nurse at the clinic tricks the family into signing papers agreeing to the girls’ sterilization. Civil’s alarm turns to rage, and then to fighting for change, so this outrage can never happen again to other unsuspecting girls and young women.

It is 1973, only a year since the infamous, forty-years-long Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was finally shut down. In that one, hundreds of black men were supposedly being treated for syphilis, but in fact no one was being treated. Of the four hundred who were diagnosed with the disease, one hundred died of syphilis directly or complications from the disease. Dozens of wives were infected, and children were born already afflicted. All this, to see how syphilis ran its course in the untreated.

Civil’s activity gets a lawsuit started locally. But soon a young civil rights lawyer, Lou Feldman, is brought in. He transforms it into a national cause célèbre, as the case shifts from looking at the individual harm done to the Williams family to the national disgrace of the forced sterilization of tens thousands.

Our research reveals that over the past few years, nearly one hundred fifty thousand low-income women from all over the nation have been sterilized under federally funded programs.

He wants the laws changed, to end this practice. It is a huge concern for the Black community, but the novel makes clear that there were other groups who were victimized by this heinous practice.

The story take place in two, very unequal timelines. The frame is Civil at sixty-seven, a doctor in 2016, returning to Montgomery after a long absence to see the Williams girls. India is dying. This offers us an ongoing where-are-they-now report. The bulk of the novel takes place in 1973 and immediately after.

Civil struggles with her guilt over having played a part in this horror. It is clear that the notions that had supported legislators allowing such things were not entirely unfamiliar. Civil talks with Lou about the history of eugenics.

“So the idea was what . . . to stop us from having children because we were inferior?” I whispered.
“Well, the ideas were often aimed at specific populations that included Black people, yes. But also the poor, the mentally retarded, the disabled, the insane…” Mrs. Seager probably put the girls in three of these misguided categories: poor, Black, and mentally unfit. Had I done the same? I had initially deemed the girls unfit to be mothers, too. Because they were poor and Black. Because they were young. Because they were illiterate. My head spun with shame.
“Did they target poor white folks, too?” Ty asked.
Lou nodded. “Back in 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of people deemed unfit was constitutional. People in asylums all over this country were sterilized.”

Perkins-Valdez offers a most welcome maturity of perspective. Lou, a young, white lawyer, is viewed with suspicion to begin, but earns the community’s trust with his dedication, brilliance, grueling work habits, and effectiveness. He is lauded as a hero, while Mrs Seager, the head nurse, is shown as a flawed person who, though she was doing something terrible, thought she was doing the right thing. Characters take or avoid difficult decisions for understandable reasons. Even a black Tuskegee librarian whom Civil admires has a hard time understanding how she did not see what was going on right under her nose. There is very little good vs evil going on here in the character portrayals, only in the broader horror of a dark-hearted, racist and classist policy.

One of the many joys of the book is the portrayal of a time and place. There are details that add to the touch and feel.

The first thing that hit me was the odor. Urine. Body funk. Dog. All mixed with the stench of something salty stewing in a pot. A one-room house encased in rotted boards. A single window with a piece of sheet hanging over it. It was dark except for the sun streaming through the screen door and peeking through the holes in the walls. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that there were clothes piled on the bed, as if somebody had stopped by and dumped them. Pots, pans, and shoes lay strewn about on the dirt floor. Flies buzzed and circled the air. Four people lived in one room, and there wasn’t enough space. A lot of people in Montgomery didn’t have running water, but this went beyond that. I had to fight back vomit.

Some are more cultural, like the perceptions middle class black people in Montgomery had of poor black people, and the less fraught parallel football culture in which Alabama vs Auburn, followed by white people, is replaced for the black population with Alabama A&M vs Alabama State. News to me. We also get a taste of the segregation of the time, how bathroom accessibility while on the road could be problematic for those of the wrong skin color, how a beach that used to be open to all, and featured black-owned businesses, now required one to pay a park ranger and display a piece of paper on your car, the businesses now long gone.

The case on which Perkins-Valdez based her novel was a real one, Relf vs Weinberger, filed in July, 1973 in Washington D.C. by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Joseph Levin, one of the Center’s founders, was the young lawyer who prosecuted the case.

Mary Alice was 14 and Minnie was 12 when they became victims of the abusive practice of sterilizing poor, black women in the South. Their mother, who had very little education and was illiterate, signed an “X” on a piece of paper, expecting her daughters, who were both mentally disabled, would be given birth control shots. Instead, the young women were surgically sterilized and robbed of their right to ever bear children of their own. – from the SPLC

The story ultimately is about the horror of forced sterilization on poor black people and other classes deemed unfit to breed. You will learn a lot about a crime against humanity that was perpetrated by our own government, and the story of how this injustice was fought. But if the story does not engage, you may not get the benefit of the new knowledge it delivers. Thankfully, there need be no concern on that score. While we may echo the commentary of others to Civil that she did not bear any responsibility for what was done, that her guilt was helping no one, here is a very full-bodied portrait, of a flawed character. One who makes mistakes. A young person who has not yet learned when to push forward, when to take a step back. We see her learning this and can applaud when she takes steps in the proper direction. We also get to see the difficult family dynamic she must negotiate with her own parents, the burden of expectation that has been fitted to her broad shoulders, and the challenge of loving the Williams family, but not too much. And we have a front row seat to her relationships, her struggles, with friends and colleagues.

Take My Hand is a wonderful addition to the Perkins-Valdez oeuvre, begun with her outstanding 2009 novel, Wench, and followed by Balm in 2015. She has a fourth in the works, due to her publisher in October 2022, set in early 1900s North Carolina. So maybe a 2023 release?

A helping hand is often that, kindly meant, but maybe, sometimes, before you put your hand in another’s, you might want to know where it has been, and where it might be taking you. If the hand is attached to Dolen Perklins-Valdez, grasp it and hold on. It will take you somewhere wonderful.

I had never known that good intentions could be just as destructive as bad ones.

Review posted – April 22, 2022

Publication date – April 12, 2022

I received an ARE of Take my Hand from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks to Elisha K., 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

Profile – from Simon & Schuster (mostly) and her site

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, PhD, is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Wench. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dr. Perkins-Valdez taught in the Stonecoast (Maine) MFA program and lives in Washington, DC, with her family. She is currently Chair of the Board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and is Associate Professor in the Literature Department at American University.

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s ‘Take My Hand’ Reaches for Hard Truths by Jen Doll

there was something about the Relf sisters she kept coming back to. “The thing that struck me about it was that, even though they’re only really mentioned in passing whenever we talk about this, it was a big deal at the time,” she says. The sisters’ ordeal was heavily covered in the press, and they appeared before a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Kennedy. “There were so many parts of it, to me, that felt absolutely remarkable. I think some people had heard a little bit about it, but they didn’t know enough. I wanted people to know enough.”

—–Politics and Prose bookstore – Dolen Perkins-Valdez — Take My Hand – in conversation with Victoria Christopher Murray
The sound level is uneven, which often makes it difficult to hear. But if you have a sound system the Q/A kicks in

My review of earlier work by the author
—–2010 – Wench

Songs/Music
—– Booker T. and the M.G.s – Behave Yourself – chapter 14
—–Mahalia Jackson – Precious Lord Take My Hand – the epigraph notes MLK requesting this be played on his final day
—–Stevie Wonder – You Are the Sunshine of My Life – chapter 20

Items of Interest
—–Eunice Rivers – re the Tuskegee syphilis experiment
—–Mayo Clinic – Depo-Provera

Depo-Provera is a well-known brand name for medroxyprogesterone acetate, a contraceptive injection that contains the hormone progestin. Depo-Provera is given as an injection every three months. Depo-Provera typically suppresses ovulation, keeping your ovaries from releasing an egg. It also thickens cervical mucus to keep sperm from reaching the egg.

—– Mississippi Appendectomy
—–Southern Poverty Law Center – RELF V. WEINBERGER – the real-world case on which the novel is based
—–Wiki on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Filed under American history, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Public Health

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

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If her years as a reporter had taught her anything, it was these two things: One, the world was filled with people who were adrift, rudderless, and untethered. And two, the innocent always paid for the sins of the guilty.

…their traditions mean more to them than their humanity.

While reading Thrity Umrigar’s latest, novel, Honor, her ninth for adults, my thoughts kept drifting to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, not the totality of the story so much as the classic opening sentence.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the case of Honor there are not exactly two cities. Mumbai certainly counts, but Birwad is a remote, rural village. It was the best of times for the reporter, India-born, but American since age fourteen, an international correspondent for a major New-York-based newspaper. It was the worst of times for the local woman, a young widow, living a terrible life in Birwad. Her brothers had murdered her husband, the light of her life, in plain sight, happily including their own sister in the conflagration. It was the spring of hope for a crusading lawyer, Anjali, desperate to find a woman willing to press charges against abusers like these, very grateful to have finally found one. She is hoping to establish a precedent, maybe even gain some justice. It was the winter of despair. But even if Gorvind and Arvind can be convicted and sent to prison, Meena would still be stuck living with her mother-in-law, who hates her, blaming her for the death of her son. It was an epoch of belief. The brothers had torched their own sister because she, a Hindu, had dared marry a Muslim, which the brothers believed was an abomination. They also hated her because she worked, while they did not, again somehow shameful, even though she gave them her entire salary. It was an era of incredulity. Really, this medieval bullshit is still going on in the 21st century?

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Thrity Umrigar

Smita Agarwal had not wanted to go back to Mumbai, but the veteran reporter cut short her vacation in the Maldives when she got a call from Shannon Carpenter (broken hip, in hospital), a friend, and the South Asia Correspondent for her newspaper. Smita expects to be hanging with her pal for a while as she prepares for surgery, then recovers. But Shannon redirects her to taking on reporting duties for a grim story. The trial of brothers Gorvind and Arvind is due for a verdict soon. An associate of Shannon’s is sent along to help with translation, and coping with local cultural issues. Mohan is not a reporter, but someone is needed to help smooth things for Smita, who will need a translator. She has not been back to India for decades, and very much needs the help.

What Smita finds in this remote place is incredibly disturbing, a primitive society riven by a particularly deep and violent religious division and a legal system that is a caricature of bias and corruption, although sadly far too real. Smita interviews Meena, her mother-in-law, the brothers, the village leader who had encouraged them to commit the crime, and the lawyer who is handling the case against them. There is no ambiguity about guilt here. The only legal question is whether there will be any sort of justice in such a backwater.

Honor is a tale of two tales. It is not only in Birwad that bias crimes are committed. Alternating with the tale of Meena is Smita’s attempt to address the reason her family moved to the states from Mumbai when she was a teen. She revisits her old neighborhood and speaks, or tries to speak with people she knew back then. Her story is revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel. Later she tells Mohan the full tale of her family’s experience. It is clear that it is not only remote, rural India that has a problem with mindless us-versus-them bigotry.

The parallel stories incorporate contrasting elements. The novel looks at old versus new, faith versus materialism, rationality versus extremist religiosity, corruption versus honesty, modernity versus tradition, right versus wrong, kindness versus cruelty, understanding versus blind rejection, patriarchal abuse versus gender equity. There is the contrast between the cosmopolitan Smita and the rural Meena, the comfortable Mohan and the struggling villagers.

Smita wrestles with her feelings about India, mostly repulsed by it because of the treatment her family had received, the ongoing religious warfare, and a million small miseries the nation inflicts on everyone. But she also recognizes some of the kinder sides to life there, particularly as epitomized by Mohan. She is also confronted with a woman in Meena who had actually done a radical thing, standing up for love in the face of extreme bias, and then standing up for justice in a cruelly unjust place. She had opened herself to huge peril by attending to her heart. Whereas Smita lives a solo existence, sustaining barriers that prevent her from ever committing to anyone emotionally. Even though Smita’s reporting for a western newspaper is expected to benefit the fight against religious bigotry, this is not a trope of westerner coming to the rescue of a desperate third-worlder. Here, the illiterate local has much to teach the sophisticate.

The novel had dual inspirations. First was the reporting of New York Times reporter Ellen Barry, who documented some of the worst outrages of Indian injustice during her years working there. There are a couple of links in EXTRA STUFF to Barry’s NY Times work, and one article of hers in particular that was an obvious source for this novel. The second inspiration was Umrigar’s family’s history.

In 1993, my middle-aged father stood on our balcony and watched helplessly as the apartment building across the street burned. It had been set on fire by a mob of angry Hindus who had heard that a Muslim family lived on the ground floor.
By this time, I was living in faraway America, safe from the paroxysm of insanity and violence that gripped Bombay—the erstwhile most tolerant and cosmopolitan of Indian cities—during that terrible period. But I can still hear the bewilderment in my father’s voice as he later recounted the incident during our weekly phone chat. I immediately worried about my family’s well-being, but he brushed aside my fretting. We were Parsis, a small, prosperous, and educated religious minority in India; the joke was that there were so few of us, nobody saw us as any kind of threat.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

So, the two places may be dramatically different, but the underlying problems are remarkably similar. In addition to continuing her writing about India, in which she focuses on class and gender issues, there was another stream that flowed into her work this time.

I wrote ‘Honor’ during the Trump years,” she says. “I was writing about India, but I was also writing about my own adopted country. This othering of others is not a phenomena you can assign to any one country. The trend winds are blowing across the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States. I am sometimes appalled and bewildered and dismayed by the parallels.” – from the LA Times interview

It is certainly no stretch to see in people who erected a gallows for a vice president who would not do what their leader wanted the very group madness Umrigar shows us in India. The Indian version gives us a village leader stoking the violence, encouraging the brothers to commit an atrocity. Here we have Trump, Tucker Carlson, Fox News and a host of fascist demagogues screaming lies about “the other.”

A major focus in Honor is on how the word has been misused to support unconscionable policies and actions.

The word honor has been abused and shorn of its meaning in traditional, male-dominated societies, where it is simply a cover for the domination of women by their fathers, brothers, and sons. The sexual politics of the so-called honor killings are impossible to avoid. Women are raped, killed, and sacrificed to preserve male pride and reputations.


In this novel, I wanted to reclaim the word and give it back to the people to whom it belongs—people like Meena, a Hindu woman, and her Muslim husband, Abdul, who allow their love to blind them to the bigotries and religious fervor that surround them, who transcend their own upbringing to imagine a new and better world. – from the Bookbrowse interview

Honor is a tale of two loves. We get from Meena’s POV her history with Abdul, and how that love survives his murder in her love for their daughter. Smita has never really had that kind of relationship, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, as she sees him in action, helping her maneuver a culture she does not really understand, sees what a good, kind man he is, and begins to wonder if there is some way to sustain their connection after her work on this story is complete. She also struggles with her feelings about India, which have been hostile, but as warm memories from her youth return, as she learns from Mohan of the many good things about her birth country, she warms to it, and regains some of the affection she once had for her homeland.

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.


“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” – Tale of Two Cities – via Project Gutenberg

Shift the boy in Dickens’ tale to Meena’s daughter, Abru, in this one and it also fits right in. Honor is a gut punch that will being you to tears of grief and rage. Hopefully it will make you aware of the currents of group hatred that flow in far too many places, probably one uncomfortably close to home. But it will also offer you cause for hope, cause to see beyond the storm clouds of conflict to the clearing skies of hope. Honor is not a far, far better book than Umrigar has ever written. Really? With her dazzling oeuvre, what could be? But it is certainly among her strongest works. And that is saying a lot.

Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Umrigar sustains a positive outlook. In the LA Times interview, she references Tony Kushner.

He says something to the effect of: Hope is not a choice. Hope is a moral obligation. I try and live by those words. I may sometimes not feel hopeful about my own personal circumstances, which is absurd because I’ve had every opportunity and privilege in the world. But I always feel hopeful about humanity.”

Review posted – March 25, 2022

Publication date – January 4, 2022

This review has been, or soon will be cross-posted on my site, Coot’s Reviews. Stop by and say Hi!

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

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

Interviews
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Thrity Umrigar – there are two parts to this, first, an essay by Umrigar re Honor then an interview from 2006. Both are excellent
—–LA Times – A book of horror and hope in India, inspired by extremists closer to home BY BETHANNE PATRICK

My reviews of prior books by Thrity Umrigar
—–2018 – The Secrets Between Us
—–2016 – Everybody’s Son
—–2011 – The World We Found
—–2009 – The Weight of Heaven
—–2008 – The Space Between Us

Items of Interest from the author
—–Book Club Kit
—–excerpt – Chapter Five
—–Workman Library – Thrity Umrigar discusses her upcoming novel, HONOR (Jan 2022) – video – 3:22

Songs/Music
There is a play list in the Book Club Kit

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – articles by Ellen Barry
—–Read this one of Barry’s in particular – How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India
—–Wiki on Honor Killing
—–Gutenberg – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – the entire text

Reminds Me Of
—–The Heart of Darkness

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Filed under Fiction, India, Literary Fiction, Public policy, Religion

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