The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (Goodreads review.)

The Ministry for the FutureThe Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Our future, yours and mine, gets more complicated. The climate catastrophe is already happening. It gets worse. Be not afraid.

Also, fear not the length of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. It is a big read full of big ideas and also some characters. Dive into it. Let it wash over you. This is not a character-driven story, though it is very much about people and the agency people have to influence the future. It is a story without heroes, though the people in it are heroic. It has no villains. Just billions of people and animals struggling to adapt themselves to their too quickly changing environments. It is a story about adaptation and wicked problems and impossible choices. It is a hopeful story.

The story reminds us that, as individuals, we are small — puny, even. Our separate minds cannot hope to grasp the scope and complexity of our global ecosystem. The list of things we don’t understand overwhelms. We don’t understand economics. We don’t understand politics. We don’t really even understand ourselves. Our individual actions seem to have little impact. No one of us can hope to save the world. Give up the idea that someone else is going to save us. We are all together going to have help save each other.

We all know the Paris Treaty has not been enough. It could not be. And the subsequent COP meetings will continue to be bureaucratic parades, a periodic stock-taking that captures the news cycle but engenders little concrete action. And yet, from humble beginnings, massive transformation can begin.

The story follows the work of a newly-created Ministry for the Future, a global policy agency grown from the Paris Climate Treaty. The Ministry finds and supports various scientific, social and political initiatives already happening around the world. People are more creative than any government agency. The Ministry doesn’t invent the work or even set the direction. The work is already happening. It just needs to be supported and amplified. There are successes and setbacks, brutal weather catastrophes and violence. Only occasionally a politician wanders through but the bankers are the true seat of power. Their job, as always, is to preserve the markets. The bankers get motivated when they finally realize the only way to preserve the markets is to preserve the planet.

This is a book that resists simple star ratings. It is unlike any other book I have read because it is intentionally not a character-driven story with a traditional plot arc. It is a near-future accounting of all of us. What Robinson gives is not futurism. It is right now. And the goal is not solving climate change. We are way past that. The story is about mitigation — how we will need to learn to continually adapt ourselves to the changes set into motion during the Anthropocene.

Those who came before us set into motion an unplanned experiment of radically reshaping the world. There is now no escape from that experiment and there will be no end to the work. The stakes are enormous. It has become our responsibility to take up the work of that experiment more mindfully than those who came before us. It is our moral duty to understand ourselves responsible to the very real people, not yet born, of the next seven generations. These people will be blessed and cursed by what you and I are doing today. If we can learn to be mindful of these unseen people and also learn to see one another, the each 8 billion currently standing on Earth, we can take up the work with a hopeful spirit. We can bend the curve, as we said in the early COVID days. We can adapt ourselves to better ways of living.

We are not doomed, but we are making a story in which we are not the main characters. Pretending to the main characters of our story is a recipe for continued disaster.

View all my reviews

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Goodreads Review)

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book within a book within a book. A family history wrapped in newspaper headlines. A love affair — real or imagined? Family dysfunction and obligation. The dead sister brought back to life through storytelling. A meditation on old age. Oh, and an alien planet of lizard people and torture porn.

Only Margaret Atwood is granted the indulgence of pushing these threads 450 pages before delivering the payoff. It does payoff.

I enjoyed this less than expected but an excellent example of the masterful storyteller as plate-spinner. No one spins plates like Margaret Atwood.

View all my reviews

2AM Thoughts by Makenzie Campbell | Goodreads Review

2am Thoughts2am Thoughts by Makenzie Campbell

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The experiment of the poem is compressing the emotional arch of a failed relationship into the course of an entire day. Each stanza is time stamped as the day progresses. As a thought experiment, this frame has a lot of potential but is poorly executed here.

Maximum schmaltz. Cringy, teen-age angst stuff. Self-abrogation in favor of some nameless, faceless idealized love interest. I kept hoping there would be a turn toward self-awareness and deeper layers of meaning would be exposed. I kept hoping the poem would actually be a clever address to a younger self. Alas, no. The pronouns don’t work out in that direction. The surface is all you get.

I read it through because curious but not engaged. Do not recommend.

View all my reviews

Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

Lady OracleLady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Permission to burrow deep into the messy, chaotic, wonderful lives of other people is one of the big magics of great stories. This isn’t escape exactly because their lives are often more chaotic, messy and dangerous than our own, and yet, at the end we wake up feeling as if we have been given the gift of a second, third or fourth life.

Lady Oracle is such a story. Atwood gives a loose, jangling coming of age story in which the narrator, Joan, learns the tightrope walk of expectations from her overbearing mother, her aloof father, her mercurial husband and mass culture at large.

Joan is at constant war with her own body and struggles to own her creative gifts. There’s schoolyard bullying, lurking perverts, gothic romance, political satire and, nearly, a minor act of international terrorism.

I fell in love with Joan, just a little, which maybe tells you more about me than the story. Lady Oracle is a robust, funny story bursting with the vibrant wordplay for which Atwood is known.

Read it. You may fall in love with Joan as well.

View all my reviews

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An unsettling, deceptively simple story about an unnamed narrator’s return to her childhood home in the Canadian woods and her growing desire to disappear into wildness, a desire which ultimately claims her or, more accurately, a desire she ultimately claims. Driven by a simple plot, my enjoyment of this novel came mostly from Atwood’s ability to slowly layer the tension and render the familiar unfamiliar. The narrator yearns to escape the sexual politics and unfulfilling materialism that is her everyday life. The traumas of her young life only gradually rise to the surface. The punch of this novel comes late as the narrator makes her final brutal decision and embraces the awful logic her own wildness brings.

Written in first person present tense, revelations arrive with almost hallucinatory grace. Surfacing is Atwood’s second published novel. It is very much an early novel written by an accomplished poet. A simple, spare frame draped with the fresh, succinct perception only powerful, honest poetry can provide. I recommend Surfacing for those already familiar with and curious about Atwood’s artistic gifts, but I would not recommend Surfacing as an introduction to Atwood’s work.

View all my reviews

Negotiating with the Dead | Goodreads Review

Negotiating with the DeadNegotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reader who writes. I am on a journey to becoming a writer who reads. As such, I adore books about reading and writing. Most disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing does not disappoint.

Adapted from a series of lectures, Atwood offers a philosophical exploration of writing that is both insightful and practical. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Atwood reflects on what is happening when writer is writing without getting cute or wandering into the weeds.

Negotiating with the Dead looks at a writer’s sense of self; the divided nature of writer as both observer and participant; the question of writing as commerce or art; the artifice of the author’s persona; the weird relationship between writer, reader and book; and finally, the work of going down into the dark to bring up useful insights.

My borrowed copy of this book is a porcupine of tape flags — so many vibrant, useful quotes to capture and keep. This is my favorite:

“As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as ‘being a writer.’

“Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”

I’ve been digging holes in the cemetery for more than 35 years. This book helps me understand what it takes to become a grave-digger.

View all my reviews

Rilke: Selected Poems | Goodreads Review

Rilke: Selected PoemsRilke: Selected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having adored Letters to a Young Poet, I reached for this slim volume wanting to be well-introduced to Rilke’s poems. This collection did not connect for me. There are moments in a few of the poems that grabbed me (“Autumn”; “The Panther”; “Faded”; “Piano Practice”; and “The Child”), but I found most to be indecipherable.

MacIntyre’s introductory essay and closing notes are dull and impenetrably obscure. I don’t read German but can’t help wondering if Rilke’s poems would connect with me more in a different translation or, also possible, if German Romanticism just isn’t my thing. I will be interested to read these five poems in different translations to find out.

View all my reviews

Nineteen Eighty-Four | Goodreads Review

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a sophomore in high school. I understood the novel then as political allegory, a dystopian fantasy of a possible, but unlikely, future. Like many Cold War kids, Oceania seemed to me an alternative future West fallen into the authoritarian trap of the Soviet Union and Communist China. I understood that Orwell wasn’t making a hard prediction about my imminent future. I was ten years old in 1984. None of that stuff had actually happened.

I recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four expecting to be newly terrified by the prescience of Orwell’s warnings. I was. Big Brother’s authoritarian regime maintains power through a combination of surveillance technologies, willfully impoverished discourse, an infinitely malleable sense of the historical record and a collective surrender of belief in historical truth.

I reread the book thinking the surveillance situation is much worse. Winston has to navigate the omnipresence of bidirectional telescreens on every wall. We carry our own personal surveillance machines in our pockets and dutifully report through the day via social media. The day after I finished reading, I saw my first ad for Facebook’s Portal, which has Muppets happily chatting away through the convenience of smart televisions converted into living room telescreens. Add Siri and Alexa. What can go wrong?

Orwell might not have imagined emoji culture, the gradual transformation of written language into a hieroglyphic soup of images and gifs. If you can’t find a suitable GIF to express a reaction to the news of the day, is your reaction really worth expressing? The Ministry of Truth might admire the efficiency with which we are thinning the dictionary for ourselves.

Finally: history, which deserves its own essay. Impossible to ignore the constant stream of news releases and press statements issuing from the White House saying the President didn’t actually say the thing we all just heard him say. And the ever shifting sand of which countries are allies and which enemies. It is enough to know that we have always been at war and will always be at war. The details of how we are fighting and why change quickly. Who can keep up?

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book written to unsettle. It does. Most unsettling, in my latest read is the ease with which people adapt to the new situation. Winston grew up in times like our own. He remembers different rules, different norms. He remembers he had a mother who loved him and a sister. He just can’t quite remember what happened to them. Society under Big Brother is a society organized to forget, to be mollified and directed. The privileged adapt most quickly because they have the most to gain.

And so, rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2019, I am thinking less about surveillance tech and government misinformation campaigns and perpetual war. I am thinking about the Two Minute Hate, that purging parade of raw emotion that unites everyone in a blind, patriotic fever. The enemy changes during the rally and no one notices. No one cares. The core values we carry as baseline assumptions for how democratic society operates — social and family bonds, rule of law, civil discourse, the value of dissent — are lost in the span of one generation. It takes one generation raised with new rules, new norms and new language, to create a generation incapable of the habits of thought that make democracy possible. They haven’t actively rejected democratic society. They can no longer imagine it.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is worth a read if you haven’t read it recently. The first half is a little bit of slog. The second half is the stuff of nightmares. Read to be disturbed. Read to become distrustful. Not only of government but distrustful of ourselves.

View all my reviews

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

The TestamentsThe Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A worthy successor to The Handmaid’s Tale. Before reading, I had assumed The Testaments would be a thin, exploitive cash grab designed to capitalize on the current popularity of the Hulu series and the dystopian zeitgeist. I was wrong. The Testaments is an unusual sequel in that it adds moral complexity and texture to the original work while standing proudly on its own. You don’t have to read The Handmaid’s Tale to enjoy The Testaments, but you definitely should.

The Testaments is essentially a caper story told from three perspectives, giving nuance to the way the reader understands Gilead. The novel also places Gilead into an international context, which was something I found myself wanting in the original story.

I waved my way through an occasional minor plot hole and, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the story ends a bit too abruptly. These are minor gripes. The Testaments satisfies.

Atwood’s ability to tell big, philosophically challenging stories through the closely observed private lives of authentic characters is inspiring. Atwood never sacrifices the personal to reach the universal.
This sequel is as good as the first.

View all my reviews

A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio (Goodreads Review)

A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack ObamaA Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama by Michael D’Antonio

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather dull recitation of President Obama’s accomplishments. I had hoped to find an honest, searching, complex portrait of a person and president I admire very much. What I got instead was straightforward reporting of Obama’s handling of the recession; health care; energy policy; environmental policy; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; education; finance reform; same-sex marriage and race. Reads like 265 pages of newsprint. Illuminating if you have been a coma since 2008 and wanted to catch up on what you missed. The author offers a few insights into the complexity of Obama’s strategies and his ability to work many layers of complex, interrelated problems simultaneously.

The author is at his best when critiquing Obama’s shortcomings because he is able to do so with respect and admiration. Unfortunately, those sections come at the end and are far too spare. Not enough is made of the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes and civilian casualties. Massive violations of privacy and domestic surveillance are shrugged off in a few paragraphs.

The book reads as a first plea for history to regard the Obama years generously. I think history will be kind to Barack Obama but reading this in 2019 is dispiriting. Watching many of Obama’s accomplishments thoughtlessly attacked and dismantled by stupid, mean and venal people, I rather wish the author had found an adjective more descriptive than “consequential” to describe Obama’s contributions. It is probably too soon to know what the right word will be. The version of this book written after the end of 45’s term will be clearer. The 46th President will have a lot of repair to do but will find a template for success in the legacy of Barack Obama.

View all my reviews