Lockdown Reading

Step out of your species. Toby Ord says,

The horseshoe crab, for example, has lived for 450 million years so far. The Earth should remain habitable for at least that long. So, if we can survive as long as the horseshoe crab, we could have a future stretching millions of centuries from now.”

Might not feel that way right now. But while we’re all at home, here are three books on my table we can read together: Carl Safina’s Becoming Wild, Stefano Mancuso’s Brilliant Green and What it’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley. Much needed, out-of-species corrective wonder.

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A Reading List in the Time of Coronavirus

All right, all right, it really does look like we’re all going to have to enjoy spring after being dragged inside (cozier if you’re south of the equator, winter coming on). If that’s what we’re facing, here are a half dozen books I can recommend for your quarantine time:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk • Nobel prize winner for literature, clever, engaging fiction.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris • The latest from a brilliant writer. It’s not what you think.

Prisoner by Jason Rezaian • Memoir of the former Washington Post reporter’s time in an Iranian prison.

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa • Tough stuff about the Syrian civil war.

The Capital by Robert Menasse • Acerbic portrait of the function, and disfunction, of the EU in Brussels.

The Salt of the Earth by Jósef Wittlin • Classic novel of a Polish peasant’s experience in World War One.

And here are a few waiting on my bookshelf. Since we were planning to be in Africa this spring, here are three books that were to be background for the trip:

A Grain of Wheat by Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o • Classic story of late colonial Kenya.

House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma • The facts of life in modern Zimbabwe.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste • I loved Ms. Mengiste’s 2011 Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. This one’s about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

And one more, a new release:

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon • Story of three orphaned kids in 1960s Laos.

At least we can enjoy traveling the world through books this spring, while staying indoors. And not touching our faces.

If you read any of these books please send your feedback.

Quotes: Speeches of the Elite

John Lanchester from his new book, The Wall:

“I fell for a moment into a reverie, a kind of guided dream, in which I imagined baby members of the elite being born from chrysalises, already wearing their shiny suits, their ties pre-knotted, their first clichés already on their lips, being wiped down of cocoon matter and pushed toward a podium, ready to make their first big speech, spout their first platitude, lose their virginity at lying. They’d be made to do that before they were given any food or drink or comfort, just to make sure it was the thingthey knew first and best, the think that came most naturally.”

Appalachian Reckoning

As a twenty-year non-native resident of Appalachia who is about to go on hiatus outside the region, I’m happy to find a robust riposte to J.D. Vance’s unctuous Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis which unfairly takes to task some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever known. Mr. Vance wants you to know he followed the approved neo-lib wealth-acquiring path to its venture capitalist reward, and that the hillbilly people he grew up with can count filth, sloth and lack of couth as reasons they’ll never fill his wing-tips. It’s unkind and makes for a mean book. And personal. May I say, I didn’t much like it. Unfortunately, when it came out I’m afraid it ratified the coastal media’s self-esteem and they ate it up on the left, right and center.

The reply comes in the form of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. I’ve yet to read the book. I just became aware of it today, here. But I’m happy the West Virginia University Press has put it together, if for this quote alone, from Dwight B. Billings, a professor emeritus of sociology and Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky: “It is one thing to write a personal memoir extolling the wisdom of one’s personal choices but quite something else — something extraordinarily audacious — to presume to write the ‘memoir’ of a culture.”

I’d like to think that in the three years since Hillbilly Elegy appeared we’ve begun to collectively reexamine some of the naked striving for unaccountable wealth that has marked the last thirty years.

Appalachia has its challenges. We’ll talk about that later. We’re about to take to the road again for a while and I’ll have valedictory remarks, but I’ll say for now that our home for the last twenty years is a beautiful place, full of wealth of the natural kind, and if my wife, dogs, cat, horses and I ran into a problem here on the farm, I promise I’d trust my neighbors the retired builder, the loggers or the guy who hustles a living with his Bobcat and gravel truck for their help way before a disdainful venture capitalist.

Here’s a little of our Appalachia for you:

Weekend Reading

The possibility of a little wintry weather here across southern Appalachia this weekend will keep us close to the fire with a few interesting articles at hand. Like these:

– Matthew Engel on European train travel.
In the Valley of Fear by Michael Greenberg, from which the quote in the previous post is taken.
First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth by Jeff Tollefson.
– This is unfortunate: What Are We Like? 10 Psychology Findings That Reveal The Worst Of Human Nature by Christian Jarrett.
– Now that’s a library: Helsinki’s New Library Has 3-D Printers and Power Tools. (And Some Books, Too.)
– I like Rafael Behr’s notion of “mild tyranny,” in this article:

“It sounds like an oxymoron, and certainly not the kind of thing citizens in a democracy might choose. But when you consider the relationship many of us have with technology there is something gently tyrannical involved.”

– Meanwhile in Mexico
… and in Siberia….

Look for my monthly travel column next Monday at 3 Quarks Daily, and next week here, we’ll excerpt a couple of chapters from my book Common Sense and Whiskey. For now, enjoy the weekend. See you next week.

Weekend Reading

A few more interesting articles for you to sink your teeth into this weekend:

How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port by Maria Abi-Habib in the New York Times. Graft and intrigue in the southern resort town of Hambantota, Sri Lanka.
The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber by J. B. MacKinnon at Nautil.us. Alex Honnold doesn’t experience fear like the rest of us.
The great firewall of China: Xi Jinping’s internet shutdown by Elizabeth C Economy in The Guardian. The largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world.
A Rattle with Death in Yosemite by Kyle Dickman in Outside Magazine. Don’t ever, ever, ever get bitten by a rattlesnake.
After the Fall by John Lanchester in the LRB. Lanchester is such a great writer. Yep, even on the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch.

I’m compiling a few worrisome quotes by/about our, um, leadership for over the weekend, and we’ll be back to Africa with another vignette on Monday. For now, a good weekend to you.

Weekend Reading

Good stuff to read this weekend:

The case for invading America by Scott Gilmore in MacLean’s: “Our invasion may be slowed due to the usual congestion at the border crossings, but if we time our attack mid-week, traffic on the Ambassador Bridge should be manageable.”
Watermarks by Donovan Hohn at Lapham’s Quarterly. A meditation on water.
Teddy Roosevelt on How the Blind Cult of Success Unfits Us for Democracy and Liberty by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.
The Political Path to GPS: How war and peace forged the universal map by Anthony Paletta at New Atlantis
Mexicans Drive Bus to Russia for the World Cup at El Universal

Last Friday I wrote that

“President Trump is not taking the country seriously, but rather playing it as a television show in which he is the star, with teases and cliffhangers, time-worn entertainment industry tactics to keep us tuning in,” and that “This year the United States has become a cartoon country, with either the complicity or inattention of much of its population.”

Here is an article from Monday that elaborates on that theme: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the kayfabe.

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Birds are strange. Sometimes kind of prehistoric and scary and very unlike humans. But they are not beyond the occasional bad hair day. For one further weekend diversion, I invite you to enjoy 183 entertaining photos of our avian friends at EarthPhotos.com.

Enjoy the weekend.