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I had seen a number of mentions of the new book by Behold the Dreamers author Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were. It’s set in an unnamed African country in a village called Kosawa, in a district near the country’s capital, Bezam. Kosawa’s children are dying, their water and farmland and air poisoned by an American oil company, Pexton. The Kosawan leader is in Pexton’s pay, which results in his living in a well built home with luxuries the rest of his village does not enjoy, his eldest sons ensconced in government jobs, his younger children drinking clean water provided by his corporate and government sponsors. The country’s leader, His Excellency, turns over his cabinet every two years because he has so many enemies, ignores and laughs off the condemnation of hypocritical foreign governments he knows profit off of his country, and empowers the military to rape and execute at whim.

Into this hopeless mess, Thula is born. A quiet person who loves her family and her village, Thula does more listening than talking as a child, except with her beloved Papa, who sites on the veranda and talks with her about life. When he leaves with a handful of other men to go to Bezam and demand that something be done to stop Kosawa’s children from being poisoned to death, Thula and her family long for his return. As she begins to realize he won’t be coming back, Thula becomes certain of her life’s mission: to carry on in her family’s cause, to help her village overcome the corruption that is killing them. “I know nothing about how a girl makes men pay for their crimes, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.”

Pexton starts sending mouthpieces to the village for “meetings” where they tell the village they will help them, giving no specifics. They return regularly for this charade, until the village madman interrupts one of these meetings and incites the village to take its fate into its own hands. Thula, and her “age mates” lives’ will never be the same after this; there are reprisals, violence, and more loss. But there is also international attention thanks to a reporter, Austin, child of an American man and a woman from Thula’s country. His work captures the attention of an NGO, Restoration Movement, which comes to reconcile the village and Pexton (which seems just as ridiculous as it sounds; you can’t have reconciliation if one party refuses to admit any wrongdoing).

Thula is the recipient of a scholarship from this NGO and she goes to New York, and studies justice movements at college. She remembers her father telling her “to never forget what it felt like to be a child when I grow up, never forget how it felt to be small and in need of protection, much of the suffering in the world was because of those who had forgotten that they too were once children.” She takes part in protests and also becomes reacquainted with Austin. And she writes letters to her age mates, who Mbue presents as a kind of shared voice, alternating their collective perspective with members of Thula’s family in different chapters.

Every letter Thula writes ends with “I’ll always be one of us.” She becomes the resistance leader of Kosawa, not only because her education affords her money and knowledge, but because her devotion and willingness to give up everything else in her life to the cause of justice inspires others to follow. When she returns, taking a job as teacher at a government leadership school in Bezam, she is single-minded. She will not be tempted to benefit from the graft that is rife in the capital. She will not be dissuaded from tirelessly working for justice, peacefully and persuasively, leveraging the law whenever possible. She loses more than she wins, but she keeps going.

The book takes place over decades, and in places drags a bit, but I think that is purposeful — justice (or lack of justice) for Kosawa is dragged out in American courts, in violent reprisals, in the slow, careless destruction of the environment by a corporation made rich and powerful because of people’s indifference, greed, and corruption. Thula understands that the work will be slow, and makes clear she is in it for the long haul. At first people beyond Kosawa follow her too, joining her movement; support dwindles when the cause seems hopeless. Her own brother, Juba, supports her only until it dawns on him that his wife’s urging to live differently is more appealing: “I’d traveled across the country with my sister, I’d borne witness to how little was changing despite her zeal, and I’d realized — while some men were heckling Thula at a poorly attended rally in the east — that my Nubia was right all along: our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could.” Nubia suffered injustice as a child as well, and she tells Juba “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.”

I should have sensed then the direction of the rest of the book. I won’t spoil the plot, but I’ll tell you it’s a bracing story of what happens to hope and justice when faced with the combined forces of capitalism and despotism. And the smaller force of people like Nubia whose pain teaches them to just get what they can from their oppressors. At the end of the book, change comes not because of collective action but because of globalism. And it isn’t the change Thula envisioned. The book’s epigraph is from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I guess the light in this book is that people go on living and trying to make the best of their lives.

A powerful read.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil is another pick of the ACRL Science and Technology librarians. I started it as a library eBook and then Klara and the Sun was ready in my eBook holds so I set it aside. I got a chance to finish it this morning. I wasn’t sure how interesting a book about algorithms would be, but it turns out, the answer is very.

O’Neil‘s own story is also interesting. She started as a mathematician in academia, went to work at a hedge fund, and had an epiphany there that math in the wrong hands could be used for bad. Since then, her bio on her blog notes, “She hopes to someday have a better answer to the question, “what can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?”

Weapons of Math Destruction is one answer; those who read it will be better informed and have the potential to advocate for a better world. O’Neil explains what mathematical models are, and then lays out how they can become WMDs: they “encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” In addition, they can’t make exceptions, and, O’Neil notes, “often punish individuals who happen to be the exception.”

Then she goes through any number of systems where WMDs are functioning: college admissions, predatory recruiting in the for-profit college industry, online advertising, the justice system, employment (hiring, scheduling, health monitoring), credit, insurance, social services, and of course, elections. She touches, along the way, on Facebook, Google, and Amazon and their use of algorithms to control what news and information we see and through that, influence our decisions. It’s a tough book. Even if, like me, you enjoy a fair bit of privilege, you are probably being impacted in some way by these WMDs. And we all are impacted when the most vulnerable are made more so by these out of control tools. They touch nearly everyone in America.

O’Neil does make recommendations about how algorithms can be improved and companies who deploy them can be held accountable. She recommends reversing much of what makes an algorithm a WMD — make the models and algorithms transparent; notify people and let them appeal or dispute decisions and information produced by algorithms; make things that are considered unethical or illegal in real life also unethical or illegal online, where so much WMD work happens, test algorithms’ results for bias, prejudice, and unintended consequences. She also advocates for revealing “snake oil” math that isn’t really solving anything, but just enables companies to spy on employees and/or make more money (see: workplace wellness programs, which the Computer Scientist has called bullshit on for years). Oh, and do away with the electoral college.

Most of what worries me about Weapons of Math Destruction is that these WMDs exist because our society prioritizes profits over people, and those being hurt most by them are not the powerful/not reaping the profits so there is little incentive for change. And I wonder if O’Neil is (touchingly) optimistic about regulation. She says “the job of algorithmic accountability should start with the companies that develop and deploy the algorithms. They should accept responsibility for their influence and develop evidence that what they’re doing isn’t causing harm, just as chemical companies need to provide evidence that they are not destroying the rivers and watersheds around them.”

As the new Guardian and Consumer Reports study of drinking water just revealed, that’s not actually going so well. I live in a state where there is PFAS in drinking water because chemical companies did not provide evidence and the EPA allowed them to get away with not revealing the harm they were doing. The drinking water study illuminates how regulatory agencies themselves are designed to protect profit making companies and the bottom lines of municipalities, not people’s well being. So I can’t say I have a ton of confidence that regulating algorithmic accountability will work, at least not as long as we continue to allow our wealthy corporations/people (one and the same in the USA, don’t you know) to purchase political influence, and continue to allow a revolving door between industry and government agencies.

As for O’Neil’s suggestion that context can solve many of the issues surrounding WMDs — I was fortunate to hear Ruha Benjamin give an online presentation in February about her work at the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, which is focused on just that solution. O’Neil and Benjamin both advocate for including input from people (actual human people, not corporation people) and communities impacted by the use and misuse of data as part of the solution. That makes sense; however, see my previous concerns. What incentive is there for the Googles, Facebooks, banks and insurance companies, etc. to listen?

A very clear, challenging read. I’m going to have to think about what I learned and what to do with it.

First, I am almost always reading a book related to spiritual formation, and I usually don’t review them here. I guess because I feel spiritual formation is personal, and what I read may not be what other readers need or want, but also because some of what I read may be of limited interest, like a book about the history of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC) or about the Nicene Creed. If I think the book might be of wider interest (like I Told My Soul to Sing, which I recently reviewed) then I make an exception to this.

During Holy Week (for my non-Christian readers, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) this year I read Jesus: the Human Face of God by Jay Parini which I actually got at an SCHC chapter meeting, on a table of books someone was giving away. It’s a short book and I think it would be interesting to people curious about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure as well as to Christians. Parini lets readers know where he stands right in the first sentence of the preface: “This is biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time.”

Parini is a believer and also an academic and a creative writer. He draws on scripture and centuries of scholarship but also notes that “considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas comes from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.” He contextualizes Jesus’s life as a devout Jewish man in ancient Palestine and as the Christ of the gospels (and Parini doesn’t limit himself to the canonical gospels). He takes us through the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, using both scripture and history to shed light on the well known events and to remind readers that for Parini and many others, “the historicity of his life is less important that the meaning of the story itself.”

At the end of the book, Parini takes us on a tour of Jesus scholarship, through the many attempts to determine the veracity of Bible translations, archaeological evidence, and theological soundness. I got the sense he is somewhat amused by these attempts to put God in a box, so to speak. Parini is an Episcopalian (although he notes he grew up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister), and for me, his work is very Anglican, in that he acknowledges the importance of the “three legged stool” (Richard Hooker‘s contention that scripture, tradition and reason inform our faith).

I love Parini’s sense that Jesus “came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways” and that Jesus’s teaching has “visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways.” And I also love his gentle but very sensible reminder that it is unsurprising that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the transformative message of Jesus, and the idea that God came into the world in Jesus “bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Parini says this is “difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence” — and that’s ok.

Because Parini notes Jesus didn’t ask us to get it. He asked very little. Love one another. Follow him. Remember him together around a simple meal of bread and wine. And, “Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart — metanoia — a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone — to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. The kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.”

Parini says at the outset he’s written a biography, and like any good biographer he helps readers know the subject but also know why the subject matters. For Parini, it matters because of what he coins “the gradually realizing kingdom of God — a process of transformation, like that of an underdeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.” A beautiful, illuminating book, even for someone who thinks they already know the story of Jesus.

I loved Never Let Me Go when I read it, so when I saw that Kazuo Ishiguro had a new book out, Klara and the Sun, I got on the hold list for the library eBook. Although I also loved The Remains of the Day, I was excited to see Ishiguro return to a dystopian story. A beautiful and disturbing one.

The title character is an AF — artificial friend — and when the novel opens, Klara and her fellow AF Rosa are taking their turn in the window of the store where they hope children will choose them. The Manager trains and prepares the AFs, but it becomes clear that Klara learns a great deal simply by observing, and she picks up on subtle things Rosa can’t or won’t try to make sense of, like two taxi driver fighting. The AFs receive their “nourishment” from the Sun (capitalized, like God) and one day Klara observes a homeless man and his dog, who appeared to be gravely ill, returned to health in the sunlight.

Josie, a young teen, visits Klara in the window, and promises to come back; Klara senses that her mother isn’t necessarily on board. Eventually, Josie does get her way and Klara goes to live with them, out of the city. And through Klara’s eyes we learn that privileged children are “lifted” through some kind of procedure that can sometimes make them weaken or die, but if successful, gives them a boost that will ensure their entry into elite colleges and, it’s implied, successful futures.The lifted kids seem to need to be re-introduced to social life; Josie gets all of her schooling remotely, and specially arranged social sessions are meant to prepare them for “society.” Josie is also one of the people weakened by the lifting.

Klara’s observations are finely tuned but she only knows what she observes, and so our view of this world is limited to her vision of it and her conversations with others. We meet Josie’s childhood friend and neighbor Rick, whose aging actress mother chose the unconventional path of not “lifting” him. He is brilliant, but probably won’t go to college because of her choice. And we meet the strange Henry Capaldi, a man in the city who is making a “portrait” of Josie — one which causes a great deal of tension between her mother and father, particularly when Klara is drawn into the Mother’s plan.

On a visit to the city so Josie can sit for Capaldi, Klara persuades the Father to help her on a mission to do something special for the Sun, so that he might provide “special nourishment” for Josie as Klara observed the Sun do for the homeless man. As they drive, the Father tells her “I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he might be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better. That’s how Capaldi sees it, and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right. “I won’t give away any more of the story, but I will say that this question of what it is to be human and live a good life suffuses the story with a kind of low grade tension.

Klara never stops having faith in the Sun, and to think well of just about everyone she meets. She is a unique narrator that I felt enormous empathy for; Ishiguro left me feeling more for the robot than the humans in this novel. It’s not a long book, but he captures so much. Klara has more simple faith and hope and gentleness than the parents maneuvering to get their kid a place in the world that will set them up for the future combined. But she is herself already old fashioned — a new generation of AFs will make her kind obsolete even as they cause people to be afraid that robots are becoming too smart and taking over too many things.

Ishiguro even makes her aging — her “slow fade” as the Mother calls it, poignant. Klara notes, “Over the last few days, some of my memories have started to overlap in curious ways.” That seems reasonably similar to what humans experience, but again, Klara observes it with an innocence that I found touching.

I loved Klara and the Sun and I think book clubs will find much to discuss. A really lovely and profound read.

I’ve had I told my soul to sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson by Kristin LeMay for some time; I bought it during some kind of special Paraclete Press was running a few years back. For some reason, I had pulled it out and set it on the teetering pile of books on an end table to remind myself that I wanted to read it. I’m on a committee to revise the reading/resource list for discerners in The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and it occurred to me this book would be an interesting addition.

And I was looking for a Lent book. Flipping through it, I thought this seemed like a good choice. I started it, reading here and there from it, around Ash Wednesday, and as you know, read a few other things in that time. Sometimes I keep “spiritual reading” for the weekend, when I have more time and am less apt to be reading myself to sleep. But I’ve found myself dipping into it on weeknights as well.

And then I realized, in the second week of Lent, that Kristin LeMay is also recording conversations with the brothers of SSJE, who she mentions often in I told my soul to sing, this Lent: you can find the videos on the Brothers’ YouTube page (it’s the Come, Pray series). I realized I pulled the book off my shelf for a reason!

LeMay is a warm and intelligent guide to Dickinson’s work, and goes into great detail in analyzing poems. I admit to having no more than a survey course understanding of her work. More recently, I’ve tried to visit her house in Amherst twice and both times arrived when it was closed. Like many people, I’d heard that she was a sort of recluse, seeing only family (not entirely accurate) and that she was not religious. And that her poems were a little mysterious.

LeMay sets readers straight on the popular misconceptions and opens up the poems. And she makes the case, poem by poem, theme by theme, that Emily ( as LeMay calls her), had profound experiences of God in her life and wrote copiously about God.

For example, in the section on prayer, LeMay explains how Emily wrote this poem:

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be —

But how can that stupendous come

Which never went away?

LeMay muses that this poem addresses her own sense that we don’t need to “find” God but rather, become aware that God is present. She writes, “Emily’s poem records precisely such a dawning of awareness. The poem is actually crafted out of two distinct couplets, each one penciled on a separate scrap of paper. The two scraps become a poem only through the presence of a pin, which literally holds the two thoughts together. . . . Emily pinned the poem together when she knew, at last, and for herself, that God cannot come because God never goes away.”

I appreciate LeMay’s own “wrestling” with the Emily’s poems and letters as well as with her own faith. She weaves the story of her own seeking and doubt into the story of Emily. If you’ve found it hard to pray, or felt your faith wax and wane, or wondered about immortality, or felt God’s presence in some beautiful music or even birdsong, there is something here for you.

It’s a lovely book, one to read slowly. And yes, it makes me want to watch Dickinson on Apple TV. And read more of Emily’s writing. And someday, get back to the house when it’s open!

I’ve read a few of Sarah Moss‘s other books (Night Waking, Ghost Wall, and her memoir, Names for the Sea) and they all followed a fairly regular narrative arc, albeit with some shifts in time and place. Summerwater tells a story but not in a traditional way. Instead, Moss reveals pieces of the lives and experiences of several different people staying in vacation cabins — think small and inexpensive places with thin walls, close together — in Scotland. It’s summer, but it’s been raining hard for a week. The inhabitants are restless, tired in spite of being on vacation.

The views we have of them provide a view into one small aspect of their lives, on one day in one place. It’s a little more detail than you’d get from standing in the window of your vacation cabin staring into others’ windows, but only a little. Moss shows us an older couple, one of whom seems to be losing her grasp on memory, heartbreakingly able to recall poetry from childhood (which is where the novel’s title comes from) and even what she wore to recite it but not more immediate things like what she was looking in her purse for, the other of whom is impatient with that. A little girl from the “party” house, whose family are Eastern European, who isn’t dressed for the weather (another of the children in another cabin wishes she had “shiny patent shoes and white lace tights like that girl”) and who draws the attention of several other mothers, and a manipulative girl a little older than she is.

The mothers, and some of the fathers, are mostly on edge. Struggling to have a break while doing housework and cooking with shabby rental cabin kitchenware and tired ingredients because there are no stores nearby. I loved the description of being unable to slice some mushrooms past their prime so just hacking them up for a pasta sauce — been there! And entertaining kids without their usual toys and no internet, and trying to be sexy for their spouses (it’s a vacation, expectations or at least hopes are high). Worrying and tired and wondering if their kids are ok. The kids are also worrying — about their pecking order among siblings, about their fussing parents, or if they’re older, about being stuck with their parents. One teen discovers a veteran living in a tent in the woods and visits him. Another escapes by kayaking, even in a driving rain. Moss captures all of these different perspectives astutely, and slips from one to the other in brief chapters.

She even slips into the perspectives of the wild things nearby. I loved “Maybe They Dream” — a two paragraph chapter. “The trees change shape at night. In the darkness, limbs relax, leaves droop. Branches reach out for each other, like holding hands.” You have to read the rest. It’s lovely and, actually, dreamy. I will look out at the thin woods behind our house differently for having read this.

Similarly, she explores how birds, badgers, ants, foxes, and deer experience both the strangely torrential rain and the humans. Particularly the pounding music the emanates from the party cabin. It’s an interesting thought that even as the noise irritates the other vacationers, it disturbs all creation, right down to the ants in their underground nests. Even though this is really a book of character (and creature) sketches, not a plot driven story, Moss slowly builds tension, touching on many of the existential worries of our time — climate change, the hold our devices have on us, Brexit, gender roles. The end surprised me.

A quick read that will linger, with so many facets of human experience and range of emotions packed into a short, lovely book.

We had 50 mile an hour winds overnight Monday night into Tuesday, and the cat and I were restless, listening to branches knocking into things. I finally decided I may as well read since I wasn’t falling back to sleep; also reading often helps me drift off. But not this time. Between the things that went bump in the night and the fact that The Cold Millions is hard to put down, I never really got back to sleep until early morning.

When I was describing this book to the Computer Scientist I explained that it’s set mostly in Spokane in the early 1900s and that I found the history interesting. He joked that he didn’t know there was anything interesting about Spokane. We lived in Seattle for five years, and Eastern Washington seemed like far off frontier. Jess Walter lives there, and through the stories of several different characters he shares bits of the city’s story, from occupation and murder of the indigenous people to the building up of the town into a place with glaring disparity between the very rich, who got that way exploiting the area’s natural resources (timber, mines, land) and the people who worked to extract that wealth for them.

The Cold Millions is mostly Ryan Barton’s story. Rye is a sixteen year old orphan when the book opens, but that doesn’t do justice to his situation. He’s had a whole spectrum of adverse experiences in his short life. The only person he has left is his older brother Gregory, or Gig. Rye goes to find him, and they stow away on train cars looking for work together, and eventually end up staying on the porch at a boarding house in Spokane run by a widow with an orchard in her backyard, who has promised them she’ll sell them the orchard so they can build a house among the trees. Gig is a self-taught man of ideas who joins the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, also known as the Wobblies. Among his few possessions are a few volumes of a five volume edition of War and Peace.

The IWW is planning a day of street speeches to protest the exploitative system of employment agencies, wealthy business owners, poverty wages, and abusive police. The city has banned speeches, so one by one people are arrested, and a riot breaks out. Eventually over 500 people are stuffed into the jails. That is all based on true events. As is the arrival of socialist speaker and writer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who arrives to protest the mistreatment of the prisoners, raise money for the IWW, and bring national press attention to the plight of the workers.

The trajectory of Rye’s life is altered by the riot, his (short) and Gig’s (longer) imprisonments, and the friends (and enemies) who circle around as he is freed from prison, helps Gurley, takes care of himself, and struggles to understand who he can trust or not. He is surprised that he, “Ryan J. Dolan of Nothing, Nowhere, having neither house nor bed, nothing a person might call a possession, somehow had a lawyer. Rye wondered if that, more than waking on a ball field or eagles, or George Washington’s hair, was what it really meant to be an American.”

Detectives and former detectives, the aforementioned lawyer, a pair of showgirls who perform with a mountain lion, a clothing salesman, a millionaire, machine shop workers, a librarian, the family of his Rye’s friend Jules who died after contracting pneumonia in prison, union members, police, all figure into the complex plot and what was, for me, a surprising climax to the story. Satisfyingly, there are some wins for the good guy (Rye) but Walter doesn’t make it all neat and tidy. And while this novel magnifies the brutality of its time, it also reflects some of the shameful inequities of our own times: racism, misogyny, classism, a nearly unfathomable wealth gap, blind spots and holes in public and private social safety nets and services for minors, abuse of power, policing, and prisons, bias in the justice system, the need for living wages and exploitation of workers.

The Cold Millions deals with all of this, but Walter spins it into a yarn – a well told tale that kept me reading through the wild windstorm. It’s in some ways a tender book. And I really love the way Rye decides to go to the library and get War and Peace so he can read what was important to Gig while he’s in prison, and how he learns from it and begins to form his own views. (Regular bookconscious readers will recall, I read War and Peace last spring with people around the world as the pandemic began.) Often when I read a book that deals with so many harsh realities I feel as if I’m glad I read it but I didn’t enjoy it. I can’t say that this time. The Cold Millions is both a good read and an enjoyable one.

A few years back I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It’s a delightful combination of history and memoir, a record of journeys (physical and imagined) and a story of connections to family, to aesthetics, and to meaning. It’s the kind of book that leaves the reader feeling better educated and better acquainted with a bright mind. The White Road: a Journey Into Obsession is similar in that regard.

In a way The White Road is the story of porcelain. DeWaal travels to different places important to that history. The story begins with Jingdezhen, China, where pottery was made for centuries in large quantities and de Waal finds ancient shards and both ancient and contemporary stories and objects. He also visits Dresden, and traces the story of Augustus, who visited Versailles as a teenager and saw a porcelain pavilion and became obsessed with porcelain once he became king. De Waal presents the mathematician, Tschirnhaus, and the young alchemist, Böttger, who together reinvented porcelain for Augustus, the famous Meissen porcelain. He tells the story of English porcelain, of the Quaker apothecary William Cookworthy who determined — by reading and by quietly talking with people all over the southwest of England where he lived and worked, much as I picture de Waal doing on his journeys — that the types of clay and rock needed to create porcelain were in the nearby soil. He traveled to South Carolina to the mountains where the English took similar clay from the ground in Cherokee lands around the time America gained its independence. And to Dachau, where prisoners were forced to create Nazi porcelain.

Throughout the book, de Waal muses on his own history as an artist and his own relationship with porcelain as well. He also reveals his process, how ideas intersect and connections form. When he visits Dresden he makes an appointment to visit inside the Japanisches Palais, which Augustus built “in his porcelain madness,” and de Waal notes, “It has taken me over twenty years to get here to the palais. I had an ink sketch of one of these rooms pinned up above my wheel for a very long time. It was a challenge. Did I want to make porcelain that could be shuffled around, or could I make more of a demand on the world, shape a portion of it with more coherence?” And he tells the story of a porcelain room he created for an exhibition. These glimpses into his artistic process are found throughout The White Road.

He also shares that he often orders books, even expensive rare ones, when he’s unable to sleep: “Buying a book is my default holding position.” And his affection and empathy for these historical people he gets to know — for Tschirnhaus, Cookworthy, and Hans Landauer, a Dachau prisoner who wrote a memoir about working in the Allach porcelain factory — are palpable. I admire that he doesn’t just read history and report it, but feels it as well. I also like the way he chases connections. Towards the end of the book as he reviews where he’s been and what he’s covered he wonders about visiting Wittgenstein’s house because “Wittgenstein wrote a response to Goethe’s response to Newton on colour.”

He notes, “There are books in my room upstairs at the studio still in their packages, bought at night, necessary for all my journeys. I have the score of John Cage’s 4′ 33″ on top of the pile. I run my hands over this ridiculous heap of possibilities, of weeks of detours and re-routings.” After explaining where he thought he’d go with this book, and wondering “What have I missed?” he adds, “I’ve given up on my lists. My three white porcelain cups have become five objects of porcelain. My three white hills have become four. I’ve been taken elsewhere.”

And that is why I admire de Waal — he takes us elsewhere with him, allowing the connections to develop and sharing the process with us. This was a delightful read. I enjoyed it most when I sat with it for longer stretches rather than reading a couple of pages before sleep. Treat yourself joining de Waal as he immerses himself in his subject.

I’ve been reading a few other things — I finished A Theory of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez and started The Word is Very Near You by Martin Smith, and I am reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road. But this past weekend I paused to read James Alan McPherson’s Hue and Cry. I read it because this is the latest book club selection for A Public Space (you may recall they kicked off what has now become a series of worldwide reading “together, apart” events with War & Peace in the spring.

Hue and Cry was James Alan McPherson‘s debut story collection, published in 1968. It is a tough read — about, as Yiyun Li said during the online discussion of the book, epics out of ordinary lives. She and Lan Chang both knew and studied with McPherson, and later taught alongside him, and their insights were really interesting to hear. Talking about “Hue and Cry,” the last story in the collection, the two discussed how overwhelming it felt to read. They shared that this feeling stems from the way McPherson is so honest about the characters, Margot and Eric, who want to change the world and very clearly cannot, and about the forces (as Change said) and fate (as Li said) of society overwhelming them. Hue and Cry also has strange, (Chang and Li called them Greek-chorus like) omniscient passages at the beginning and end of the story, and this voice asks the same question in the first and last lines:

“But if this is all there is, what is left of life and why are we alive?”

Chang notes that the rest of the book prepares us for how devastating this story is, because there are so many little ways the characters deal with struggle and disappointment. There is so much racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Both Chang and Li commented that McPherson wasn’t these things; he simply noted them and wrote about them honestly.

They both admired “Gold Coast,” about a young Black janitor and an old Irish janitor in a building near Harvard square and said it just has everything a story should have. Several people commented during the discussion that “A Matter of Vocabulary” is striking; both of these stories are really honest about the hardships people face and the harshness in the world. Yiyun Li said something very interesting about the difference between William Trevor, who looked around at the a beautiful town or village and wrote about what was wrong underneath the beauty, and James McPherson, who looked around at the harsh world and wrote about the beauty underneath.

I liked “A Matter of Vocabulary,” which is about two young brothers working in a grocery store, and “On Trains,” which is very short but as Yiyun Li noted still conjures a whole world in a brief train trip. “A New Place” really seems to capture what it’s like to be young, disillusioned by the world and unsure of what to do with yourself but sure a change of scene might help.

I’m glad I read Hue and Cry, even though it is painful, especially at a time when the world’s harshness has been so in focus. But it was interesting to hear the perspective that if we look closely, even at the devastating things, we can see beauty.

I’ve been reading Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans for a couple of weeks, partly because the Computer Scientist and I watched both seasons of The Mandalorian during that time, so it took me longer to read because I spent time watching TV. This book is another selection of the science librarians’ group that picked Why Fish Don’t Exist in the fall. The books have a similar style, in that both sound a little bit like something you’d hear on a podcast or public radio program. To some extent, both trace an author’s journey through a topic, although Broad Band focuses more clearly on the journey than the author.

In Evans’ case, the journey traces the lineage of women in computing, and more specifically, in the development of the internet. She begins well before the internet as we know it today, retelling some stories you may already know, like the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, for instance. I had a vague conception of women as human “computers,” and their important contributions to code breaking and other war work and the to the space program, from watching things like the film Hidden Figures and visiting Bletchley. Evans really makes it plain: as we transitioned from human computers to machines, women created programming, and were not only instrumental but dominant in the earliest days of computer science.

And then they weren’t. Evans elucidates that and then pulls lesser known stories out of the past, about the women in every decade who contributed to everything from mainframe computing to early networked information systems to gaming to online publishing to the DotCom era. It’s interesting, and there are many things to admire, like Stacy Horn’s creating and nurturing Echo, the NYC area cybercommunity that predated social media by decades and did it better. Or Jake Feinler and her team making the early internet orderly in ways that are still with us.

I was especially impressed with Wendy Hall, who pioneered hypertext linkbases, and then when the much more simplistic and seemingly pointless world wide web dominated the internet, adapted. And Cathy Marshall, whose product, NoteCards, still seems like a far more elegant solution to sharing ideas than “falling down the internet.”

Evans clearly admires her subjects, too. She describes talking with Marshall about her system for organizing her ideas for writing. Marshall tells her that she throws out what she doesn’t like, because “I don’t think you lose what you’ve written. It’s still in your head. Over time what you’re doing is changing what’s in your mind — what’s on paper is just incidental.” Evans writes, “She makes this comment offhand, but the insight knocks me out. That’s what software is, I realize: a system for changing your mind.”

The journey from woman to woman is fascinating, especially as she reaches the point where she’s interviewing people. However, I’m still processing the ending. In the span of a few paragraphs Evans supports two seemingly opposed ideas:

First, “As the Web commercialized, it became clear that the Internet was not going to liberate anyone from sexism, or for that matter from divisions of class, race, ability, and age. Instead, it often perpetuated the same patterns and dynamics of the meatspace world.” If that isn’t a firm enough stake in the ground, she goes on to say that “as digital and real life edge into near-complete overlap, the digital world inherits the problems of the real,” and notes the negative impacts ( like the proliferation of lies, social media’s impact on how we feel we should look and live, etc.) But then, she pivots. I can’t quite see how she leaps to: “When we create technologies, we don’t just mirror the world. We actually make it. And we can remake it . . . .”

Yes, she briefly outlines that learning from the past and the women who made their way despite the world’s challenges can help us see a better way. But I’m pretty stumped about how we can remake technology’s embodiment of our worst impulses without doing something about the real world first. An interesting read, but I think the ending is really the beginning of another book.