guest post: Mom’s recent reading adventures

Mom says…

Just thought I would share some recent reading adventures.

I just started Rules of Civility which immediately captivated me.

Just finished Leonard Rosen’s The Tenth Witness, part of his Henri Poincare series (book two). I loved the previous one more, but was swept along by this one, even with some flaws. He explores the soul and the tendency among some to be cruel and unconcerned about humans, as well as the incomprehensible ability – of others – to be full of love and compassion. The recent one took on the Nazis and WWII. All Cry Chaos (book one) was so good that I bought it in audio, although I haven’t gone there yet. The protagonist is a descendent of Poincare the mathematician, and that plays a bit part. More importantly, he’s a Frenchman who travels as part of his work, and sees a lot of places that I at least know. Amsterdam has a roll in the first, and in the 2nd, the Wadden Sea and the island of Terschelling. There he takes on the mud walking on the flats that is so popular with the Dutch, and makes a case for its attraction.

Mom is not only a world traveler but a mathematician, herself.

And before that I read in succession Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Sky Unwashed by Irene Zabytko, both of which have a focus on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which killed a few hundred thousand at least. There’s also Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan, a dog’s story (told by the dog) as parable: we cannot get beyond our training, even to save ourselves. It was circulated by hand as samizdat for years. Those three along with the Penguin books (Death and the Penguin, Penguin Lost) are all set in the Soviet sphere or Soviet Union – or Russia – and they all take on the attitude toward life that that history gave people. A bleak hopelessness combined with determination made survival possible for some, but they carried the black memory of their lost families and co-strivers. The Sky Unwashed is set completely in the Ukraine during the catastrophe of 1986, with some of the people living like peasants of an earlier century, and many returning to the forbidden sites to continue to live that way, gardening and tending a cow or pig, even as there are whole pine forests of standing trees killed by radiation. Smith has been here before (Gorky Park, etc), and knows the territory. His treatment may be even more devastating, love and desperation and ambition mixed so completely, with the hopelessness of the system still a palpable part of people’s psyche. These books are set in a society where being drunk and incompetent at work was not out of the ordinary, and there is no sense of duty to the public: police and social worker are driven by bribes and ambition or a perverse sense of cynicism (is that a contradiction?).

Contradiction? No. Redundant? Perhaps; but no, I think I’m with you here. Perversely cynical.

Enough of that! I started out to tell you about Collapse. I always enjoy stories about other cultures, so anthropology with some lessons makes for a good read, even without considering the lessons for today. Jared Diamond tells at the end about his conversations with students about this material, as he taught a course with the plan to write this book. The students couldn’t imagine how these people could have cut down the last tree that also doomed them – how could they knowingly do that? He even cites an academic who sees this as impossible (speaking about some collapsed ancient society) because cultures are more purposeful and self-aware, self-preserving. There are too many counterexamples for this to be valid of course, and where does that leave us? His conclusions leave some hopeful possibilities, as well as the not-so-hopeful outcomes.

Diamond tells a striking story set in an airport. We see the ID checking, the security machinery, the computer screens with the little piece of paper that tell who you are and where your seat is. It is clearly a lesson in pervasive technology, but wait! His point is that he is in an airport in New Guinea, where we have been talking about a society that was only found in the last century, and all the faces are very like those of the ‘primitive’ people we see in photos from the ’30s. His point is that we are much more connected that in the past, when some societies were able to collapse separate and unknown to the rest of the world. (One of the principles of collapse is connection to neighboring societies, whether as trading partners who fill a need, or as competitors or simply antagonists that further the collapse.) So globalization is both positive and negative in the social equations of collapse and survival.

Many more thoughts about this book, but no definitive answers – did I expect that?

Aside from Rules of Civility which of course I bothered her to read, much of this was new to me! I did read and enjoy Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, and I recognize him from her brief description here. In fact, I could swear I’d read that airport scene before; or maybe Mom had already told me about it? Funny. At any rate, Mom, I enjoyed this glimpse into your reading life – as diverse as any – maybe that’s where I got it?? A fine legacy! I was just reminiscing the other day over the authors my mother has introduced me to – James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Elizabeth George (who is becoming less appreciated, sadly), and Lee Child who I’ve brought to her attention. But better than any of these genre authors is having inherited eclectic reading interests. Thanks, Mom.

2 Responses

  1. I loved Rules of Civility!

    • So did I, and I think I have it second-hand that my grandmother did as well, and that might be the most meaningful, since she lived in the time and place in which it’s set. A lovely book to read or listen to; highly recommended! Glad you concur. šŸ™‚

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