Reviews of the books I've read

A list of all the books I've read this year. For these reviews, this is my book review scale:

burn Burn any copy you find of this book, it is horrific.
mock This book is awful. Don't read this book and mock anyone you see reading this book.
don't Don't read this book.
desert If you're on a desert island and are bored out of your mind, this book is okay to read.
fan If you're a fan of this author / genre, this book is worth reading.
worth This book is interesting, fun, entertaining, and thus worth reading. I would hand this book to a friend who asked for a _____ type book.
strongly I strongly recommend this book
amazing OMG, this book is amazing and/or life-changing, let me buy you a copy.

Post date:

From Here to Eternity

Book Notes

I have been a Caitlin Doughty fan since I read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes four-ish years ago. I love her (admittedly lower) voice (like likes like?), and was delighted to see her speak at XOXO fest this year.

Recognizing our own mortality is a recurring theme in (Classical) Stoicism. It is a recurring theme in Buddhism. It is a recurring theme in every murder mystery book and forensic science television show. Every one of us will die (well, until I die, I have no idea about the rest of you).

Accepting this, being one with the end, and being able to prepare for it, are parts of the good death that Doughty writes about, talks about, fights for for the rest of us who are lost in the commercial maze of the American death industry. I appreciate her efforts for this far beyond anything I can adequately express.

This book is a survey of death rituals and customs around the world, some still around, some no longer around. Some cultures are more in tuned with death, pretty much all of them are more in tuned with death than the American culture. If I go after family members, and I have any say about the process, I'm going to sit with my grief, instead of allowing the American Death Industry to sweep my grief and family members under the rug.

I enjoyed this book, Doughty's humor on such a tough subject is spot-on wonderful. I strongly recommend this book for anyone not denying their own death, for anyone who thinks others shouldn't profit from their family member's grief.

And, good lord, stop embalming. WTF why embalm? Let's make sure the body is preserved so that it takes a LONG LONG LONG time to decay. What? No. Dump my body in liquid nitrogen until solid, drop from 10 meters up, take the shattered pieces and compost them. Let me actually grow a tree (those ashes? they don't do shit for growing trees, read the book to find out why).

That is to say, we consider death rituals savage only when they don’t match our own.
Location: 138

There was chaos, screaming. The footage from my small video camera went into Cloverfield mode, heavy breathing and sweeping shots of the ground.
Location: 565

French anthropologist Noëlie Vialles wrote of the food system in France, though this could be said of almost any country in the West: “slaughtering was required to be industrial, that is to say large-scale and anonymous; it must be non-violent (ideally: painless); and it must be invisible (ideally: non-existent). It must be as if it were not.” It must be as if it were not.
Location: 603

When the family had to clean inside his boxers and brush around his mummified penis, they looked just as uncomfortable as you would expect. They made a self-deprecating joke and got the job done.
Location: 683

Which raises the question, why preserve the body so intensely if you’re not planning to keep it around, America?
Location: 734

“The archetypal woman is as a bringer of life,” Sarah said, “but my body was a tomb.
Location: 795

In death, corpses don’t hold themselves together. They no longer have to play by the living’s rules.
Location: 858

Another woman noticed Sarah’s silent tears and went to get her a tissue, quietly holding her arm.
Location: 864

I joined in, and the two of us blanketed the mixture down his neck and around his arms, almost tucking him in. “We’re making a little nest for him! It looks comfy,” Katrina said. She stopped, scolding herself. “Dr. J wouldn’t want us to be this sentimental with the bodies. Cut it out, Katrina.” I wasn’t so sure. Earlier in the day Dr. Johnston had told me a story about a man in his eighties who donated his body to FOREST. After he died, his wife and daughter drove his body to the facility in the family truck. They were even allowed to pick a spot in the underbrush for him. Then, only six months later, his wife died. She requested that her body be laid out in an area next to her husband. That request was honored, and man and wife decayed into the earth side by side, together as they had been in life.
Location: 1,163

It is worth noting that the main players in the recomposition project are women—scientists, anthropologists, lawyers, architects. Educated women, who have the privilege to devote their efforts to righting a wrong. They’ve given prominent space in their professional careers to changing the current system of death. Katrina noted that “humans are so focused on preventing aging and decay—it’s become an obsession. And for those who have been socialized female, that pressure is relentless. So decomposition becomes a radical act. It’s a way to say, ‘I love and accept myself.’ ”
Location: 1,304

Women’s bodies are so often under the purview of men, whether it’s our reproductive organs, our sexuality, our weight, our manner of dress. There is a freedom found in decomposition, a body rendered messy, chaotic, and wild.
Location: 1,308

When deathcare became an industry in the early twentieth century, there was a seismic shift in who was responsible for the dead. Caring for the corpse went from visceral, primeval work performed by women to a “profession,” an “art,” and even a “science,” performed by well-paid men. The corpse, with all its physical and emotional messiness, was taken from women. It was made neat and clean, and placed in its casket on a pedestal, always just out of our grasp.
Location: 1,311

Maybe a process like recomposition is our attempt to reclaim our corpses. Maybe we wish to become soil for a willow tree, a rosebush, a pine—destined in death to both rot and nourish on our own terms.
Location: 1,314

The people I spoke to in Barcelona (regular citizens and funeral workers alike) complained of how rushed the process of death seemed. Everyone felt the body should be buried within twenty-four hours, but nobody was quite sure why. Mourners felt pressure from funeral directors to get things completed. In turn, the funeral directors protested that families “want things fast, fast, fast, in less than twenty-four hours.” Everyone seemed trapped in the twenty-four-hour hamster wheel. Theories for this time frame ranged from historical factors like Spain’s Muslim past (Islam requires bodies to be buried swiftly after death) to the warm Mediterranean weather, which would allow bodies to putrefy more quickly than elsewhere in Europe.
Location: 1,354

Prior to the twentieth century, it was not uncommon to believe that the corpse was a dangerous entity that spread pestilence and disease. Imam Dr. Abduljalil Sajid explained to the BBC that the Muslim tradition of burial in the first twenty-four hours “was a way to protect the living from any sanitary issues.” The Jewish tradition follows similar rules. Such fear across cultures inspired the developed world to erect protective barriers between the corpse and the family.
Location: 1,360

The shift toward removing those barriers has been slow-going, even though prominent entities like the World Health Organization make clear that even after a mass death event, “contrary to common belief, there is no evidence that corpses pose a risk of disease ‘epidemics.’ ”
Location: 1,364

The Centers for Disease Control puts it even more bluntly: “The sight and smell of decay are unpleasant, but they do not create a public health hazard.”
Location: 1,366

With this in mind, I asked Josep, the owner, if they would allow the family to keep the body at home, sans protective glass boxes. Though he insisted Altima rarely received such a request,
Location: 1,368

Josep promised they would allow it, sending their employees out to the home to “close the holes.”
Location: 1,369

In the Judeo-Christian view—and thus, the dominant Western view—to die by suicide is a sinful, selfish act. This perception has been slow to fade, though the science is clear that suicide has root causes in diagnosable mental disorders and substance abuse. (“Sin” does not qualify for the DSM-5.) The cultural meaning of suicide in Japan is different. It’s viewed as a selfless, even honorable act.
Location: 1,492

The Japanese view of self-inflicted death as altruistic is more about wanting not to be a burden, rather than about fascination with mortality itself.
Location: 1,500

Then there are those who do not plan ahead, who have no close family. Their bodies leave dismal reddish-brown outlines on carpets or bedspreads when they are not found for weeks or months after death. They are victims of Japan’s epidemic of kodokushi, or “lonely deaths”: elderly people who die isolated and alone, with no one to find their bodies, let alone to come pray at their graves.
Location: 1,567

There is a difficult discussion that rarely happens among American funeral directors: viewing the embalmed body is often an unpleasant experience for the family. There are exceptions to this rule, but the immediate family is given almost no meaningful time with the body (which in all likelihood was swiftly removed after death). Before the family has time to be with their dead person and process the loss, coworkers and distant cousins arrive, and everyone is forced into a public performance of grief and humility. I wondered what it would be like if there were places like Lastel in every major city. Spaces outside the stiff, ceremonial norm, where the family can just be with the body, free from the performance required at a formal viewing. Spaces that are safe, comfortable, like home.
Location: 1,718

“Traditionally, Japanese people are concerned with the skeleton,” he explained. “They perform the kotsuage, as you know. They like the bones, they don’t want ash.” “Then what has changed?” I asked. “There are feelings that come with the bones, responsibility for the soul. Bones are real,” Masuda said. “The people who scatter the ash are trying to forget. Trying to put aside the things they don’t want to think about.” “Do you think that’s a good thing?” I asked. “I don’t think it’s a good thing. You can try to make death cleaner, but especially after the big earthquake, and with the suicide rate being very high, death has come closer. There are people who take their lives before the age of ten. People are beginning to think about death. You can’t ignore it anymore.”
Location: 1,787

Women like Doña Ana and Doña Ely represent a threat to the Catholic Church. Through magic, belief, and their ñatitas, they facilitate a direct, unmediated connection to the powers of the beyond, no male intermediary required. It reminded me of Santa Muerte, the Mexican Saint of Death, who is unapologetically female. She carries a scythe and her long robes are vividly colored, draped over her skeletal form.
Location: 1,879

We cannot single out Catholicism as the only belief system with a history of dismissing the agency of female devotees. Regardless of a woman’s more egalitarian place in modern Buddhism, the ancient scriptures tell of the Buddha encouraging his community of male monks to take trips to the charnel grounds to meditate on women’s rotting bodies. The motive of these “meditations on foulness” was to liberate a monk from his desire for women; they were, as scholar Liz Wilson calls them, “sensual stumbling blocks.” The hope was that charnel meditation would strip women of all their desirable qualities so men would realize they are merely flesh-sacks filled with blood, guts, and phlegm. The Buddha was explicit, claiming that a woman’s deception is not in her accessories, like makeup and gowns, but in her fraudulent garment of flesh, surreptitiously oozing grotesque liquids from its orifices.
Location: 1,885

Of course, these silent, decaying women of the charnel grounds were not permitted to have needs, desires, or spiritual journeys of their own to take. Wilson, again, explains that “in their role as teachers they do not utter a single word. What they have to teach is not what is on their minds but what is going on in their bodies.” The charnel corpses are mere objects, delusion-busters for men to meditate on and thus gain the status of “worthy.”
Location: 1,891

I spent the first thirty years of my life devouring animals. So why, when I die, should they not have their turn with me? Am I not an animal?
Location: 2,183

Death avoidance is not an individual failing; it’s a cultural one. Facing death is not for the faint-hearted. It is far too challenging to expect that each citizen will do so on his or her own. Death acceptance is the responsibility of all death professionals—funeral directors, cemetery managers, hospital workers. It is the responsibility of those who have been tasked with creating physical and emotional environments where safe, open interaction with death and dead bodies is possible.
Location: 2,218

At the open-air pyre in Colorado, I was held within the elegant bamboo walls, which kept mourners safe as the flames shot high. There was magic to each of these places. There was grief, unimaginable grief. But in that grief there was no shame. These were places to meet despair face to face and say, “I see you waiting there. And I feel you, strongly. But you do not demean me.” In our Western culture, where are we held in our grief? Perhaps religious spaces, churches, temples—for those who have faith. But for everyone else, the most vulnerable time in our lives is a gauntlet of awkward obstacles.
Location: 2,227

The Bell Jar

Book Notes

This is one of those books I was "supposed" to have read in high school. I'm fairly certain, no, I know that I would not have understood many of the messages, commentary, points had I actually read it in high school. Or college for that matter. Possibly in college, unsure.

One of the main reasons that reading in high school or college would have been better than, say, now after I have "life experience," is that literature people and critics have picked over all the ideas, all the critiques, all the arguments. Every lesson to be learned or taught has been made, meaning one needs only to read the book, and wait for someone else to tell you what to think.

Which is probably why my thoughts throughout this book were along the lines of, "JF, woman," and "JF this is the EPITOME of depression," and "Gah, someone help this woman," and "I am glad I am more self-aware than this woman," and "Oh, right, the fifties, this wasn't my world."

I summarize this book as, "Esther Greenwood is a stunningly self-centered twit." Unfair, to be sure, but come on, she leaves her friend at a party to be raped, stumbles back to her hotel drunk, a long enough stumble that she's quite sober by the end of her walk, then leaves said friend swimming in her own puke outside Esther's hotel door," and I'm supposed to connect with this character?

I mean, talk about a girl who could do with some serious gratitude journalling and expectations resetting.

Much of the book surrounds Esther judgements about everything around her, and fantasies about how things should be, and HEY THEY AREN'T THAT WAY.

Take the prison guard fantasy:

I was thinking that if I’d had the sense to go on living in that old town I might just have met this prison guard in school and married him and had a parcel of kids by now. It would be nice, living by the sea with piles of little kids and pigs and chickens, wearing what my grandmother called wash dresses, and sitting about in some kitchen with bright linoleum and fat arms, drinking pots of coffee.
Page: 115

Her constantly living in a made-up world, believing the grass in greener on the other side of the fence, thinking that everyone is doing better, is happier, has more, is a fundamental cause of her despression.

And, oh boy, is her depression incredibly obvious in this book. I was reading parts and just felt the Dark start ooozing into the walls around me. I promptly turned on the lights, rushed off a dozen pushups, called my mother, and switched my reading to a technical book, what with light, exercise, community, and meaning being the best bulwark against depression.

I'd say if you're required to read it in school, there are worse books. If you're a Plath fan, have at it. If you're depressed, this book won't help, but you can see someone else's depressive thoughts, so maybe that'll be okay. If you're not in school and not depressed and not a Plath fan, this is a good commentary and insight into woman's place in the 1950's, which echoes to today.

This hotel—the Amazon—was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them; and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other.
Page: 4

These girls looked awfully bored to me. I saw them on the sunroof, yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans, and they seemed bored as hell. I talked with one of them, and she was bored with yachts and bored with flying around in airplanes and bored with skiing in Switzerland...
Page: 4

Girls like that make me sick. I’m so jealous I can’t speak.
Page: 4

Jay Cee wanted to teach me something, all the old ladies I ever knew wanted to teach me something, but I suddenly didn’t think they had anything to teach me.
Page: 6

So great to know everything. The older I get, the less I know, but, hey, you go, you nineteen year old you.

My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.
Page: 9

I understand this dream!

Every so often Lenny and Doreen would bang into each other and kiss and then swing back to take a long drink and close in on each other again. I thought I might just lie down on the bearskin and go to sleep until Doreen felt ready to go back to the hotel. Then Lenny gave a terrible roar. I sat up. Doreen was hanging on to Lenny’s left earlobe with her teeth. “Leggo, you bitch!” Lenny stooped, and Doreen went flying up on to his shoulder, and her glass sailed out of her hand in a long, wide arc and fetched up against the pine paneling with a silly tinkle. Lenny was still roaring and whirling round so fast I couldn’t see Doreen’s face.
Page: 13

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”
Page: 16

I felt if I carried Doreen across the threshold into my room and helped her onto my bed I would never get rid of her again.
Page: 17

I started to lower Doreen gently onto the green hall carpet, but she gave a low moan and pitched forward out of my arms. A jet of brown vomit flew from her mouth and spread in a large puddle at my feet.
Page: 18

I made a decision about Doreen that night. I decided I would watch her and listen to what she said, but deep down I would have nothing at all to do with her. Deep down, I would be loyal to Betsy and her innocent friends. It was Betsy I resembled at heart.
Page: 18

My mid-read note went something like, "okay, so, she convinces her friend to go with this guy, leaves said friend to be raped, then ignores the friend when she returns. good friend, you."

In New York we had so many free luncheons with people on the magazine and various visiting celebrities I developed the habit of running my eye down those huge handwritten menus, where a tiny side dish of peas cost fifty or sixty cents, until I’d picked the richest, most expensive dishes and ordered a string of them.
Page: 19

I’d discovered, after a lot of extreme apprehension about what spoons to use, that if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance, as if you knew perfectly well you were doing it properly, you can get away with it and nobody will think you are bad-mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.
Page: 21

I told Doreen I would not go to the show or the luncheon or the film première, but that I would not go to Coney Island either, I would stay in bed. After Doreen left, I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.
Page: 23

Hooboy, hello, depression.

I tried to imagine what it would be like if I were Ee Gee, the famous editor, in an office full of potted rubber plants and African violets my secretary had to water each morning. I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do.
Page: 30

The fantasy world hitting hard, hitting early. Guess what, most adults are guessing.

My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died, and secretly she hated it and hated him for dying and leaving no money because he didn’t trust life insurance salesmen. She was always on to me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree. “Even the apostles were tentmakers,” she’d say. “They had to live, just the way we do.”
Page: 30

There I went again, building up a glamorous picture of a man who would love me passionately the minute he met me, and all out of a few prosy nothings. A duty tour of the UN and a post-UN sandwich!
Page: 40

Right. Lesson she needs to learn: life is lived in the mundane, not on the mountain tops.

Probably Mrs. Willard’s simultaneous interpreter would be short and ugly and I would come to look down on him in the end the way I looked down on Buddy Willard. This thought gave me a certain satisfaction.
Page: 40

And here we have cynicism as a defense mechanism.

The worst part of it was I couldn’t come straight out and tell him what I thought of him, because he caught TB before I could do that, and now I had to humor him along till he got well again and could take the unvarnished truth.
Page: 40

I can understand the telling of societal's expectation of the female's handling the delicate male ego.

I hate handing over money to people for doing what I could just as easily do myself, it makes me nervous.
Page: 41

Let's bring it back around again and discuss how spending money is a psychological loss, and yes, hurts.

I was surprised to hear this, because of all the blind dates I’d had that year not one called me up again for a second date. I just didn’t have any luck. I hated coming downstairs sweaty-handed and curious every Saturday night and having some senior introduce me to her aunt’s best friend’s son and finding some pale, mushroomy fellow with protruding ears or buck teeth or a bad leg. I didn’t think I deserved it. After all, I wasn’t crippled in any way, I just studied too hard, I didn’t know when to stop.
Page: 45

"Studied too hard."

That's self-rationalization for "is a judgmental ass."

I started out by dressing in a white coat and sitting on a tall stool in a room with four cadavers, while Buddy and his friends cut them up. These cadavers were so unhuman-looking they didn’t bother me a bit. They had stiff, leathery, purple-black skin and they smelt like old pickle jars. After that, Buddy took me out into a hall where they had some big glass bottles full of babies that had died before they were born. The baby in the first bottle had a large white head bent over a tiny curled-up body the size of a frog. The baby in the next bottle was bigger and the baby next to that one was bigger still and the baby in the last bottle was the size of a normal baby and he seemed to be looking at me and smiling a little piggy smile. I was quite proud of the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things. The only time I jumped was when I leaned my elbow on Buddy’s cadaver’s stomach to watch him dissect a lung. After a minute or two I felt this burning sensation in my elbow and it occurred to me the cadaver might just be half alive since it was still warm, so I leapt off my stool with a small exclamation. Then Buddy explained the burning was only from the pickling fluid, and I sat back in my old position.
Page: 48

This amused me, as I was reading Stiff around the same time.

I was so busy thinking how very fat he was and how unfortunate it must be for a man and especially a young man to be fat, because what woman could stand leaning over that big stomach to kiss him, that I didn’t immediately realize what this student had said to me was an insult.
Page: 49

Did I mention judgmental? How about superficial?

“You oughtn’t to see this,” Will muttered in my ear. “You’ll never want to have a baby if you do. They oughtn’t to let women watch. It’ll be the end of the human race.”
Page: 50

Well, amen. Heaven forbid women actually know what's going to happen. You know what, they still do it even when they do know.

Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep. I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
Page: 50

I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over—dead white, of course, with no makeup and from the awful ordeal, but smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was.
Page: 51

Here is what society wants us to believe about childbirth.

“Tell me about it.” I combed my hair slowly over and over, feeling the teeth of the comb dig into my cheek at every stroke. “Who was it?”

Buddy seemed relieved I wasn’t angry. He even seemed relieved to have somebody to tell about how he was seduced.
Page: 54

How he was seduced.. Uh huh.

Back at college I started asking a senior here and a senior there what they would do if a boy they knew suddenly told them he’d slept thirty times with some slutty waitress one summer, smack in the middle of knowing them. But these seniors said most boys were like that and you couldn’t honestly accuse them of anything until you were at least pinned or engaged to be married.
Page: 54

Of course

I had never heard Buddy so upset. He was very proud of his perfect health and was always telling me it was psychosomatic when my sinuses blocked up and I couldn’t breathe. I thought this an odd attitude for a doctor to have and perhaps he should study to be a psychiatrist instead, but of course I never came right out and said so.
Page: 56

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Page: 59

It gave all the reasons a girl shouldn’t sleep with anybody but her husband and then only after they were married. The main point of the article was that a man’s world is different from a woman’s world and a man’s emotions are different from a woman’s emotions and only marriage can bring the two worlds and the two different sets of emotions together properly. My mother said this was something a girl didn’t know about till it was too late, so she had to take the advice of people who were already experts, like a married woman. This woman lawyer said the best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex. Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would lose all respect for her and start saying that if she did that with them she would do that with other men and they would end up by making her life miserable. The woman finished her article by saying better be safe than sorry and besides, there was no sure way of not getting stuck with a baby and then you’d really be in a pickle. Now the one thing this article didn’t seem to me to consider was how a girl felt.
Page: 62

And then I wondered if as soon as he came to like me he would sink into ordinariness, and if as soon as he came to love me I would find fault after fault, the way I did with Buddy Willard and the boys before him. The same thing happened over and over: I would catch sight of some flawless man off in the distance, but as soon as he moved closer I immediately saw he wouldn’t do at all.
Page: 64

And I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.
Page: 65

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.
Page: 65

He didn’t answer but reached over and put his hand at the root of my hair and ran his fingers out slowly to the tip ends like a comb. A little electric shock flared through me and I sat quite still. Ever since I was small I loved feeling somebody comb my hair. It made me go all sleepy and peaceful.
Page: 66

“Remember how you asked me where I like to live best, the country or the city?”

“And you said …”

“And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?” Buddy nodded.

“And you,” I continued with a sudden force, “laughed and said I had the perfect setup of a true neurotic"
Page: 72

And yet, is completely doable, and has been done for centuries. Hello, country estate in the weekends. Hello, Hamptons. Hello, Sonoma.

But the rope dragged me, wobbling and balancing, so rapidly I couldn’t hope to dissociate myself from it halfway. There was a skier in front of me and a skier behind me, and I’d have been knocked over and stuck full of skis and poles the minute I let go, and I didn’t want to make trouble, so I hung quietly on.
Page: 74

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.
Page: 77

“Honestly,” Doreen said, “this one’ll be different.”
Page: 79

It was becoming more and more difficult for me to decide to do anything in those last days. And when I eventually did decide to do something, such as packing a suitcase, I only dragged all my grubby, expensive clothes out of the bureau and the closet and spread them on the chairs and the bed and the floor and then sat and stared at them, utterly perplexed. They seemed to have a separate, mulish identity of their own that refused to be washed and folded and stowed.
Page: 80

How is this not the epitome of depressive behavior?

A woman not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach, was wheeling an old black baby carriage down the street. Two or three small children of various sizes, all pale, with smudgy faces and bare smudgy knees, wobbled along in the shadow of her skirts.
Page: 89

Even six was considered excessive, but then, everybody said, of course Dodo was a Catholic.
Page: 90

Children made me sick.
Page: 90

Yeah.

I crawled back into bed and pulled the sheet over my head.
Page: 90

This is called depression. Melancholy if you must.

But even that didn’t shut out the light, so I buried my head under the darkness of the pillow and pretended it was night. I couldn’t see the point of getting up.
Page: 90

I reached for the receiver. My hand advanced a few inches, then retreated and fell limp. I forced it toward the receiver again, but again it stopped short, as if it had collided with a pane of glass. I wandered into the dining room.
Page: 91

This surprised me. I had always looked down on my mother’s college, as it was coed, and filled with people who couldn’t get scholarships to the big eastern colleges.
Page: 96

It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.
Page: 98

I had imagined a kind, ugly, intuitive man looking up and saying “Ah!” in an encouraging way, as if he could see something I couldn’t, and then I would find words to tell him how I was so scared, as if I were being stuffed farther and farther into a black, airless sack with no way out. Then he would lean back in his chair and match the tips of his fingers together in a little steeple and tell me why I couldn’t sleep and why I couldn’t read and why I couldn’t eat and why everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end. And then, I thought, he would help me, step by step, to be myself again.
Page: 98

“I’m through with that Doctor Gordon,” I said, after we had left Dodo and her black station wagon behind the pines. “You can call him up and tell him I’m not coming next week.”

My mother smiled. “I knew my baby wasn’t like that.”

I looked at her. “Like what?”

“Like those awful people. Those awful dead people at that hospital.” She paused. “I knew you’d decide to be all right again.”
Page: 112

Oh, Esther's mom, depression doesn't work like that.

My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you, so Teresa had arranged for me to sign on as a volunteer at our local hospital.
Page: 124

The earth seemed friendly under my bare feet, but cold. I wondered how long it had been since this particular square of soil had seen the sun.
Page: 130

I wonder this frequently when I pull up cement, or see streets torn up in Paris.

I hate saying anything to a group of people. When I talk to a group of people I always have to single out one and talk to him, and all the while I am talking I feel the others are peering at me and taking unfair advantage. I also hate people to ask cheerfully how you are when they know you’re feeling like hell and expect you to say “Fine.”
Page: 136

“He folded his hands together and looked at me and said, ‘Miss Gilling, we have decided that you would benefit by group therapy.”

“Group therapy?” I thought I must sound phony as an echo chamber, but Joan didn’t pay any notice.

“That’s what he said. Can you imagine me wanting to kill myself, and coming round to chat about it with a whole pack of strangers, and most of them no better than myself….”

“That’s crazy.” I was growing involved in spite of myself. “That’s not even human.”
Page: 152

I laughed at this. Definitely not even human.

I thought if they left me alone I might have some peace. My mother was the worst. She never scolded me, but kept begging me, with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong. She said she was sure the doctors thought she had done something wrong because they asked her a lot of questions about my toilet training, and I had been perfectly trained at a very early age and given her no trouble whatsoever.
Page: 156

I had gone to bed right after supper, but then I heard the piano music and pictured Joan and DeeDee and Loubelle, the blonde woman, and the rest of them, laughing and gossiping about me in the living room behind my back.
Page: 158

“I don’t see what women see in other women,” I told Doctor Nolan in my interview that noon. “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?”

Doctor Nolan paused. Then she said, “Tenderness.”

That shut me up.
Page: 168

I thought how lucky it was I had started practicing birth control during the day, because in my winey state that night I would never have bothered to perform the delicate and necessary operation. I lay, rapt and naked, on Irwin’s rough blanket, waiting for the miraculous change to make itself felt.
Page: 175

And hadn’t Buddy said, as if to revenge himself for my digging out the car and his having to stand by, “I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther.”

“What?” I’d said, shoveling snow up onto a mound and blinking against the stinging backshower of loose flakes.

“I wonder who you’ll marry now, Esther. Now you’ve been,” and Buddy’s gesture encompassed the hill, the pines and the severe, snow-gabled buildings breaking up the rolling landscape, “here.”
Page: 185

F--- off, fifties era people who believe that depression is a death-knell, that getting help means you're damaged goods. F--- off anyone who believe that depression means you're a lesser person.

The October Man

Book Notes

Okay, this was a delightful, fast read.

Set in the Peter Grant / Rivers of London universe, we have Tobias Winter as the sole practitioner investigator in Germany, Deutschland's equivalent of Peter Grant, called into a suspicious death. He is partnered with Vanessa Sommer, an enthusiastic (and normal) investigator local to Trier, in solving the case.

Yes, I, too, was delighted by the summer and winter pairing.

The book is a quick read, what, being book 7.5 of the Rivers of London series, a novella. The "short" story (long story, but shorter than a novel) is a delightful way to both introduce new characters into the series (we're sure to see Toby in the Peter books soon), and to expand the world building.

That the murder had elements of wine making made it more entertaining.

I enjoyed the book. If you're a Ben Aaronovitch or Rivers of London fan, definitely keep reading.

‘“The wrong case’ isn’t about danger. You only have to spend a couple of nights with Traffic to know that anybody can die suddenly,” said Stefan, proving once again that he was the joyful heart of any social event.
Location: 55

Jacqueline Stracker gave us the traditional look of weary outrage that you always get from someone who thinks they don’t have time for this shit—whatever this shit happens to be.
Location: 275

Vanessa made a strange inarticulate sound common to Germans who’ve figured out how to start a sentence but don’t know how it ends.
Location: 423

As police you can live with the violence, the squalor and the stupidity—it’s the waste of people’s futures that really grinds you down.
Location: 545

“I don’t think the drinking club would have lasted much longer,” said Vanessa, as I wrestled with the total lack of a proper slotted spatula and had to turn my steaks with a wooden scraper instead.
Location: 1,592

He was obviously one of those people who basically ignore the parts of the world that don’t interest him.
Location: 1,695

The Spy and The Traitor

Book Notes

I found this book on the recommended table at Indigos a couple weeks ago, finding it available at the library that evening, and started reading with what I thought would be enough time to read leisurely.

I wasn't correct on the leisurely, as the book read more slowly than I expected it to read. Some books are like that: the writing fits into your brain and the words read easily. I believe Stephen King's works are like this, which is a good reason his books are so popular. Sometimes the books are not like that: the writing feels wrong, is slow going, requires a shift in the reader's brain to accommodate the words. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke was one of these books. The Septimus Heap books were also like that. This one is like that, too.

But, hooboy, Gordievsky's story? WOW!

That the book is non-fiction is even more WOW!

Who says one man can't change the world? We keep seeing evidence of one man being able to change the world and in a positive direction.

Gordievsky was a KGB agent who saw how Communism doesn't work as a political structure. There are ebbs and flows in the levels of freedom, with Communism being so far on the authoritarian scale as to be ultimately unsustainable, and Gordievsky saw this. Disagreeing with the lack of personal freedoms in his country, he worked to reduce its strength.
He didn't take it down, but he did affect things in very large, very positive ways, and for that, we thank him.

It's odd to read history with a happy ending, tbh. There were a number of recollection quotes early in the book that indicated Gordievsky lives through his ordeal, but I still needed to read his Wikipedia page to skip to the end (yes, as I do). Gordievsky's tale is worth reading on more than a Wikipedia page.

“The Party was God,” his son later wrote, and the older Gordievsky never wavered in his devotion, even when his faith demanded that he take part in unspeakable crimes.
Page: 8

In Stalin’s paranoid police state, the safest way to ensure survival was to denounce someone else. “Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away,” said Nikolai Yezhov, chief of the NKVD.
Page: 9

With a peasant’s ingrained common sense, she understood the caprice and vindictiveness of state terror, but kept her mouth shut.
Page: 10

But the head of Directorate S declined to let him go, with the pettiness typical of a boss determined to retain a member of staff just because another boss has tried to poach him.
Page: 39

From now on Oleg Gordievsky would live two distinct and parallel lives, both secret, and at war with each other. And the moment of commitment came with the special force that was central to his character: an adamantine, unshakable conviction that what he was doing was unequivocally right, a whole-souled moral duty that would change his life irrevocably, a righteous betrayal.
Page: 56

Spies come in many shapes. Some are motivated by ideology, politics, or patriotism. A surprising number act out of avarice, for the financial rewards can be alluring. Others find themselves drawn into espionage by sex, blackmail, arrogance, revenge, disappointment, or the peculiar oneupmanship and comradeship that secrecy confers. Some are principled and brave. Some are grasping and cowardly.
Page: 60

For Gordievsky, Leila’s gentle personality and simple sweetness seemed a tonic after Yelena’s shrewish disdain. He had become used to calculation in his human relationships, constantly assessing his own actions and words and those of others. Leila, by contrast, was natural, outgoing, and uninhibited: Oleg felt adored, for the first time in his life.
Page: 69

Gordievsky’s letter was his testament. I must emphasize that my decision is not the result of irresponsibility or instability of character on my part. It has been preceded by a long spiritual struggle and by agonizing emotion, and an even deeper disappointment at developments in my own country and my own experiences have brought me to the belief that democracy, and the tolerance of humanity that follows it, represents the only road for my country, which is European in spite of everything. The present regime is the antithesis of democracy to an extent which Westerners can never fully grasp. If a man realizes this, he must show
Page: 79

the courage of his convictions and do something himself to prevent slavery from encroaching further upon the realms of freedom.
Page: 80

Love often begins with an outpouring of naked truth, a passionate baring of the soul.
Page: 81

Lenin is often credited with coining the term “useful idiot,” poleznyi durak in Russian, meaning one who can be used to spread propaganda without being aware of it or subscribing to the goals intended by the manipulator.
Page: 118

The revelation that Richard Nixon had used the CIA to try to obstruct a federal investigation into the Watergate burglary in 1972 triggered a crisis within the agency and a series of investigations into its activities over the preceding twenty years. The resulting reports, known as the “Family Jewels,” identified a damning litany of illegal actions far outside the CIA’s charter, including wiretapping of journalists, burglaries, assassination plots, experimentation on humans, collusion with the Mafia, and systematic domestic surveillance of civilians.
Page: 125

Paranoia is born of propaganda, ignorance, secrecy, and fear.
Page: 129

Everyone rehearses their recollections, believing that the more often an event is remembered, the closer we come to its reality. This is not always true. Most people tell a version of the past, and then either stick to or embellish it. Gordievsky’s powers of recall were different. He was not just consistent, but progressive and accreting.
Page: 134

The KGB of the 1970s was clearly not what it had been a generation earlier. The ideological fervor of the 1930s, which had seen the recruitment of so many committed agents, had been replaced by a terrified conformity, which produced a very different sort of spy. It remained vast, well funded, and ruthless, and it could still call on some of the brightest and best recruits. But its ranks now also included many time servers and bootlickers, lazy careerists with little imagination. The KGB was still a dangerous antagonist, but its vulnerabilities and deficiencies were now exposed.
Page: 138

Early in 1981, the KGB carried out an analysis of the geopolitical situation, using a newly developed computer program, and concluded that “the correlation of world forces” was moving in favor of the West. Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was proving costly, Cuba was draining Soviet funds, the CIA was launching aggressive covert action against the USSR, and the US was undergoing a major military buildup: the Soviet Union seemed to be losing the Cold War, and, like a boxer exhausted by long years of sparring, the Kremlin feared that a single, brutal sucker punch could end the contest.
Page: 142

In launching Operation RYAN, Andropov broke the first rule of intelligence: never ask for confirmation of something you already believe.
Page: 144

The Kremlin, however, assuming that capitalism penetrated every aspect of Western life, believed that a “blood bank” was, in fact, a bank, where blood could be bought and sold. No one in the KGB outstations dared to draw attention to this elemental misunderstanding. In a craven and hierarchical organization, the only thing more dangerous than revealing your own ignorance is to draw attention to the stupidity of the boss.
Page: 145

Almost any human behavior, if scrutinized sufficiently intensely, can begin to seem suspicious: a light left on in the Foreign Office, a parking shortage at the Ministry of Defence, a potentially bellicose bishop.
Page: 146

This was a business that involved heavy drinking, on both sides of the Cold War, and officers and agents frequently took refuge from the stress in the blurring of reality that alcohol can bring.
Page: 168

Intelligence sharing was a two-way street, but in the opinion of some CIA officers America had a right to know everything.
Page: 199

The cash could simply have been handed over to the illegal on arrival, but the KGB never opted for simplicity when something more elaborate could be devised. Operation GROUND was an object lesson in overcomplication.
Page: 219

loyalty? In all totalitarian cultures, the individual is encouraged to consider the interests of society before personal welfare: from Nazi Germany to Communist Russia to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and North Korea today, a willingness to betray those nearest to you for the greater good was the ultimate mark of committed citizenship and ideological purity.
Page: 248

The decision to leave his family behind was either an act of monumental self-sacrifice, or one of selfish self-preservation, or both. He told himself he had no choice, which is what we all tell ourselves when forced to make a terrible choice.
Page: 249

There is no evidence, however, that the surveillance team did this on the morning of July 20. Instead, they seem to have done what timeservers do in every autocracy that punishes honest failure: they did nothing at all, and hoped the problem would go away.
Page: 282

“I had been under surveillance for years, and we had got to know the way the KGB Seventh Directorate thought. While they often knew that you knew they were around, what really offended and embarrassed them was when someone deliberately indicated that he had spotted them: psychologically, no surveillance team likes to be shown up by its target as obvious and incompetent. They hate you putting two fingers up, and saying in effect: ‘We know you are there and we know what you’re up to.’ ” On principle, Ascot always ignored surveillance, however overt. Now, for the first time, he broke his own rule.
Page: 289

This Is How You Lose The Time War

Book Notes

Oh, this is such a lovely book.

Based on the title, we know it is a book dealing with time travel (else why have a time war?). There's the briefest of adjustments in the beginning with the world building, and then we see that while the book is science fiction with two sides having agents who skip through time lines adjusting a world here, changing an action there, in order to shape the future into each side's desired outcome, and then we arrive at the heart of the tale, which is a love story.

The ending of the book is so beautiful that one wants to (and should) immediately flip back to the beginning of the book and read it again, pick up the details missed in the first reading, understand where the threads twist and cross. The different elements of history woven into the story make the story that much more beautiful.

Thoroughly enjoyed the book. Strongly recommended.

But wars are dense with causes and effects, calculations and strange attractors, and all the more so are wars in time. One spared life might be worth more to the other side than all the blood that stained Red’s hands today. A fugitive becomes a queen or a scientist or, worse, a poet. Or her child does, or a smuggler she trades jackets with in some distant spaceport. And all this blood for nothing.
Page 2

Killing gets easier with practice, in mechanics and technique. Having killed never does, for Red. Her fellow agents do not feel the same, or they hide it better.
Page 3

"If train A leaves Toronto at six p.m. travelling east at one hundred kilometres per hour, and train B leaves Ottawa at seven p.m. travelling west at one hundred twenty kilometres per hour, when will they cross?”
Page 25

Nearly always amused when an Ottawa reference pops up in a book.

They drag the logs to camp. They split them, trim them, plane them, frame them into engines of war. Two weeks later, the planks lie shattered around the fallen walls of a city still burning, still weeping. Progress gallops on, and blood remains behind.
Page 34

Some days Blue wonders why anyone ever bothered making numbers so small ; other days she supposes even infinity needs to start somewhere.
Page 39

Eating’s gross, isn’t it? In the abstract, I mean. When you’re used to hyperspace recharging stations, to sunlight and cosmic rays, when most of the beauty you’ve known lies in a great machine’s heart, it’s hard to see the appeal of using bones that poke from spit - coated gums to mash things that grew in dirt into a paste that will fit down the wet tube connecting your mouth to the sack of acid under your heart.
Page 44

But I enjoy eating these days. More of us do than care to admit it publicly. I revel in it, as one only revels in pursuits one does not need. The runner enjoys running when she need not flee a lion. Sex improves when decoupled — sorry — from animalist procreative desperation (or even from the desperation of not having had sex in a while, as I’ve had cause to note after my recent two decades ’ sojourn and attendant dry spell).
Page 44

Humans need marks to strive for — but imperfect systems decay. So we build them ideals. Change agents climb upthread, find helpful strands, preserve what matters, and let what doesn’t fall to dust : mulch for the more perfect future’s seed.
Page 60

Fortunately, geniuses understand that young men are often fools.
Page 67

So the great-grand-emperor’s word goes out, and so a port is built, and sailors flock, beckoned by adventure. (Adventure works in any strand — it calls to those who care more for living than for their lives.)
Page 67

She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hurt. But butterfly wings break when touched. Red knows her own weaknesses as well as anyone. She presses too hard, breaks what she would embrace, tears what she would touch to her teeth.
Page 86

I wish I could have shown you where I’m from, hand in hand, the world I set out to build and to protect — I don’t think you would have liked it, but I want to see it reflected in your eyes. I wish I could have seen your braid, and I wish we could have left all those horror shows behind and found one together, for ourselves.

That’s all I want now. A small place, a dog, green grass. To touch your hand. To run my fingers through your hair.
Page 164

The tears have anger in them at first, but anger burns out fast. Tears stay.
Page 169

She has lost all the subtlety Blue ever teased her for lacking, her old competitive patience for a good officer’s work. She abandons her tools, retreats to the grossest physical foundations. Winning this battle, losing that, strangling that old evil man in a bathtub in his skyscraper penthouse, feels empty because it is : In the war they wage through time, what lasting advantage comes from murdering ghosts, who, with a slight shift of threads, will return to life or live different lives that never bring them to the executioner’s blade? Repetitive task, murder. Kill them and kill them again, like weeds, all the little monsters.

No death sticks but the one that matters.
Page 175

She cannot stop herself from reaching out, from trying with a touch to say, I’m here. Sometimes you have to hold a person, though they’ll mistake embrace for strangulation.
Page 182

Red may be mad, but to die for madness is to die for something.
Page 183

The Chain

Book Notes

Again, for the 100th+ time, I need to write down why a book is on my to-read pile. Where was this one recommended? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I'd guess Book Riot or micro.blog.

Anyway, the basic premise is that there is a chain of kidnapped children. Once a child has been kidnapped, she / he will be returned only if a ransom is paid and the ransomee kidnaps another child and repeats the instructions, inflicts the same mental anguish, on the next family. While the kidnapped person is nearly always a child, according to the rules, the loved one to be kidnapped could be an adult. In reality you can count on a mother's love for her child FAR MORE than a partner's love for their partner, so children are "better" targets to keep the chain going.

The psychological thriller part of the idea is the progression of victim to perpetrator, that to save one's child, one must inflict the same pain on another family. The book does an okay job of conveying the mental torture of how awful this would be, to have a belief about yourself, that you are a good person who would never do these things, and yet, here you are, doing these exact horrible things. There is absolutely no good way through what would be an absolutely horrible situation, if this were real. The mental scars would be around for a long, long time, which the second half of the book tries to portray, also doing an okay job.

That none of it leaked, despite going on for six years in a relatively small area (New England) strains the reader's suspension disbelief, unless said reader realizes that, eh, there is a lot of random shit that happens to good people, and no reason that people on the other side of the world / country / state would necessarily know about it. 50+ kidnapped kids a year, ehhhhhh, could happen.

If you're a fan of McKinty's writing, definitely read the book. If you like quick-paced, fast read, somewhat unbelievable psychological thrillers, this could also be a good read. It was waaaaaay better than The Woman in Cabin 10, if you want to use that as a reference point.

The Egyptians thought the afterlife was located in the stars. But there is no afterlife, is there? Grandma believes in the afterlife but nobody else does. It doesn’t make any sense, does it? If they kill you, you’re just dead and that’s that. And maybe a hundred years from now, they find your body in the woods and nobody even remembers who you were or that you’d gone missing.
Page: 25

“Rachel O’Neill, as I live and breathe,” he says with a grin. “Oh, Rachel, why do birds suddenly appear every time that you’re near?”

Because they’re actually carrion crows and I’m one of the goddamn undead, she thinks but doesn’t say.
Page: 33

There are a breathtaking number of people whose profiles and posts are public and can be viewed by anyone. George Orwell was wrong, she thinks. In the future, it won’t be the state that keeps tabs on everyone by extensive use of surveillance; it will be the people. They’ll do the state’s work for it by constantly uploading their locations, interests, food preferences, restaurant choices, political ideas, and hobbies to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites. We are our own secret police.
Page: 41

“Helen seems the type to brag about using that system to find her kids, but she hasn’t mentioned it,” Rachel says, surprising herself with the bitterness of this observation. She remembers that Tacitus line about how you always hate those you have wronged. Or those you are about to wrong in this case.
Page: 99

Rachel puts her hand on his chest and feels his heart beating. Calm, slow, deliberate. He has three tattoos: an ouroboros serpent, the Marine Corps logo, and the Roman numeral V. “What’s the V stand for?” she asks. “Five combat tours.” “The ouroboros?” “To remind myself that there ain’t nothing new under the sun. People have survived worse.”
Page: 208

"Recall that one builds a labyrinth not to hide but to lie in wait.”
Page: 242

Every choice she has is a bad one. Action is bad. Inaction is bad. It is a classic zugzwang situation. You have parachuted into the minefield and there is no safe way out.
Page: 245

“Either of you ever done any kriging or matrix programming or regression analysis?” he asks. “Kriging?” Rachel asks, wondering what the hell he’s talking about. “It’s a Gaussian-process regression. A tool for statistical analysis. No?” Pete and Rachel shake their heads. He taps the table number. “The number seventy-three means what to you?” “John Hannah, offensive lineman for the Pats,” Pete says quickly. “Gary Sanchez briefly wore number seventy-three when he first came up with the Yanks,” Rachel says. The man shakes his head. “What does it mean to you?” Rachel asks. “It is the twenty-first prime number. The number twenty-one has prime factors seven and three. A pleasing coincidence. Table seventy-seven is also free over there. It’s not prime, of course, but it is the sum of the first eight prime numbers and the atomic number of iridium. Iridium is how they finally proved what killed the dinosaurs, which was the big mystery when I was a kid. The iridium-marker layer in the K-T boundary. Atomic number seventy-seven was the harbinger of death for the dinosaurs. It’s an ending number. All books should end on the seventy-seventh chapter. They never do, though. But we’re beginning something here, aren’t we? Hence table seventy-three, which is a little more appropriate than seventy-seven, yes?” Rachel and Pete look at him in utter bafflement. He sighs. “All right. Mathematics is not your forte, I see.
Page: 247

She turns on Erik’s app. It has downloaded successfully but when she tries to open it, a message flashes on the phone’s home screen: For this app to work you need to enter the next number in this sequence: 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 20…If you enter the wrong number your phone will be locked and all devices associated with your account will be disabled for twenty-four hours.

She picks up the phone and types in 23.
Page: 290

“I always thought that if we were going to go down, it would be because of you tangling emotions with business.” She smiles. “Christ, Olly, that’s how everybody goes down in the end. Didn’t you know that? You can’t fight biology.” “You can try,” he says.
Page: 315

All Systems Red

Book Notes

This is book 1 in the MurderBot Diaries, and it is a fun read. I've had it in my to-read pile for a long while now, arriving there from a recommendation on microblog.

I found the book particularly amusing in that Murderbot, who is a construct with mechanical (robot) and organic (human) parts fused together to have essentially a controllable super-human, thoroughly reminded me of an acquaintance I have. Said acquaintance is very literal, doesn't give a shit about most things, is straight-forward about nearly everything, and really just wants to be left alone.

Kinda like the Murderbot.

In this first of the series, we have world building, where we understand what the Murderbot is, learn a bit about its history (it went haywire and killed a crew), and come to understand the broad strokes of its personality. It is hard not to sympathize with the Murderbot, even as it is, well, a Murderbot.

Love Wells' writing, and am eagerly anticipating reading the next three books in the series. Strongly recommended (bonus: it's a fast read).

“All right,” she said, and looked at me for what objectively I knew was 2.4 seconds and subjectively about twenty excruciating minutes.
Page 22

It was a low-stress group, they didn’t argue much or antagonize each other for fun, and were fairly restful to be around, as long as they didn’t try to talk or interact with me in any way.
Page 30

I also checked to make sure both the big hopper and the little hopper had their full complement of emergency supplies. I packed them in there myself days ago, but I was mainly checking to make sure the humans hadn’t done anything stupid with them since the last time I checked.
Page 34

WE GOT READY to leave at the beginning of the day cycle, in the morning light,
Page 39

There was a nice box of new ones, but they were useless without the DeltFall HubSystem. Either it was really dead or doing a good imitation of it. I still kept part of my attention on it; if it came up suddenly and reactivated the security cameras, the rules of the game would change abruptly.
Page 68

Nervously, Ratthi said, “What do we do when they come here?” I said, “Be somewhere else.”
Page 93

It may seem weird that Mensah was the only human to think of abandoning the habitat while we waited for the beacon to bring help, but as I said before, these weren’t intrepid galactic explorers. They were people who had been doing a job and suddenly found themselves in a terrible situation.
Page 94

As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.
Page 102

I’d left one drone in a tree with a long-range view of the habitat, one tucked under the extendable roof over the entrance, and one inside the hub, hidden under a console. They were on the next setting to inert, recording only, so when EvilSurvey scanned, the drones would be buried in the ambient energy readings from the habitat’s environmental system.
Page 109

It’s an elected position, with a limited term. But one of the principles of our home is that our admins must also continue their regular work, whatever it is.
Page 111

Can you imagine?

I wanted to go alone, but since nobody ever listens to me, Mensah, Pin-Lee, and Ratthi were going, too.
Page 113

It’s one thing to poke a murderbot with a governor module; poking a rogue murderbot is a whole different proposition.
Page 116

He finally said, “You don’t blame humans for what you were forced to do? For what happened to you?” This is why I’m glad I’m not human. They come up with stuff like this. I said, “No. That’s a human thing to do. Constructs aren’t that stupid.”
Page 116

Maybe it would work out. This was what I was supposed to want. This was what everything had always told me I was supposed to want. Supposed to want.
Page 147

Knife

Book Notes

So, apparently my count is off and this is book 12 of the Harry Hole series. Reading most of the reviews, only one gave away the major plot point (there's always one major murder to be solved or serial killer to be caught), even though the jacket blurb gives away the major plot once you know what it is, so, yeah, skipping that detail.

So, uh, I'll say, there's a murder, Harry is a suspect, he's cleared, he goes to track down the murderer.

What is terribly brilliant about the book is how so many details from previous books, some returning characters, and some half-answered questions all cascade into this one's plot. The pieces all fit together, leaving the reader to go, "Huh."

And the actual murderer?

Did. Not. See. That. Coming.

As much as I disliked the first book that I read in the series (which I read out of order), I really like these last few Harry Hole books. I'm unsure if the book could be read stand-alone, tbh. That said, if you're a fan, of course read this one, HF read this one. If you're not a fan, become one, start at book one, The Bat.

Harry had seen it in other cases, the way that someone left behind struggled with grief as if it were an enemy, an irritating nuisance that needed to be cajoled and tricked. And one way of doing that was to downplay the loss, to discredit the dead.
Location: 766

But happiness is like heroin; once you’ve tasted it, once you’ve found out that happiness exists, you will never be entirely happy with an ordinary life without happiness again. Because happiness is something more than mere satisfaction. Happiness isn’t natural. Happiness is a trembling, exceptional state; seconds, minutes, days that you know simply can’t last. And sorrow at its absence doesn’t come afterwards, but at the same time. Because with happiness comes the terrible insight that nothing can be the same again, that you are already missing what you have, you’re worrying about the withdrawal pangs, grief at the loss, cursing the awareness of what you are capable of feeling.
Location: 869

“How…?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“But…” Oleg didn’t get any further, and Harry knew there was no continuation to that all-encompassing “but.” It was just an instinctive objection, a self-sustaining protest, a rejection of the possibility that things could be the way they actually were. An echo of his own “but…” in Katrine Bratt’s office twenty-five minutes ago.
Location: 938

Investigation, he thought. This is an investigation. I’m dreaming, but I can do an investigation in my sleep. It’s just a matter of doing it properly, getting it going, and I won’t wake up. As long as I’m not awake, it isn’t true.
Location: 960

So Harry did it properly, he didn’t look directly at the sun, at the body he knew was lying on the floor between the kitchen and living-room areas. The sun—that, even if it hadn’t been Rakel—would blind him if he stared straight at it. The sight of a body does something to your senses even if you’re an experienced murder detective; it overwhelms them to a greater or lesser extent, numbs them and makes them less sensitive to other, less violent impressions, all the small details of a crime scene that can tell you something.
Location: 962

“Do you know, you’re showing all the classic signs of PTSD?”

Harry stared at her. “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” Kaja said.

“I know what it is.”

“Great. But do you know what the symptoms are?”

Harry shrugged his shoulders. “Repeated experience of the trauma. Dreams, flashbacks. Limited emotional response. You become a zombie. You feel like a zombie, an outsider on happy pills, flat and with no desire to live any longer than necessary. The world feels unreal, your sensation of time changes. As a defense mechanism you fragment the trauma, only remember specific details, but keep them apart so the whole experience and context remain in the dark.”

Kaja nodded. “Don’t forget hyperactivity. Anxiety, depression. Irritability and aggressiveness. Problems sleeping. How come you know so much about it?”

“Our resident psychologist has talked me through it.”

“Ståle Aune? And he thought you didn’t have PTSD?”

“Well, he didn’t rule it out. But on the other hand, I’ve had those symptoms since I was a teenager.”
Location: 2,285

Life as a dance performed by mayflies. You stand in a room full of testosterone and perfume, moving your feet in time to the music and smiling at the prettiest one because you think she’s meant for you. Until you ask her to dance and she says no and looks over your shoulder at the other guy, the guy who isn’t you. Then, once you’ve patched up your broken heart, you adjust your expectations and ask the next prettiest to dance. Then the third. Until you get to the one who says yes.

And if you’re lucky, and you dance well together, you ask her for the next dance as well. And the next. Until the evening is over and you ask if she wants to spend eternity with you.

“Yes, darling, but we’re mayflies,” she says, and dies.
Location: 2,331

She hated those “influential women” gatherings anyway. Not because she didn’t support the cause, not because she didn’t think that true equality was something worth fighting for, but because she couldn’t summon up the forced sisterly solidarity and emotional rhetoric. Occasionally she felt like telling them to shut up and stick to asking for equal opportunities and equal pay for equal work. Sure, a change was long overdue, and not only when it came to direct sexual harassment, but also the indirect and often intangible sexual-control tactics men used. But that mustn’t be allowed to rise to the top of the agenda and draw attention away from what equality was really about. Women would only harm themselves yet again if they prioritised hurt feelings over the size of their pay packets. Because only better wages, more economic power, would make them invulnerable.
Location: 2,471

Harry felt a different type of rage hit him. The cold sort, the sort that made him calm. And crazy. Which he had feared might come, and which mustn’t be allowed to take over.
Location: 2,677

Krohn sometimes wondered what would happen when the oil ran out and the Norwegian people had to face up to the demands of the real world again. The optimist in him said things would be fine, that people adapt to new situations quicker than you think, you just had to look at countries that had been at war. The realist in him said that in a country without any tradition of innovation and advanced thinking, there would be a slippery slope straight back to where Norway had come from: the bottom division of European economies.
Location: 2,871

One of the reasons why he had never raised the subject was probably that he knew there were few things as unsexy as an insecure and chronically jealous partner.
Location: 3,089

“According to Professor Paul Mattiuzzi, most murderers fit into one of eight categories,” Harry said. “One: chronically aggressive individuals. People with poor impulse control who get easily frustrated, who resent authority, who convince themselves that violence is a legitimate response, and who deep down enjoy finding a way to express their anger. This is the type where you can see it coming.”

Harry put a cigarette between his lips.

“Two: controlled hostility. People who rarely give in to anger, who are emotionally rigid and appear polite and serious. They abide by rules and see themselves as upholders of justice. They can be kind in a way that people take advantage of. They’re simmering pressure cookers where you can’t see anything coming until they explode. The sort where the neighbours say he always seemed such a nice guy.” Harry sparked his lighter, held it to his cigarette and inhaled.

“Three: the resentful. People who feel that others walk all over them, that they never get what they deserve, that it’s other people’s fault that they haven’t succeeded in life. They bear grudges, especially against people who have criticised or reprimanded them. They assume the role of victim, they’re psychologically impotent, and when they resort to violence because they can’t find other ways to control their violence, it’s usually directed towards people they hold grudges against. Four: the traumatised.”

Harry blew smoke from his mouth and nose. “The murder is a response to a single assault on the killer’s identity that is so offensive and unbearable that it strips them of all sense of personal power. The murder is necessary if they are to protect the essence of the trauma victim’s existence or masculinity. If you’re aware of the circumstances, this type of murder can usually be both foreseen and prevented.” Harry held the cigarette between the second knuckles of his index and middle fingers as he stood reflected in the small, half-dried-up puddle framed by brown earth and grey gravel.

“Then there are the rest. Five: obsessive and immature narcissists. Six: paranoid and jealous individuals on the verge of insanity. Seven: people well past the verge of insanity.” Harry put the cigarette back between his lips and looked up. Let his eyes slide across the timber building. The crime scene. The morning sun was glinting off the windows. Nothing about the house looked different, just the degree of abandonment. [...]

“And the eighth category?” Kaja asked, wrapping her coat more tightly around her and stamping on the gravel.

“Professor Mattiuzzi calls them the ‘just plain bad and angry.’ Which is a combination of the seven others.”
Location: 3,177

So who killed R---? Someone with personality traits from one of those categories killing without any context, or a normal person killing for a reason they’ve come up with themselves?”

“Well, I think that even a crazy person needs some sort of context. Even in outbursts of rage there’s a moment when we manage to convince ourselves that we’re acting in a justifiable way. Madness is a lonely dialogue where we give ourselves the answers we want. And we’ve all had that conversation.”
Location: 3,224

Not obviously beautiful, but cute, Harry decided. Possibly what Øystein would call a Toyota: not the boys’ first choice when they were teenagers, but the one that stayed in the best shape as the years passed.
Location: 3,695

“I was jealous.”

“Of Rakel?”

“I hated her.”

“She hadn’t done anything wrong.”

“That was probably why.” Kaja laughed. “You left me because of her, that’s all the reason a woman needs to hate someone, Harry.”

“I didn’t leave you, Kaja. You and I were two people with broken hearts who were able to comfort each other for a while. And when I left Oslo, I was running away from both of you.”

“But you said you loved her. And when you came back to Oslo the second time, it was because of her, not me.”

“It was because of Oleg, he was in trouble. But yes, I always loved Rakel.”

“Even when she didn’t want you?”

“Especially when she didn’t want me. That seems to be how we’re made, doesn’t it?”
Location: 4,491

“Love’s complicated,” she said, curling up closer and laying her head on his chest.

“Love’s the root of everything,” Harry said. “Good and bad. Good and evil.”
Location: 4,495

Success, the good life, age, they all made even the angriest of people more conciliatory. The way they had with Harry, making him milder, kinder. Almost sociable. Happily tamed by a woman he loved in a marriage that worked. Not perfect. Well, fuck it, as perfect as anyone could bear.
Location: 5,165

That was ten hours ago now, and his brain had spent those hours frantically searching for an answer, for a way out, for alternatives to the only explanation he could think of, skittering hither and thither like a rat below deck on a sinking ship, finding nothing but closed doors and dead ends as the water rose higher and higher towards the ceiling. And that half of his heart was beating faster and faster, as if it knew what was coming. Knew it was going to have to speed up if it was going to have time to use up the two billion heartbeats the average human life was made up of. Because he had woken up now. Had woken up, and was going to die.
Location: 5,632

During the course of some of those investigations, Ståle Aune had guided Harry through the most common motives for suicide. From the infantile—revenge on the world, now-you’ll-be-sorry—through self-loathing, shame, pain, guilt, loss, all the way to the “small” motive—people who saw suicide as a comfort, a consolation. Who weren’t seeking an escape route, but just liked knowing it was there, the way a lot of people live in big cities because they offer everything from opera to strip clubs that they never think of making use of. Something to fend off the claustrophobia of being alive, of living. But then, in an unbalanced moment, prompted by drink, pills, romantic or financial problems, they take a decision, as heedless of the consequences as having another drink or punching a bartender, because the consolation thought has become the only thought.
Location: 5,685

Madsen’s experience told him that what he was engaged in, trauma-based cognitive therapy, helped. It wasn’t the acute crisis therapy that had been so popular until research showed that it didn’t work at all, but long-term treatment in which the client worked through the trauma and gradually learned to tackle and live with their physical responses. Because believing that there was a quick fix, that you could heal those wounds overnight, was naive and, at worst, dangerous.
Location: 6,159

“Free. I felt free. Killing someone was like crossing some sort of border. You think there’s a fence, some sort of wall, but when you cross it you realise that it’s just a line someone’s drawn on a map.
Location: 6,229

“I crucified him so he could take on my suffering, the way we did with Jesus. Because Jesus didn’t put himself on the cross, we hung him up there, that’s the whole point. We achieved salvation and eternal life by killing Jesus. God couldn’t do much, God didn’t sacrifice his son. If it’s true that God gave us free will, then we killed Jesus against God’s will. And the day we realise that, that we defied God’s will, that’s the day we set ourselves free, Madsen. And then everything can happen.”
Location: 6,234

It was madness. It was what it was. He had called her from an unknown number. She had answered and not been able to hang up. And now, as if she had been hypnotised and had no will of her own, she was doing as he had instructed, the man who had used and deceived her. How was that possible? She had no answer to that. Just that she must have had something in her that she didn’t know was there. A cruel, animalistic urge. Well, it was what it was. She was a bad person, as bad as him, and now she was letting him drag her down with him.
Location: 7,362

“She liked that,” Harry said. “Listening to us talk.”

“Did she?” Oleg looked off to the north.

“She used to bring the book she was reading, or her knitting, and sit down near us. She didn’t bother to interrupt or join in the conversation, she didn’t even bother to listen to what we were talking about. She said she just liked the sound. She said it was the sound of the men in her life.”

“I liked that sound too,” Oleg said, pulling the fishing rod towards him so that the tip bowed respectfully towards the surface of the water. “You and Mum. After I’d gone to bed I used to open the door just so I could listen to you. You used to talk quietly, and it sounded like you’d already said pretty much everything, understood each other. That all that needed adding was the occasional key word here or there. Even so, you used to make her laugh. It was such a safe sound, the best sound to fall asleep to.”
Location: 7,672

Thought back to the time he used to row while his grandfather sat in front of him, smiling and giving Harry little bits of advice. How he should use his upper body and straighten his arms, row with his stomach, not his biceps. That he should take it gently, never stress, find a rhythm, that a boat gliding evenly through the water moves faster even with less energy. That he should feel with his buttocks to make sure he was sitting in the middle of the bench. That it was all about balance. That he shouldn’t look at the oars, but keep his eyes on the wake, that the signs of what had already happened showed you where you were heading. But, his grandfather had said, they told you surprisingly little about what was going to happen. That was determined by the next stroke of the oars. His grandfather took out his pocket watch and said that when we get back on shore, we look back on our journey as a continuous line from the point of departure to the point of arrival. A story, with a purpose and a direction. We remember it as if it were here, and nowhere but here, that we intended the boat to meet the shoreline, he said. But the point of arrival and the intended destination were two different things. Not that one was necessarily better than the other. We get to where we get to, and it can be a consolation to believe that was where we wanted to get to, or at least were on our way towards the whole time. But our fallible memories are like a kind mother telling us how clever we are, that our strokes with the oar were clean and fitted into the story as a logical, intentional part. The idea that we may have gone off course, that we no longer know where we are or where we are going, that life is a chaotic mess of clumsy, fumbled oar strokes, is so unappealing that we prefer to rewrite the story in hindsight. That’s why people who appear to have been successful and are asked to talk about it often say it was the dream—the only one—they’d had since they were little, to succeed in whatever it was that they had been successful in. It is probably honestly meant. They have probably just forgotten about all the other dreams, the ones that weren’t nurtured, that faded and disappeared. Who knows, perhaps we would acknowledge the meaningless chaos of coincidences that make up our lives if—instead of writing autobiographies—we had written down our predictions for life, how we thought our lives would turn out. We could forget all about them, then take them out later on to see what we had really dreamed about.
Location: 7,709

Rising Out of Hatred

Book Notes

Ha, I figured out why I picked up this book! Yay, getting better! It was recommended by David Pell in his Next Draft newsletter. That news letter has a strong recommendation, by the way.

This book is the story of Derek Black, who was the White Supremacy Poster Child™ before he started doing his own research, looked at the numbers, and, unlike I would say 99.9999% of the world, was able to change his mind based on facts and evidence instead of opinion and wants.

Black's story is far better told by Saslow's telling, even more by Black's telling, than I could summarize nicely. Pell's recommendation was spot on, it is a good book to read, inspirational in a way I wasn't expected to be inspired. I don't think Saslow completely conveyed the loss Black must have felt when he turned his back on the WS/WN movements, the loss of community, family, identity. He did it, and one should be impressed by it.

The book is a good reminder that one man can destroy a society, takes the rest of us to prevent it.

What was the appropriate response to the most intolerant kinds of free speech? Exclusion or inclusion? Was it better to shame and demonize Derek? Or was it more effective to somehow reach out to him?
Location: 667

Each fall at New College, James witnessed the very real effects of centuries of white domination. He led orientation workshops on race and privilege for first-year students, and one group exercise in the orientation manual began with students lined up side by side at the bottom of a wide stairway. Take one step up the stairs if you’re white, James would tell them. Take one step if you’re male. One step if you’re straight; if your parents went to college; if you own a car; if English is your first language; if you have more than fifty books in your household; if your family has health insurance; if both of your parents are employed; if your high school taught the culture and history of your ancestors; if you’re a citizen of the United States. And year after year, James had watched the most privileged group of students—the ones who looked exactly like Derek—fly right up the stairs, just as they typically ascended to the top positions in American society. Whites were much better off than any other social group by every statistical measure: income, net worth, life expectancy, home ownership, infant mortality, graduation rates, and on it went.
Location: 859

At school, he tested several years above his grade level—a highly gifted student who nonetheless couldn’t fit in with his peers. He felt both superior to his classmates and jealous of their relationships, and late in elementary school Matthew’s feelings of exclusion and isolation were exacerbated by acute physical pain.
Location: 998

“Reach out and extend the hand, no matter who’s waiting on the other side,” his father had told him once,
Location: 1,029

Every day spent with Derek meant another spontaneous adventure. Allison was used to scheduling her time on a desktop calendar, plotting out daily goals as she advanced down the road map she had drawn for her life.
Location: 1,604

With one former boyfriend, Allison had sometimes felt as if parts of her were being subsumed into the relationship—her individual friendships, her autonomy, and bits of her confidence gradually swallowed up by the codependency of coupledom. Derek, meanwhile, encouraged her to do whatever she felt like doing most, whether that meant going dancing with friends or playing intramural soccer. He brought her food late at night while she worked on school papers and then left her alone to finish her work. Spending time with Derek never felt to Allison like an obligation. It was always the choice she wanted to make.
Location: 2,124

The iconic European warriors so often celebrated on Stormfront had never thought of themselves as white, Derek decided. Some of them had considered skin color not a hard biological fact but a condition that could change over time based on culture, diet, and climate. They had fought not for their race but for religion, culture, power, and money, just like every other empire of the Middle Ages. “The fact that white people eventually conquered the world wasn’t proof of fate but basically just a fluke of history,” Derek later wrote.
Location: 2,624

For years, Don had believed in two facts above all: that white nationalism was an inherently righteous cause; and that Derek was one of the smartest, most rational people he knew. Now those facts were in conflict. Had Don been wrong about Derek’s intelligence? Or had he somehow been wrong about white nationalism? He didn’t want to consider either possibility, so he tried to come up with theories that would make it all fit. Maybe Derek was just faking a change in ideology so he could have an easier life and a more successful career in academia, he thought. Or maybe this was Derek’s way of rebelling against his family. Don spoke for hours on the phone that week with Duke, who suggested another theory. Duke thought Derek was suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome. He had become a hostage to liberal academia and then experienced a misguided empathy for his captors and their views about the world.
Location: 2,944

The challenge for Derek during the next months was uprooting those same seeds in his mind. Even though he had
Location: 3,122

logically concluded that white nationalism was harmful and wrong, the ideology remained hardwired into every part of his subconscious. Over two decades, he had learned to interpret so much of the world through the lens of white nationalism: to distrust the U.S. government because it was working to undermine the white European majority; to be skeptical of minorities who were inherently working against his best interests; to avoid most popular music because it reflected the multicultural dumbing down of America; to ignore professional sports because they propped up the social standing of black athletes; to skip Hollywood movies made by Jewish propagandists; and to distrust a mass media controlled by liberal elites.
Location: 3,123

Trump reacted just as Don had done whenever another murderer was connected to Stormfront. Trump called the violence “unfortunate” and then immediately attempted to justify it. “The people that are following me are very passionate,” he said. “They love this country. They want this country to be great again.”
Location: 3,264

Derek’s own political identity was still largely unformed. He didn’t know if he was a Democrat or a Republican, and he didn’t want to be either one. As a white nationalist, he had always regarded Republicans and Democrats with equal suspicion, because he believed both parties were guilty of forcing multiculturalism on the American people. He was also wary of aligning himself again with any sort of collective ideology—a label that could dictate his decision making. He wanted to be loyal to his own opinions and nothing else,
Location: 3,316

To be a white nationalist had always meant rooting for chaos and delighting in upheaval.
Location: 3,336

He had chosen to write about a ninth-century religious leader named Bodo, a royal deacon who had been a rising star in the Carolingian Empire and the Christian church. Historians thought Bodo was destined to become a powerful Frankish politician, but then, in 836, he abandoned his life with little public warning. He converted to Judaism, grew out his beard, changed his name to Eleazar, and then moved to the multicultural kingdom of Al-Andalus, where he married a Jewish woman and began trying to convert other Christians. His former Frankish allies came to consider him a traitor and an enemy. It was one of the starkest individual transformations in medieval history, and the focus of Derek’s research was all that remained unknown. Historians were able to recover only a few official accounts of Bodo’s life and two of his original letters. No one had recorded Bodo’s internal deliberations, his self-doubt, or his emotional reckoning as relationships were made and then destroyed. In the official record, his transformation was clean and absolute: Bodo to Eleazar. A Christian and then a Jew. History had preserved none of the messiness.
Location: 3,590

“Even if you were somehow right—even if it was super important to keep races apart for preservation—the only way to do that is to put people on trains by busting into their houses and breaking up their families, which is a huge human rights violation.” Don raised his palms up above the table. “So?” he said. “History is filled with human rights violations. They could be forced to leave.”
Location: 3,655

“Forcing people out?” Derek stared at his father and grimaced. “That’s a horrible thing to hope for. It would be awful and inhumane.” “It’s going to be horrible either way, Derek. This country is on the verge of a reckoning.”
Location: 3,659

Dark Matter

Book Notes

I bought this when it first released, and left it on my shelf for when the time came that I would want to read it. As in, read an actual book, and not an electronic book. The time came, and I enjoyed reading this book. I'd argue that Pines, the first book of the Wayward Pines trilogy, is a better first book than this one, but this one is still an entertaining book to read.

The plot starts out with the kidnapping of the quantum physics professor Jason Dessen, who finds himself in an alternate timeline, and his journey back to his own timeline, his own family.

While one could argue the book is an object lesson about not messing with timelines if every decision ripples out in cascading, compounding changes in the multi-verse, I'm pretty sure that's not what Blake is attempting with the book. A better take would be a reflection about how one can following that slippery slope provided by circumstances to do actions they would never even consider without fate's push, or even an existential look at how one decides one has had a good (or good-enough) life.

It's a fun read, if unnecessarily and unsuccessfully angsty at time. If you're a Blake fan, worth reading. If you're not, wait for the next two books, as it is a trilogy. I don't think I'll be reading the other two.

There’s an energy to these autumn nights that touches something primal inside of me. Something from long ago. From my childhood in western Iowa. I think of high school football games and the stadium lights blazing down on the players. I smell ripening apples, and the sour reek of beer from keg parties in the cornfields. I feel the wind in my face as I ride in the bed of an old pickup truck down a country road at night, dust swirling red in the taillights and the entire span of my life yawning out ahead of me. It’s the beautiful thing about youth. There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential.
Location: 238

Experimental physics—hell, all of science—is about solving problems. However, you can’t solve them all at once. There’s always a larger, overarching question—the big target. But if you obsess on the sheer enormity of it, you lose focus. The key is to start small. Focus on solving problems you can answer. Build some dry ground to stand on. And after you’ve put in the work, and if you’re lucky, the mystery of the overarching question becomes knowable. Like stepping slowly back from a photomontage to witness the ultimate image revealing itself.
Location: 1,304

The crowd responds in turn, and as everyone drinks, I move toward her. In proximity, she’s electric, so sparkling with life that I have to restrain myself from calling out to her. This is Daniela with an energy like the first time we met fifteen years ago, before years of life—the normalcy, the elation, the depression, the compromise—transformed her into the woman who now shares my bed: amazing mother, amazing wife, but fighting always against the whispers of what might have been.
Location: 1,403

They have dinner in the city at a nicer restaurant than they can afford and spend the entire time talking like they haven’t talked in years. Not about people or remember-whens, but ideas.
Location: 1,786

“Sometimes, an extreme stress situation can trigger what’s called psychogenic amnesia, which is abnormal memory functioning in the absence of structural brain damage. I have a feeling we’re going to rule out any structural damage with the MRI today. Which means your memories from the last fourteen months are still there. They’re just buried deep in your mind. It’ll be my job to help you recover them.”
Location: 2,069

I suppose we’re both just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.
Location: 2,552

Lately, their family dinner conversations have centered around ideas, books, and articles Jason is reading, and Charlie’s studies, instead of a mundane recounting of the day’s events.
Location: 2,874

We catch a hard, beautiful glow off the booze, and our conversation stays very much in the moment. How the food is. How good it feels to be inside and warm.
Location: 3,407

“It was. I don’t miss the box, but it’s strange being away from it.” “I don’t know about you, but my old world is feeling more and more like a ghost. You know how a dream feels the farther you get from it? It loses its color and intensity and logic. Your emotional connection to it fades.” I ask, “You think you’d ever forget it entirely? Your world?” “I don’t know. I could see it getting to the point where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”
Location: 3,438

Randomness. How do you beat an opponent who is inherently wired to predict any and all moves you might make? You do something completely random. Unplanned. You make a move you haven’t considered, to which you’ve given little or no prior thought. Maybe it’s a bad move that blows up in your face and costs you the game. But perhaps it’s a play the other you never saw coming, which gives you an unanticipated strategic advantage. So how do I apply that line of thinking to my situation? How do I do something utterly random that defies anticipation?
Location: 4,226

it makes her sad. “Do you think I was happy?” she asks. “What do you mean?” “With everything I’d given up to be this woman.” “I don’t know. I was with this woman for forty-eight hours. I think, like you, like me, like everyone, she had regrets. I think sometimes she woke up in the night wondering if the path she took was the right one. Afraid it wasn’t. Wondering what a life with me might have been like.” “I wonder those things sometimes.” “I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s all just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”
Location: 4,880

Stiff

Book Notes

This book has been on my reading list for a while, I'm fairly certain I saw a copy of it at Powells. I hadn't read anything by Roach before this book, but had heard many squeals of delight from friends when I mentioned I had started (and now finished this book). I now understand why. Roach's writing is engaging, amusing, and enlightening. If you have to learn, being entertained while you learn is the best way to go.

In this book, Roach explores dead bodies, seemingly on a quest to determine what she wants done with her body after she passes. Seemingly because it's a good lead, true or not.

I enjoyed this book far more than I suspect most Americans would or do. American has this pathological obsession with youth, to the point of denying that death even exists, hiding it from everyone until, for the most part, old age, at which point most of us are like, WTF? Most, not all, and I'm grateful for those, like Caitlin Doughty who do talk about death, and dying, and the corpses we leave, because we all leave them.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and strongly recommend it. I'd likely buy you a copy if you wanted one and your library didn't have one to borrow.

Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.
Page 11

One’s own dead are more than cadavers, they are place holders for the living. They are a focus, a receptacle, for emotions that no longer have one. The dead of science are always strangers.*
Page 12

Let me tell you about my first cadaver. I was thirty-six, and it was eighty-one. It was my mother’s. I notice here that I used the possessive “my mother’s,” as if to say the cadaver that belonged to my mother, not the cadaver that was my mother. My mom was never a cadaver; no person ever is. You are a person and then you cease to be a person, and a cadaver takes your place. My mother was gone. The cadaver was her hull.
Page 12

Often when I checked out a book I expected to be questioned. Why do you want this book? What are you up to? What kind of person are you? They never asked, so I never told them. But I’ll tell you now. I’m a curious person. Like all journalists, I’m a voyeur. I write about what I find fascinating.
Page 14

It was Theresa who brought the heads in and set them up on their little stands. I ask her about this.
Page 20

“What I do is, I think of them as wax.” Theresa is practicing a time-honored coping method: objectification. For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and, I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people. For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab, or “gross lab,” as it is casually and somewhat aptly known.
Page 21

The problem with cadavers is that they look so much like people. It’s the reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. It’s the reason we say “pork” and “beef” instead of “pig” and “cow.” Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.
Page 21

Humor—at the cadaver’s expense—was tolerated, condoned even. “There was a time not all that long ago,” says Art Dalley, director of the Medical Anatomy Program at Vanderbilt University, “when students were taught to be insensitive, as a coping mechanism.”
Page 56

The gains in the average person’s understanding of biology have, I imagine, worked to dissolve the romance of death and burial—the lingering notion of the cadaver as some beatific being in an otherworldly realm of satin and chorale music, the well-groomed almost-human who simply likes to sleep a lot, underground, in his clothing.
Page 57

The bacteria in our gut break those proteins down into amino acids; they take up where we leave off. When we die, they stop feeding on what we’ve eaten and begin feeding on us. And, just as they do when we’re alive, they produce gas in the process. Intestinal gas is a waste product of bacteria metabolism. The difference is that when we’re alive, we expel that gas. The dead, lacking workable stomach muscles and sphincters and bedmates to annoy, do not. Cannot. So the gas builds up and the belly bloats. I ask Arpad why the gas wouldn’t just get forced out eventually. He explains that the small intestine has pretty much collapsed and sealed itself off. Or that there might be “something” blocking its egress. Though he allows, with some prodding, that a little bad air often does, in fact, slip out, and so, as a matter of record, it can be said that dead people fart. It needn’t be, but it can.
Page 66

There is a passage in the Buddhist Sutra on Mindfulness called the Nine Cemetery Contemplations. Apprentice monks are instructed to meditate on a series of decomposing bodies in the charnel ground, starting with a body “swollen and blue and festering,” progressing to one “being eaten by… different kinds of worms,” and moving on to a skeleton, “without flesh and blood, held together by the tendons.” The monks were told to keep meditating until they were calm and a smile appeared on their faces. I describe this to Arpad and Ron, explaining that the idea is to come to peace with the transient nature of our bodily existence, to overcome the revulsion and fear. Or something.
Page 69

“The skin isn’t able to heal, so you have to be really careful about nicks. One shave per razor, and then you throw it away.” I wonder whether the man, in his dying days, ever stood before a mirror, razor in hand, wondering if it might be his last shave, unaware of the actual last shave that fate had arranged for him.
Page 75

As a feature of the common man’s funeral, the open casket is a relatively recent development: around 150 years. According to Mack, it serves several purposes, aside from providing what undertakers call “the memory picture.” It reassures the family that, one, their loved one is unequivocally dead and not about to be buried alive, and, two, that the body in the casket is indeed their loved one, and not the stiff from the container beside his.
Page 76

Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.
Page 83

A dummy can tell you how much force a crash is unleashing on various dummy body parts, but without knowing how much of a blow a real body part can take, the information is useless. You first need to know, for instance, that the maximum amount a rib cage can compress without damaging the soft, wet things inside it is 2 ¾ inches. Then, should a dummy slam into a steering wheel of a newly designed car and register a chest deflection of four inches, you know the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) isn’t going to be very happy with that car.
Page 88

The distance between the very old, sick, frail person and the dead one is short, with a poorly marked border. The more time you spend with the invalid elderly (I have seen both my parents in this state), the more you come to see extreme old age as a gradual easing into death. The old and the dying sleep more and more, until one day they “sleep” all the time. They often become more and more immobile until one day they can do no more than lie or sit however the last person positioned them.
Page 97

I find the dead easier to be around than the dying. They are not in pain, not afraid of death. There are no awkward silences and conversations that dance around the obvious. They aren’t scary. The half hour I spent with my mother as a dead person was easier by far than the many hours I spent with her as a live person dying and in pain.
Page 98

The British investigators know what butchers have long known: If you want people to feel comfortable about dead bodies, cut them into pieces. A cow carcass is upsetting; a brisket is dinner. A human leg has no face, no eyes, no hands that once held babies or stroked a lover’s cheek. It’s difficult to associate it with the living person from which it came. The anonymity of body parts facilitates the necessary dissociations of cadaveric research: This is not a person. This is just tissue. It has no feelings, and no one has feelings for it.
Page 104

For Shanahan, the hardest thing about Flight 800 was that most of the bodies were relatively whole. “Intactness bothers me much more than the lack of it,” he says. The sorts of things most of us can’t imagine seeing or coping with—severed hands, legs, scraps of flesh—Shanahan is more comfortable with. “That way, it’s just tissue. You can put yourself in that frame of mind and get on with your job.” It’s gory, but not sad. Gore you get used to. Shattered lives you don’t.
Page 116

A falling human stops short when it hits the surface of the water, but its organs keep traveling for a fraction of a second longer, until they hit the wall of the body cavity, which by that point has started to rebound. The aorta often ruptures because part of it is fixed to the body cavity—and thus stops at the same time—while the other part, the part closest to the heart, hangs free and stops slightly later; the two parts wind up traveling in opposite directions and the resultant shear forces cause the vessel to snap.
Page 119

What Snyder found is that a person’s speed at impact doesn’t dependably predict the severity of his or her injuries.
Page 120

Shanahan cites the example of a Delta crash in Dallas. “It should have been very survivable. There were very few traumatic injuries. But a lot of people were killed by the fire. They found them stacked up at the emergency exits. Couldn’t get them open.” Fire is the number one killer in airplane mishaps. It doesn’t take much of an impact to explode a fuel tank and set a plane on fire. Passengers die from inhaling searing-hot air and from toxic fumes released by burning upholstery or insulation. They die because their legs are broken from slamming into the seat in front of them and they can’t crawl to the exits. They die because passengers don’t exit flaming planes in an orderly manner; they stampede and elbow and trample.*
Page 125

He says it’s mostly common sense. Sit near an emergency exit. Get down low, below the heat and smoke. Hold your breath as long as you can, so you don’t cook your lungs and inhale poisonous fumes. Shanahan prefers window seats because people seated on the aisle are more likely to get beaned with the suitcases that can come crashing through the overhead bin doors in even a fairly mild impact.
Page 127

Given his choice of anywhere on the plane, where does he prefer to sit? “First class.”
Page 127

Kocher urged that the goal of warfare be to render the enemy not dead, but simply unable to fight.
Page 132

If someone cares to think it through, it isn’t hard to come to the conclusion that someone in a lab coat will, at the very least, be cutting your eyeball out of your head. But most people don’t care to think it through. They focus on the end, rather than the means: Someone’s vision may one day be saved.
Page 147

On a rational level, most people are comfortable with the concept of brain death and organ donation. But on an emotional level, they may have a harder time accepting it, particularly when they are being asked to accept it by a transplant counselor who would like them to okay the removal of a family member’s beating heart. Fifty-four percent of families asked refuse consent. “They can’t deal with the fear, however irrational, that the true end of their loved one will come when the heart is removed,” says Oz. That they, in effect, will have killed him.
Page 188

The trouble with human subjects is that no one wants to go first. No one wants to be a practice head.
Page 214

White doesn’t think the United States will be the likely site of the first human head transplant, owing to the amount of bureaucracy and institutional resistance faced by inventors of radical new procedures. “You’re dealing with an operation that is totally revolutionary. People can’t make up their minds whether it’s a total body transplant or a head transplant, a brain or even a soul transplant.
Page 214

Under the bland and benign-sounding heading “Medical Treatment for Loved Ones,” Chong describes a rather gruesome historical phenomenon wherein children, most often daughters-in-law, were obliged to demonstrate filial piety to ailing parents, most often mothers-in-law, by hacking off a piece of themselves and preparing it as a restorative elixir.
Page 233

Anthropologists will tell you that the reason people never dined regularly on other people is economics. While there existed, I am told, cultures in Central America that actually ranched humans—kept enemy soldiers captive for a while to fatten them up—it was not practical to do so, because you had to give up more food to feed them than you’d gain in the end by eating them. Carnivores and omnivores, in other words, make lousy livestock.
Page 244

of Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America.
Page 258

“Death is a possibility for new life. The body becomes something else. I would like that that something else be as positive as possible.”
Page 263

The Volunteer

Book Notes

Recommended by Dave Pell of Next Draft, I picked up this book from the library quickly, to my surprise as it is a new release. Less than half way through, I bought a hardback copy for myself, and a digital copy that I promptly gave away. This book is worth reading, I will buy you a copy, too.

This is the story of Witold Pilecki who, despite the name of the book, was "volunteered" (read: politically blackmailed) to go to Auschwitz to collect evidence of the German actions in the camp. The prison had not yet become the death camps it evolved into, but it was still a place of horror when Pilecki went in. That he survived as long as he did, and also managed to escape to tell his story, is an incredible story worth hearing, listening to, reading.

Sad is the fact that Auschwitz is glossed over in many history books, if only because it comes at the end of a school year, mixed in with the short telling of World War 2. Sad is the fact that people deny it happened, or worse, claim that the Jewish people are complicit in their own destruction (yes, read the Amazon reviews, and see how polarizing the book is, and how many people claim Auschwitz didn't happen, wasn't "that bad," or was "their fault," it is horrifying).

Actually, "sad" doesn't begin to convey the depth of pain for these things. We fall into horrors one small step at a time. We become used to one action, and the next doesn't seem that bad. We adapt, oh so tragically, we adapt. “Witnessing the killing of healthy people by gas makes a strong impact only when you first see it,” he observed.

And yet, one can see in the telling of Pilecki's story that there will be those seemingly normal people who say, "No." No, this is not acceptable. No, this is not who we are. No, this is not who I choose to be. No, I will fight this, quietly or loudly, discretely or overtly, I will resist this.

We also see that doing the right thing does not result in a happy ending. For this we cry, for all of these losses.

I wonder if I can get my older brother and my dad to read this book. They need to read this book, perhaps to bring them slightly closer to understanding how their beliefs carry them to these horrors.

I wonder.

I will buy you a copy. Read this book.

Poland had been one of the most pluralistic and tolerant societies in Europe for much of its thousand-year history. However, the country that had reemerged in 1918 after 123 years of partition had struggled to forge an identity. Nationalists and church leaders called for an increasingly narrow definition of Polishness based on ethnicity and Catholicism.
Location: 184

Witold disliked politics and the way politicians exploited differences. His family stood for the old order, when Poland had been independent and a beacon of culture.
Location: 193

Gawryłkiewicz told Witold to stick to marching on the roads, instead of the woods. They’d be open targets, Witold realized, but he followed orders. They’d hardly set off when a German fighter buzzed over them, only to return a few minutes later with half a dozen bombers that proceeded to attack the column.
Location: 261

His instincts told him to lie perfectly still but it was an agony to listen to the shrieks and groans of his men being massacred.
Location: 289

The truth was unavoidable: Witold knew that Poland had lost its independence once again, and that the question facing him—every Pole—was whether to surrender or to fight on knowing that to do so was futile. Witold could never accept the first option.
Location: 325

There was no sense in continuing toward the border, which was sure to attract German attention sooner or later. So they made for the woods, where they could stage hit-and-run attacks and maybe find enough like-minded souls to plan a bigger operation. Over the following days they attacked several German convoys and even a small airstrip, blowing up a plane, but Witold knew such attacks didn’t achieve much.
Location: 334

The city had held out for another fortnight after he’d left, much to the fury of Hitler, who had instructed his generals to darken the skies over Warsaw with falling bombs and drown the people in blood.
Location: 345

Witold doesn’t say much about his time in Ostrów Mazowiecka. He likely felt dismayed by exhibitions of anti-Semitism among the locals, which clearly played into the Germans’ hands.
Location: 377

The best chance of driving out the Germans lay in planning an uprising to coincide with an Allied offensive. Witold knew there would be others who felt like he did and that he needed to start building a network.
Location: 392

Killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen preempted resistance by rounding up and shooting some 20,000 members of the Polish educated and professional classes—lawyers, teachers, doctors, journalists, or simply anyone who looked intellectual—and buried their bodies in mass graves.
Location: 413

Witold almost certainly noticed Frank’s official decrees plastered on lampposts around the city and understood that the Germans meant to destroy Poland by tearing apart its social fabric and pitting ethnic groups against one another.
Location: 430

[H]e also saw encouraging signs of resistance: stickers declaring, “We don’t give a damn” (a direct translation of the Polish idiom is: “We have you deep in our ass”) and a giant poster of Hitler in the city center that had sprouted curly whiskers and long ears.
Location: 432

“Why do you trust me?” asked one man.

“Dear boy, you have to trust people,” Witold answered.
Location: 483

In the meantime, the intelligence chief Jerzy was keen to crack down on Poles who had started to collaborate with the occupiers, mostly drawn from the country’s million-strong ethnic German community. The Nazis relied on such informers to enforce the racial order. Despite the claims of Nazi scientists that they could distinguish anatomically between races, the truth was most Germans struggled to tell Poland’s ethnic groups apart and needed informants to reveal the complex fabric of Polish society. Informants took full advantage of their power to exact petty revenge. “In every community there are people who had no scruples about ridding themselves of trouble or denouncing an unwanted husband, wife or mistress,” observed one underground member.
Location: 519

He had already written to Polish leadership in France of his concerns that the Nazis were deliberately stoking racial hatred to divert Poles from anti-German activity.
Location: 583

However, the British were cautious about publicizing stories about Nazi wrongdoings in case they were accused of propaganda. The government’s use of fabricated atrocity stories during World War I—such as the claim that the Germans used corpses to manufacture soap—had created widespread public distrust.
Location: 1,535

... leaving the running of the hospital to SS-Unterscharführer Josef Klehr, a former cabinetmaker from Austria who liked to think of himself as a doctor. He arrived at the hospital on his motorcycle and expected one nurse to buff the paintwork and another to remove his boots and wash his feet at his desk. A third administered a manicure as Klehr puffed on his pipe “like a pasha,” as one prisoner recalled.
Location: 1,673

Dering searched for the BBC, which, unlike the tightly controlled German broadcasts, was largely accurate (the British government had calculated that reporting the news, even when it was bad for the Allies, made it more credible and thus more listened to). Despite Nazi efforts to jam the signal, the BBC’s German-language service was increasingly popular within the Reich,
Location: 1,711

Commandant Höss had instigated a grim new form of collective punishment for escapes: ten prisoners were chosen at random from the escapee’s block to starve to death in retribution. (The first time this happened, Marian Batko, a forty-year-old physics teacher from Krakow, had volunteered to take the place of a teenager who’d been selected, to the amazement of those who witnessed this self-sacrifice.)
Location: 1,859

The SS had discovered that a shot of phenol administered by syringe straight to the heart acted quickest, and routinely disposed of a dozen patients per day. The SS physicians justified these murders as acts of mercy. “A doctor’s duty is to heal patients, but only those who can be cured. Others we should prevent from suffering,” declared Schwela.5
Location: 1,910

Hitler had not yet conceptualized the Final Solution. But he believed Communism to be a Jewish invention intended to subjugate the Aryan race and that the Jews encountered in the Soviet Union were therefore enemy combatants.
Location: 1,928

As the Dutch theologian Willem Visser ’t Hooft wrote after the war, “People could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror, and . . . did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it.” It was possible, Hooft concluded, to live in the “twilight between knowing and not knowing.”
Location: 2,248

The T4 program had already developed special gassing trucks that pumped carbon monoxide into their cargo bays for killing patients who lived too far away from a gas chamber. In November 1941 Himmler approved the deployment of the trucks to occupied Russia to spare his men the trauma of shooting civilians.
Location: 2,395

The whole camp became gripped by the frenzy. “Once someone has reached for things that are still warm and felt joy in doing so, the bliss of ownership begins to affect him like hashish,” wrote one prisoner.
Location: 3,227

The truth was, they needed to believe that they had some control over their fate.
Location: 3,240

Witold winced. He’d come from the tannery, where work now included processing the hair shorn from the corpses of Jewish women in Birkenau for use as mattress stuffing and lining stiffeners for uniforms.
Location: 3,550

But it was also true that many nurses acceded to SS orders while secretly working to alleviate the suffering they inflicted with smuggled medicine and food. No one could say with certainty which deed rose to the level of collaboration or what constituted a moral act in an environment where survival depended on complicity with murder.
Location: 3,594

Witold lay awake that night thinking of the boy and was overwhelmed with shame. For all his talk of uprisings, he’d failed to act on behalf of a single child. Worse, he knew that this pain, too, would fade, and the boy become faceless and forgotten. He felt the same deadness growing within him as he thought of the murder of the Jews. He was surrounded by evidence of the slaughter in the tannery, but he struggled to identify with the Jewish victims. “Witnessing the killing of healthy people by gas makes a strong impact only when you first see it,” he observed.
Location: 3,640

His sense of emotional distance was underscored by the fact that the treatment of prisoners in the main camp had improved somewhat.
Location: 3,645

“We were enchanted by everything,” Witold recalled. “We were in love with the world . . . just not with its people.”
Location: 4,045

After two and a half years in the camp, he was unsure of the mind-set of the people he would find. Witold was confident that most of his countrymen still opposed the Nazis, but how many had been forced through hunger or fear or ambition to make an accommodation with the occupier?
Location: 4,057

Yet he struggled to find the words to explain himself. He wanted people to feel the righteous anger that he had felt upon arriving in the camp. But when he talked about the camp’s horrors to friends that autumn, they closed down or changed the subject or, worse, tried to commiserate. He didn’t want pity but rather understanding.
Location: 4,310

Józef, the father, was opposed to the Communists, but he had little work. Many of his friends were taking jobs with the new regime. He was tired of fighting.
Location: 4,768

Three hundred thousand Polish Jews of the once three-million-strong community had survived the war. Those who remained or had returned home were subjected to abuse and violence by a contingent of Poles who blamed Jews for the Communist takeover of the country.
Location: 4,830

But there is, implicit in the tortured prose that emerges, a recognition that the horrors of the camp might never be comprehensible, even to a prisoner like himself who had suffered within its walls. Perhaps this gave him a measure of relief. For what emerges from these passages is a sense that Witold’s orientation had shifted. No longer did he need his readers to understand an evil that defied comprehension. Instead he asked them to look within themselves for that which they could share with those who suffer.
Location: 4,847

Yet Witold’s story is essential for our understanding of how Auschwitz came into being and obliges us to confront how we respond to evil in our own time. Witold entered Auschwitz before the Germans understood what the camp would become. This meant that Witold had to come to terms with the Holocaust even as the camp was transformed into a death factory before his eyes. At times he struggled to make sense of events, resorting to placing extraordinary atrocities in the context of the familiar. But Witold, unlike most prisoners or the long chain of people who handled his reports between Warsaw and London, refused to look away from what he could not understand. He engaged, and in doing so felt compelled to risk his life and act.
Location: 4,951

Above all, he asks us to trust one another. Witold’s defining quality was his ability to place his faith in other people. In the camp, where the SS sought to break the prisoners down and strip them of their values, the idea of trust had revolutionary potential. So long as the prisoners could believe in the greater good, they were not defeated.
Location: 4,964

The Punch Escrow

Book Notes

Okay, this review is going to be one giant spoiler. If you have not read the book, and plan on reading the book, don't read on.

Stop now.

Stooooooop.

Stop.

Okay then, years ago, likely a couple decades at this point, I read a science-fiction short story about teleportation. An alien race arrived at Earth with this nifty teleportation technology, and is willing to give us this technology, interface with us, grant us the use of this amazing technology, but they will still control it and maintain it. I vaguely recall the aliens looked like dinosaurs or reptiles, and the teleportation unit had some human that operated it. Both of these recollections may be wrong, but they might be accurate, unsure.

Anyway, the teleportation worked by duplicating the object being teleported. The object (yes, including a human) would exist in the origination and the destination points at the same time. When the copy was deemed complete, the original would be destroyed. This was one of the rules the aliens laid down: that only one copy can exist, the other must be destroyed. Breaking this rule meant the technology would be revoked, and humans would lose it. This loss would include losing the ease of visiting stars, losing instant (near instant, go with it) transportation, losing access to untold riches and cultures and other technology.

Humans were not willing to lose this technology.

From an individual being teleported's perspective, you go to sleep and wake up at the destination. WOW how amazing!

From an outside perspective, the original splits. The one at the destination has this "OMG I've been teleported!" perspective, life continues along happily. The one at the origination has this "OMG I am about to die!" perspective, and is killed. Normally the origination doesn't actually have this perspective because everything goes okay and after being knocked out, doesn't wake up and know she's about to die. She dies in her sleep, with the teleportation happening while she's out.

In the short story, there's a glitch, and the transportee wakes up. She's confused. She's in the original place, the operators aren't sure the process worked, and there are tortuous hours while they figure out if she was teleported, are there two of her?

Turns out, there ARE two of her, and the local copy needs to die. She's led to the airlock, all the while begging to live, thrown into it, and is spaced. The human operator who does this killing knows the consequences of not doing it, and actively kills the woman of the story.

Phew. That's the short story I read years ago.

So, when I started reading this book, I"m all of 20 pages into it when we learn about the teleportation in the book. And I think, "Fuck, this is going to be a duplication of that story, isn't it?"

Yep.

Which ruined the whole book for me. Because this was a longer version of that short story.

Except it wasn't. It wasn't the antagonizing build up of the "I am going to die, but I didn't do anything why am I going to die? Let me live!" torture of the short story. It is the hang-wringing, "oh, what do we do? we can both live you know," teen-angsty version of the psychological torture of the short story.

Which is to say, if you haven't read either this review nor that short story, this is a fun beach read. If you have read either, skip it.

Sorry to ruin the book for you if you were going to read it and didn't stop when I told you to stop.

Because of the Entscheidungsproblem, computers couldn’t make an original decision. Every choice they came to could only be based on data and algorithms that had been preprogrammed into them. That’s not to say computers couldn’t get new ideas, but every new idea they got could only come from remixing old ideas, or external input from other computers, or through human input.
Page 21

So yeah, things weren’t great between me and my wife, but we were doing our best. Well, technically, she did her best, and I trailed along behind, living off the scraps of her drive and success like a remora.
Page 39

Sylvia had always given everything 110 percent, whether it was our relationship, her job, or even planning vacations. She was the one who did the research, built itineraries, then told me when and where to show up. She was also the breadwinner, which I guess made me the bread loser. Some spouses might have been irked by that, but not me. I was content to take it easy.
Page 39

Shit always goes wrong when Sylvia and I go on vacation. We’ve always referred to these mishaps as adventures, because we don’t want to call them vacation fuckups. Besides, who wants to have a textbook holiday anyway? Half the fun is partaking in some ridiculous misadventure that you can later tell your friends over drinks.
Page 48

"We will save your souls; We will fulfill your pact with the Creator, your obligation to live one life and die one death."
Page 55

Aren't religions great?

Narrator: "No."

“So, what happens now?”

Corina was obviously prepared for the question. “Joel, this is new territory for me, and for all of us here at International Transport."
Page 88

Okay, so, this is entirely BS. The company HAD to have considered this possibility. Is impossible NOT to have thought of it.

“Why are you doing this for me?”

“It is my belief that, given the circumstances, anyone might have done what you did."
Page 105

Wow, leading with compassion? Now we KNOW this is a work of fiction.

But really, leaders and followers recognizing that perfect people do not exist, what a world that would be, eh?

"Corporations don’t make decisions; people do.”
Page 105

Hrmm.

*cough* Abdication of responsibility.

*cough* Diffusion of responsibility.

*cough* Mistakes were made.

It’s the centerpiece of our new world order. Unelected, undemocratic—you in the West no longer have the power to vote with your money, despite what they tell you. But I suspect you already know this, Yoel: that they control your lives through commerce, and that it is fine. Maybe even you believe it is better this way.
Page 110

Well... the best fiction has truth in it, eh?

'You could even jailbreak your printer, buy a Big Mac, and then replicate it for your friends—but it wouldn’t be the same—the copy wouldn’t be “signed” by McDonald’s. We humans place a lot of stock in originality—our culture has always focused on “the real thing” having true tangible value, and with molecular signatures, it has become nearly impossible to make illegitimate replications of anything patented.'
Page 119

Laughing at this one. No, our culture does not focus on "the real thing." Look at diamonds, we're JUST FINE having cheaper man-made ones than nature made ones. We just want EVERY ELSE to think we have the real thing.

I’m guessing if you asked anyone from IT about the moral implications, they would likely extol humanity’s well-documented historical grapples with new transportation technologies. When railroads were first introduced, some people thought the speed would be so intense, it would cause their organs to shoot out of their rectums. But folks still got on board.
Page 124

Today you are rewarded for asking your questions, they call you a salter, and they pay you chits. But he, in his time, he was punished, and they took his name away, and exiled him.” A brief snigger. “It’s funny how the devout pretend like they want people to ask questions, but really they only want you to ask the questions that they have answers to.
Page 162

“Bullshit this, bullshit that. You keep on using that word like it means something other than what comes out of a cow. It’s not bullshit, Yoel. It’s life.”
Page 168

“Come on!” I called up to him, really laying on the disbelief. “What could you possibly do that can’t be undone by someone else?”
Page 315

Unthinkable

Book Notes

A short bit ago, maybe last summer, I bought Bob a book that he was considering for PALAC. He was going to read the book first, as the leader for any book group should do, and was a bit frustrated that it wasn't available at the library for a while. So, I bought the book for him. He didn't end up using the book for the book group, as it was considered too technical. The group, however, ended up using this book for their science book discussion that quarter.

So, I picked it up and read it, too.

Unthinkable tells the reader about eight different head / brain injuries, then discusses what we have learned as a result of those injuries. As a bonus for many of the brain injuries and lessons learned, Thomson includes parts of "how you, too, can experience this weird brain phenomenon!" which I found entertaining. The book isn't a difficult read, and covers a few stories that are common in other books on thinking and brain injuries (hello, Phineas Gage, the most talked about brain injury ever in American culture).

Most amusing to me was the story of The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, as they were also mentioned in Wanders as a neuropsychiatric disorder possibly bacteria and viral in origin. Turns out, no, more likely it was a conditioned response, which makes the brain both our friend and our "enemy." Also, people are jerks.

It was a fun read, not technical, but a good introduction to brains on the outside of "normal," and the inside of "fascinating." Recommended.

For the majority of us, our most vivid memories are those that have some kind of emotional content.

...

They essentially tell the rest of the brain, “these events are important, remember them.” This in turn makes the memory of that event more easily recalled at a later date.
Location: 460

THROUGHOUT SCHOOL, SHARON CONTINUED to hide her problem from her friends and family. The seeds of condemnation planted by her mother at such a young age had clearly taken hold. I feel a wave of sympathy. Sharon is so likable—so friendly, funny and intelligent. I’m amazed she kept this to herself for so long. Sharon was almost thirty before her secret came out in the open.
Location: 880

“I’ve always been silly and funny because it misdirected people away from the things I was hiding. Everyone always said, ‘You’re always in such a good mood.’ They didn’t know that I would go home at night and cry.
Location: 994

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COLOR and emotion is well established in the animal kingdom. Female animals often use the color red to signal hormonal changes in their body associated with fertility, for example. Certain male primates show red following a surge of testosterone in their bloodstream, due to aggression or as a show of dominance. Testosterone suppresses the immune system, so the flush of red tells any females that the male must be in good health to cope with such deficits.
Location: 1,189

... asked several men to have a conversation with a woman who was wearing either a red or green shirt. Men who spoke to the woman while she was wearing a red shirt asked her more intimate questions than those who spoke to her while she was wearing green. In another experiment, men sat closer to a woman and classed her as more attractive when she was wearing a red shirt than when she was wearing an identical shirt in other colors.
Location: 1,195

Evolutionary anthropologists at Durham University and the University of Plymouth wondered whether wearing a red shirt might exploit our innate response to the color red and so influence the outcomes of sporting contests. They studied fifty-five years’ worth of English football league results, and found that teams whose home colors were red won 2 percent more often than teams who wore blue or white, and 3 percent more often than those who wore yellow or orange.
Location: 1,202

In fact, across a range of sports, wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning.
Location: 1,206

Winners wear read.

Why Mischief's colors are red and whatever. Thanks, Doyle!

Dopamine is used all over the brain and is important for motivation and producing a drive toward things that make you happy. If you have too much dopamine, though, it can lead to disinhibited behavior.
Location: 1,723

As you might expect, when the roles were suited to their brains the teams performed best. But here’s the rub: this occurred only when the task was completed in silence.

...

When the researchers watched back the trials, they discovered that each person quickly took over the other’s role, helping them to achieve their assignment. In other words, complete strangers had spontaneously discovered their strengths and weaknesses and modified their behavior to get a job done.
Location: 1,789

For instance, if you come across a problem that you can’t solve, try thinking about it using the kind of strategy that doesn’t come easily to you. “It takes more effort to think in a different mode,” says Kosslyn, “but anyone can drop into any mode if you really try.”
Location: 1,796

It’s a dangerous misperception among reporters, the public and policymakers that mental illness is at the root of violence.
Location: 2,236

“Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness,” says McGinty.
Location: 2,239

In 2006, Laureys and his colleague Adrian Owen developed a test to check whether someone in an apparent vegetative state could in fact follow orders, by inviting them to think about moving around their house or playing tennis. These two thoughts produce very different patterns of activity in the brain, which the team could identify using brain scans. Their first patient—a twenty-three-year-old woman who had fulfilled all the criteria for vegetative state after a road traffic accident—was able to produce the two patterns of brain activity on request. Later they discovered she was very much aware of her surroundings, despite not being able to move, because she was able to answer their questions by attributing the two different thoughts (thinking about moving around her house or playing tennis) to the words “yes” and “no.”
Location: 2,822

It was the first sign that tactile stimulation isn’t always necessary for us to perceive the sensation of touch—in some conditions vision alone is sufficient.
Location: 3,074

So how do we empathize without burning out? A series of studies, many by Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig, Germany, suggests we should transform empathy into compassion.9 We often use these words interchangeably, but they mean different things. “Compassion” can be described as having caring thoughts for another person—for instance, when a mother reaches out to a screaming child. “Empathy” is putting yourself in another person’s shoes and vicariously experiencing their emotions.
Location: 3,280

Our inability to understand our own minds is the price we pay for the ability to question them in the first place. Back in that first lesson with Clive, I was told by my professor that “if the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
Location: 3,526

Wanderers

Book Notes

Oh, I enjoyed this book so much. Again, I need to keep notes on why I pick up books, this one may have been on some Book Riot recommendation list, I don't know. It was, however, a zombie book (sorta, but not quite), and we know how much I enjoy a good zombie book.

And no, this one wasn't quite a zombie book in the "brains... braaaaaaaaaaaains" sort of zombie book, but it was sort, in that the Wanderers are a group of people who leave their house with no apparent reason, and start walking. From the East Coast to the West Coast, gathering up more individuals as they walk, their loved ones fluttering around them like insects, trying to help even as the zombies with their single focus on no-one knows what keep walking.

This book gets a lot of things right: AI progress, outbreaks and epidemics, society's breakdown, power manipulation, and human deception. It introduces a number of technologies in a non Hollywood-OMG-we-are-all-going-to-die sort of way, but rather in a here's-how-it-is-let's-deal-with-it sort of way, which I can appreciate.

The only downside to the book is that a number of cultural fuckeries (black men in America and racial discrimination, women in science and tech and gender discrimination, dominance and cultural manipulation) are described in passing, as a gnat buzzing around, rather than the Good Ole Boy network f'ing shutting down the black man, regardless of his doctorate, degree, experience, and ability to save them. I can't say that one could actually incorporate the topics in any more meaningful way, though, and I appreciate their being mentioned at least.

For the most part, the book is engaging and fast-paced. Literally one short section of a chapter made me think, "UGH," the rest was "wheeeee!" Strongly recommended!

“Way it works is this: You go in, and you can talk to it, ask it questions. It won’t answer in words, but rather, with green pulses or red pulses to indicate yes or no, respectively. It can also answer with images and data, but it won’t communicate with you the same way you communicate with it.” “That does not seem like an exact science.” “Benji, even an exact science is not an exact science—surely you know that above others.”
Location: 816

Seriously, who designs an interface where you can ask only yes / no questions? Yes, there are nuances to the language, but you can work through those with a limited vocabulary. Honestly, this is one of the very few WTF parts of this book, where I was pulled out and thought, "That doesn't make sense."

That, she said with almost zero confidence. She made that prediction only out of hope, and hope she knew had like, zero basis in reality.
Location: 1,117

“That’s not—no, that’s not what happened to him. We don’t know what happened to him.” “That instills us with little confidence,” French snapped. Benji offered both hands in a placating gesture. “That is how science and medicine are practiced best, though—we are best when we admit our ignorance up front, and then attempt to fill the darkness of not-knowing with the light of information and knowledge.”
Location: 1,266

He relied on his faith in the numbers. Numbers did not lie. Oh, you could lie using numbers (to which Benji could personally attest), but the numbers themselves were inert, unbiased, and pure.
Location: 1,867

The future wasn’t Newsweek. It was fucking YouTube. And that sucked. Because YouTube—the whole damn internet—was the antithesis of Garlin Gardens. It wasn’t fun and whimsical. Dreams were not made on the internet; they were killed there. By mean, nasty little shits who were all looking to one-up each other. Like crayfish in a bucket, all trying to climb over one another to get to the top.
Location: 2,109

Politics, despite what some believed, was not morality, nor reflective of it.
Location: 2,446

“It looks like the end of the world out there. I don’t think you can dodge the end of the world.”
Location: 2,537

“Hola, chica,” Shana said, going for a fist-bump and blowing it up after, then moving in for the hug.
Location: 2,591

Love this. Totally how I fistbump, too.

“I try not to worry about anything until I need to. Because honestly, what’s the point.”

“Screw that. I worry about everything constantly.”

“That sounds awful.”

“It sounds smart, is what it is.”

“If you say so.”
Location: 2,603

Worry about everything, maybe not.

Consider bad outcomes, absolutely.

“Before anyone asks,” Vargas said, “I don’t have any new information for you about your friends and family members.” Anger ran through Shana. People were supposed to have answers. Experts were supposed to know shit. And they didn’t know anything.
Location: 2,804

Shana knew this angst over the fact life is super unfair, wah, was hyper-fucking-cliché of her, but it was what it was, and she felt what she felt. Things, she thought, were supposed to be better than they were.
Location: 2,809

The moment they made one slip-up, that would give Homeland Security an opening to take over the whole show. They were already itching for it. What if they considered these people a threat? Benji could not imagine he lived in a country that would up and execute these people. Still… History had too many cruel examples of this very thing happening. Worse was: Would people even flinch? Would Americans quietly look away? Or would they rise up in defense of the flock?
Location: 2,869

Well, giving ICE shit happening now, we know which way this one would go.

This, he decided, was a problem for Future Benji.
Location: 2,870

Love this.

Death was a tragedy. But death was also a data point.
Location: 3,174

That marked her as either someone who had a lot of untapped courage—there was that word again, echoing the conversation with Arav—or someone who cared little for herself or her own life. (He wondered idly, How often do those two things intertwine?)
Location: 3,341

All Quiet on the Western Front

Book Notes

I bought this book a couple years ago at Powells, from the bargin bin. The version was a new translation, from around 1994, and had wordings and phrases that really worked for this "modern reader." As with One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was a book I needed to read. Much past that, I am unsure why I picked it up, or why I read it at this point.

As with One Hundred Years, one should not read the introductions. This book's introduction, "oh look at me, I am so learned about this book and this author, let me discuss the most essential plot point before you have even started the book," (YEARGH!) also gave away too much.

While I know this book is often assigned in high school, I'm completely certain that I understood more having read the book as an adult, than I could have possibly understood as a teenager. The main character is nineteen, twenty, so reading it without life experiences could possibly allow an emotional connection to Paul, the narrator, but not knowing the horrors of war (as most American high schoolers do not), nor having the larger world perspective, nor understanding of the cycles of history, leads me to believe that the book will read as just a story rather than a fictionalized telling of Remarque's WW1 experiences.

There's a part of the book where the main character's company is deployed to the front, and need to walk to the actual front. They are walking single file through a forest when the line is ambushed, and the soldiers scatter. The telling of the scene is so rich that one is taken to the French forest, one can feel the thumping of the artillery on the front, smell the decay of the forest floor, feel the night air and the darkness of a world before plentiful light and never night. The described sounds of the company and the gut reactions to the ping ping of the shots downing the guy in front of the narrator send chills and terror in a visceral way that I believe most people don't experience these days: how can they when they've grown up on first person shooter and infinite light and connectedness?

The book is incredibly powerful. I'd argue that Fives and Twenty Fives is a similar retelling of a different war with a different outcome, with the same shit situation: that the boots on the ground are experiencing the worst, and that none of the rest of us fully understand, or could understand. Those experiences break most, and destroy even those who bend.

Strongly recommend reading this book as an adult. I will buy you a copy, a nice copy even.

On the right-hand edge of the field they have built a huge latrine block, a good solid building with a roof. But that is only for new recruits, who haven't yet learned to get the best they can out of everything. We want something a bit better. And scattered all around are small individual thunderboxes with precisely the same function. They are square, clean, made of solid wood, closed in, and with a really comfortable seat. There are handles on the sides so that they can be carried about.
Page: 24

I can still remember how embarrassed we were at the beginning, when we were recruits in the barracks and had to use the communal latrines. There are no doors, so that twenty men had to sit side by side as if they were on a train. That way they could all be seen at a glance - soliders, of course, have to be under supervision at all times.
Page: 25

Out here in the open air the whole business is a real pleasure. I can't undertand why it was that we always used to skirt round these things so nervously - after all, it is just as natural as eating or drinking. And perhaps it wouldn't need to be mentioned at all if it didn't play such a signifcant part in our lives, and if it hadn't been new to us - the other man had long since got used to it.
Page: 25

For the others, for the older men, the war is an interruption, and they can think beyond the end of it. But we were caught up by the war, and we can't see how things will turn out.
Page: 37

We had an hour of saluting practice this afternoon because Tjaden gave a major a sloppy salute. Kat can't get over this. "Watch out, lads," he says, "we'll lose the war because we are too good at saluting."
Page: 55

For me, the front is as sinister as a whirlpool. Even when you are a long way away from its centre, out in the calm waters, you can still feel its suction pulling you towards it, slowly, inexorably, meeting little resistance.
Page: 68

With the first rumble of shellfire, one part of our being hurls itself back a thousand years. An animal instinct awakens in us, and it directs and protects us. It is not conscious, it is far quicker, far more accurate and far more reliable than conscious thought. You can't explain it.
Page: 69

French rockets shoot up, the ones with silk parachutes that open in the air and let them drift down really slowly. They light up everything as clear as day, and their brightness even reaches across to us, so that we can see our shadows stark against the ground. The lights hang in the sky for minutes at a time before they burn out. New ones shoot up at once, everywhere, and there are still the green, red and blue stars.
Page: 71-72

Searchlights begin to sweep the black sky. They skim across it like huge blackboard pointers, tapering down at the bottom. One of them pauses, shaking a little. At once another is beside it, they cross and there is a black, winged insect trapped and trying to escape: an airman. He wavers, is dazzled, and falls.
Page: 72

He notices his helmet and puts it on his head. Slowly he comes to himself. Then suddenly he blushes scarlet and his face has a look of embarrassment. Cautiously he puts his hand to his rear end and gives me an agonized look. I understand at once: the barrage scared the shit out of him. That wasn't the precise reason that I put his helmet where I did - but all the same I comfort him. 'No shame in that, plenty of soldiers before you have filled their pants when they came under fire for the first time. Go behind that bush, chuck your underpants away, and that's that -"
Page: 75

The screaming goes on and on. It can't be men, they couldn't scream that horribly.

"Wounded horses," says Kat.

I have never heard a horse scream and I can hardly believe it There is a whole world of pain in that sound, creation itself under torture, a wild and horrifying agony.
Page: 75

"Albert, what would you do if all of a sudden it was peacetime?"

"There's no such thing as peacetime," replies Albert curtly.

Mulller persists. "yes, but if ... what would you do?"

"I'd bugger off out of it," grumbles Kropp.

"Course. And then what?"

"Get blind drunk," says Albert.

"Don't talk rubbish, I'm being serious - "

"Me, too," says Albert, "what else would there be to do?"

[...]

"Christ almightly," says Haie, and his expression softens, "the first thing I'd do is pick myself some strapping great bint, know what I mean, some big bouncy kitchen wench with plenty to get your hands around, then straight into bed and no messing! Think about it! Proper feather-beds with sprung mattresses. I tell you, lads, I wouldn't put my trousers back on for a week!"

Silence all around. The image is just too fantastic. It sends tremors right across the skin.
Page: 88

All at once everything seems to me to be pointless and desperate.

Kropp takes it further along the same line, "It will be just as difficult for all of us. I wonder whether the people back at home don't worry about it themselves occassionally? Two years of rifle fire and hand-grenades - you can't just take it all off like a pair of socks aftewards - "

...

Albert puts it into words. "The war has ruined us for everything."

He is right. We're no longer young men. We've lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourslves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it, but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts.
Page: 98

We are like children who have been abandoned and we are as experienced as old men, we are coarse, unhappy and superficial - I think that we are lost.
Page: 132

A few years ago we would really have despised ourselves. Now we are pretty well content. You can get used to anything - even being in the trenches.

This habit of getting used to things is the reason that we seem to forget so quickly.
Page: 147

Because one thing has become clear to me: you can cope with all the horror as long as you simply duck thinking about it - but it will kill you if you try to come to terms with it.

...

We want to go on living at any price, and therefore we can't burden ourselves with emotions that might be all very nice to have in peacetime, but out of place here.
Page: 147

We have never been a very demonstrative family - poor people who have to work hard and cope with problems very rarely are. They can't really understand that sort of thing either, and they don't like contsant going on about things that are perfectly obvious.
Page: 166

War is another cause of death, like cancer or tuberculosis or influenza or dysentery. The fatalities are just much more numerous, and more horrible.
Page: 266

But we are thin and starving. Our food is so bad and full of so much ersatz stuff that it makes us ill. The factory owners in Germany have grown rich, while dysentery racks our guts.
Page: 274

... they [the stories] are honest, and they call a spade a spade, because there really is a lot of fraud, injustice and petty nastiness in the army.
Page: 276

Leer groans and props himself on his arms, but he bleeds to death very quickly and no one can help him. After a few minutes he sinks down like a rubber tyre when the air escapes. What use is it to him now that he was so good at mathematics at school?
Page: 278

The Shape of Water

Book Notes

Andrea Camilleri passed away a short while ago. After his passing, his death was mentioned in the NYT and in a post on MB.

I wasn't sure if the MB post was a recommendation for the books or not, but figured, hey, the author passed away, he was a fairly prolific writer, maybe a book or two are worth reading. Problem is that most early works, especially the first of a series, and the first published by an author, have rough edges. The author may not have (that is to say, likely hasn't) developed their voice yet, so the first novel isn't a great choice for a reader's introduction to said author's works.

At least, that's what I'm going to say.

The book was a murder mystery. The characters were one-dimensional, feeling more like a long 1970s era Fantasy Island episode than a detective or mystery book. A prominent business man (was he as good as his public face, or was he good at covering up his corruption?) is found dead in a seedy location. A blonde is seen fleeing the scene, suspiciously.

Everyone thinks the guy died while having sex with a known high-class prostitute. Well, everyone except his wife and Urbane Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano. Let's take a moment to point out that only the wife saw that the dead guy's underwear was on inside-out, okay?

Yeah, so, when the murderer comes out of nowhere, I rather scream deus ex machina and flip the table.

I'd say, if you're on a desert island, sure, read this book. Or if you're a fan of Camilleri and are reading all his works, yes. Otherwise, watch the tv shows. Wait, maybe not, are they any good? Don't know.

Pecorilla was the foreman in charge of assigning the areas to be cleaned, and he nurtured an undisguised hatred for anyone with an education, having himself managed to finish middle school, at age forty, only thanks to Cusumano, who had a man-to-man talk with the teacher. Thus he manipulated things so that the hardest, most demeaning work always fell to the three university graduates in his charge.
Page: 5

“If, on the other hand, you hush everything up, the silence itself starts to talk, rumors begin to multiply out of control until you can’t stop them anymore.
Page: 100

If I had to express my sincere opinion of the man, I would say that he represents a splendid specimen of the nincompoop, of the sort that flourish wherever there is a rich and powerful father.
Page: 115

He thought it best to exit, return to his car, and get his pistol from the glove compartment. He hardly ever carried a weapon; the weight bothered him, and the gun rumpled his trousers and jackets.
Page: 118

“Where do we go now?” Ingrid repeated. She wasn’t joking anymore; utter female that she was, she had noticed the man’s agitation.
Page: 154

Silence

Book Notes

Have you ever had a book that you started reading (okay, really, that part probably lost 80% of the US population) and just unexpectedly sank into like a warm bath? Like, you thought you would like the book (which is why you started reading it in the first place), but didn't realize that the book was going to become a homecoming, that you found a safe space?

Yeah, this book was like that for me.

I borrowed the book from the library and read it. Then borrowed the audio book and listened to it. Then bought a hardback copy of the book, to read again.

The book is a sort of long essay on the beauty of silence, by Erling Kagge, who walked unsupported and unaided to both the North Pole and the South Pole. Yeah, while y'all are drinking beers and watching some stupid sports game, a man walked to the South Pole and back out alone. IDK, seems like someone worth listening to when he starts talking about silence.

The timing of the book in my life was amazing. Maybe the timing will be good for you, too? Let me buy you a copy.

The Art of Thinking Clearly

Book Notes

I loved this book. If I could, I'd have this be a textbook that every high school kid had to read, to understand biases and how they are being externally manipulated. Can you imagine how much better everyone would be if we were all aware of our biases and the cultural and commercial manipulations happening? WOW!

Anyway, ahem, this book.

This book lists a whole slew of cognitive biases, logic fallacies, and faulty thinkings that, once you know about them, you can see everywhere.

I suspect that, sadly, even if a lot of people know about them, they won't care enough to do anything positive about them, but for people who do care, for people who want to improve, knowing about them is incredibly powerful.

I loved this book. I found it amazing and will buy you a copy if you promise to read it fully.

To fight against the confirmation bias, try writing down your beliefs—whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies—and set out to find disconfirming evidence.
Page 24

Since this behavior was discovered, nearly every airline has instituted crew resource management (CRM), which coaches pilots and their crews to discuss any reservations they have openly and quickly. In other words: They carefully deprogram the authority bias. CRM has contributed more to flight safety in the past twenty years than have any technical advances.
Page 26

Whenever you are about to make a decision, think about which authority figures might be exerting an influence on your reasoning. And when you encounter one in the flesh, do your best to challenge him or her.
Page 27

If something is repeated often enough, it gets stored at the forefront of our minds. It doesn’t even have to be true. How often did the Nazi leaders have to repeat the term “the Jewish question” before the masses began to believe that it was a serious problem?
Page 32

We prefer wrong information to no information.
Page 33

availability bias. Fend it off by spending time with people who think differently than you do—people whose experiences and expertise are different from yours. We require others’ input to overcome the availability bias.
Page 33

Life is a muddle, as intricate as a Gordian knot.
Page 37

We want our lives to form a pattern that can be easily followed. Many call this guiding principle “meaning.” If our story advances evenly over the years, we refer to it as “identity.”
Page 37

“We try on stories as we try on clothes,” said Max Frisch, a famous Swiss novelist.
Page 37

Stories are dubious entities. They simplify and distort reality and filter things that don’t fit. But apparently we cannot do without them. Why remains unclear.
Page 38

Whenever you hear a story, ask yourself: Who is the sender, what are his intentions, and what did he hide under the rug? The omitted elements might not be of relevance. But, then again, they might be even more relevant than the elements featured in the story,
Page 39

The real issue with stories: They give us a false sense of understanding, which inevitably leads us to take bigger risks and urges us to take a stroll on thin ice.
Page 39

The hindsight bias is one of the most prevailing fallacies of all. We can aptly describe it as the “I told you so” phenomenon: In retrospect, everything seems clear and inevitable.
Page 41

So why is the hindsight bias so perilous? Well, it makes us believe we are better predictors than we actually are, causing us to be arrogant about our knowledge and consequently to take too much risk.
Page 41

Overcoming the hindsight bias is not easy. Studies have shown that people who are aware of it fall for it just as much as everyone else.
Page 41

Keep a journal. Write down your predictions—for political changes, your career, your weight, the stock market, and so on. Then, from time to time, compare your notes with actual developments. You will be amazed at what a poor forecaster you are.
Page 42

but the diaries, oral histories, and historical documents from the period. If you can’t live without news, read newspapers from five, ten, or twenty years ago.
Page 42

The more we like someone, the more inclined we are to buy from or help that person.
Page 64

According to research, we see people as pleasant, if (a) they are outwardly attractive, (b) they are similar to us in terms of origin, personality, or interests, and (c) they like us.
Page 64

Of course your vote counts, but only by the tiniest of fractions, bordering on the irrelevant.
Page 66

So, if you are a salesperson, make buyers think you like them, even if this means outright flattery. And if you are a consumer, always judge a product independently of who is selling it. Banish the salespeople from your mind or, rather, pretend you don’t like them.
Page 66

If someone says “never,” I usually register this as a minuscule probability greater than zero since “never” cannot be compensated by a negative probability.
Page 72

In sum: Let’s not get too excited. Improbable coincidences are precisely that: rare but very possible events. It’s not surprising when they finally happen. What would be more surprising is if they never came to be.
Page 72

Have you ever bitten your tongue in a meeting? Surely. You sit there, say nothing, and nod along to proposals. After all, you don’t want to be the (eternal) naysayer. Moreover, you might not be 100 percent sure why you disagree, whereas the others are unanimous—and far from stupid. So you keep your mouth shut for another day. When everyone thinks and acts like this, groupthink is at work: This is where a group of smart people makes reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus.
Page 73

Induction seduces us and leads us to conclusions such as: “Mankind has always survived, so we will be able to tackle any future challenges, too.” Sounds good in theory, but what we fail to realize is that such a statement can only come from a species that has lasted until now.
Page 94

if you want to convince someone about something, don’t focus on the advantages; instead highlight how it helps them dodge the disadvantages.
Page 96

The fear of losing something motivates people more than the prospect of gaining something of equal value.
Page 96

We can’t fight it: Evil is more powerful and more plentiful than good. We are more sensitive to negative than to positive things.
Page 97

In the West, teams function better if and only if they are small and consist of diverse, specialized people. This makes sense, because within such groups, individual performances can be traced back to each specialist.
Page 99

We hide behind team decisions. The technical term for this is “diffusion of responsibility.”
Page 100

People behave differently in groups than when alone (otherwise there would be no groups). The disadvantages of groups can be mitigated by making individual performances as visible as possible.
Page 100

When it comes to growth rates, do not trust your intuition. You don’t have any. Accept it. What really helps is a calculator or, with low growth rates, the magic number of 70.
Page 103

Second, avoid ad-contaminated sources like the plague. How fortunate we are that books are (still) ad-free!
Page 211

try to remember the source of every argument you encounter. Whose opinions are these? And why do they think that way? Probe the issue like an investigator would: Cui bono? Who benefits? Admittedly, this is a lot of work and will slow down your decision making. But it will also refine it.
Page 211

Let’s call it alternative blindness: We systematically forget to compare an existing offer with the next-best alternative.
Page 213

Warren Buffett does things: “Each deal we measure against the second-best deal that is available at any given time—even if it means doing more of what we are already doing.”
Page 213

Forget about the rock and the hard place, and open your eyes to the other, superior alternatives.
Page 214

social comparison bias had kicked in—that is, the tendency to withhold assistance to people who might outdo you, even if you look like a fool in the long run.
Page 215

Kawasaki says: “A-players hire people even better than themselves. It’s clear, though, that B-players hire C-players so they can feel superior to them, and C-players hire D-players. If you start hiring B-players, expect what Steve [Jobs] called ‘the bozo explosion’ to happen in your organization.”
Page 216

Hire people who are better than you, otherwise you soon preside over a pack of underdogs.
Page 216

Suppose you sit on the board of a company. A point of discussion is raised—a topic on which you have not yet passed judgment. The first opinion you hear will be crucial to your overall assessment. The same applies to the other participants, a fact that you can exploit: If you have an opinion, don’t hesitate airing it first. This way, you will influence your colleagues more and draw them over to your side. If, however, you are chairing the committee, always ask members’ opinions in random order so that no one has an unfair advantage.
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On a societal level, NIH syndrome has serious consequences. We overlook shrewd ideas simply because they come from other cultures.
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We are drunk on our own ideas. To sober up, take a step back every now and then and examine their quality in hindsight.
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U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, but at a press conference in 2002, he expressed a philosophical thought with exceptional clarity when he offered this observation: There are things we know (“ known facts”), there are things we do not know (“ known unknowns”), and there are things we do not know that we do not know (“ unknown unknowns”).
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Put yourself in situations where you can catch a ride on a positive Black Swan (as unlikely as that is). Become an artist, inventor, or entrepreneur with a scalable product. If you sell your time (e.g., as an employee, dentist, or journalist), you are waiting in vain for such a break. But even
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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Book Notes

To my recollection, I have not read an Agatha Christie mystery before this one. Given she was a prolific writer, knowing which of her books to read, which are better than the rest, is a worthwhile endeavor. Fortunately, others have read all of Christie's books, and I can use their wisdom to curate my reading list.

This book tops many of Christie's must-read books lists. It is the highest rated Poirot books, and the highest rated Christie mystery book, so, rather than skipping to the end, I started at the top.

And read this one.

I had the advantage of not having read this book before and not having seen the movie. I loved the ending. Well, not the ending ending, but the big reveal. Wow, just wow. I suspect if I had read the other Poirot books, I would have recognized him when he was introduced. I didn't, so even that small reveal was fun for me.

Basic plot: small(-ish) town doctor receives a call in the middle of the night that a friend / patient / big name in town is dead, and rushes to find, yes, indeed, he is not only dead, but also obviously murdered. He then works with the local police and, when invited, Poirot to discover who the murderer. It could be any number of persons in the dead man's household, based on given testimonies, and wow, everyone has something to hide. Society and shame has a way of doing that to us.

The glimpses into a past society was fun, too.

While normally I'd say, "I strongly recommend one read an Agatha Christie mystery," regardless of which one, I agree with all those who have read many if not all of her books, this one is great. Strongly recommended.

“Do not disquiet yourself. It is not with me a habit. But you can figure to yourself, monsieur, that a man may work towards a certain object, may labour and toil to attain a certain kind of leisure and occupation, and then find that, after all, he yearns for the old busy days, and the old occupations that he thought himself so glad to leave?”

“Yes,” I said slowly. “I fancy that that is a common enough occurrence. I myself am perhaps an instance. A year ago I came into a legacy—enough to enable me to realize a dream. I have always wanted to travel, to see the world. Well, that was a year ago, as I said, and—I am still here.”

My little neighbour nodded. “The chains of habit. We work to attain an object, and the object gained, we find that what we miss is the daily toil."
Page: 17

“And anyway,” continued Miss Flora, “all this making a fuss about things because someone wore or used them seems to me all nonsense. They’re not wearing or using them now. That pen that George Eliot wrote The Mill on the Floss with—that sort of thing—well, it’s only just a pen after all. If you’re really keen on George Eliot, why not get The Mill on the Floss in a cheap edition and read it.”
Page: 27

Youth is very buoyant. Even the brutal murder of his friend and employer could not dim Geoffrey Raymond’s spirits for long.

Perhaps that is as it should be. I do not know. I have lost the quality of resilience long since myself.
Page: 59

She knows the value of being direct on certain occasions. Any hints would certainly have been wasted on Caroline.

“You see,” she explained, following directness with tact,
Page: 62

“Everyone has something to hide,” I quoted, smiling.

“Exactly.”

“You still believe that?”

“More than ever, my friend."
Page: 85

“Curiosity is not my besetting sin,” I remarked coldly. “I can exist comfortably without knowing exactly what my neighbours are doing and thinking.”
Page: 142

I should not like Caroline to know. She is fond of me, and then, too, she is proud…My death will be a grief to her, but grief passes….
Page: 241

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