Seeking Comfort

I follow conservative libertarian Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog (subtitled “Small Steps Toward A Much Better World”). Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, has now written a book called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream and is on the interview circuit. This gist of the book (which I have not yet read) is that the U.S. has stopped investing in long-term big ideas and grand projects and is no longer a dynamic society but rather a stagnant one; it’s become complacent, medicating itself against pain, setting up “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” seeking comfort instead of taking risks to improve life. One example: We use technology to separate ourselves, stay indoors, hunker down, and satisfy a need for comfort (Facebook, Netflix) instead of to expand horizons and spur dynamism and productivity (driverless cars that will make sluggish commutes better, high speed rail, an internet of things, smart homes); or as the National Review puts it in their review headline, “When the Pursuit of Happiness Becomes the Flight from Pain:”

“Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.  Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, ‘digging in.'” (in National Review‘s review)

Another artifact demonstrating a change in attitude: Science fiction written years ago was about how much better it would be in the future; now science fiction writing is mostly dystopian, envisioning a scary, chaotic, dark future.

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Cowen spoke this week briefly on NPR’s Morning Edition and at length on WBUR’s “On Point” (and probably elsewhere; those are the two interviews I heard) and I really think he is on-target about how the U.S. has become risk-averse and self-segregated, and how this self-segregation leads to complacency but also surprise at how others think and act:

“[I]f you cease being challenged [by those whose lives are quite different from your own] and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you’re not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them. … [W]ealthier people tend to live together more than before and so do poorer people. And this is bad for the country as a whole and we see a version of this in the last election where so many people are shocked by the candidate who actually won.”

I wasn’t shocked by Donald Trump’s party nomination nor by his appeal to so many in the general election, partly because I live in a purple state and know and spend time with more than a few Trump supporters.

I’m also aware that support for the federal government has fallen precipitously in the last 50 years, and Trump  — a rich, mouthy businessman with no political experience whatsoever and who rarely spoke his lines from the teleprompter — was the ultimate anti-government, anti-establishment candidate. In 1964, 77% of Americans said that they trusted the government in Washington “to do what is right” all or most of the time.  In 2016, only 19% did. As Tracy McKenzie notes in his essay “Abraham Lincoln on the Rise of Donald Trump” (June 2016), “[p]opular trust began to fall off sharply after the Kennedy-Johnson years, thanks largely to Watergate and Vietnam, and although it has fluctuated sharply from time to time, the overall trend since then has been decidedly downward.”

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But the main reason I wasn’t shocked or surprised is that I’ve studied Rene Girard’s work with mimetic theory, his keen understanding of how populism appeals and caters to resentment, and you only have to listen to or read interviews with Trump supporters to get a sense for the high level of resentment they feel. For example, for her book The Politics of Resentment, political science professor Katherine Cramer spent a few months with rural midwestern voters and found that “politics have increasingly become a matter of personal identity. Just about all of her subjects felt a deep sense of bitterness toward elites and city dwellers; just about all of them felt tread on, disrespected and cheated out of what they felt they deserved.” (Cramer’s article about her research in Vox, 16 Nov 2016)

[To be clear, resentment of the party/person in power usually drives us to vote for the “other side,” so we typically bounce from party to party in elections, switching back and forth every 4 or 8 or 12 years. In fact, Kelly Cramer, in her interview with the WaPo, says about liberals now: “One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, ‘There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?’;” in other words, now liberals are resentful of Trump voters and their perspectives. But that said, in this election cycle I think there were deep, long-held, even existential resentments at work, and that they were stoked and played upon by Trump, rather than tamped down with calls for unity and candidate promises to work across the aisle for the good of all, as is usual.]

Cowen, in his interviews this week, mentions a few of the reasons Trump supporters might be resentful, including ongoing job losses and severe wage stagnation over the last 50 years for most men. One could also point to the loss of whole job sectors, such that some skills are no longer useful; the loss of a way of life for many  — some because of policy changes like the closing of coal mines, and some because times change and jobs change with them, which is why there’s not a thriving blacksmith trade these days; the reality that now often both partners/parents in a middle-class family feel they have to work to make ends meet, which leaves little time for a rich family life and which makes them twice as vulnerable to potential job loss; the fact that home prices aren’t rising like they used to and in fact have fallen in some places over the last 10 years, leaving the middle-class, many of whose largest asset is their house, either underwater on the mortgage or unable to move or retire; and the student loan debt burden and difficulty finding jobs that young people are facing, among other factors. (Trump voters offer a number of reasons for voting for him, at Deadspin, 3 Jan 2017.)

Strict economic resentment is not the whole story, though.  Political scientist Roger Petersen points out  that globally, ethnic conflict often stems from “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.” Petersen says that “one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.” But in countries with strong, legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group that could have turned into ethnic conflict and slaughter instead is “channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies. ‘Dominance,’ Petersen writes, ‘is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.'”

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Girard’s work in mimetic theory, and the work of others who have written on the topic, tells us that we, humans, are fundamentally imitators of each other. We imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously at times (especially when admiring celebrities, e.g.). We share desires among ourselves — desires to have things as well as more abstract but even stronger desires for status and identity — and we can either cooperate towards these desires (this is called love, and is related to a sense of abundance) or we can lock into competition and conflict with other desirers (this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity).

In the U.S. (and elsewhere) lately, there has been a sense of scarcity — arising from the recession of 2007-2009 and our extremely slow economic recovery, and actually even before that, since the 1970s when income inequality really began to increase — as well as a sense of injustice among those previously privileged in society (i.e., white men at all income levels, 63% of whom who voted for Trump in 2016, and to some extent white women, too, 52% of whom voted for him), who feel their power and privilege slipping as others in society demand more, both of which give rise to a widespread resentment among those who feel they are getting the short end of the stick, that they don’t have a fair chance anymore, that they are being treated unjustly, that life used to be better for them. Those are the people at whom Trump aimed his 1950s-nostalgic, retro campaign message “make America great again.” (Cowen has dubbed him “the placebo president” and sees Trump’s look-backward message — bridges, tunnels, and coal mining, rather than the smart grid, broadband, long-term R&D — with its emphasis on short-term results as a kind of complacency itself.) As Cowen says, “We’re seeing a political backlash, yet without identifying the target correctly.”

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I think that Eric Gans (in “Donald  Trump, Metaconservative,” March 2016) puts his finger on one key appeal of Trump to many white voters in 2016: Not only did Trump, almost alone among the Republican candidates, actually speak against “PC” values — what Gans calls victimary issues or victimocracy, and which some Girardians see as a “promotion of minority concerns not as group interests but in the guise of victimary social justice” — he also persistently embodied disregard for “PC” values:

“The term “PC,” by which conservatives refer to the victimary phenomenon when they do so at all, reduces it to a matter of etiquette, ignoring its deeper political implications. The Republican presidential candidates have almost entirely avoided victimary issues despite their preponderance in the Democratic program: reducing incarceration and criminal prosecution, restraining the police, raising women’s pay from ’77 cents on the dollar’ and granting women sex-related health benefits, granting ‘transgendered’ boys access to women’s bathrooms, identifying voter-ID laws with ‘voter suppression,’ and generally treating Wall Street, the ‘one percent,’ ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and ‘the Koch brothers’ not merely as greedy cheats but as sustainers of ‘white privilege’”—not to speak of encouraging the ‘crybullying’ about racism and the ‘rape culture’ that goes on at college campuses. Only Trump and, while he was active, Ben Carson (whose recent endorsement of Trump confirms their agreement on this point) have conspicuously denounced PC, and none have made it the focus of their campaigns, except on the point of limiting immigration, which Trump has made so to speak his trump card. … As I pointed out [previously], Trump embodies far more than he articulates resistance to the victimocracy.”

Reading Gans’s list of ‘victimary issues’ in the Democratic program, above, it’s not hard to see why white men (and many women) would either not care about these things — after all, if you already have privilege in a culture, why would you want to restrain the police, reduce incarceration, change how bathrooms are assigned, loosen voting laws, increase income for other people, etc.? — or would actively resent these commitments to groups of people who are mostly “other,” mostly people you don’t see or personally know in our self-segregated society.

Beyond the fact that the programs and issues don’t necessarily resonate for many white voters (i.e., those who don’t have to worry much about prison, cops, rape, racism, voting restrictions, and finding a safe public restroom) is the deeper anger at being perceived and talked about by liberals and in the (so-called liberal) media as unjust, ignorant, and in fact “deplorable” (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate term) because they disagree with liberals’ agenda. It’s maddening from the liberal perspective that they don’t recognise other people and groups as victims of a structurally and historically unequal, unfair, and often oppressive society; but from perhaps their own perspective, these Trump voters simply resent government interference in their lives, the coddling of weak-willed whiners, the redistribution of their hard-earned dollars to lazy/illegal and undeserving swindlers, and being told what they can say and what they can’t say by condescending intellectual effetes.

Trump’s constant rejection of the teleprompter telegraphed to his supporters and would-be supporters more than any specific words could do his refusal to be tamed and made politically correct by anyone. His crude off-the-cuff remarks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his blaming sexual assault in the military on putting men and women together, his refusal to release his tax returns, his bragging about his penis size, his calling Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas,’ his disparaging comment that men who change diapers are ‘acting like the wife,’ and so on, all convincingly signalled his rejection of the PC culture that many supporters find, variously, obnoxious, silly, undermining, blasphemous, threatening.

Gans goes on to talk about how Trump, while rarely talking about PC by name, managed to loudly proclaim by his demeanor

his rejection of White Guilt. … Trump’s unexpected staying power … reflects to my mind far more than attractiveness to the benighted bearers of poor-white resentment. On the contrary, Trump’s continual emphasis on ‘deals’ suggests a sharp intuition of how to adapt conservatism to the current victimocratic context. … The contempt of the voting public for Washington’s inability to ‘get anything done’ reflects the fact that under the current [then-Obama] administration, the shift of Democratic politics from liberalism to progressivism, from focusing on the concerns of the working class to those of ascriptive minorities, involves a fundamental change from defending interests to seeking justice. The first can be negotiated on a more or less level footing with opposing interests; the second can only be be resisted by unregenerate evil-doers, which is more or less the way [Obama] and his potential Democratic successors characterize the representatives of the other party. In this noxious context, the (meta)conservative position is not to deny victimary claims, but to normalize them: to turn them back into assertions of interests to be negotiated as political questions were in days of old — in a word, into issues that can be settled by making a deal. …

“In their preoccupation with denouncing Trump as a false conservative, the guardians of the flame forget that at a time when the victimary left seeks to portray the normal order of things in American society as founded on privilege and discrimination, Trump’s supporters turn to him as a figure of hope because his mind, unclouded by White Guilt, views the political battlefield, foreign as well as domestic, as a place for making deals. This used to be called Realpolitik.”

This assessment makes a lot of sense to me. Some Trump supporters probably just wanted to stick it to the liberals, stick it to the status quo conservatives, and the hell with the consequences; some are really racial bigots and/or misogynists who feel Trump is one of them; some just hated Hillary Clinton for what she’s actually done, said, or been, or for what they mistakenly and conspiratorially believe she’s done, said, or been, or because she’s not feminine enough or too feminine; some wildly hoped Trump would really bring back coal jobs, expel Muslims, and lock immigrants out of the country; but many others probably voted reasonably in their own interests for someone whom they trusted to effectively and palatably negotiate progressive actions away just like a civil business deal. In identifying with Trump, they were (and are) identifying themselves as on an equal footing with those who are eager to judge them; they’re affirming that they deserve to be treated as moral equals with progressives and liberals in discussing civil rights and social justice, not as moral inferiors and deplorable humans as they have been accused.

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[Added:] On the other hand, as Eric Meier notes in the comments, one could say that while Trump doesn’t articulate resistance to political correctness but rather embodies it (as described above), he certainly articulates, in his inarticulate way, that he is a victim (he claims the status both for himself and for his supporters) — and claims to victimhood are the stuff of which many conservatives would tell us that PC is made.

Anyone who follows Trump’s Twitter feed knows that he feels victimized and persecuted by the media and certain celebrities. He feels he was a victim of voter fraud (and in the primaries, that they were rigged against him), Trump yelled out at a rally in Oct. 2016 “I am a victim!” Kellyanne Conway, senior White House advisor, has explained how Trump and Trump staffers are victims of the biased media (more examples in How crybully Trump and his supporters excel at playing the victim).  Trump supporters also express outrage at their victimhood, at how the left and the media are so unfair to them, at how modern society’s too-soft, too-feminine culture causes them suffering (The Precarious Masculinity of 2016 Voters: Several recent surveys suggest that when men feel persecuted, they turn to Donald Trump for affirmation, The Atlantic, Oct. 2016;  Trump’s supporters believe a false narrative of white victimhood  : Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes, in Salon, 17 Feb 2017; and Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims. (Quartz, 11 Nov. 2016)

The Giradian point is that just about everyone and every group in our culture sees the benefit of claiming to be seen as a victim, even while diligently accusing the other group of playing the victim card. In his book Evolution and Conversion, Rene Girard notes that “Very often, Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions … You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” And in his book When These Things Begin, Girard comments that “In the United States and everywhere, a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims … It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” This is where we are today.

Dwight Longnecker talks about this phenomenon in “The Rise of the Bully Victim” at The Imaginative Conservative: “The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all. The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. … The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim.”

It sure didn’t hurt Trump’s cause, his claim to victimhood for himself and his supporters, when Clinton called them deplorables. Instant victim status there.

Gil Bailie in his book Violence Unveiled, talks about victimhood in the context of King Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. He references a 1992 essay by Robert Hughes that seems ultra-relevant today:

In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.”  In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”

“Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of ‘victim’ had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

“Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.

“Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”

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Michael Boyle, at The Sound of Sheer Silence blog, has actually (in May 2016) addressed this Cult of Victimhood, as he terms it, very articulately, and he links it to Trump’s strategy in this recent election. He goes into some detail about the Girardian take on victims, then outlines three problems that occur in society when we move from the fact of victimhood to the status or narrative of victimhood, the group identity as victims:

The first is that “the identity of the group is tied up in the status of being a victim.  Thus, perversely, there is an incentive for the minority to seek to be victimized, because it supports and reinforces the group identity, leading to counter-productive co-dependent relationships with the persecuting majority.”

The second, that “it creates a tempting platform to seize the moral high ground.  In light of the message of Jesus, we have an obligation to have special moral concern for victimsas victims.  But it does not follow that those that are victimized have some special moral qualities or status by virtue of being victims.  Being a victim does not necessarily make you wiser, or more just, or better able to discern moral realities in the world around you, because being a victim is ultimately and fundamentally arbitrary. As the great Ta-Nehisi Coates says, ‘[w]e, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving.’ … [T]his is an inversion for the old vision of the Sacred — whereas before the society explained that victims became victims through some narrative of moral failure, now the victims understand their victim status through a narrative of their own moral superiority.” This ends up dividing the world into victims (righteous) and victimizers (unrighteous), which “acts as a kind of moral shield for their own behavior.  The logical chain goes like this:  because I am a victim, I am righteous; because I am righteous, those that challenge or critique that righteousness (especially if the critique comes from those that victimized me) are per se wrong and their critique is per se illegitimate; thus, I can stay in a comfortable bubble of my own imputed righteousness. ”

And this lead to the third problem: “Because of the power of feature #1 and especially feature #2 of the Cult of Victimhood, everyone wants to get in on the action.  And, given both the pervasive nature of scapegoating and the cultural awareness of the phenomenon (even if inchoate) brought about by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian presence, everyone can get in on the action if they look hard enough.  Everyone can craft a story of why they are the “real” victims over and against some group of victimizers.”

So, Boyle concludes, to resolve this deadlock, we “try to adjudicate who are the ‘real’ victims and who are the ‘fake’ victims.  Girard would insist that this is an utterly futile activity, because all of these stories of victimhood are on some level true and on some level self-serving nonsense.  The fact of being the victim is true, but the narrative of why the victimization occurred, tied into to some group identity and moral status, is not. … Again, it’s crucial, here and elsewhere, to draw a very clear line between the fact of victimization and the status as a victim.  People get victimized, and we have a moral obligation to try to end the victimization.  But the Cult of Victimization makes that project more difficult, because it weaponizes victimization and intermixes genuine victimization with dubious claims of moral righteousness.  It also incentivizes out-and-out bogus claims of victimization, because the power of victimhood status is to enticing. ”

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One more thing I found interesting in Cowen’s comments: He suggests the idea of a coming “reckoning,” which he says has probably already started, involving 1. an external crisis (foreign policy catastrophe, pandemic, economic crash, etc.), and our government not having the wherewithal to respond effectively fiscally, organisationally, and attitudinally — due to not having fiscal freedom within the budget to gear up spending, due to our waning credibility in foreign affairs, due to our preference for fighting against each other instead of seeking a solution we can all get behind; 2. rising debt burdens that we have trouble paying; and 3. a decline in the quality of governance in decision-making and execution, which he says we are seeing already:

“When you have a growing pie, most people are happy and they’re very forward looking, and they think about a brighter future and how they can contribute to that brighter future. When you’re closer to a fixed pie setting, people fight over the scraps on the table, politics becomes more combative, more rooted in insults, social media play a bigger role … and that is to some extent the world we’re in right now.”

Cowen thinks we don’t have the ability now to respond to a new crisis, and for those who have read much about mimetic theory, loud warning bells go off.  Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2008 well-summarised what happens in a society when internal divisions proliferate, when mimetic rivalry grows to a fever-pitch, pitting those in the society against each other:

“Because we compete for the same goods and comforts, we need to sustain our competition with our rivals and maintain distance from them. But to stop this getting completely out of hand, we unite with our rivals to identify the cause of the scarcity that makes us compete against each other, with some outside presence we can all agree to hate. … It doesn’t take much imagination to see how internally divided societies find brief moments of unity when they have successfully identified some other group as the real source of their own insecurity. Look at any major conflict in the world at the moment and the mechanism is clear enough. Repressive and insecure states in the Islamic world demonise a mythical Christian ‘West’, while culturally confused, sceptical and frightened European and North American societies cling to the picture of a global militant Islam, determined to ‘destroy our way of life’.”

Williams goes on to say that our tendency to unify against an identified enemy in order to reduce internal conflict “gives a fragile society an interest in keeping some sort of external conflict going. Consciously or not, political leaders in a variety of contexts are reluctant to let go of an enemy who has become indispensable to their own stability.”

And this is true in every context, both when we mark foreign powers and groups as enemies (and in fighting them feel comforted in our own unity against them) but also before and after we focus on those external enemies, when we see some of those in our society as the enemy, the “other,” as this last election cycle has made very clear that many of us do in the U.S.  Having an enemy always gives humans the sense that what’s wrong is out there, which is very comforting, because not only can we feel morally superior but we also don’t have to change anything in ourselves (or “our group”). We can just expel the enemy from our midst (who is already seen as other) or vanquish the threatening external enemy and all will be well, we mistakenly think.  In fact, we are addicted not only to soothing opiates these days, as Cowen notes, but we humans have always been addicted to the drug (pharmakon) of scapegoating to create unity, to the poison that feels like a remedy: we expel the other, who is seen as poisonous, and in doing so we temporarily heal the group’s inner division, which feels good. Briefly.

Many on the “left” accuse Trump and his supporters of scapegoating victims, of blaming our society’s woes on Muslims, Hispanics, so-called illegals, women, welfare recipients, Obamacare supporters, Obama supporters, climate change believers, scientists, the list is long — while many on the “right” accuse liberals of blaming and scapegoating Trump and his supporters, White House press secretary Spicer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, climate change deniers, gun rights advocates, the list is long. Meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated both a strong desire to unify us against external enemies and a vanishingly slight grasp of diplomacy.

Makes you want to zone out with a good romantic comedy, doesn’t it?

 

Books Read 2016

Once again (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Life After Life (2014) by Kate Atkinson. Fiction, alternative history, read for bookgroup. Ursula Todd is continually born on a snowy night in England in 1910, and she continually dies, at various points in her childhood, teen years, adulthood, in various ways. Her lives’ intersections with World War II provide intriguing points for the reader to ponder. Well-written, spare in a certain way and yet rich in detail, nuance, significance. Although Ursula at times is almost conscious that she has lived this life or other lives, the philosophical implications are largely omitted from the story, which actually reads like a couple of novellas and a dozen or two short stories. I liked it a lot and recommend it.

The Drowning (2008/2015 English) by Camilla Lackberg. Crime fiction set in the small town of Fjällbacka, Sweden. Compelling (I read the book in two days) dark crime novel featuring Swedish couple Erica Falck, a writer who is now hugely pregnant with twins, and Patrick Hedstrom, her policeman husband. At the center of the mystery is Christian Thydell, who, with Erica’s help, has just published his first novel, The Mermaid, and whose life holds secrets — one of which is shared with his three childhood friends, Erik, Kenneth, and Magnus — that seem about to be revealed by an anonymous and threatening letter writer. I guessed the ending well before I read it, but I was never 100% sure.  Dark, not for those squeamish about harm done to children.

Speaking in Bones (2015) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan forensic anthropologist series, set in North Carolina. I enjoy these. In this one, a websleuth comes to Tempe to get her help with a missing person case that’s three years old, which leads to some treacherous hiking, introduction to a Catholic sect that performs exorcisms and emphasises the role of Satan, a new and interesting (and single) coworker cop in another county, and repercussions for some children with genetic physical and mental illnesses. Also in this story is her angst about Ryan’s marriage proposal and her relationship with her mother, who has cancer.

The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James, a novel (read for a bookgroup) set post-Civil War mainly in Boston, a bit in NYC, with the fight for women’s rights front and center. Verena Tarrant is a naive, generous, beautiful young woman with a gift for charming crowds as she speaks about women’s rights; Basil Ransom is a Mississippian of staunchly traditional values (e.g., he believes that women exist “simply to be provided for, practice the domestic virtues, and be charmingly grateful”), now struggling to make a living in New York. When he visits his somewhat stern cousin, Olive Chancellor, in Boston, he meets Verena and falls under the spell of her looks and voice, her “genial, graceful, ornamental cast.” The writing is typically Jamesian, with long, convoluted, lovely sentences, often slyly acerbic (for example, about Olive “mortally disliking” Miss Birdseye’s flat: “in a career in which she was constantly exposing herself to offense and laceration, her most poignant suffering came from the injury of her taste.” Similarly, “for the first time in her life, Olive Chancellor chose not to introduce two persons who met under her roof. She hated Europe, but she could be European if it were necessary”). The story moves a bit slowly, though, and in the end seems quite conventional, but perhaps its greatness lies in its observation and explication of the contradictory, muddled motives, assumptions, feelings, hopes and fears within each person and driving their relationships, which often prompt unanticipated, dismaying reactions and consequences, or even if anticipated, then unable to be overcome or redirected, whether due to the characters and personalities of the people involved, societal mores, or human nature itself.

The Drowned Boy (2013/2015) by Karin Fossum, in the Inspector Sejer series set in Norway. Konrad Sejer, who is having dizzy spells and considering visiting a doctor, and his sidekick Jacob Skarre, are called to a pond where a 16-month-old boy with Downs Syndrome has drowned. His father, Nicholai, is stunned and grief-stricken, but the inauthentic reactions of his mother, 19-year-old Carmen, get the attention of the police officers and cause them to look more closely at the case.  The book is about evenly divided between the Sejer’s life and police work and the boy’s parents’ life in the months after the death of their son; the plot is quite tidy and draws a few threads together. I read it in a day. As always, these books are understated and spare, well- (if somewhat slowly) paced.

Silent Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, in the Maggie O’Dell/Ryder Creed series.  FBI Agent Maggie O’Dell and K9 Search-and-Rescue dog handler Ryder Creed (along with his dog Bolo) are sent separately to the scene of a landslide in North Carolina, at the site of a top-secret federal biological research lab, at the same time as a Congressional hearing is going on concerning tests of biological agents on unsuspecting civilians and military personnel. Pretty much all plot and not much else.

In the Dark Places (2015) by Peter Robinson, crime fiction set in rural North Yorkshire, in the Alan Banks/Annie Cabot series. Always well-written and -paced, this story is darker than most, heavy on abattoirs and the slaughtering of animals. Winsome plays more of a role here, and Annie, though Banks’ musing on his romantic life (and of course selecting booze and music) takes up some space as well. Read it in two days.

Black Skies (2015) by Arnaldur Indriðason, crime fiction set in Iceland. Usually these involve Inspector Erlendur but he is away throughout this book and is only peripherally mentioned. This one focuses on his colleague, Sigurður Óli (Siggy), who is not nearly so introspective as Erlendur, as he tackles a case that begins with blackmail and ends in uncovering an international fraud ring. A parallel story concerns a deeply troubled man who was sexually abused as a child by his step-father. Dark indeed, yet told as always in a neutral, even way.

A Girl in Winter (1946) by Philip Larkin. Novel written by a poet, and quite poetic. It’s about Katherine Lind, a 22-year-old girl from Europe (we’re never told where) living in England during World War II, working in a library. The whole story takes up one winter day early in the war, in the first and last sections, and three weeks during the summer six years before, when she visited England for the first time, to stay with her pen pal Robin and his very English family (parents, sister Jane). Landscape is important in this book, both exterior and interior. The story is rather dark — not that anything awful happens but not much happy occurs, either. There’s a lot to think/talk about here, with Katherine’s sometimes suddenly shifting thoughts and impetuous actions, her constant thoughts about her own behaviour, her possible futures, the resignation she often seems to feel about it all.

The Crossing Places (2010) by Elly Griffiths, the first in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who lives in a small house on the edge of a saltmarsh (imaginary, apparently) in Norfolk England, near the North Sea. I envy her house. In this book, she meets and works with DCI Harry Nelson, who needs help with some cryptic letters he’s received about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years. We meet Ruth’s neighbours, colleagues at the college where she teaches and past colleagues from a dig in the saltmarsh, and an old boyfriend. Plotting and writing quite good, for the most part, but the location is what drew me to the book and kept me reading. My quibble (bit of a spoiler, though not of the crime plot per se) is that Ruth starts out the book an overweight, single, childless 40-year-old woman who knows her own mind, has some self-talk about her singleness and weight, and avoids her censorious Christian family, and she ends the book pregnant, suddenly understanding of her parents (“somehow,” when she held one child, “she found a way back to her own mother”), friendly with a glamourous woman who wants to give Ruth a makeover.  It’s all so pat and easy. Will she be thin and married in the next installment?

February

The Janus Stone (2011) by Elly Griffiths, second in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in Norfolk, England. She and DCI Harry Nelson continue to negotiate their relationship, with Ruth now in the second trimester of her pregnancy, as the body and head of a small girl are discovered during the demolition of a mansion on an old street in Norwich– which had been first a family home, then a Catholic children’s home — to create condos. As Ruth is drawn into the case, someone begins to threaten her life. Bit of a police procedural, bit of a cozy.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2011) by Jussi Adler-Olsen. First in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Quite good, the writing, the plot, the character delineation. Carl Mørck is a homicide detective suffering PTSD after a shooting incident that left one fellow detective dead and another paralyzed and wanting to die. Carl’s boss recognises his worth as a crime solver but wants to contain and isolate his personality, so he promotes him to head a new department, Q, headquartered in the basement, with little staff or money and a mandate to solve certain cold cases. The first cold case concerns Danish parliamentarian Merete Lynggaard, missing five years ago and presumed dead. Her story and Carl’s are alternated. Carl’s new assistant, Assad, is a perfect foil for Carl. Similar to Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian Harry Hole series in style, tone, darkness, but not quite as gritty, gruesome, noir.

The House at Sea’s End (2011) by Elly Griffiths, third in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. She’s had her baby (Kate) and is trying to figure out how to work, care for Kate, handle Nelson’s role in her life, etc., while meanwhile, she’s drawn into the discovery of six skeletons on a craggy beach at low tide, which we soon learn are German soldiers, killed in World War II. The case becomes Nelson’s when an old man, a Home Guard veteran, dies of unnatural causes.

A Room Full of Bones (2012) by Elly Griffiths, fourth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. Ruth’s (and baby Kate’s) relationship with Nelson changes, and DS Judy Johnson is given a bit of a bigger role in this plot, which concerns a curse associated with unrepatriated Aboriginal bones at a local museum, horse stables and trainers, and drugs smuggling.

A Dying Fall (2013) by Elly Griffiths, fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, this one set in Lytham and Blackpool, England. Ruth and DCI Nelson are both on vacation in the same place – quel surprise! Well, surprise for him, anyway. Ruth is there after a college mate dies in a suspicious fire after perhaps making a significant archaeological discovery, about which he’s sent her a letter which reaches her after his death. With her are her daughter Kate and their druid friend Cathbert. Nelson and Michelle have gone back to their hometown for two weeks of vacation with their mothers. Neo-Nazism, King Arthur legends, and academic shenanigans are the order of the day.

Little Black Lies (2015) by Sharon Bolton, crime fiction set in the Falkland Islands. Excellent, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Bolton tells the story of six days — from 31 Oct to 5 November 1994 —  with quite a lot of backstory included, from the point of view of three people involved in intense relationships, three years after one of them has lost her two sons in an accident, and the contemporary events of two missing children. I learned a lot about the Falkland Islands and a bit about the 1982 war, but the story itself is the thing: gripping, pulling the reader into its setting, into its web of relationships and secrets, into its atmosphere of grief and guilt. Highly recommended.

The Outcast Dead (2014) by Elly Griffiths, sixth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK. While Ruth is helping to present archaeological facts about Victorian-era childminder “Mother Hook” — hung for killing the children in her care — on a TV show called Women Who Kill, she’s also helping DCI Nelson and DS Johnson investigate after one child is reported dead by his mother and another goes missing. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Simon comes for a visit with his boys, and Judy Johnson grapples with her marriage to Darren.

The Ghost Fields (2015) by Elly Griffiths, seventh in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK, with a plot involving one local family, the Blackstocks, after a member of the family is found in a World War II plane dug up during construction for new homes. Ruth’s relationship with Frank (the American, back in England once again to narrate another TV episode), Nelson’s with Michelle, and David Clough’s with one of the Blackstock clan are all explored a bit. Not the best plot of the series so far.

The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) by John Irving. Novel (for bookgroup). Set in fictional Dairy, NH, at a midcoast Maine seaside area (1937, then 1946-1957), for seven years in post-war Vienna Austria (1957-1964), and finally in New York City and again in midcoast Maine, you wouldn’t think that this novel involving rape, prostitution, and bears , and narrated with an abundance of profanity, would be so funny, charming, sweet, and yet it manages to be. I liked it much better than Garp.

March

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of An Acre, and the Making of An Edible Garden Oasis in the City (2013) by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Non-fiction, for  permaculture discussion group. The book, which focuses most of its attention on edible perennials (and not annuals like corn, tomatoes, etc), is divided into four sections — Sleep, Creep, Leap, and Reap — offered essentially in chronological order from 2000, when Toensmeier and Bates first rented a farmhouse together and started to put into practice some of their gardening ideas, to 2012, after they had lived in their duplex house in urban Holyoke, MA (zone 6) for about 8 years. Toensmeier writes most of the book, with Bates offering a handful of sidebars throughout. There’s more memoir in the book than in most gardening books, but it’s not overdone, and the experimental, “let’s try it!” farming and gardening practice of the two men (and later, their wives) shines through. Full-colour photos (center of book) and design sketches (Appendix A) help the reader envision the property and its changes, and Appendix B is a good list for northern gardeners of edible perennials to consider.

The Absent One (2012) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, second in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. I didn’t like this one as well as the first in the series, because there is some animal torture and killing and a lot of blood lust hunting in it. The plot concerns six basically psychopathic boarding school students (5 men and a woman), now grown up and several in prestigious positions of wealth and power in the Denmark, who for years thrived on watching “A Clockwork Orange,” doing coke, having orgies, and then terrorizing and sometimes killing random people. Their past has come back to haunt them now. Detective Carl Mørck and his sidekick Assad have a new member of their team, Rose.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, third in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Better than the second one, not as gruesome, though harm is done to children. Quite a complex crime plot; actually, there are two plots, unrelated, with the main one centering on a psychopathic, rather sadistic man, abused as a child, who makes money kidnapping children from large families involved in insular fundamentalist ‘Christian’ cults. There’s also growth in the Carl-Assad relationship as well as twists and turns in Rose’s character’s unfolding when her sister Yrsa comes to take her place for a while.

White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith. DNF. It took me 3 weeks to get to page 185 and then I gave up. I just never got into the story, about two men who met in World War II, Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones, and their families in London. I looked at Wikipedia after I returned the book to the library and am glad I didn’t go any farther, as the plot seems to devolve. I found the part I read to be boring and tedious.

The Purity of Vengeance (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, fourth in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark.The best so far, in my opinion, the plot concerns the Purity Party of Denmark, which seeks to rid Denmark of all unworthy people — people of colour, immigrants, poor people, people deemed to have mental and physical deficiencies, and so on — and as part of its strategy to do so sterilizes women it considers wanton or wayward without their consent and aborts children carried by these mothers. At the center of the story are Curt Wad, a doctor who strongly believes in The Cause of Danish purity, and who performs these procedures and orchestrates the actions of others; and Nete Hermansen, a 1950s victim of The Cause.  The Purity Party, by that name, doesn’t seem to be actual, but forced sterilization in the Nordic countries was, and the island of Sprogø is also real: “between 1923 and 1959 … the island was used for containment of women deemed pathologically promiscuous, the main concern being unwanted pregnancies.”

The Silence of the Sea: A Thriller (2011) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, #6 in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Thóra is hired by the parents/grandparents of a family missing at sea on a celebrity yacht to help them file insurance claims and maintain custody of their youngest granddaughter, the only member of the family not on the ship. The story is told in chapters alternating Thora’s investigative work with the events that took place on the ship., and it is more of a thriller than a crime novel or mystery.

April

Someone To Watch Over Me : A Thriller (2013) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Several storylines come together: a family is haunted after their prospective babysitter is killed in a hit-and-run; an on-air radio personality is hounded by accusing texts and phone calls; and Thóra is asked by a psychopath in a mental institution to overturn the conviction of a mentally disabled young man, found responsible for setting a fire that killed the other residents and a nightwatchman at the home for the severely disabled where he lived. Creepy in several ways. Took me a few weeks to read it, so I guess it wasn’t that enthralling to me, but the complex plots were well handled.

The Stranger (1942, 1988 edition Matthew Ward) by Albert Camus. Story of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria: his mother dies, he has a girlfriend (Marie), he gladly helps a male friend (Raymond) lure his own girlfriend back so he can abuse her further, then he shoots an Arab man on a beach because he (Meursault) is very hot. That’s the first part of the book, and the second covers his trial and imprisonment, neither of which seems to concern him overmuch (though  eventually he is sentenced to death). Meursault is very detached from his world, inert really except for his reactions to the sun and its glare (if he’s hot, watch out!). He seems uninterested in the suffering of others (people or dogs), lacking in empathy or compassion. In modern terms, he would fall to one side of the autism spectrum, not really able to understand the feelings or actions of others except by the most obvious clues, not because he inherently understands people (ex: “[The priest] was talking in an agitated, urgent voice. I could see that he was genuinely upset, so I listened more closely.”) It’s one thing to comment (as more than one reviewer has) “Even if we exist in a world devoid of meaning, why is it that our actions still bear so much weight?,” which seems a valid question in the context of this book, if the idea of existentialism pulls you; on the other hand, I think one can also wonder if, even in the absence of meaning, humans (and other animals) might naturally feel compassion for others, not because it’s construed to mean something, intellectually, but because we have imaginations and hearts, we know what fear, anger, longing, pain feels like. And on the third hand, Meursault is basically condemned for the crime not of killing another man but of not mourning his mother appropriately (having put her in a home, and then smoking and drinking coffee at her wake, and not crying at the burial — but, take into account, it was a very hot day!); because Meursault isn’t strongly affected by his mother’s death — he seemed to like her well enough in life, as he does his girlfriend, who wants more than that, in the form of declarations of love and preference — he is seen as inhuman in some way when perhaps he is just content. Romantic love, and grief when loved ones are gone, is a sign of attachment to others but not necessarily a sign of compassion; those feelings may be just as self-serving, self-focused, and pleasurable as the feelings one has when fulfilling primal urges, though we may ennoble the former. I don’t know what to make of the fact that so many things seem to occur at 2 p.m. in the book.

The Meursault Investigation (2013) by Kamel Daoud. This very short novel (like The Stranger) is a response to Camus’ The Stranger, set 1962 Algeria, after the French have left, written by the brother of the Arab that Meursault killed. Kind of genius. Very Girardian, very reminiscent of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer in the double/twin aspect. Definitely a must-read with Camus’ work.

My Name Is Mary Sutter (2010) by Robin Oliveira: Historical fiction/romance set in the first two or three years of the U.S. Civil War, with its heroine a 20-yr-old midwife, Mary Sutter, who wants to be a doctor (surgeon). I found it lightweight, clichéd, and clumsily written, for the most part, with some good scenes and thoughts, particularly Mary’s struggle making good choices. I’m going to go back and count how many times Mary’s unruly curls (could it be a clunky metaphor? her twin’s are described as “more easily tamed”) are mentioned, as I know it’s more than 50. And though she is described as somewhat of a mess in looks — features “far too coarse,” her chin sharp-angled, her body often sweaty and bloody, a bit ungainly, etc. — every man she meets falls for her. I did learn more about the Civil War, though not much more than I saw in Gone with the Wind, but the setting here is the Union: Albany NY, Manhattan, and then Washington DC and the bloody battlefields of Maryland and Virginia. I liked the bits with Sec. of State John Hay and Pres. Lincoln (and other historical figures) mulling the early days of the war, believing it would end in a few months, then constantly rotating military and political leaders in and out, hoping someone could end it. Dorothea Dix has a small role in the book, portrayed as a self-centered and self-aggrandizing control freak who doesn’t get her hands dirty.  Some might find the detailed descriptions of amputations or even difficult births too graphic, but that aspect seemed realistic and relevant to me.

Ashes to Dust:  A Thriller (2010) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. She takes the case of  Markús after three bodies and a head are found in his family’s former house on Iceland’s Heimaey Island, which was evacuated and covered in ash in 1973 when a volcano erupted nearby. Not long after she takes his case, his childhood friend Alda is found murdered at home, and Markús is a suspect in that crime as well. Not as compelling a read as some of her others but a good plot nonetheless.

May

Splinter the Silence (2015 by Val McDermid, in the Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series. I haven’t read McDermid in years because her books became too tense and agonizingly torturous for me, so I picked this one from the library’s ‘new books’ shelf with some trepidation. And I liked it. Of course a serial killer is front and center, and Carol and Tony have their serious personal issues (Carol’s in particular threaten to derail her and those around her), but the plot is interesting — a man is killing feminist women who speak publicly against men, in ways that look like suicide — and the complex mix of characters engaging and realistic.

My Name is Asher Lev (1972) by Chaim Potok. For bookgroup. Asher Lev is both a devout Ladover Hasid, living in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and an artistic prodigy “compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy.” Asher is a child and teenager through most of the book, in conflict with his father, who travels the world to rescue Russian Jews and start Ladover (a made-up sect of Hasidism) yeshivos in many countries and who never understands his son’s unwillingness, as he sees it, to study and serve God in the way he (the father) sees fit. His mother, who loves them both, understands in part each of their passions, her husband’s for travel and salvation of Jews, her son’s for artistic expression of his feelings, though their conflict and their choices often leave her anxious, fearful, unsupported, caught in the middle of their tension between devotion to a moral calling and devotion to an aesthetic calling. Some themes explored: taboo, tradition, truth, honouring parents, family, what makes a satisfying life, individual vs. culture, religion, perception, imagination. Worth reading.

The Woman in Blue (2016) by Elly Griffiths, 8th in the Ruth Galloway series. This one, which includes very little archaeology (no digging and only a small bit of historical info), is set in Walsingham (Norfolk, England), the site of a religious shrine to Mary as well as a drug addiction center.  An old university friend of Ruth’s, Hilary, has become an Anglican priest (much to Ruth’s dismay) and is in town for a religious conference; she contacts Ruth because she is receiving nasty letters decrying women in ministerial positions. Even before she arrives, another woman, who has been getting treatment at the addiction center, is murdered on the church grounds, so Ruth’s and Inspector Harry Nelson’s paths cross once again. Clough, Tim, and Tanya are also featured, while Judy is home on maternity leave and Cathbad has only a minor role in the story.  So-so, not a favourite.

The Paris Wife (2011) by Paula McLain, a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Read for bookgroup. It’s the story of their almost-five years of marriage, most of it living in Paris, drinking heavily, meeting literary and other friends (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Sherwood Anderson, Lincoln Steffens, etc), going to bullfights in Spain, him writing and her playing the piano, eventually having a baby (Bumby), eventually splitting up when Ernest falls for his second wife (of four), Pauline. Except for the time period (Paris in the jazz age)  and the people involved (pre-famous artsy people, either rich or bohemian or both), it a pedestrian story of a fairly ordinary, traditional marriage of a man who generally gets his own way and a woman who feels it’s her duty and pleasure to acquiesce to his needs and desires. Their suffering, even before the marriage begins to fall apart, is detailed.

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (2014) by Christopher Fowler, in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series. I haven’t read any others and I’m not sure why I started with this one, involving the digging up of recently buried bodies and the theft of the 7 ravens from the Tower of London. It’s well written, with quirky characters, but I got a bit lost in the all the convoluted plotting and occasional long lists of detail. By the end of the book, I had come back around but I can’t say I was really very engaged. If I read another, it will be for the characters.

Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (2015) by Will Bonsall. Not a permaculture book per se, though he mentions it from time to time, but probably the best permaculture book I’ve read in the five or six years I’ve been studying it. Bonsall has an 84-acre farm in Unity, Maine, on which he raises (with very little rototilling) vegetables, fruits, permacrops, grains, pulses, oilseeds — and no animals at all. His writing is incisive, witty, clear, easy flowing, a pleasure to read. Topics covered include the vision of a garden without borders, composting, making mulch and green manures, soil and minerals, grassland management, propagating seeds, rocks and water, planting more efficiently (trellises, companion planting, new world vs. old world crops), chapters on crops (veggies, grains, pulses, oilseeds, permacrops), using the harvest by milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting, dehydrating, etc., and pests and diseases — usually the most boring (no pun intended) chapter in these books, this is one of the best in Bonsall’s.

June

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America (2015) by Colin Woodard. Non-fiction, for bookgroup. A bit of a slog to get through unless you love history, but worth it to inspire thought and conversation about the various cultures that make up North America (the focus is mainly on the U.S. but also includes important insight into Canada and Mexico). The 11 regions are Yankeedom, New Netherland, El Norte, Left Coast, Far West, New France, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, Deep South, and First Nation. The American Revolution and the Civil War are discussed at length. One of Woodard’s conclusions is that the U.S. needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently, because it’s one of the few things binding us together, since we don’t share ethnicity, religion, or near-universal consensus on fundamental political problems.

Stoner (1965) by John Williams. A sad little novel about a midwestern college professor of English, set at the end of the 1800s in Missouri. He marries a woman he hardly knows and over the years suffers a series of personal and professional disappointments; it’s the kind of book that makes the reader queasy all along because they can see it’s not going to go well for the protagonist. The blurb on the back of the book says that William Stoner emerges “as an unlikely existential hero,” and I guess by virtue of living through it somewhat stoically, he fulfills the existential part, but I’m not sure I could call him heroic.

The High Mountains of Portugal (2015) by Yann Martel. For a bookgroup. A novel in three parts, set mainly in Portugal, first in 1904, then in 1938, and finally about 50 years later. In the first section, Tomás borrows his rich uncle’s Renault to drive to the high mountains in search of a certain crucifix he’s read about in a priest’s diary; in the second, a more philosophical section, a Portuguese pathologist’s wife lectures him about the similarities of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and the Christian gospel, and then he is visited in his office by a woman who wants him to look at a body; and in the third (which reminded me strongly of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael), Peter, a Canadian Senator, leaves Canada for the high mountains of Portugal with his new companion, a chimpanzee named Odo. The stories are tied together, and many similar themes emerge from the three:  the pros and (mainly) cons of human civilisation and “the crowd;” men at the end of their ropes who need a respite from their workaday lives (and their jobs are prominently mentioned repeatedly); strong focus on fathers and sons, especially loss of sons; the idea of an “appointment with death” (a Christie title) and the role fate plays in our lives; lice, vermin, and bugs that eat living people and corpses; men and their sorrow, despair, grief; slavery/freedom; and so on. I had a lot of trouble getting in to it but it was pretty readable after the first section.

July

Orchestrated Death (1991) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, first in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. Slider is a middle-aged London cop, whose life is changed when a young violinist is murdered.

Death Watch  (1992) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, second in the Bill Slider crime series set in London.When the body of a womanizing traveling salesman, Dick Neal, is found in a compromising position in a blazing motel room, the team at first doesn’t know whether it’s murder or suicide.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World (2015) by Linda Hirshman. Part law casebook, part biography of O’Connor and Ginsburg, a comparison-contrast through their histories, work experiences, values, law decisions. Ginsburg comes out looking much more of a champion for women’s rights, but Hirshman tries to make the case that if O’Connor hadn’t been the political, non-idealistic, non-activist she was, it would have been harder for Ginsburg and other judges to be appointed at high levels. Interesting discussions of feminism (equality feminism vs. difference feminism), co-ed vs. single-gender higher education, Ginsburg’s drive to have gender cases treated the same as race cases are under the 14th Amendment, etc.

Death to Go (1993) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, third in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. The crime plot is complicated, involving some bigwigs, some low-lifes, a bunch of Chinese men, and a lot of people named Peter; and Slider’s love life is also complicated when he can’t find his way clear to leaving his wife Irene, though it’s soon pretty easy to predict how that will be resolved. Seemed a particularly large number of puns and amusing wordplay in this one.

Grave Music (1994) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, fourth in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. When conductor Sir Stefan Radek is murdered as he’s about to start rehearsal in a nearby church, Slider has a new case and a reason to talk with his (barely) ex-lover Joanna again.  I guessed the killer (and motive) long before the book ended but it was still enjoyable.

Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson. For a bookgroup. Adventure novel, old-fashioned tale of murder and mayhem on a (n almost-) deserted island, with lots of greed, drunkenness, pirates, and immorality. From Wikipedia: “Treasure Island is traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, and is noted for its atmosphere, characters, and action. It is also noted as a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children’s literature.”

Killer Look (2016) by Linda Fairstein, crime fiction in the Alex Cooper-Mike Chapman series, set in New York City. I flew through it in a few hours. I don’t know why I like her books so much, but I do. Alex and Chapman are finally together (since the last book) but the trauma from her kidnapping is causing her to drink too much and to give more rein to her anger (and frustration with feeling sidelined from the case) than usual. The case involves a top fashion designer (Wolf Savage) who dies seemingly by suicide, with a bag over his head in a hotel room. Lots of fashion info in this one, plus quite a bit of the setting in the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a favourite spot of Fairstein’s (she featured it in an earlier book as well) and mine. Her boss, the District Attorney Paul Battaglia, doesn’t fare well here.

August

Blood Lines (1996) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 5th in the Bill Slider crime series. A music critic and opera expert, Roger Greatrex, is murdered in the bathroom at the BBC studios just before a panel discussion show.  Could the killer be his old friend and panelist opponent, Sandy Palliser; Greatrex’s or Palliser’s wife, or Roger’s mistress; another panelist, an audience member, or a BBC staff member; or even a fellow cop?

Killing Time (1997) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 6th in the Bill Slider crime series. Within a day after gay cross-dresser Jay Paloma comes to Slider for protection after receiving threatening letters, he’s murdered in his house. I guessed this one fairly early on but the plot and writing is interesting enough that that doesn’t really matter. DS Jim Atherton is in the hospital throughout (after his injury in Blood Lines), and DS Hart, a cheeky, confident young black woman, is filling in for him as Slider’s sidekick. More complications ensue in the Irene-Bill-Joanna triangle. Lots of Cockney slang in this one, much more than the others to date.

Shallow Grave (1998) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 7th in the Bill Slider crime series. Jennifer Andrews’ body is found in a trench dug by her jealous husband, who was repairing a terrace on the grounds of the Old Rectory in West London. But did he kill her? Meanwhile, Bill and Irene work through some divorce issues, and DS Jim Atherton continues to heal from his wounding in book 5. Not much Cockney slang in this one, but a new Det Sup — Fred ‘the Syrup’ Porson — brings his own brand of linguistic comedy to the series: “Porson talked like Peter Sellers playing a trade-union representative doing his first ever television interview. He chucked words about like a man with no arms, apparently on the principle that a near miss was as good as a milestone” (or, as Atherton says, Porson’s language mangling is “just psychosemantic”).

Blood Sinister (1999) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 8th in the Bill Slider series. When the body of middle-aged radical journalist Phoebe Agnew is found, strangled and tied to her bed, Slider and Atherton (who is unraveling emotionally a bit) look at people from her past and present: college friends Josh Prentiss and his wife Noni, Josh’s brother Piers, Piers’ lover and Phoebe’s downstairs neighbour Peter Medmenham, and others. Slider’s lover Joanna gets a job offer that would require her living in Amsterdam permanently.

Gray Mountain (2014) by John Grisham, for bookgroup, a novel about the destruction, corruption, and greed of the coal mining industry, and about a few lawyers who are trying to find justice for those destroyed by coal mining and the ills it brings to a community. It’s the first John Grisham book I’ve read and it was more meaty, detailed, and factual than I expected. The story focuses on Samantha Kofer, who’s just lost her high-flying corporate law job in NYC in the downturn of 2008, and who accepts an internship position at a tiny office in (fictional) Brady, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet. Early on she learns never to drink the water in coal country — everyone drinks only bottled water, due to the coal sludge that pollutes the water sources. I lost interest halfway through and read a few other books, then came back to it and the last half flew and was much easier reading somehow than the first; I think my reluctance to read it stemmed from the knowledge that though this is fictional, the situation he describes is real, extremely disturbing and disheartening … and ongoing.

Gone Tomorrow (2001) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 9th in the Bill Slider series. The body of Unlucky Lenny Baxter turns up in a gated Shepherd’s Bush park. Baxter is a small-time dealer in stolen goods and drugs, but as the team investigates, they find his connection to a larger crime organisation, run by a vicious, ruthless boss. OK plot, not my favourite, and I’m tired of the Joanna-Bill romance. Atherton is still amusing, as are Porson’s language mix-ups.

Dear Departed (2004) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 10th in the Bill Slider series. Chattie Cornfeld is killed while jogging. Is is the Park Killer striking again, or someone nearer and dearer? I liked this one even though I guessed much of it about halfway through.

Boar Island (2016) by Nevada Barr. I stopped reading Barr’s Anna Pigeon series a few books back but decided to give this one a try and really enjoyed it, if that’s the right word. I read it in a day. It’s set in Maine’s Acadia National Park and nearby in Bar Harbor, places I know fairly well; the book gives a bit of a flavour of the place, though not as evocative as her western-setting books. The plot — or actually, two separate plots — are about as twisted as they come. Anna’s goddaughter, teenaged Elizabeth, is being viciously cyber-stalked by someone in Boulder, CO (where she and Anna both lvie),  so when Anna is asked to fill in for 3 weeks as ranger at Acadia, she, Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s mom Heath (a paraplegic in a wheelchair), and their “Aunt” Gwen (a pediatrician in her late 70s), all head to Boar’s Island, a tiny private island owned by a friend of Gwen’s, off of Mt. Desert (where Acadia NP is). Meanwhile, NPS ranger Denise Castle, stationed at Acadia, has learned something that will change her life.

The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen. For bookgroup. Fiction, rooted in the Vietnam War and its aftermath. We learn early in the book that the unnamed half-French, half-Vietnamese narrator is a man of two minds, a communist sympathizer and spy whose political beliefs are at odds with his personal loyalties.  He has been embedded as a captain with the military government in South Vietnam, and when Saigon falls in April 1975, he flees the country along with the South Vietnamese army general and the general’s family, as well as his close friend Bon (a true South Vietnamese patriot), leaving their other close friend, communist agent Man, behind. The narrator, along with many other South Vietnamese, lives and works in California for a while, where the narrator is called upon to act in ways he’d rather not, before he leaves for a 3-month stint in the Philippines to shoot The Hamlet, a film about the war in Vietnam, thinking he can give his countrymen a voice if he’s part of the project.  He later returns to California, then decides to go with Bon back to Vietnam to continue the fight for freedom. It’s made clear from the start that his narration is actually a confession to someone — and because it’s a confession, the narrator not only tells us about events but examines his thoughts, reactions, feelings, memories, and judgments to and about these events, and about his own stance as a man of two minds.  Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Extremely well written. To say it’s a story of war, loyalty,  and betrayal doesn’t capture half the depth of it. For some reason, the tone reminded me of the film Kind Hearts & Coronets.

September

A Banquet of Consequences (2015) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley-Haver series. Gripping story of a grasping mother, Caroline Goldacre, and her two grown sons, Charlie and Will, and the lies and secrets held within a family, whose consequences for everyone — including Caroline’s husband Alistair; Will’s girlfriend, Lily; Clare, a well-known feminist author Caroline works for; and Rory, the author’s good friend and agent — are devastating. Detective Sargeant Havers is on her best behaviour, with a possible transfer to the hinterlands always a threat that Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery wields. Detective Inspector Lynley mediates on Havers’ behalf, for Havers to have more leeway so that she can do her best work, but Ardery is having no part of it. Lynley, meanwhile, is contemplating the future of his relationship with his zoo veterinarian girlfriend Daidre.

Game Over (2003) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 11th in the Bill Slider series. An environmental investigate journalist, Ed Stonax, recently dismissed in a sex scandal from the Department of Trade and Industry, is found murdered in his home. His distraught daughter Emily,  a journalist in New York City, comes over and begins to help the team uncover clues. Meanwhile, Slider is dodging bullets and other dangers that Trevor Bates (arrested in a previous case, now having escaped prison) is aiming his way in an escalating campaign of threats.  The puns and word play is fun.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi, “a memoir in books,” for a bookgroup. Better than I expected, but still not a favourite. Nafisi, who grew up before the Revolution, when everyday life was much more liberal than it is now in Iran, is a professor of literature trying to instill in her regime-oppressed students, especially the girls, a love of literature and a respect for the power of their imaginations to help free them from their own prisons. The book moves from her small reading group of a handful of women, back in time to her university classes (mixed gender) and their studies of Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the trial of the book in her classroom was a favourite of many in my group), and few books each by Henry James and Jane Austen, back further in time to the (cursory) history of Iran, the Revolution and its changes, and her personal history living and going to college in America, then forward in time again to the small morning reading group. The book is centrally about how in literature, and in Iran, women are seen not as they are but only as figments of men’s imaginations and the focus of their desires. In exploring why we read fiction, the book also points to the prison we live in within our own experiences and point of view, and how fiction helps liberate us by giving us the opportunity to see through others’ eyes. Some themes: empathy vs. blindness/carelessness, imagination, integrity, dreams, banality and brutality (poshlost), identity (who names us?), ordinary life, freedom, absolutes vs. ambiguity.

Fell Purpose (2009) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 12th in the Bill Slider series.  Smart, beautiful, enigmatic, strictly parented Zellah Wilding is killed on Wormwood Scrubs, during the night of the fair. There is a selection of suspects, and the one you think probably did it, did. Not too much personal stuff about Bill and Joanna in this one, but there was a cringe-worthy, clichéd sentence near the start of the book about the feeling in a woman’s loins when she has borne a man a son. Gag.

October

Body Line (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 13th in the Bill Slider series. One of the better mysteries in the series. Well-to-do doctor David Rogers is murdered at home, execution style, and his girlfriend narrowly escapes out a window. Neither the girlfriend nor the ex-wife nor any of his other women, and there are many, seems to know what sort of medicine Rogers practices or where he works, but he has a huge amount of cash lying around and a lavish lifestyle, not totally attributable to the monthly checks he receives from a Swiss company.

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. For bookgroup. A postmodern novel that nests six different but interlocking stories into a fairly coherent whole. The first is Adam Ewing’s Journal, written mostly aboard ship in the Pacific, around 1850; the second, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his lover from Belgium in 1931; the third, a manuscript about a young woman journalist who’s uncovered a high-level corporate coverup in California in 1975; the fourth, a movie (it turns out) about a 60-something-year-old man trapped in a nursing home around 1990 or 2000; the fifth, a holographic recording of an interview with a cloned woman in Asia who has discovered the secrets of the corpocracy in which she lives in the near future; and last, an oral story told by a tribesman about a life-changing few months in his life on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the far future, when a woman from another culture visits them. Major themes include reincarnation, rebirth, and recurrence of patterns in people, cultures, and throughout the history of civilisation; predation, the strong vs. the weak, cruelty and domination; imprisonment, subjugation, enslavement and escape; perception, doubt, and how to know what to believe, especially about historical events. Motifs include ascents and descents and smoke and clouds (obscurity). Lots of think about.

Kill My Darling (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 14h in the Bill Slider series. Soon after Melanie Hunter goes missing, her body is found by a man walking his dog, and there is no shortage of suspects, including the convicted wife-murderer living in the basement apartment, her boyfriend, and her stepfather. Not much domestic life or word play in this one, Porson aside.

Blood Never Dies (2012) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 15h in the Bill Slider series. A man who looks too classy for the attic apartment in which he’s been murdered (in a bathtub) leads the team on a lengthy search just to learn his name.  Not much of the personal relationships between Slider and Joanna or Atherton and Emily. Held my interest.

The Weight of Winter (1991) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. I like her use of language and her stories set in fictional Mattagash, Maine. This novel is a sort of series of interlaced stories about various townspeople early one winter: Amy Jo Lawler, thinking about putting her mother, Sicily, in a nursing home; Lynn and Pike Gifford’s turbulent, violent marriage and its impact on their children; Mathilda Fennelson, in her early 100s and reflecting on emotional events in her past; Charlene & Davey and their sick daughter, Tanya; the local bar and its habitués; and others. The writing is humourous, often bittersweet, never sappy or mocking.

November

The Bubble Reputation (1993) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. “[B]ittersweet but affirmative novel about a quirky, crisis-ridden family in small-town northern Maine may remind readers of Anne Tyler’s work. Exploring the ways people tend to pair off and the ways they respond when these bonds are broken, she follows the course of lonely characters bereft of their mates …. Rosemary O’Neal, a 33-year-old teacher, falls apart when William, her live-in lover of eight years, commits suicide during a trip abroad. While Rosemary seeks solace in isolation, loved ones gradually intrude on her privacy. Among them are her sister, an oft-divorced neurotic; her uncle, an overweight and overwrought gay man; and her roommate from her college days, who is now choosing between husband and lover” (from Publisher’s Weekly) This family very much resembles Anne Tyler’s dysfunctional, chaotic families. The writing is poetic, funny, with much use of repetition in this novel to signify thoughts and events going round and round in Rosemary’s head. A wonderful record of a year of grieving.

Smoke & Mirrors (2015) by Elly Griffiths: I requested this from the library thinking it was part of the Ruth Galloway series but unfortunately, it’s not. It’s part of another series Griffiths writes, called Magic Men, set in Brighton, England, after World War II, featuring DI Edgar Stephens (and his team) and his magician friend Max Mephisto, who met in the war. In this one, Max is in town performing in a pantomime show, and two children have gone missing in snowy weather.  I didn’t like the book nearly as much as those in her other series. If you have an interest in post-war local theatre or in fairy tales, this might be for you.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York (2010) by Deborah Blum. Interesting look at the development of forensic toxicology in the U.S., from about 1920 to 19365, an at the effect of Prohibition on alcohol deaths, the early aspects of consumer protections, and the jurisprudence of the time. Chapters are arranged in chronological order, each focusing on a poison (though other poisons are mentioned in most chapters) and on a poisoning story.

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi. Memoir. “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.” The first part of the book is Paul’s life before his diagnosis, the second is his life after. The writing is sometimes spare, sometimes poetic, but what makes this book memorable is how Paul grapples with his new reality, depicting painfully the seesaw between hope and fear, acceptance and despair, that accompanies a serious medical diagnosis. The central question of the book, and Paul’s life, is, what makes life meaningful? How does one live “when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?”

December

When The Music’s Over (2016) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks-Annie Cabot series. I didn’t like this one as much as usual. Plot involves two cases, one Annie’s investigating with Gerry, a young woman raped, thrown out of a van, and then battered to death, and the other Alan and Winsome are investigating, a fifty-year-old rape allegedly perpetrated by Danny Caxton, then a much-liked celebrity, now an old man.

Razor Girl (2016) by Carl Hiaasen, featuring ex-cop-now-restaurant-inspector Andrew Yancy, set in the Florida Keys.  The usual unlikely characters and convoluted plot, this one revolving around a made-for-TV redneck named Buck Nance, star of the hit series Bayou Brethren (think Duck Dynasty), and a crazed Buck-wanna-be criminal named Blister. Again, new next-door neighbors are planning a mansion that will encroach on Yancy’s natural view and the livelihood of the resident deer, so they must be stopped. Meanwhile, a dazzling redhead is ramming cars for money, pretending she’s lost control of the car while shaving her never-regions while driving. The mafia is involved, too.

Rules of Civility (2011) by Amor Towles.  Set in 1938 NYC among mainly the upper class bright young things, the novel follows Katey Kontent’s year from the time she and her roommate, Evey, meet wealthy Tinker Grey, on New Year’s Eve, through the changes in her life, and theirs, in the year following. At times a bit hard to follow — the author makes references to names or fleeting events from 100 pages previous, which rang a bell but which weren’t entirely clear to me without going back through the book to find the original mention — and I wasn’t sure I really understood Katey’s personality, but on the whole interesting and evocative of a time and place. Felt a bit like some of the later Woody Allen movies (Match Point, Cafe Society, etc).

2015 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2014 stats

average read per month: 4.5 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (April, June, Oct., Nov., Dec.)
number read in best month: 10 (August), and 9 in July, 8 in March

percentage by male authors: 48% (26)
percentage by female authors: 52% (28)

fiction as percentage of total: 85% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 63% (29 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 15% (8 books)

percentage of total liked: 52% (28 books)
percentage of total so-so: 33% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 15% (8 books)

Notes:

As always, the limiting factor in my reading this year was not being able to find anything I wanted to read.

I started reading two crime fiction series, the Joe Gunther series by Archer Mayor, set in Vermont, and the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie King, both of which came with high recommendations from friends. After reading quite a few in each series, liking some and not liking others, my interest in them just petered out; the Joe Gunther series became boring, and the Russell/Holmes series became annoying.

My favourite books of the year were That Distant Land by Wendell Berry (short stories), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. In general, I didn’t love much of what I read. Hoping for better in 2016!

Books Read 2015

Once again (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.

January

Strange Shores (2010/US 2014) by Arnaldur Indridason, in the Inspector Ernaldur series, set in Iceland. This one differs from others in the series because it isn’t a police novel; it’s the story of Ernaldur’s investigations into a missing person event from the past. Matthildur — a woman who lived in the town in which Ernaldur grew up — went missing during a blizzard, but her body was never found. As Ernaldur relentlessly questions the few people still alive who may know what happened, he also relives the day when he, his younger brother, and his father were lost in a blizzard, from which his brother never returned. The book is haunting, atmospheric, beautifully written. Not a traditional crime or suspense novel.

Borderlines (1990) by Archer Mayor, 2nd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in the fictional town of Gannett in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The plot involves a back-to-nature cult that’s bought a lot of the real estate in town and runs the thriving restaurant, and a town divided for and against them.

Scent of Evil (1992) by Archer Mayor, 3rd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in Brattleboro, VT, where Lt. Gunther is based, and involves drugs, politics, wealth, and sex, an includes a high-speed chase, several shoot-outs, an unusual torturous death, and mistrust inside the police department. Good.

Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them (1993) by Thatcher Freund. NF. Read for a bookgroup.  One of the more boring books I’ve read (and finished) in a long time. If you like the TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” you will probably like this; if not, not. The book weaves the stories of three main pieces of American furniture – an 1750s American blue blanket chest made in Connecticut, a 1750s Chippendale card table from Philadelphia, and an inlaid sofa table made in Salem MA, of the Federal period (around 1800) — with the stories of many American collectors, dealers, buyers, restorers, sellers, pickers, and auctioneers incuding Henry Ford, Henry Du Pont, Joseph Hirshhorn, Bill Stahl, Allan Breed, Wayne Pratt, Fred Giampietro, Israel, Albert & Harold Sack, George Samaha, twins Leslie and Leigh Keno, and others. Structured well and written serviceably (though a bit over-the-top in places) but the topic, items, and people are just uninteresting to me.

February

The Brothers K (1992) by David James Duncan, a novel about the Chance family, obsessed with baseball and religion (Seventh Day Adventist), headed by two strong parents, with four sons and two daughters coming of age in the 1960s. As many reviews say, it’s at times very funny and very moving. By turns a philosophical treatise, a page from Sporting News, a family confessional along the lines of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, an epistolary novel, a travelogue of India, a Vietnam war memoir, etc., it’s a complex family saga fueled by pain, loss, eccentricity, and an all-embracing love.

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree (1993) by Archer Mayor, #5 in the Joe Gunther series. In this one, Joe’s longtime girlfriend and a town selectman, Gail Zigman, is raped, leading not only to pain and suffering for Gail and Joe but also to “a media frenzy due to her political prominence, his involvement in the case, and her refusal to hide behind a shroud of anonymity.” Set mainly in Brattleboro, but also in Thetford, where Joe’s mother and brother, Leo, live.

The Dark Root (1995) by Archer Mayor, #6 in the Joe Gunther series. The focus in this book is on rival Asian gangs, who are moving illegal aliens, guns, and drugs from New York and Boston to Montreal, and doing violent home invasions, money laundering, and protection rackets. Joe works with the Border Patrol, the FBI, and the Canadian Mounties chasing rival gangs from Brattleboro to Montreal to White River Junction & West Lebanon NH, which was interesting for me, as I know this area and could picture the (on-foot) chase scene quite well.

The Ragman’s Memory (1996) by Archer Mayor, #7 in the Joe Gunther series. Plot involves the discovery of the body of a troubled teenager from out of town, a planned convention center, political bribery and manoeuvering, a missing local activist, and a World War II vet with PTSD in a nursing home, who may have seen the killer.

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) by Anne Tyler. A book spanning generations of the lives of Abby and Red Whitshank. Set in Baltimore, of course. Lovely, as always.

March

Bellows Falls (1997) by Archer Mayor, #8 in the Joe Gunther series.  Set in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and Burlington, with police forces from each town involved, the plot revolves around a controlling man who has created a network of drug sellers in various Vermont towns; he comes to the attention of the police here after he accuses a Bellows Falls policeman of having an affair with his wife, and then that policeman is found to have cocaine in his urine and in his house. One online reviewer of another book in the series describes it as “solid noir mystery” and “an offbeat New England tour guide, too;” next time I take the train through Bellows Falls, I will see it differently.

The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak, for a bookgroup. I wasn’t excited to read it, knowing it was another book about World War II, and while it is set in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1943, it’s a smaller, more personal novel than that. The tone – seemingly simplistic, but also self-consciously cryptic, or so it felt — was off-putting at the start but I quickly came to appreciate the narrator’s voice. The writing is moving, sometimes amusing, and elegantly understated, laconic, not dramatic, and simply factual at times, which makes it deeply stark and spare. I like that the novel employs the opposite of foreshadowing (often annoying in novels): future events are stated directly, not hinted at in or insinuated in some shadowy way meant to make the reader anxious. The plot centers on Leisel, a foster child of almost 10 when the story starts., who comes to live in a town outside of Munich with foster parents who are large-hearted, “good in a crisis,” and very poor.  I don’t want to give away any more of the story. I liked it a lot.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening (2011), ed. by Thomas Christopher, with essays by Rick Darke, Eric Tonsmeier, Toby Hemenway, Doug Tallamy, Elaine Ingham, et al., on permaculture, natives vs. non-natives, managing soil health, waterwise gardens, green roofs, gardening for wildlife, meadow gardens, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the sustainable edible garden, climate change gardening, and while system garden design. Uneven but useful. The chapters on soil (surprisingly), wildlife gardening, and the discussions among several essays on natives vs. exotics were most useful for me.

The Disposable Man (1998) by Archer Mayor, #9 in the Joe Gunther series. This started out as a police procedural, with the twist along the way that Gunther is being investigated for theft, but the second half was a Russian spy thriller. Set in Brattleboro, West Townshend, Middlebury, the Northern Kingdom, all in Vermont, and in Washington DC. I could have skipped it. I guess there really isn’t enough ordinary crime in Brattleboro — even imaginary crime — to inspire more than a few crime novels without having to resort to Chinese gangs and the Russian mafia.

Still Alice (2007) by Lisa Genova, about Alice Howland, PhD., a cognitive psychology and linguistics professor at Harvard, who, at age 50, starts noticing memory lapses (forgetting to do things and not realising she has forgotten, getting lost in a familiar place, etc.) and soon learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Told from her increasingly confused point-of-view, with her husband and 3 grown kids as the other major characters. A quick read, a powerful story.

Breaking Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, starting a new series, I think, featuring charismatic dog search-and-rescue trainer and handler (and ex-Marine) Ryder Creed, who lives with his dogs in Pensacola FL; but FBI agent Maggie O’Dell — the protagonist of anotehr of Kava’s series — also has a big role in this book. Lots of extremely well-trained dogs of all breeds in this book, as well as traumatised military vets, and drug-trafficking, child-trafficking, and torture with fire ants, spiders, and scorpions.

Occam’s Razor (1999) by Archer Mayor, #10 in the Joe Gunther series. Set mostly in Brattleboro, though also in Montpelier, and in Portland, ME, with focus on political wrangling, hazardous material dumping, and the murder of a man killed by a train on railroad tracks and of a drug-using woman stabbed in her own home. Gail and Joe are working out their relationship, too.

The Attack (2005) by Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul), originally in French. The novel takes on the themes of integration and assimilation, identity, terrorism, tolerance, sacrifice, healing and killing, happiness and suffering as it tries to come to terms with what creates a suicide bomber. Central is Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Muslim from a Bedouin tribe who has moved up in life to become a wealthy Israeli, a professional (a surgeon) living in Tel Aviv. The novel raises many questions about conflict, terrorism, and how we identify ourselves (and how others identify us) but for me it fails to really provide any complex understanding as to why Amin’s wife becomes a suicide bomber. That may be what’s intended; there are theories floated by many characters in the novel, but she doesn’t really match any of them, and Amin’s blindness as to who she truly was may represent our own in some way.

April

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr. Novel, for a bookgroup. Set mostly in France (also Germany, Russia) from 1934-1944, during World War II, following two stories, that of a blind girl, Marie-Laure, very interested in natural history and raised by her puzzle-making father, who is evacuated to her eccentric great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo, a walled French city attacked by the Germans in August 1944; and Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy who lives with his sister in a small orphanage near Essen, Germany, until he is chosen to attend the National Political Institutes of Education, an elite Reich school, where he excels in electronics. Many themes and motifs, including  mazes, birds, bees, the natural world generally, entropy, locks and keys, blindness and seeing, value derived from nature (coal from dead plants, diamonds from carbon), the past in the present, etc. A fast, readable book, but felt to me simplistic in terms of good and bad, heroes and villains.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande. Non-fiction. Gawande, a surgeon, writes about aging, independence, assisted living and nursing homes, dying, conversations to have about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death. It’s a topic that interests me and his writing is compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which was dry. He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of desires, fears, and how voicing desires and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make good choices from among confusing medical options, especially when all of the options carry major and perhaps unknown risks and downsides. The PBS Frontline show with Gawande on this topic is excellent.

 May

The Paying Guests (2014) by Sarah Waters. Set in a genteel 1922 post-war suburb of London, Champion Hill, this novel centers on 26-year-old Francis Wray — whose voice and thoughts basically narrate the third-person story — and her mother, who own a house but have been left with little money to maintain it, and their paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber. Len works as a clerk in an insurance company and seems to leer at Francis a lot. His and Lilian’s marriage is tumultuous. An NPR review sets out the basic conflict: “Frances has it bad, and that’s not good. Normally she’s an intelligent, reliable, resourceful young woman, a companion to her widowed mother, keeper of the large house on Champion Hill in which the two of them rattle about, now that the men of the family have died. But then Frances falls in love, and the carefully wrought edifice of her life collapses in a heap of passion and catastrophe.” Very readable, but also quite predictable.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014) by Gabrielle Zevin. Funny, light novel about a curmudgeonly, widowed, young bookseller, who, through a series of events, has his life changed. Set on Alice Island, apparently off Massachusetts, the novel starts with a new publisher’s rep traveling  on a ferry to meet the bookseller, but soon we follow his life more than hers, until they come together again. I read this book in about 3 hours … quite light, yet surprisingly emotional at times.

Tucker Peak (2001) by Archer Mayor, in the Joe Gunther series. Southern Vermont ski resort has big problems, with protestors, drug dealers, embezzlers, etc.  I lost track of who the bad guys were, and why, part way through and never really got re-engaged.

I Remember You (2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (who writes a crime series featuring attorney Þóra Guðmundsdóttir ): Set in Iceland. Two plots alternate, chapter by relentless chapter, one involving three Rejkjavik twenty-somethings — a couple and their recently widowed female friend — who buy an abandoned house in the deserted and very remote fjord village of Hesteyri, reachable only by ferry in good weather, hoping to renovate it and use it as a B&B, and the other plot focusing on a psychologist who lives in the large fjord town of Isafjordur and whose 6-year-old son went missing two years previously.  The stories are complex and the reader glimpses how they might intertwine, but to tell anymore would be to give away too much. Ghost stories and plots with supernatural explanations don’t do much for me, though this one is well-written, certainly atmospheric, and held my interest most of the time. There are really no happy characters among the cast of dozens.

June

Bad Debts (1996/2013) by Peter Temple, the first in the Jack Irish series, set near Melbourne, Australia. Involves horse racing, gambling, government corruption, and basically men with guns and secrets to hide. I got lost with the large list of characters, the plot twists, and I had to look up some Australian terms and slang. The book was very put-downable – reading it over 2 weeks might be why I got so lost. I’ll try the next one and see if it’s more compelling.

Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng, a debut novel, set in the 1970s, about a family whose members struggle with secrets, silences and unspoken longings, regrets, betrayal, little cruelties, feeling different and outcast. The death of just-16-year-old daughter Lydia, who drowns in a nearby lake, is the focus of the plot which looks back to the parents’ first meeting as well as studying the contemporary events around her death.  Reminds me of an Anne Tyler novel, if her novels were set in a midwest college town and explored what being American and looking Chinese felt like. The book explores longing and loss in depth. 5th-grader Hannah — used to being ignored, noticer of everything — is my favourite character.

July

Of Love and Other Demons (1994) by Gabriel García Márquez, a short novel set in a South America seaport around 1750. Told from the point of view of others, the story is about 12-year-old Sierva Maria, “the only child of a decaying noble family,” raised mainly by the black slave women, who is bitten by a dog who has rabies. Although she never develops symptoms of rabies, she is outcast, feared, and treated as though possessed by a demon by the clergy and others. In essence a book about our terror and vicitimisation of “the other.”

A Stranger in Mayfair (2010) by Charles Finch. Amateur detective and wealthy MP Charles Lenox, newly married to Lady Jane, takes on the murder of a friend’s footman when asked; but then the friend and his wife tell him in no uncertain terms to lay off the case. Set in Victorian London. Not terribly exciting but an OK read.

The Sea Garden: A Novel (2014) by Marcia Willett. About a young artist, Jess, who, through coincidence, comes to live with a family that she learns is related to her own family. Set in contemporary England on the Devon coast, the book uses flashbacks — including repetition of paragraphs two or three times when characters are remembering or thinking about what we’ve already been told — to tell a story about family, friends, betrayal and forgiveness. A gentle read, with lots of adultery. Too many characters for me to follow well but I liked the pace and slice of life feeling of the book.

The Sniper’s Wife (2002) by Archor Mayor, #13 in the Joe Gunther series. This one focuses on Vermont detective Willy Kunkle, whose ex-wife has died, and takes place almost solely in NYC, but ends at the defunct naval prison in Portsmouth, NH. We learn more about Kunkle’s Manhattan childhood, his family now, and his time with the NYPD and in Vietnam, as well as about neighborhoods in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side and Washington Heights. Joe and Sam come to town when Willy is arrested in a random bust of an illegal club. Plot pretty straighforward: Willy suspects Mary’s death wasn’t suicide or an accidental overdose, as it seems, and delves into the case with the help of the law and outside it.

The Gatekeeper (2003) by Archer Mayor, #14 in the Joe Gunther series. The  Vermont Bureau of Investigation is pulled into the case of the hanging of a drug addict and a young woman’s drug overdose in Rutland, VT, by the governor in an election year, expected to stop the flow of heroin into the state. Before Joe can really get going on the case, agent Sammie Martens goes undercover in Holyoke, MA hoping to gain info to make the VBI valuable to the locals and the state police. The plot focuses on Sammie organising a drug ring with criminals in Rutland, and to a lesser extent on agent Lester Spinney’s suspicions about his own teenaged son’s drug use. Joe doesn’t have much to do with the crime cases, but he and his off-putting girlfriend Gail are in another bad place together as she shuts him out after her niece is killed trying to rob a convenience store for drug money. Set in Holyoke, MA, and Brattleboro, Springfield, and Rutland, VT. The ending is a bit anticlimactic but in a realistic way, which is nice for a change.

Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown. The phrase “epic quest” really told me all I needed to know — that’s one of the types of stories I like least — but I read it because it was a bookgroup choice. It’s mostly well-written and well-structured, though repetitive, but the main problem for me is how predictable it is. Not just the history — what’s going on in Germany then, the Dust Bowl and Depression in the U.S., the perceptions of the elite East vs. the rugged West, how the ultimate boat race turns out — which of course we know now, but the predictability throughout of the boys’ characters and actions. They are not only portrayed as thoroughly “good” but the author can’t seem to think of enough synonyms for “good”: loyal, perseverant, committed, humble, honorable, graceful, civil, “good men, one and all.” It’s a pleasant, nostalgic, readable book, with a lot for the novice to learn about rowing. I felt like I’d read a light novel when it was over, though admittedly with some darkness lurking around the edges. The most interesting aspect for me are the details about the propaganda-driven framing and filming of the Olympics.

A Fall of Marigolds (2014) by Susan Meissner, a romantic novel set in New York City 1911, 2001, and 2011, interweaving the stories of two young women, the main one about nurse Clara Wood, who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company at the time of the fire in 1911, and the secondary one set in contemporary times, about Taryn, co-owner of a specialty fabric store, whose husband died in the North Tower in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Both stories are about Love, with a capital L, and how it motivates us; both stories, particularly Clara’s, quite romantic in the sense that she is all emotion and imagination for 99% of the story.  A light beach read, even though the plot is anchored by the twin tragedies.

Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth (2015) by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein. A good review of what I’ve mostly read in other permaculture books. Lovely photos. Emphasis on designing a permaculture garden, your own or a client’s. The chapter on soil was better than average on the topic. Read and discussed over a few months with a group.

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (2014) by Katrina Blair, read for permaculture bookgroup. Blair writes first about her background and how she lives in and views the natural world, then devotes a chapter to each of “13 Essential Plants for Human Survival,” which are amaranth, chickweed, clover, dandelion, dock, grass, knotweed (polygonum aviculare), lambsquarter, mallow, mustard, plantain, purslane, and thistle. Food, medicinal, and beauty recipes are included. “The Earth’s Principal Rivers and Their Tributaries” on page 12 was one of my favourite parts of the book. She speaks a lot about seeing problems as resources and about creating abundance, and about the life force and “wild intelligence” of wild plants becoming part of us when we ingest them. Equal parts woo-woo with practical, useful information.

August

The Corsican Caper (2014) by Peter Mayle, a novel set in Marseilles and Corsica, mainly. Pretty bad. The plot and drawing of characters is incredibly simplistic. For example, when Sam decides to stand in for someone whom a brutal, murderous Russian has contracted to kill, Sam’s wife says, Well, OK, but be careful, and another character, whom Sam has just met, suggests that her beloved dog be part of the entrapment. Both of these reactions seems beyond belief to me, but on the other hand, the reader feels absolutely no sense of tension at all, so why should the characters?  The plot is that a rich Russian man wants the home of billionaire Francis Reboul and will stop at nothing to get it; meanwhile, Reboul’s friends plot (at many dinners, lunches, and other festive occasions) to outwit and entrap the Russian.  The only thing that kept me reading was the continuous descriptions of eating and drinking along the beautiful south of France. Mayle seems much better at non-fiction than fiction, based on having read this book and having seen his Year in Provenance.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994) by Laurie King, first in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I almost put the book down after reading the contrived preface and prelude but read on because someone had recommend these books to me. In the end, I liked it well enough. The writing is good. The novel is set during WWI (1915 to 1919 in this case) in England as well as briefly in the middle east, mainly Palestine/Israel, and it is made up of a sort of caper, then a serious kidnapping case, and then a case that brings mortal danger to Holmes and Russell; I would have preferred one mystery but I accept that the author wanted the reader to see Mary Russell’s evolution as a sleuth as well as the evolution of Russell and Holmes’ relationship through these cases. I haven’t read any of the original Conan Doyle stories about Holmes, so perhaps many allusions were lost on me.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995) by Laurie King, second in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I guess I liked this better than the first one but it was still very put-downable. Lots of romantic thoughts by Mary about Holmes, which come to fruition of a sort in the end. At the crux of the story is Margery Childe, a charismatic spiritual leader of The New Temple of God, a sort of mystic suffragette group, in Whitechapel, London, which Mary is introduced to through her college friend Veronica Beaconsfield; several of Childe’s followers have died recently, leaving large sums of money in their Wills to The Temple.

A Letter of Mary (1996) by Laurie King, third in the Russell/Holmes series. This one involves an acquaintance of theirs, an amateur archaeologist,  who gives them a box and a manuscript she’s brought from Jerusalem and is soon after run down on a London street. Russell and Holmes (now married) both go undercover to investigate separate areas of inquiry.

The Moor (1998) by Laurie King, fourth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Dartmoor in the southwest of England, where Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was set.  The aged eccentric Rev. Baring-Gould has asked them to investigate an unexplained death on the moor and sightings of a ghost coach and dog. Again Russell and Holmes largely work independently on separate aspects of the investigation, with the bulk of the novel following Russell’s movements and thoughts.

That Distant Land (2004) by Wendell Berry, a book of 23 short stories about the people of Port William, KY, set from 1888 to 1986. Read for bookgroup. Excellent, lovely, moving, compassionate, funny stories about Tol and Minnie Proudfoot; Andy and Wheeler Catlett; Burley, Nathan, Hannah, and Thad Coulter; Elton Penn; Ben and Mat Feltner; Mart and Art Rowanberry; Danny Branch. Stories of hunting and tracking in the woods, tobacco harvesting, hog killing, whiskey drinking, the introduction of the Model A, dying and death, inheritance, going to the fair, selling livestock, parade floats, courting. Several predominant themes: mortality, getting lost and being found, memory, nostalgia for times past, forms of farming and technology, the farm vs. the city, small town life and community, what makes life worth living.

O Jerusalem (1999) by Laurie King, fifth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Palestine/Israel, including in Jericho, Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, in 1919, as the British are starting to leave the area after the war. Holmes and Russell are disguised for 90% of the book as Bedouin men and are accompanied through the book by brothers Ali and Mahmoud Hazr. My least favourite, a bit of a slog through the Arabic speaking, the landscape descriptions, the tunnel description, the coffee prep ritual twice daily, etc.  Glad I read it, though, because the characters reappear in her next book, and also because it provides some detailed political history of this highly volatile part of the middle east.

Justice Hall (2002) by Laurie King, 6th in the Russell/Holmes series, set mostly at a British manor house, and briefly in Canada. Marsh Hughenfort (aka Mahmoud Hazr from the previous book), younger brother of the Duke of Beauville, has returned to England as dutiful heir after his brother’s death, along with his cousin Alistair (Ali Hazr), who seeks Holmes’ and Russell’s help to unearth another heir so Marsh can relinquish the heavy title and go back to Palestine. Much of the book concerns unraveling the mystery of what happened to young Gabriel Hughenfort, the late Duke’s only son, who was executed during the last days of the Great War.  I liked the setting, and descriptions of the over-the-top fancy dress party with ancient Egyptian theme, but the plot was weak and some of the characters (especially the women) felt caricaturish.

The Game (2004) by Laurie King, 7th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in British colonial India as Mycroft sends Holmes and Russell to look into the 3-year disappearance of Kimball O’Hara (“Kim” from the Rudyard Kipling novel). Again Russell has to disguise herself as a man, again she has to hunt animals (instead of bird hunting as in Justice Hall it’s wild boar hunting — or pig sticking — here), again she and Holmes are largely separated and doing independent investigations, again a very large house is as much character as it is setting. The book has several distinct settings of activity: a 2-week shipboard to start with, a road journey near Delhi on foot with magic show and costumes, a languid time spent in a huge home in Khanpur (in disguise and out of it), and time spent with British government operatives. The maharaja at the center of the plot is a cruel, manipulative, sociopath whose behaviour heightens the suspense.

The Sweet Dove Died (1978) by Barbara Pym: Read in a few hours, another wonderful novel of the subtlety of relationships and motivations by Pym. A middle-aged woman befriends a man of about her age and his nephew, preferring the attentions of the nephew, who lavishes her with attention until he first meets a girl his own age and then a boy of about his own age. Rivalry, envy, jealousy, narcissism (mirrors abound), selfishness, greed, fear of aging and appearing vulnerable, and other interesting emotions and behaviours fuel the superficially simple story.

September

Dear Life (2012) by Alice Munro, a collection of short stories plus a few snippets of memoir.  On the plus side, I like her unemphatic, sometimes plotless way of writing. I like the disorientation so many of her characters seem to feel. Some of her turns of phrase are genius. On the other hand, most of the stories in this collection feel like they were crafted for a creative writing class. Admittedly, they’re better than most of what you’d find in such a class, but there is a writerly feeling about them that gets in the way of the stories for me. They feel less like real life and more like a constructed ideal of stories about conflict, mistakes, regrets, vices, fatal flaws. Probably in a few years I will recall some snippets and wonder where I read them. “Gravel” and “In Sight of the Lake” were my two favourites.

The Locked Room (2005) by Laurie King, 8th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in prohibition-times San Francisco, as Russell (Holmes with her) spends a couple of weeks reacquainting herself with her old home in the city, her family’s lake house; meeting the son of her parents’ Chinese servants; remembering the 1906 earthquake and fires; trying to get to the bottom of three dreams that have troubled her recently; and in the course of investigations, enlisting the help of detective and writer Dashiell Hammett. If you have an interest in San Francisco in the early 1900s, you’ll find this book provides an intriguing combination of ambiance and facts.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/1999 – Norton 3rd Critical Edition) by Mark Twain. For bookgroup. Funnier than I expected, quicker and easier to read than I expected with the regional language and dialect, but I still don’t understand how this is considered a major classic. It’s the story of a teenage boy, living in the rural mid-west/south (Missouri), who because of his age, upbringing, and circumstances is somewhat of an outsider to the culture, observing the culture through eyes that are at times naive but always sharp. Early on, Huck escapes his violent father by taking off on a raft down the Mississippi from Illinois through Kentucky and Arkansas. He’s accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave, and runs into some characters along the way, like the shysters “the Duke” and “the King,” and into the feuding Gragerfords and Shepherdsons, before eventually meeting up with Tom Sawyer again. The Mississippi River is also a character in the book.

The Language of Bees (2009) by Laurie King, 9th in the Russell/Holmes series. Set in England, in Sussex and London, and a little in Orkney, an island off Scotland near Scandinavia. Started off well, with much about bees and beekeeping that was interesting, but before too long, I lost interest in the plot. The crime story is centered on a religious cult figure and his book, Testimony, and one of his followers, Yolanda, a woman from Singapore who happens to be the wife of Holmes’ newly found (again) son, Damian Adler, a surrealist artist to whom drug addiction, violence, and mental health issues are no stranger. Holmes seemed completely out of character in this one, barely heard from and when he was, all mushy about his grown son and fondly reminiscent about Irene Adler, the boy’s mother. One long section of the book is taken up with Mary’s harrowing flight in a small plane from London to Orkney; of course, flight was a new thing, and not for the faint of heart (which great pains are taken to show that Mary is not) even without wind, rain, a hungover pilot, a time crunch, and lack of landing strips. The book doesn’t really end, just says “to be continued.” Unsure whether I will.

October

The God of the Hive (2010) ) by Laurie King, 10th in the Russell/Holmes series. I should have followed my instincts at the end of The Language of Bees. I tried to read this book, for six weeks, never choosing it over anything else to read, finally getting to about page 250 before giving up. I lost interest pretty early on, when a toddler becomes a central character and Mary suddenly devotes her life to protecting this child. That’s the last one in this series I’ll be reading.

Devil’s Bridge (2015) by Linda Fairstein, #17 in the Alexandra Cooper series, except Alex is only present in about half the book, before being kidnapped. NYPD detective, and now Alex’s lover, Mike Chapman narrates the rest of the book as he and fellow detective Mercer Wallace try to find her and figure out a motive for her disappearance, taking us to the Manhattan waterfront — including Liberty Island, and Fort Washington Park (with Jeffrey’s Hook lighthouse) at the George Washington Bridge in their search on land and sea. The switch in POV worked fine for me, though the reason for her kidnapping was slightly implausible to me.

November

The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah. (For a bookgroup.) Yet another novel set during WWII, this one centers on two estranged sisters, one single, willful, and living in Paris and the other settled with husband and daughter in the village of Carriveau. The best of this book is that it takes the reader almost day by day (or so it felt) through the daily grind and frequent horror of living in France from 1939 to the Nazi-occupation, starting in the summer of 1940, through the end of the war in 1945, and then 50 years into the future as one of the sisters, living in the U.S., is invited to a ceremony in France (present time occupies only a few brief chapters interspersed throughout the book). Women populate the book and the action; the men — other than a couple of Nazi officers, the sisters’ father in Paris, and a few French resisters — are absent, mostly off fighting, while the women are living on inadequate food, medicine, clothing, and heat rations; unwillingly billeting and feeding Nazis in their homes; burying friends and children; trying to find homes for orphaned Jewish children when their mothers are taken away; afraid to speak to or look at each other for fear of being turned in for some crime. The sense of how long it all dragged on, how hopeless it seemed when each month or so something more frightening, horrifying, disheartening, or debilitating happened, is driven home.  There is also quite a lot about running a Resistance escape route for downed Allied soldiers through the Pyrenees. Still, for some reason, I wasn’t really engaged in the story (I struggled to keep reading the book over three weeks) or the characters. I think it felt a bit predictable: good Nazi, bad Nazi; hiding places in barn and convent; simple comparison-contrast between the sisters’ personalities and actions, though of course both are depicted as heroines; melodrama rather than nuance at every turn. Even the sisters’ moral dilemmas and choices, and their feelings about their choices, which are played and replayed numerous times, feel hyped and fabricated. It’s mainly an adequately plotted linear story meant to demonstrate the strength of women in a crisis and to depict the hardship and terror of that time and place, diminished by a shallow romance and cliche characters, without the lyrical writing and complex themes of All the Light We Cannot See.

Thérèse Raquin (1867) by Émile Zola. A very dark psychological novel of utterly destructive violence, set in a dark, fetid corner of Paris. Thérèse Raquin is married to her cousin, the sickly, spoiled, self-absorbed Camille, by their selfish and possessive aunt, but even before this occurs, she has felt suffocated and repressed by cousin and aunt; the marriage brings things to a head, and when she feels her blood rising for Laurent, a thick-necked, lazy, calculating man, it’s not long before they are lovers. The book read like a morality play infested with an Edgar Allen Poe story of horror, irony, . As others have noted, the four temperaments hypothesis of the time is prominent: Thérèse is melancholic, Laurent is sanguine, Camille is phlegmatic, and Madame Raquin (the aunt) is choleric; motivation deriving from “blood” and “nerves” is repeatedly described. The central idea of the novel is that violence, once unleashed, destroys all.  Resentment (and its consequences) is another major theme, as well as imprisonment (claustrophobia, suffocation, paralysis), punishment (confession, guilt, revenge, hauntings), obsession. I grew weary of it about halfway through; the characters seemed unreal, simply stand-ins for psychological traits and reactions.

December

The Nature of the Beast (2015) by Louise Penny, 11th in the Inspector Gamache series, set in the village of Three Pines, Quebec, which can’t be found using a GPS. This book is based loosely on a true story, of Gerald Bull, a scientist and arms designer who created a massive missile launcher as part of the Babylon project. Gamache (now retired), Isabelle Lacoste, and Jean-Guy Beauvoir investigate after a young boy — who has found a huge gun in the woods and bursts into the bistro to tell everyone — is murdered. Elements of other stories are interwoven:  an American who fled to the town to escape serving in the Vietnam War, two strange Canadian intelligence service agents with secrets they won’t share, and, most interestingly to me, Gamache’s past service at the secret trial of a cruel killer — his role, as a citizen not associated with the case, to represent all Canadians and to hear, see, and absorb the horror of the crimes. The plot is complicated and though the ending made sense, it wasn’t very satisfying or elegant.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein, non-fiction, for a group. We read this over about 10 weeks and eventually decided it wasn’t worth spending 2 hours per week discussing. There is really nothing substantially new here. If you are already someone who is aware of climate change and environmental politics, you may not know all the names (of people, corporate and non-profit entities), numbers (lots of them!), or the complicated relationships among “green” groups, politicians, and fossil fuel companies, and the anecdotes may be unfamiliar, but you will already know the gist of the book, which is that we are no where near doing anything as a planet about climate change, and our destructive ideologies and practices concerning energy usage, materialism, endless growth, etc., are already ruining the planet. If you are not into this stuff, or are a climate change skeptic, you will likely be turned off by what she says and how she says it. Her main suggestion for change is for all of us to become active locally, globally, in politics, in organizations, in big ways, collectively (not by simply turning off lights at home or using transportation less), to change policies, politics, culture, particularly in western, capitalist countries that use the most fossil fuel resources and emit the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all in the name of progress, growth, jobs, military defense, and freedom. As I said, nothing new, and quite a slog through the weeds to get there.

 

René Girard has Died

ReneGirard

“We must face our neighbors and declare unconditional peace. Even if we are provoked, challenged, we must give up violence once and for all.”

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The “Immortel” founder of mimetic theory, René Girard, has died today, less than two months before his 92nd birthday. He has had probably the biggest influence on my life of anyone, from the time I first read The Girard Reader (1996, ed. James G. Williams) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), in 2003 or 2004, after learning about him through Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

I’ve often wondered how much of his influence on me is due to his presenting a new idea that changed ever after how I thought, and how much due to his ideas resonating with what I already felt. I think it’s both: Girard’s ideas resonated because I already felt the truth of them in my life, but until I read his work, and that of other Girardians, I didn’t have a hermeneutic, a method for reading and interpreting both printed texts and situations in life, that was consistent and clear to me; I was trying to fit my observations and insights into other theologies, philosophies, anthropologies, sociologies and psychologies, and finding a mismatch.

If you too feel this way — that the way you read the motivations and consequences of situations in your own life, characters in a novel, history, politics, etc., seems uncorroborated by the media, philosophers, theologians, historians, those around you — then you might read some of his work and see what you find.

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“The true threat to the world today comes from the mad ambitions of states and capitalists bent on destroying non-modern cultures. It is the so-called developed countries that plunder the planet’s resources without showing the least concern for consequences they are incapable of foreseeing.”

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Online References

Eminent French theorist René Girard, member of the Académie Française, dies at 91 by Cynthia Haven, Stanford News, 5 Nov. 2015

In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death  by Adam Ericksen at The Raven Foundation, today.

History is a test. Mankind is failing it: René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse , by Cynthia Haven in Stanford Magazine (2012?). Good introduction to the man and his work.

Contemplation in a world of violence: Girard, Merton, Tolle, by James Alison, Nov. 2001. Reflections on 9/11. Excellent.

What Is Mimetic Theory? by Sherwood Belangia on his blog, Shared Ignorance: Toward A Defective Reading of Plato. Quite a good introduction to the key ideas.

In theory: Mimetic desire: Nearly 50 years on, René Girard’s theory remains a powerfully illuminating insight into both literature and the world, in The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2010. Focus on mimesis in literature.

We didn’t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight by James Alison (2013/2014), a sort of introduction to this aspect of Girard’s thought

Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the underside by James Alison, Jan. 2006.

The Apocalypse of Modernity by Thomas F. Bertonneau, in The Brussels Journal, 18 June 2012, on two of Girard’s books, Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End.

Intersubjectivity: René Girard’s Vision of Mimetic Desire and Economic Dynamics, Centre for International Governance Innovation, 18 April 2013. A fascinating video that starts with mention of Bill Buckner, the scapegoat supreme in New England.

Rene Girard and the Death Penalty by Charles Bellinger, 23 Feb. 2008.

Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory & The Scapegoat, at 180 Rule: Examining Psychopathy Through the Lens of Girardian Theory, 31 March 2012.

Mimetic Theory and American Exceptionalism (17 Sept 2013) by Suzanne Ross and Adam Ericksen, Raven Foundation.

My own notes on Girardian thought.

Books

By Girard
The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. (1982 in French as Le Bouc émissaire)
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1987. (1978 in French as Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde)
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001. (1999 in French as  Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair)
Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origin of Culture, with Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha. Bloomsbury Books, London, 2007.
Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010. Published originally as Achever Clausewitz, Editions Carnets Nord, 2007. Review at SF Gate.
When These Things Begin:Conversations with Michel Treguer. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2014.

By James Alison
The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1998. Excerpt.
Raising Abel, The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.
Faith Beyond Resentment, Fragments Catholic and Gay, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2001
On Being Liked, New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004.
Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006.

By Mark Heim
Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.

By Wolfgang Palaver
René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013.

By James G. Williams
The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996.

 

20 or so Cheeky Questions

Kind of fun. The Planthunter, a new favourite online plant-art-nature magazine, interviews folks using 20 or so Cheeky Questions. Sort of like the Proust Questionnaire but more plant-oriented. Or as their tagline says, “Life. With Plants.” Some of the questions seem simple on the surface but when I tried to answer them, it took a bit of thought. (Links to some of the The Planthunter pieces below.)
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Being Mortal

I recently read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande, a surgeon in Boston. He writes here about aging, balancing autonomy and security, assisted living and nursing homes, palliative care, dying, necessary conversations about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death.

These topics interest me, and Gawande’s writing — which he claims comes slowly and doesn’t flow easily — is clear and compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which I found dry, though pertinent.  He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of hopes and fears, and how voicing these hopes and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make the best choices from among confusing medical options, especially when all of the options carry major and perhaps unknown risks and downsides.

The PBS Frontline show with Gawande on this topic is excellent. So is Diane Rehm’s conversation with Gawande about the book in Oct 2014.

I had one major quibble with Gawande (and others) philosophically, which I go into at some length at the end of this posting.

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Some ideas that seemed especially critical or revelatory to me (all bolding within quotes is mine for emphasis; italics within quotes are his):

Old Age

For most of history, humans died before they reached old age; for all but the last couple hundred years, the average lifespan was 30 years or less. “Indeed, for most of history, death was a risk at every age of life and had no obvious connection with aging, at all.” A little mind-blowing!

And this was reassuring, given my longevity genes: Genetics have very little to do with longevity: Only 3% of how long a person will live compared with the average lifespan is explained by parents’ longevity, even though some of our other physical limits and features are almost completely tied to genetics, such as height (which is 90% determined by parents’ height).

We Wear Out: Like other complex systems, we don’t just shut down, we wear out. Simple devices “function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant.” But complex systems, as we are, are designed with redundancy:

“We have an extra kidney, an extra lung, an extra gonad, extra teeth. Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organizations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore. “

Also reassuring for many of us, since we can improve our balance and muscle strength: Falls: The risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than 4 prescription medications, and muscle weakness. “Elderly people without these risk factors have a 12% chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a 100% chance.”

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Autonomy

Nursing homes and other care facilities — designed to appeal to residents’ children, not the residents themselves, and looking to avoid lawsuits — favour safety over autonomy. Most of us “want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love.” But then of course, “those we love” want autonomy.

“[O]ur most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer.”

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Health care

Quality of life:

The job of any doctor, [geriatrician Juergen] Bludau later told me, is to support quality of  life, by which he meant two things: as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible and the retention of enough function for active engagement in the world.”

My mom died in early December, from complications of Alzheimer’s, after being in a memory care unit and then a 24-hour-nursing room at the same facility for a couple of years. Her life and death remind me that “active engagement in the world” is a relative term; for much of her adult life, she seemed content to sit on her sofa and watch TV most of the day. She could still do this, and seemed to be content doing it, until her last days. I visited her three weeks before she died and she was still engaged by the TV, by me, by the staff, and by the stuffed animals she liked to touch. It concerns me that some people — family, friends, medical professionals — might apply a different interpretation of “active engagement” than is relevant to the experience of the patient.

Well-being:

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

This set of questions actually applies to life outside of medical treatment, too. I could ask these questions about my garden: What is my understanding of the current situation — the soil, the climate, the slope and aspect, the available water, etc. — and the potential outcomes? What pests, diseases, outcomes do I fear and for what growth, beauty, biodiversity do I hope? How much work am I willing to do? What actions should I take that align with my responses?

A medical system that actively inflicts harm: Gawande cites a 2010 study at Massachusetts General Hospital of patients with advanced cancer that showed that “those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”

The main two models of doctor-patient relationships are paternalistic — I know best and you should confidently do what I tell you — and informative — here is all the information, data, statistics; now you make a good decision. But “neither type is quite what people desire. We want information and control, but we also want guidance.” Enter the interpretative type of doctor-patient relationship, where the doctor’s role is to help the patient determine what s/he wants. They ask questions, listen to you, and based on your answers, they suggest actions.

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The Difficulty of Medical Decision-Making

“People die only once. They have no experience to draw on.”

We don’t have control and we are not helpless:

“I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities.”

Facts don’t go far enough to help us make decisions; they didn’t for Gawande’s dad or for his patients:

“In theory, a person should make decisions about life and death matters analytically, on the basis of the facts. But the facts were shot through with holes and uncertainties. [My father’s] tumor was rare. No clear predictions could be made. Making choices required somehow filling the gaps, and what my father filled them with was fear. He feared the tumor and what it would do to him, and he also feared the solution being proposed.”

*

“The options overwhelmed her. They all sounded terrifying. She didn’t know what to do. I realized, with shame, that I’d reverted to being Dr. Informative—here are the facts and figures; what do you want to do? So I stepped back and asked the questions I’d asked my father: What were her biggest fears and concerns? What goals were most important to her? What tradeoffs was she willing to make, and what ones was she not?”

When my dad was diagnosed at age 73 with bladder cancer, he was blindsided, but soon he seemed to make really good decisions about his treatment and his life generally. I don’t think he told me all the details, but I gather that he was told from the outset that his cancer was likely to be fatal sooner than later. He opted for surgery and an urostomy bag. He was living in Florida then and requested visits from my sisters and me, who lived hundreds of miles away.

I spent a week with him between diagnosis and surgery, during which he asked me, as we wandered one afternoon among the citrus trees near his house, if I had any questions for him, anything I needed or wanted to talk with him about. As I’ve written elsewhere, our relationship as adults had been such that I really didn’t have anything pressing to discuss; we had covered those topics (including death and dying) over the years, on walks, hikes, at meals, in ordinary moments.

He also planned the hikes and trips he wanted to take, to places he had hiked dozens of times and knew intimately, and to Ireland, where he had never hiked but had long wanted to.

Eventually, perhaps when the cancer metastasied to his lungs, he made a few visits to Duke University Medical Center and took some oral chemotherapy for a while. Then he stopped that, requested my sister and me to visit again, fine-tuned his obituary (which he had written years earlier at my request), made cremation arrangements, and within about six weeks, died peacefully, three years after his diagnosis.

There were a few bumps in the road, but generally, his actions seemed focused on the questions Gawande suggests; he acted as much as possible, as much at it was in his control, in accord with his own hopes, fears, and goals, his awareness of what he wanted to avoid and what he wanted to do, how he wanted to live during in his remaining time, however long that might be. I appreciate the modelling.

The Peak End Rule and how it affects decision-making: Patients’ rankings of pain during a procedure are based on the average of just two moments: the single worst moment and the very end of the experience. The duration is not important in our memory, though it is in our actual experience:

The “experiencing self … endures every moment equally and a remembering self … gives almost all the weight of judgement afterward to two single points in time. … If the remembering self and the experiencing self can come to radically different opinions about the same experience, then the difficult question is which one to listen to. … In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. … Unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment— your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole.  … Yet, we also recognize that the experiencing self should not be ignored. The peak and the ending are not the only things that count. In favoring the moment of intense joy over steady happiness, the remembering self is hardly always wise. … When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that both the experiencing self and the remembering self matter. We do not want to endure long pain and short pleasure. Yet certain pleasures can make enduring suffering worthwhile. The peaks are important, and so is the ending.”

Probably the most common evidence of this phenomenon — specifically, of a pleasurable ending transforming suffering to make it, in retrospect, seem to have been negligible and worthwhile — is in women who have more than one childbirth.

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This peak-end rule was an interesting finding for me, and also one of the hardest to wrap my head around as applied to dying. Similarly Gawande’s comments earlier in the book about what makes life (and therefore death) meaningful, which, as he makes clear, are not original or unique to him:

“The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not. Loyalty, said Royce, ‘solves the paradox of our ordinary existence by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.'”

I recognise that this is the common idea, that a sense of purpose outside oneself gives life meaning. Yet it’s not a concept I fully understand.

First, “family” doesn’t seem like a higher purpose to me but rather an evolutionary and biological means of promulgating one’s own genetic material (and to a lesser and more unreliable extent, one’s values), and therefore very much focused on the self, and perhaps even a sort of denial of mortality, a belief that one lives on after death, biologically and otherwise, in the lives of others.

I understand better the idea of purpose involving the larger community or society, but I just don’t accept it either as a solution to “the paradox of our ordinary existence,” because I don’t feel there is a paradox to be solved — mortal beings are born, flourish (maybe), and die — or as an action or philosophy that gives life meaning, because living gives life meaning for me. Experiencing love, intimacy, fear, a tree, beauty, revelation, sunlight on a pond, fatigue, hope, compassion, enlightenment, disappointment, wonder, bewilderment, loneliness, the taste of an artichoke, the scent of the ocean, the feel of a cool breeze on a hot day, and so on, and expressing and sharing these experiences in many ways, seems like enough to me.

For me, the experiencing self is the one that seems reliable. It’s the one that lives in the only place we can really live, which is here, and now. The remembering self wants to distort the experience to make a satisfying story about it, complete with cognitive biases, and I distrust these biases and its sense of removal and distance from the experience.

Gawande says that “unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment— your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole;” and yet, when I am dead, does it really matter how I view my story? Or anything?

It seems that Gawande is focusing on the weeks, days, hours before the final unconsciousness as the most critical, a kind of assessing of one’s legacy, and perhaps in a book on dying, that’s appropriate, and in fact these studies that Gawande cites are clear that it’s the ending of the story that matters most to most people; and yet in some ways it seems pointless to me to consider the arc and ending of a story whose protagonist, who is also the narrator, is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, handing off the telling of their only story (their many stories) to friends and next of kin.

Speaking of handing the story off: It would annoy me (though hopefully I will be beyond annoyance) if, should I die after a long illness, the story of my death is immediately written in a way that would be anathema to me: “She fought a good fight. She lost her battle with X illness.” Or worse. I don’t want my death to be seen as a fight I lost, battling some imaginary enemy, when I see death as a natural progression; and I don’t want the ending, however if unfolds, whether I seem heroic or a whining misery, to colour all that came before. But how my perceived story will be told by others doesn’t concern me much — since, let’s face it, the storytellers will get it wrong, and anyway, they also will die, and soon in geological time.

More to Gawande’s point, how I myself view my story in my final months or moments — its arc or ending, its meaning as a whole — doesn’t seem important, either. For one thing, we all have much the same story to this point — born, learned, tried, failed, succeeded, hoped, feared, acted brave and cowardly, acted selfishly and compassionately, felt and thought things, took risks and played it safe, believed, doubted, had faith, despaired, ate and drank, laughed and cried, loved and hated, practiced violence and peace — and in the final analysis, it ends the same way for everyone, so far as we know. For another, I’d rather put the paltry energy I have in my final days into just experiencing the moments (until the time comes that I’d rather not experience the moments, as Gawande’s father felt in his last hours) rather than trying to craft or tell a story that satisfies me and seems coherent.

We will all be gone in the blink of an eye, from this Earth, at least, and then who knows?, and that thought gives me great comfort when I think about dying. I have no hope in the idea of anyone living on after me or of anyone remembering me; I take comfort in the knowledge that we will all die: our bodies, our ability to experience, our perceptions and memories of our experiences, our art and stories about these experiences. And all that will have been will be what we sense, what we feel, what we think, how we act, in the moments when we sense, feel, think, act.

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“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” ― Vladimir Nabokov

I’m mortal, I will die, I am dying. That happens in time. And while I live, I escape mortality in moments of timelessness … by being absorbed … in that sensation of oneness that can’t help but be an outpouring of gratitude … when brushed by eternity, by “ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”