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Sunday, April 24, 2016

What I'm reading (#8)

While wearing my other hat -- "skeptic/critical thinking activist" -- I have frequently railed against the the people who, through ignorance or a political agenda, have publicly campaigned against doing anything about anthropogenic climate change.  Some of these folks are true deniers, claiming that the phenomenon itself doesn't exist, despite copious evidence to the contrary and the consensus of nearly 100% of the world's climatologists.

I.e., the people who actually know what they're talking about.

I have made the statement more than once that these are people who, by and large, have never bothered to read a single scholarly paper about climate science.  Some of them, such as James "Senator Snowball" Inhofe, probably wouldn't understand it if they did.  But last week I finished a book that is accessible to everyone, with or without a scientific background.  And not only is it informative and well-written (if scary in its implications), it is a gripping tale of the people who have worked tirelessly to find the truth about what runs the Earth's climate.

Thin Ice, by Mark Bowen, primarily focuses on the research of glaciologists and husband-and-wife team Lonnie and Ellen Thompson.  They have made a career of climbing the world's highest mountains, always at great risk to themselves, to obtain ice cores from glaciers.  These ice cores are like tree rings -- stratified layers that preserve a record of the Earth's climate, some so well preserved that they can be read back tens of thousands of years.

And it's pressing that Thompson and his colleagues do this research, and do it quickly -- because the world's glaciers are fast disappearing.

Each chapter deals with a different expedition Thompson has led -- to Tibet, to Peru, to Antarctica, to Tanzania.  In each place the team faces different struggles and risks, dragging hundreds of pounds of ice coring equipment (not to mention their own food and supplies) up terrain more rugged than most of us will face in a lifetime.  Temperatures plunge below zero Fahrenheit; winds clock fifty miles per hour or more, dropping wind chills into the realm of frostbite-within-seconds.  Success is far from guaranteed, both from natural problems (bad weather, equipment malfunction) but from purely human snafus -- such as the endless bureaucracy from the Chinese government the team had to endure to get permission to climb in Tibet.

But the results of their research are unequivocal; the temperature climb we've seen in the past fifty years is unprecedented in the last hundred thousand.  Thompson and other climatologists have known this for decades.  The runaway burning of fossil fuels has driven an alteration in the world's climate that might be the fastest shift the Earth has ever seen.  And all that comes with it -- sea level rise, extinctions, changing rainfall patterns, and tropical diseases steadily edging their way northward.

Bowen's book is the gripping story of men and women who have risked their lives to find out the truth about the world's climate, and our effect on it.  Not only does it paint a picture of a very real human drama, it highlights information we all should be informed about.  So for anyone who doubts the impact of fossil fuel burning on the weather, you don't have to slog through a scholarly paper in a scientific journal.

All you have to do is read Thin Ice.  Then come back and tell me if you're still unconvinced.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What I'm reading (#7)

What would you do if a single unexpected event completely knocked the pegs out from under your universe?

That unsettling question is at the heart of Haruki Murakami's novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.  The main character tells us about this pivotal moment in his life -- when he was banished from his group of friends, without explanation and without possibility of recourse, and told never to contact any of them again.

The loss of his connection to the four people who were his entire world plunges Tsukuru into a near-suicidal fugue state for months.  He would have killed himself, he tells us, if it had been easy and painless; as if a mere nod of acquiescence could erase him completely, not only from the world but from everyone's memories.  He had noticed prior to his expulsion that his name was the only one of the five that didn't have a color word in it -- in fact, his friends went by the nicknames Aka (red), Ao (blue), Kuro (black), and Shiro (white) -- but now he has truly become colorless, a ghost only barely participating in his own world.

It is only years later that a new friend and potential lover, Sara, is strong enough to push Tsukuru to open up these wounds from his past.  She persuades him to go back and find the four friends who so mysteriously betrayed him, and ask them why they did it.  To give any more details would spoil the unfolding of this story, so I'll simply ask you to do yourself a favor and read it.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a beautiful portrayal of friendship, memory, betrayal, redemption, and the hard choices a moral person sometimes has to make.  It is unusual amongst Murakami's work in not having the surreal aspects that most of them weave in; but far from weakening it, this makes it perhaps Murakami's most human novel.  The characters tell a story that is by turns funny and tragic, simple and hauntingly complex, and you'll be thinking about what it all means long after you turn the last page.

Friday, April 15, 2016

New release, April 2016!

Are you brave enough to enter the Sephirot?

And if you do, will you ever find your way out again?

Duncan Kyle is an ordinary twenty-something whose simple life of sports, job, and girlfriend comes to a crashing halt late one night when he falls through the floor of his apartment.

He finds himself in Malkuth, a desolate, desiccated world where the only living beings are a sardonic Sphinx and her invisible caretakers, who in this frigid place are drawn to anything warm. He is told by the Sphinx that he will have to make his way through ten worlds before he can return to life as he knows it--the ten emanations of the Sephirot. 

On his journey, Duncan encounters a wild huntress torn between making love to him or killing him; an elderly woman who tries to convince him that he has been ill and dreamed the whole thing; a scarlet-robed judge who sentences him to be whipped and executed for performing evil magic; a kind potter and his daughter who take him in and heal his injuries; and a timid, soft-spoken Methodist minister who helps him survive in a place where all hell breaks loose--literally--once the sun goes down. In every world he visits, though, one thing stays the same. Duncan has to rely on his wits alone to stay alive and find his way to the next portal, and he has to summon the strength of will to keep going--because if he falls for the snare each world represents, he'll never find his way home.

Available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and fine bookstores near you!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What I'm reading (#6)

Every once in a while I'll stumble across a book that sticks with me long after I've turned the last page.  What usually does it for me is some combination of haunting imagery, brilliant use of language, and a plot with a deep and intricate subtext.

Some rare books have all three.

Such a book is Sacred Alarm Clock by John Biggs.  A post-apocalyptic novel with a lot to say about life in the United States right now, the story follows the interwoven lives of Wylie Chatto, a mentally-challenged Apache teenager who gets messages from Geronimo and knows things are going awry when he smells rosemary; Mona and Chris, a pair of lovers trying to find their way through the ravaged countryside of what is left of Oklahoma without getting killed; and Karma and Joseph, high school teenagers who are suddenly facing a life where to survive means avoiding crazed people and packs of wild dogs.

Set in an indeterminate near-present, Sacred Alarm Clock is the story of how one push -- in this case, a plague called the New Flu that causes paranoia, religious mania, and eventual death -- can cause the whole house of cards we call "civilization" to collapse.  And when the power goes out and the plumbing stops working and the gasoline runs out and the governments fall, the survivors are at the mercy of each other.  The result is atrocity and violence -- and, sometimes, acts of tremendous selflessness and compassion.

Biggs's book is simultaneously terrifying and uplifting.  It follows in the tradition of Lord of the Flies and The Stand in holding up a mirror to our primal selves.  He draws the bleak landscape of a post-United States North America in vivid and memorable terms, and brings you on a journey that you won't forget for a long, long time.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

What I'm reading (#5)

Last night, I finished David Mitchell's book The Bone Clocks, a long (621 pages), sprawling speculative fiction novel following the life of Holly Sykes, a Londoner with some very odd special powers.

The story spans sixty years and is split into six sections, starting with Holly as a teenager in Gravesend, about to run away to join her ne'er-do-well boyfriend.  Holly's abilities -- which at this point she understands only poorly -- manifest as hearing what she calls "the Radio People," voices in her head that give her strange, and sometimes dangerous, messages.  She suddenly loses her capacity after a visit to a Dr. Marinus, but realizes that the weirdness isn't over when she meets an old woman named Esther Little who asks Holly to promise her sanctuary if things go awry.

Which they do.  Holly witnesses two horrific murders and flees, and recognizes that her psychic powers, and Esther's request, have ensnared her in a global war between two rival factions of immortals -- the Horologists and the Anchorites.

Each section features a new point-of-view character -- college student Hugo Lamb, war journalist Ed Brubeck, novelist Crispin Hershey, Dr. Marinus, and in the final section, back to Holly Sykes.  Holly herself is the common thread in each section, providing a link between the different characters and places.

The tale is deftly told, and contains vivid imagery and well-delineated characters.  Mitchell's writing is lyrical and often beautiful.  Ultimately, though, the novel doesn't work -- partly because two of the point-of-view characters are so thoroughly unlikeable, but mostly because the actual story arc (the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites, and Holly's role therein) comprises so little of the book.  The fifth section is the dramatic climax of the novel, and in the sixth it flounders into page after page of cautionary prose about the potential chaos unleashed by climate change and environmental devastation.  I've nothing against a good post-apocalyptic story, mind you; but that isn't what The Bone Clocks set out to do, and the entire sixth section feels like a preachy, depressing anticlimax.  A weak nod in the last few pages to the battle between the two factions of immortals at least draws the final section into the rest of the narrative, but you get the impression that Mitchell didn't know when to stop writing and stamp "The End" on the manuscript.

I wouldn't say I disliked The Bone Clocks; it kept me reading.  The basic idea was compelling, and the mysterious undercurrents of the story had all of the best features of speculative fiction.  But the novel's unwarranted length, and especially its disappointing sixth section, left me feeling like the concept fell far short of achieving its full potential.