Book on the evils of settler colonialism…

… offered for sale on land once owned by Native Americans who were dispossessed by settler colonialism. From the window of the Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Where has the author, Rashid Khalidi, settled? Wikipedia says he’s a professor at Columbia, so presumably he is living on what was, until recently, Native American land (in case you want to argue that Manhattan was purchased, that’s also true of much land in present-day Israel).

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Brookline Public Schools approve a book about aviation

Good news and bad news for a friend’s 12-year-old…

Bad: he was sentenced to read a book by his teachers in the Brookline (Massachusetts) Public Schools.

Good: One of the choices was on an aviation theme. Maybe this won’t be a painful distraction from video games and learning about technology. Perhaps it will be Fate is the Hunter?

Reality: the assigned book, Fly Girl, turns out to be more about skin color than aviation.

From the Amazon page:

All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly. Her daddy was a pilot, and years after his death she feels closest to him when she’s in the air. But as a young black woman in 1940s Louisiana, she knows the sky is off limits to her, until America enters World War II, and the Army forms the WASP-Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida has a chance to fulfill her dream if she’s willing to use her light skin to pass as a white girl. She wants to fly more than anything, but Ida soon learns that denying one’s self and family is a heavy burden, and ultimately it’s not what you do but who you are that’s most important.

Related:

  • Bessie Coleman, a non-fictional pilot who identified as a black female
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Nobel Literature wrap-up: Peter Handke and Olga Tokarczuk

In “Americans don’t read the world’s best literature?” I wondered about why so few Amazon shoppers were reviewing Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, Nobel Literature recipients for 2018 and 2019.

Olga Tokarczuk was slightly less unpopular on Amazon so I read Flights first. The book mixes modern travel with some imagined old corpse preservation techniques related to modern-day plastination. A sampling:

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel knows what an arduous task it is, undoubtedly one of the worst ways of occupying oneself. You have to remain within yourself all the time, in solitary confinement. It’s a controlled psychosis, an obsessive paranoia manacled to work, completely lacking in the feather pens and bustles and Venetian masks we would ordinarily associate with it, clothed instead in a butcher’s apron and rubber boots, eviscerating knife in hand.

Wikipedia: As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest cognitive project. It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads, like Athena out of Zeus’s. People bring to Wikipedia everything they know. If the project succeeds, then this encyclopedia undergoing perpetual renewal will be the greatest wonder of the world.

Every human body deserves to last. It is an outrage that it’s so fragile, so delicate. It is an outrage that it’s permitted to disintegrate underground, or given to the mercy of flames, burned like trash. If it were up to Blau, he would make the world differently: the soul could be mortal—what do we need it for, anyway—but the body would be immortal. We will never learn how diverse the human species is, how unique each individual, if we are so quick to condemn bodies to destruction, he thought. In the past, people understood this—but they lacked the means, the methods to preserve. Only the wealthiest could afford embalming. But today the science of plastination was developing very fast, perpetually perfecting its methods. Anyone who wanted to could save his body now, and share its beauty, its mystery, with others. Here is the wondrous system of my muscles, the sprinter would say, the 100-meter world champion. Look, everyone, at how this works. Here is my brain, the greatest chess player would cry. Ah, these unusual two grooves, let’s call them “bishop twists.” Here is my stomach, two children emerged from here into the world, the proud mother would say. So Blau imagined it.

The book was published in Polish back in 2007. Sex between professor and student was not something that would be front page news:

He arranged his personal life neatly, unproblematically. He felt decidedly better living alone; he quelled his sexual urges with his students, whom he would first feel out by inviting them for coffee. He knew it wasn’t allowed, but he was operating on the sociobiological premise that the university was his natural hunting ground, and that these women were, in the end, adults who knew what they were doing. He looked good—he was handsome, clean-cut, clean-shaven (from time to time he let his beard grow out, keeping it neat, of course)—and they were curious as magpies.

On what it means to be born into the world’s default language:

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us—we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt. How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures—even the buttons in the elevator!—are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them—they are accessible to everyone and everything!

On humans who imagine that they can “make a difference”:

In Australia, everyone in the environs would come out onto the seashore when the news was circulated that yet another disoriented whale had run aground. In shifts, people would charitably ladle water over its delicate skin and try to convince it to go home. Older ladies dressed like hippies would maintain that they knew what they were doing. Apparently all you had to do was say, “Go, go, my brother,” or, if need be, “sister.” And, with your eyes shut tight, transfer some of your energy into it.

All day, little tiny figures would mill about the beach, waiting for high tide: let the water take it back. Attempts would be made to fasten nets to boats and drag it out by force. Yet the great beast would soon become dead weight, a body indifferent to living. It’s no surprise people would begin to call it “suicide.” A small group of activists would appear in order to argue that animals ought to be allowed to simply die, if they so wished. Why should the act of suicide be the dubious privilege of mankind? Maybe the life of every living being has its own set limits, invisible to the eye, and once those have been crossed, life just runs out, on its own. Let that be taken into consideration for the Declaration of Animal Rights being drafted in Sydney or in Brisbane at just that moment. Dear brothers, we give you the right to choose your death.

Suspicious shamans would come down to the dying whale and perform rituals over it, followed by amateur photographs and thrill-seekers. A teacher from a village school brought her whole classroom, and the children were tasked with drawing “The Whale’s Farewell.”

… Although there have been instances of people managing to save the whales. In response to the great and dedicated efforts of dozens of volunteers, these whales would take deep breaths and head back into the open sea. Their famous fountains could be seen springing joyfully up toward the sky, and then they would dive down into the depths of the ocean. The crowd would break into applause.

A few weeks later they’d be caught off the coast of Japan, and their gentle, pretty bodies would be turned into dog food.

She loves airplanes almost as much as we do:

The plane takes off painlessly, on time; so once more the miracle has happened, of a machine as big as a building slipping gracefully out of earth’s grasp, soaring gently up and up.

The author was 45 years old in 2007. That’s a young mother in wealthier U.S. neighborhoods, but Tokarczuk was writing about the experience of middle age:

In the last few years she has realized that all you have to do to become invisible is be a woman of a certain age, without any outstanding features: it’s automatic. Not only invisible to men, but also to women, who no longer treat her as competition in anything. It is a new and surprising sensation, how people’s eyes just sort of float right over her face, her cheeks and her nose, not even skimming the surface. They look straight through her, no doubt looking past her at ads and landscapes and schedules.

On the death, from head injury and stroke, of a college professor leading a tour in the Mediterranean:

But the crimson inner ocean of the professor’s head rose from the swells of blood-bearing rivers and gradually flooded realm after realm—first the plains of Europe, where he’d been born and raised. Cities disappeared underwater, and the bridges and dams built so methodically by generations of his ancestors. The ocean reached the threshold of their reed-roofed home and boldly stepped inside. It unfurled a red carpet over those stone floors, the floorboards of the kitchen, scrubbed each Saturday, finally putting out the fire in the fireplace, attaining the cupboards and tables. Then it poured into the railway stations and the airports that had sent the professor off into the world. The towns he’d traveled to drowned in it, and in them the streets where he had stayed awhile in rented rooms, the cheap hotels he’d lived in, the restaurants where he’d dined. The shimmering red surface of the water now reached the lowest shelves of his favorite libraries, the books’ pages bulging, including those in which his name was on the title page. Its red tongue licked the letters, and the black print melted clean away. The floors were soaked in red, the stairs he’d walked up and down to collect his children’s school certificates, the walkway he’d gone down during the ceremony to receive his professorship. Red stains were already collecting on the sheets where he and Karen had first fallen and undone the drawstrings of their older, clumsy bodies. The viscous liquid permanently glued together the compartments of his wallet where he kept his credit cards and plane tickets and the photos of his grandkids. The stream flooded train stations, tracks, airports, and runways—never would another airplane take off from them, never would another train depart for any destination.

She’s a little more interested in dead bodies and plastination than I am, but I think that I can understand why she was awarded the Nobel Prize and would read more of her work.

Peter Handke, quoted in the Guardian:

I am a writer, I come from Tolstoy, from Homer, from Cervantes. Leave me in peace and don’t ask me questions [about political views]

After struggling to get through two of his books, I don’t see the parallel with these earlier authors (and don’t forget that Homer is not the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey; it was another Greek with the same name). Tolstoy, Homer, and Cervantes packed in a lot of plot and action. Handke’s books are short, but nonetheless the ratio of words to plot is high. Maybe they are more engaging in the original German, but there does not seem to be anything beautiful or clever about the language. The righteous attack Handke for his political heresy (e.g., PEN America), but I haven’t seen anyone say “Unless you have a Ph.D. in German literature you probably won’t enjoy these books.”

Readers: Were any of you brave enough to try out these authors?

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What folks at Harvard are reading

A recent selection from the Harvard Book Store

For the kids…

Lying to children:

(I don’t know how many people over age 50 would agree with “It feels good to be yourself” and certainly many of us would need a week to recover from sitting on the ground in those positions.)

The books popular with shoppers in Cambridge do not suggest a high degree of self-doubt, but just in case:

What about the #1 example of wrongness in our society?

On the unfortunate fact that not every American voter follows the lead of the coastal elite and the required “nonviolent rebellion” that is necessary to erase the illegitimate votes:

A 1973 book on now-discredited second-wave feminism (also known as “equality feminism”):

(In the 50-year interval since this was published, the term “Woman” now needs a definition!)

Without women (assuming the term “women” can be defined), we would not have Mickey Mouse (perhaps the Nine Old Men actually identified as women?):

More gender binarism on parade:

For those who don’t know where to start…

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Campusland: novel of sex and inclusion

Our ground school at MIT starts today (videos from last year linked from course web site). I’m hoping that there are no similarities with a recently finished novel: Campusland.

Epigraph:

Colleges don’t make fools, they only develop them. —GEORGE HORACE LORIMER

How to be a popular university president:

The protesters spotted Milton and instantly became animated. “Hey, Milton! Divest from Israel now! Stop the murder!” cried one. “Divest now! Divest now!” Their homemade signs thrust up and down like pistons. Milton smiled and walked over. “It’s great to see everyone. Really great.” He began shaking hands, much to the bewilderment of the protesters, who didn’t know what to do other than shake back. “Keep up the good work, and welcome back to school!”

Unrealistic: Mom walks out and leaves potential cash-fountain daughter with rich dad in Manhattan (perhaps an extremely poor understanding of New York family law?) After Dalton, Lulu ends up at Devon University, in “Havenport, Connecticut” (Yale?).

Her application was pushed over the finish line with a substantial check. … Her politics, to the extent she gave them much thought, closely adhered to the agendas of the benefits and political fund-raisers to which she aspired. This meant that by default she was a Democrat, like Sheldon (or she would be, as soon as she figured out how to register). She supported all the causes of the moment. Lately, she’d memorized a wholly impassioned-sounding plea for transgender rights that seemed to play well. Not that she’d ever met a transperson, but she was sure if she did, she’d know how to use the correct pronoun. Pretty sure.

The Progressive Student Alliance decides to target an English professor who includes Mark Twain in his syllabus, but not any African-American authors. The class is canceled and the professor goes on administrative leave and the subject of an investigation by Dean Martika Malik-Adams, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. Lulu turns out to be his biggest defender against the diversity protesters, but things go south after a private moment in his office:

Lulu was drinking heavily, licking her wounds. She hadn’t told anyone about the incident in Professor Russell’s office, nor would she. There was nothing to gain from it. Sure, she’d been aggressive, but no one had ever turned her down like that, let alone heaved her unceremoniously onto the floor. Not even the ones with girlfriends. He must have known where she was going—she couldn’t have been more obvious, and she could feel him responding to her. How dare he humiliate her, especially after what she’d done for him!

After drunken sex with a frat boy, she falls and strikes a coffee table with her face.

Yolanda’s [graduate student RA] eyes narrowed. “Did someone do this to you?” “No, no one did anything.” “Something happened.” “Really, Yolanda, I just want to get a couple hours’ sleep and then get out of here…” “I smell alcohol, and your clothes are disheveled. What happened to you? Did you have sex with someone last night after drinking?” Yolanda’s eyes were now two slits. “Is there any other way it happens?” Lulu giggled, despite herself, which only made the pain worse. Why wouldn’t this woman go away? “You don’t understand. By university policy, a woman cannot give consent while under the influence. Sex under the influence is automatically assault.” Yolanda looked almost excited. As an RA, she’d had over thirty hours of mandatory training on sexual assault protocols, and she was sniffing the first opportunity to put her training to use. … Yolanda grew frustrated. “You’re not hearing me. In all likelihood, you’ve been raped, and on top of that someone obviously struck you. I’m a mandatory reporter, and— “A what?” “Mandatory reporter, which means I’m obligated by the Devon Committee on Title IX Enforcement to report this.” “Would you please relax? No one’s been raped.”

The book is in sync with the latest New York Times thinking that all U.S. wealth can be attributed to the profits of slavery (1619 Project):

One of the female students [occupying the president’s office] took up the reins. “This place, this place you call Devon, is white, white, white. It’s violent, in your face, everywhere you go. You, the university president, you’re white. It’s oppression. But know this: we owe you nothing. It’s Devon that owes us everything. We built this. This is ours. This place was built on the backs of our people, and yet we are second-class citizens on this campus!” The girl was so worked up tears were now steaming down her face. Milton nodded, as if in profound agreement, deciding not to point out that slavery was largely nonexistent in eighteenth-century New England when Devon was founded and was completely abolished by the time most of the current campus was constructed. But surely the girl was speaking metaphorically, and her pain was plainly real. “Please, tell me how I can help.”

[The occupation is eventually ended when the university agrees to require that all first-year students take a course titled “Identity and Privilege”.]

Lulu gets some inspiration from Columbia:

About halfway through, past the hard news, an article caught her attention. Called “Campus Nightmares,” it was about the wave of sexual assaults on American campuses. The victims—known as survivors—were bravely coming to the fore, exposing their pain for the common good. There was a lot about Emma Sulkowicz, the famous “Mattress Girl” at Columbia, who had carried a mattress around campus for an entire year to protest an alleged assault by a fellow student. Lulu thought there must be less exhausting ways to get attention, but she couldn’t argue with the results. Sulkowicz had become a campus celebrity and a feminist hero. She even got invited to one of Barack Obama’s States of the Union. Lulu googled Mattress Girl, and there were 2.7 million hits. Another girl had accused a teacher of assault and her whole campus had rallied around her cause. She was hailed with words like brave and pathbreaking and was said to be taking on the “power imbalance” between teacher and student. Something new was happening here. Victims as celebrities. Yolanda Perez had kept on her about that black eye last month, the one that forced Lulu to hide her first week in St. Barts. Perez had even shown up at her door with some woman from a campus feminist group. They pressed Lulu hard for a name, promising to “title nine his ass.” As much fun as it might be to get the hairy man-boy in trouble, Lulu didn’t have time for a bunch of dykes. As a likely English major, she was, however, intrigued that title nine was now being used as a verb. … She needed a plan. Simply being another run-of-the-mill “survivor” would not suffice. That market was getting crowded. Some of the early girls got a lot of play, sure, but only Mattress Girl had transcended her own campus. The mattress angle was clever, but it had been done. Lulu needed a bigger play, something original.

I don’t want to spoil the book too much, so let’s just say that she comes up with a brilliant plan.

The professor, meanwhile, goes through the Title IX process in front of Dean Martika Malik-Adams:

“Excuse me. A question, if I may. Where is the rest of the tribunal? If Ms. Coughlin is counsel, and Ms. Gomez is the stenographer, that just leaves … you.” “That’s correct.” “So where is everyone else?” “I am the tribunal, Professor Russell.” “Just you?” That lawyer warned him it might be the case, but Eph had found it difficult to believe that the university would put his professional future in the hands of a single person. “The majority of Title IX cases are adjudicated by a single person; it’s well within the federal guidelines. It’s a question of efficiency.” “Will there be an investigation? How does this process establish facts?” “I also perform that role, and it has already begun.”

Readers: is this factual or literary license? Can a university have a single person investigating and deciding Title IX cases, expelling students and faculty from campus?

Per usual, authors and editors don’t go a great job with general aviation. A rich alum is going to show up in his Gulfstream G650:

Since this was his first trip to Devon in his new iron, his people had had to call to make sure Havenport Airport’s lone runway had the necessary length. It did, if just barely.

(New Haven has two physical runways (four distinct numbers, one for each landing direction) and nobody would call an FBO or airport manager to find out the runway length, since this kind of information is available in public databases and web sites.)

More: read Campusland.

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Three-way Zombie Apocalypse

Native American and Eskimo/Inuit mythology is full of stories about human overpopulation leading to a catastrophic winnowing of the herd. (And then Europeans showed up and dumped about 350 million immigrants into what had been the Natives’ land! No wonder they love us!)

U.S. population is trending toward levels previously seen only in China and India. I wonder if that has inspired a batch of movies and literature about the near-end of the human race.

Maximum fun and minimum effort: Zombieland: Double Tap (i.e., Zombieland 2). I didn’t see the first one, but this left three of us in stitches. Rotten Tomatoes shows that our cultural overlords liked it (67%) while the rabble loved it (90%).

Maximum awards from critics: Severance, by Ling Ma, a “Best Book of the Year” from NPR, New Yorker, Amazon, et al. “Shen Fever” makes it to the U.S. as fungal spores in the containers of stuff that Americans keep ordering from China. Prior to the plague, the protagonist enjoys a life of casual sex and partying with other young people in Manhattan:

We’d created a makeshift Trump-themed dining table in our living room by arranging collapsible card tables end to end. Over this, Jane had laid a metallic gold tablecloth, weighted by a thrifted brass candelabra, and bouquets of fake plastic flowers she’d spray-painted gold. On the table were ironic predinner canapés: salmon mousse quenelles with dill cream, spinach dip in a bread bowl, Ritz crackers, and a ball of pimento cheese in the shape of Trump’s hair.

She works in a company that organizes book printing in Asia:

Things were different in Art. The clients weren’t so fixated on the bottom line. They wanted the product to be beautiful. They cared about the printing, color reproduction, the durability of a good sewn binding, and they were willing to pay more for it, alter their publication schedule for it. They donated to nonprofits that advocated against low-wage factories in South Asian countries, even as they made use of them, a move that showed a sophisticated grasp of global economics.

The author constructs a CDC-style handout:

In its initial stages, Shen Fever is difficult to detect. Early symptoms include memory lapse, headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Because these symptoms are often mistaken for the common cold, patients are often unaware they have contracted Shen Fever. They may appear functional and are still able to execute rote, everyday tasks. However, these initial symptoms will worsen. Later-stage symptoms include signs of malnourishment, lapse of hygiene, bruising on the skin, and impaired motor coordination. Patients’ physical movements may appear more effortful and clumsy. Eventually, Shen Fever results in a fatal loss of consciousness. From the moment of contraction, symptoms may develop over the course of one to four weeks, based on the strength of the patient’s immune system.

Suffice it to say that Manhattan becomes a ghost town and the protagonist strikes out on the road to meet up with a band of fellow survivors to mine shopping malls, houses, etc. Read the book and you’ll enjoy the plot similarities to Zombieland 2, which I don’t expect to be celebrated by NPR any time soon.

Maximum aviation theme and max popularity from readers: The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller. The protagonist is holed up at a mostly abandoned residential airpark with his 1956 Cessna 182 (that was the first year of production, so this may not be realistic). The remnants of humanity left in North America mostly attack each other with guns and knives (but why? there is plenty of land for everyone!)

In the beginning there was Fear. Not so much the flu by then, by then I walked, I talked. Not so much talked, but of sound body—and of mind, you be the judge. Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105, I know it cooked my brains. Encephalitis or something else. Hot. Thoughts that once belonged, that felt at home with each other, were now discomfited, unsure, depressed, like those shaggy Norwegian ponies that Russian professor moved to the Siberian Arctic I read about before. He was trying to recreate the Ice Age, a lot of grass and fauna and few people. Had he known what was coming he would have pursued another hobby.

I don’t want to be confused: we are nine years out. The flu killed almost everybody, then the blood disease killed more. The ones who are left are mostly Not Nice, why we live here on the plain, why I patrol every day.

Mostly the intruders came at night. They came singly or in groups, they came with weapons, with hunting rifles, with knives, they came to the porch light I left on like moths to a flame.

Due to some small but telling lapses in accuracy, I don’t think the author is a pilot (e.g., he writes that the Nearest button on a Garmin GPS “gave my vector” to the nearest airport; vectors come from ATC, “the heading” or “the bearing to” would come from the GPS; he refers to his “pilot’s license number” instead of certificate and says it is “135-271” (FAA certificate numbers are 7 digits with no dash)), but he writes well about the experience of being in a small plane and landing in the backcountry.

Back then I took up flying with the sense of coming to something I had been meant to do all my life. Many people who fly feel this way and I think it has more to do with some kind of treetop or clifftop gene than with any sense of unbounded freedom or metaphors of the soaring spirit. The way the earth below resolves. The way the landscape falls into place around the drainages, the capillaries and arteries of falling water: mountain slopes bunched and wrinkled, wringing themselves into the furrows of couloir and creek, draw and chasm, the low places defining the spurs and ridges and foothills the way creases define the planes of a face, lower down the canyon cuts, and then the swales and valleys of the lowest slopes, the sinuous rivers and the dry beds where water used to run seeming to hold the hills and the waves of the high planes all together and not the other way around. The way the settlements sprawl and then congregate at these rivers and mass at every confluence. I thought: It’s a view that should surprise us but it doesn’t. We have seen it before and interpret the terrain below with the same ease we walk the banks of a creek and know where to place our feet.

The protagonist’s best friend is his dog:

I used to worry about the engine roar and prop blast, I wear the headset even though there is no one to talk to on the radio because it dampens the noise, but I worried about Jasper, even tried to make him his own hearing protector, this helmet kind of thing, it wouldn’t stay on. Probably why he’s mostly deaf now.

They bred dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn’t they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man?

The typical virus apocalypse book or movie assumes that humanity is in this together. One interesting twist in The Dog Stars is that, as best as the survivors in North America can tell, there are societies on the other side of the planet that are continuing to function normally.

Readers: Are we entering the golden age of zombie apocalypse literature?

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Americans don’t read the world’s best literature?

Two authors won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year: Peter Handke and Olga Tokarczuk. I hadn’t heard of either of these writers so I figured I would head over to Amazon and pick the ones that got the best reader reviews.

The Amazon page for Handke lists books with, mostly, between 0 and 5 reviews. For Olga Tokarczuk, there are just two books, with a maximum of 44 reviews. Compare to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Ode to Victimhood (4,200+ reviews), anything by Stephen King (up to 10,000 reviews!), Michelle Obama’s How to Marry a Successful Man (15,500+ reviews), etc.

Do we conclude that these recent Laureates are not truly great authors? Or that Americans don’t bother to read authors of great literature?

I want to give Slow Homecoming a try, since it starts in Alaska. Flights seems promising since it is about travel.

Readers: Had you heard of these authors? Planning to read anything by them?

Related:

  • Wikipedia says Peter Handke questioned the demonization of Slobodan Milošević (thus upsetting the European righteous)
  • the Wikipedia page for Olga Tokarczuk says “she has leftist convictions” (so she might agree with Slobodan Milošević, at least, on the merits of socialism?)
  • NYT article on these prizes quotes Olga Tokarczuk as an enthusiast for low-skill migrants going to the U.S. (but not to her own homeland of Poland, it seems!): She also referenced increasingly severe immigration policies in the United States. “Twelve years ago there was no mention of the idea of walls or borders, which were originally adopted by totalitarian systems,” she said. “Back then I must admit that I was sure that we had put totalitarianism behind us.”
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Book that explores the biggest issue of our age

The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann, author of the fascinating 1491 (what Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors were up to before Europeans arrived to trash these continents), explores what I think is the biggest issue of our age: can the human population continue to expand without (a) the Earth being transformed into an unpleasant habitat, and (b) humans themselves suffering a Malthusian reduction to a subsistence standard of living.

Mann frames the issue:

The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug. Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College demographer Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption its growing numbers and appetite will overwhelm the planet’s ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from Earth than it can give.

Borlaug, born twelve years later, has become the emblem of what has been termed “techno-optimism” or “cornucopianism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, can help us produce our way out of our predicament. Exemplifying this idea, Borlaug was the primary figure in the research that in the 1960s created the “Green Revolution,” the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that raised grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger.

Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.

Mann reminds us that the default scientific assumption is that Vogt is correct:

Biologists tell us that all species, if given the chance, overreach, overreproduce, overconsume. Inevitably, they encounter a wall, always to catastrophic effect, and usually sooner rather than later.

Yet, on the other hand, we’ve already apparently cheated what seemed like biological limits. World population has the proverbial Silicon Valley hockey stick growth and yet people are living better than ever, all around the world (except here in the U.S., according to my Facebook friends, since the Trumpenfuhrer arrived at the Reichstag!). Mann cites estimates that humans currently consume 25-50% of the Earth’s “primary production”

Convinced by politicians that STEM is the path to a glamorous and satisfying career? Here’s a description of Vogt’s 1938 job studying birds:

As a new employee of the Compañía Administradora del Guano, Vogt based his operations on the Chincha Islands, three granitic outposts thirteen miles off the southwest coast of Peru. Named, unexcitingly, North, South, and Central Chincha, they were each less than a mile across, ringed by hundred-foot cliffs, and completely covered in heaps of bird excrement—treeless, gray-white barrens of guano. Atop the guano, shrieking and flapping, were millions of Guanay cormorants, packed together three nests to the square yard, sharp beaks guarding eggs that sat in small guano craters lined by molted feathers. The birds’ wings rustled and thrummed; multiplied by the million, the sound was a vibration in the skull. Fleas, ticks, and biting flies were everywhere. So was the stench of guano. By noon the light was so bright that Vogt’s photographic light meter “often could not measure it.” Vogt’s head and neck were constantly sunburned; later his ears developed precancerous growths. Vogt worked, ate, and slept in the bird guardians’ barracks on North Chincha, remaining offshore for weeks on end (he was also given an apartment in the nearby shore town of Pisco). His quarters on the island were almost without furniture, covered with guano dust, alive with flies and roaches. Birds mated, fought, and raised their offspring on the roof overhead, leaving so much guano that the building had to be shoveled off periodically to avoid collapse.

Vogt’s opinion was that World War II in the Pacific could be explained by “population pressure” in Japan, and that both World Wars in Europe were explained by competition over resources. He was worried about population growth elsewhere:

Vogt, for instance, was loudly scornful of the “unchecked spawning” and “untrammeled copulation” of “backward populations”—people in India, he sneered, breed with “the irresponsibility of codfish.”

The book proves that every American has an idea for a movie (about soil!) and confirms the history in Real World Divorce:

Marjorie instead went home to California, where she apparently met Vogt, fourteen years her senior, who was futilely trying to convince Walt Disney to make an animated movie about soil. It seems evident that they began a relationship. Juana had spent much of the previous two years alone in Latin America, trolling the embassy circuit for Nazi gossip. In June 1945 the couple rendezvoused in California. The marriage collapsed. Two months later Juana went to Reno, Nevada, to obtain one of the city’s famous quick divorces. Early in 1946 Marjorie also went to Reno, and for the same reason. Marjorie filed for divorce from Devereux, appeared before the court, received her decree, and married Bill on the same day: April 4, 1946.

With the help of the new young wife, Vogt pushes Road to Survival in 1948, coinciding with Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet. Thinking around environmentalism hasn’t significantly changed in the ensuing 70 years:

Vogt and Osborn were also the first to bring to a wide public a belief that would become a foundation of environmental thought: consumption driven by capitalism and rising human numbers is the ultimate cause of most of the world’s ecological problems, and only dramatic reductions in human fertility and economic activity will prevent a worldwide calamity.

The Earth has a carrying capacity. Humans will breed until this carrying capacity is exceeded. Then wars and famine will break out.

Norman Borlaug also demonstrates what a comfortable career science can be…

Many years later, after he won the Nobel Prize, Norman Borlaug would look back on his first days in Mexico with incredulity. He was supposed to breed disease-resistant wheat in Mexico’s central highlands. Only after he arrived, in September 1944, did he grasp how unsuited he was for the task—almost as unqualified in his own way as Vogt had been when he set sail for Peru. He had never published an article in a peer-reviewed, professional journal. He had never worked with wheat or, for that matter, bred plants of any sort. In recent years he had not even been doing botanical research—since winning his Ph.D., he had spent his time testing chemicals and materials for industry. He had never been outside the United States and couldn’t speak Spanish. The work facilities were equally unprepossessing. Borlaug’s “laboratory” was a windowless tarpaper shack on 160 acres of dry, scrubby land on the campus of the Autonomous University of Chapingo. (“Autonomous” refers to the university’s legal authority to set its curriculum without government interference; Chapingo was the name of the village outside Mexico City where it was located.) And although Borlaug was sponsored by the wealthy Rockefeller Foundation, it could not provide him with scientific tools or machinery; during the Second World War, such equipment was reserved for the military.

Mann points out that being a science writer is a lot more fun than being a scientist: “A prerequisite for a successful scientific career is an enthusiastic willingness to pore through the minutiae of subjects that 99.9 percent of Earth’s population find screamingly dull.”

After decades of poverty and 80-hour work weeks, the Green Revolution ensues. Combine with the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia to use in fertilizer (Mann says that 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy goes for this) and we can have unlimited food, right?

Maybe not. “Norman Borlaug: humanitarian hero or menace to society?” (Guardian, 2014):

“Few people at the time considered the profound social and ecological changes that the revolution heralded among peasant farmers. The long-term cost of depending on Borlaug’s new varieties, said eminent critics such as ecologist Vandana Shiva in India, was reduced soil fertility, reduced genetic diversity, soil erosion and increased vulnerability to pests.

Not only did Borlaug’s ‘high-yielding’ seeds demand expensive fertilisers, they also needed more water. Both were in short supply, and the revolution in plant breeding was said to have led to rural impoverishment, increased debt, social inequality and the displacement of vast numbers of peasant farmers,” he wrote.

The political journalist Alexander Cockburn was even less complimentary: “Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose ‘green revolution’ wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million.”

Mann does not cover these criticisms of Borlaug’s work. Even with Mann’s 100-percent positive perspective on the frankengrains, he admits that the only way to feed an increased human population with the latest tech comes at the cost of destroying animals in the ocean:

Hard on the heels of the gains were the losses. About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the last sixty years wasn’t assimilated by plants; instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxide. Fertilizer flushed into rivers, lakes, and oceans is still fertilizer: it boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they rain to the ocean floor, where they are consumed by microbes. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the increased food supply that their respiration drains the oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most life. Where agricultural runoff flows, dead zones flourish. Nitrogen from Middle Western farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles. The next year a still larger dead zone—23,000 square miles—was mapped in the Bay of Bengal.

How about organics? Maybe that is the answer:

[Organic farming promoter Jerome] Rodale died in 1971—bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering the host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

The Gates Foundation will enable the Earth to support 50 billion people by engineering rice that accomplishes C4 photosynthesis:

Barely 3 percent of the flowering plants are C4, but they are responsible for about a quarter of all the photosynthesis on land. The impact of C4 is evident to anyone who has looked at a recently mowed lawn. Within a few days of mowing, the crabgrass in the lawn springs up, towering over the rest of the lawn (typically bluegrass or fescue in cool areas). Fast-growing crabgrass is C4; lawn grass is ordinary photosynthesis. The same is true for wheat and maize. Plant them on the same day in the same place and soon the maize will overshadow the wheat—maize is C4, wheat is not. In addition to growing faster, C4 plants also need less water and fertilizer, because they don’t waste water on reactions that lead to excess oxygen, and because they don’t have to make as much rubisco.

One of these in-between species is maize: its main leaves are C4, whereas the leaves around the cob are a mix of C4 and ordinary photosynthesis. If two forms of photosynthesis can be encoded from the same genome, they cannot be that far apart. Which in turn implies that people equipped with the tools of molecular biology might be able to transform one into another. In the botanical equivalent of a moonshot, an international consortium of almost a hundred agricultural scientists is working to convert rice into a C4 plant—a rice that could grow faster, require less water and fertilizer, withstand higher temperatures, and produce more grain. Funded largely by the Bill & Melinda

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Kate Atkinson on modern romance and marriage

Indulging in a mystery for this cruise… From Big Sky by Kate Atkinson:

She was good at what she did—acrylics, gels, shellac, nail art—and was proud of the attention she gave to her job, even if trade was sparse. It was the first thing she’d ever done that didn’t involve selling her body in one way or another. Marriage to Tommy was a financial transaction too, of course, but to Crystal’s way of thinking, you could be lap dancing for the fat sweaty patron of a so-called gentlemen’s club or you could be greeting Tommy Holroyd with a peck on the cheek and hanging his jacket up before laying his dinner before him. It was all part of the same spectrum as far as Crystal was concerned, but she knew which end of it she preferred. And, to quote Tina Turner, what does love have to do with it? Fig all, that was what. There was no shame in marrying for money—money meant security. Women had been doing it since time began. You saw it on all the nature programs on TV—build me the best nest, do the most impressive dance for me, bring me shells and shiny things. And Tommy was more than happy with the arrangement—she cooked for him, she had sex with him, she kept house for him. And in return she woke up every morning and felt one step further away from her old self. History, in Crystal’s opinion, was something that was best left behind where it belonged.

Modern physical appearance?

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was a construction, made from artificial materials—the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached-blond hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

A man whose daughter has just finished high school…

He was grinding toward fifty and for the last three months he had been living in a one-bedroom flat behind a fish-and-chip shop, ever since Wendy turned to him one morning over his breakfast muesli—he’d been on a short-lived health kick—and said, “Enough’s enough, don’t you think, Vince?,” leaving him slack-mouthed with astonishment over his Tesco Finest Berry and Cherry. Ashley had just set off on her gap year, backpacking around Southeast Asia with her surfer boyfriend. As far as Vince could tell, “gap year” meant the lull between him funding her expensive private school and funding her expensive university, a remission that was nonetheless still costing him her airfares and a monthly allowance.

As soon as Ashley had fledged, on an Emirates flight to Hanoi, Wendy reported to Vince that their marriage was dead. Its corpse wasn’t even cold before she was internet dating like a rabbit on speed, leaving him to dine off fish and chips most nights and wonder where it all went wrong. (Tenerife, three years ago, apparently.) “I got you some cardboard boxes from Costcutter to put your stuff in,” she said as he stared uncomprehendingly at her. “Don’t forget to clear out your dirty clothes from the basket in the utility room. I’m not doing any more laundry for you, Vince. Twenty-one years a slave. It’s enough.” This, then, was the return on sacrifice. You worked all the hours God gave, driving hundreds of miles a week in your company car, hardly any time for yourself, so your daughter could take endless selfies in Angkor Wat or wherever and your wife could report that for the last year she had been sneaking around with a local café owner who was also one of the lifeboat crew, which seemed to sanction the liaison in her eyes. (“Craig risks his life every time he goes out on a shout. Do you, Vince?” Yes, in his own way.) It clipped at your soul, clip, clip, clip.

He had trudged through his life for his wife and daughter, more heroically than they could imagine, and this was the thanks he received. Couldn’t be a coincidence that “trudge” rhymed with “drudge.” He had presumed that there was a goal to be reached at the end of all the trudging, but it turned out that there was nothing—just more trudging.

Despite being 67, Atkinson is familiar with Internet app culture:

Craig, the lifeboat man, had been jettisoned apparently in favor of the smorgasbord of Tinder.

The book is consistent with the Real World Divorce section on England:

“If only I’d listened to my poor mother,” Wendy said as she itemized the belongings he was allowed to take with him. Wendy who was getting so much money in the settlement that Vince barely had enough left for his golf-club fees. “Best I can do, Vince,” Steve Mellors said, shaking his head sadly. “Matrimonial law, it’s a minefield.” Steve was handling Vince’s divorce for him for free, as a favor, for which Vince was more than grateful. Steve was a corporate lawyer over in Leeds, and didn’t usually “dabble in divorce.” Neither do I, Vince thought, neither do I.

Now that regular novels are mostly about LGBTQIA characters and people with glamorous urban jobs, maybe mystery novels will end up being the best record of cisgender heterosexual working class life in the 21st century? Certainly they have always covered people in social classes ignored by writers of typical literary novels.

More: Read Big Sky (or start with the first book in the series, Case Histories)

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