The Revolution Where You Live by Sarah Van Gelder (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017)
The co-founder of Yes! Magazine, Sarah Van Gelder, wrote this book to tell the story of her “12,000 mile journey through a new America.” Yes! Magazine (to which I subscribe) is an online and print outlet for articles by progressive “solutions journalists” who envision “positive futures” for our country. Van Gelder started from her home in the Seattle area in mid-August 2015 and drove all the way across the country and back home again, stopping along the way to learn and pass on inspiring stories of various communities. The unifying theme across these stories is the concept of “acting locally” to solve community problems. The problems that Van Gelder is concerned about involve poverty, inequality, racism, and climate change, and she encounters some great solutions like local food production, worker owned cooperatives, urban farms, time banks, and restorative justice circles. Because the author lives on land that belongs to an Indian reservation, indigenous peoples are featured in many of the book’s chapters, along with African-Americans and other people of color. Van Gelder didn’t talk to political leaders (with one exception) or CEOs of large think-tanks; her focus was on grassroots solutions being implemented by people in American communities, both rural and urban. This is an inspiring compilation about what must have been a wonderful journey.
The Comet Seekers: a novel by Helen Sedgwick (Harper-Collins, 2016)
Welcome to year 5 of my book blog! I will continue to post less often, but be patient and you will be rewarded.
There is more fiction about scientists than you might expect. Often in these novels, including this one, they are pulled one way by love and the other way by their passion to discover new knowledge about the universe, although I’m not sure that’s such a big problem in real life. This book is unusual in that ghosts play a major role in the plot, despite the scientific bent of the real characters. It takes place in France, Ireland, and (briefly) Antarctica; and comets are of course the plot device everything orbits around. Pay attention to the chapter titles, which indicate a year and a real comet that was visible that year. You’ll know this is a literary novel because of the way that the plot starts at the end and jumps around all over time before returning to the present. Nevertheless the story is told coherently, poetically, and with several hard blows to the gut of the reader before it ends.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012)
I have been meaning to read this book for several years, and I’m glad I finally did. Michelle Alexander is an accomplished civil rights lawyer, and she makes a solid case for the idea that the mass incarceration of black men in the U.S. is the latest way for powerful forces in our country to keep many black men in a state of second class citizenship. It’s hard for me to believe that it could be deliberate, but according to her, the War on Drugs was always meant to target black men, and continues to do so. Instead of focusing on violent crimes, the criminal justice system is incentivized by federal funding to target minor drug violations, but only for people of color – the same minor drug violations by whites are ignored. Laws impose huge penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs, and police round-ups in poor neighborhoods often force innocent people to plead guilty to felony misdemeanors in order to avoid years in jail. Racial profiling similarly targets black men for minor traffic violations so that their cars can be searched for drugs. Even when these men serve their jail sentence and are released, their felony records make it very difficult for them to find jobs and housing, and they are not allowed to vote. All in all, it’s a very disturbing book. It would be interesting to know what Alexander makes of all the police killings of black men in the past couple of years.
Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen (Random House, 2016)
Every so often I read one of Quindlen’s new books, and they’re always pretty good. My only complaint is that they describe the characters’ lives so realistically that they’re not very good as escapism. This one, for example takes place in rural Pennsylvania and features a girl who’s good at science and eventually becomes a doctor. The major side plot interwoven around her late 20th century life involves the dam that the federal government wants to expand, which will flood her family’s farm and force them to relocate. This aspect of the book is similar to another novel I read in which residents dealt with fracking in rural Pennsylvania. Although Quindlen does a good job of describing life in Pennsylvania, she can’t have spent much time there because she never mentions Wawa, the iconic convenience store.
The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon Books, 2014)
Although the characters and setting of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series are familiar to most readers of McCall Smith’s novels, the various mysteries that Ms. Ramotswe and Ms. Makutski need to solve keep things unpredictable. I’m glad that solving mysteries really is their paid job – so many fictional women solve mysteries only as a hobby, which is kind of sexist. As always in his books, the author’s characters frequently find themselves wrestling with the ethical choices involved in everyday situations. Precious Ramotswe falls squarely on the side of kindness every time, and has no regrets. This is a well written story that will satisfy fans.
Rain: a natural and cultural history by Cynthia Barnett (Crown Publishers, 2015)
I thought this was a fairly interesting book, but then I’ve always been interested in weather. My first summer job as a college student was in the Meteorology department of the local university. Cynthia Barnett approaches the topic of rain as a journalist, traveling around the U.S. and the world interviewing people and doing historical research. She covers pre-historical climate, rain and ancient civilization, the history of weather data collection and forecasting, rain makers and geo-engineering, drought and rains of frogs, the scent of rain, and the rainiest places in the world. Barnett concludes with a down-to-earth discussion of climate change and how it may be changing rain patterns around the world. I am pretty knowledgeable about weather and climate, but I learned a lot. If you enjoy watching the Weather Channel, you’ll find this book worth reading.
Infomocracy by Malka Older (Tom Doherty Associates, 2016)
I first saw this science fiction novel reviewed in BookList’s online site, and wanted to read it badly enough to ask my local public library to get it by interlibrary loan for me. It was pretty good – I’d give it about 8 on a 10 point scale. It takes place in the 2060’s in various major cities around the world such as Tokyo, Jakarta, Paris, and a bunch of cities whose names are not familiar to me, being only an armchair traveler myself. I assume they are real cities in the Middle East, South America and Asia since the author’s bio claims she has been to all of them. In this world they have “micro-democracy” in place of nations, and each group of ten thousand citizens gets to vote for their preferred government every ten years. There are dozens of political parties to choose from, and an almost infinite amount of information available from the entity the Internet has evolved into 50 years from now. The “Information” is a global bureaucracy that keeps this supply of knowledge analyzed, updated, and transmitted. The main characters include a small set of Information employees, party employees, contractors, and activists who try to bring down the system (or save it, depending on their role) during the third 10-year cycle. It’s an imaginative concept and a thought-provoking plot.