Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, October 25, 2021

"Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can" edited by Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti

I had two main purposes in reading this book. First, to discover what the Green New Deal actually comprises (because all I really knew up until now was what I'd seen its detractors post online, which basically amounted to the idea that we should all be limited to very infrequent toilet-flushing). Second, I wanted to determine whether there was anything that I as an individual can do. 

While I do now have a better understanding of the purpose and goals of the Sunrise Movement and their Green New Deal, I was disappointed to find that they don't actually have a lot of specifics planned out yet. They are currently focusing more on gathering support (both in the private sector and within the government) than on hammering out the details of what needs to be done once they've acquired the power to take concrete action. And as far a what I as an individual can do--this book reinforced my prior thought that the changes necessary to have a positive impact on the environment will have to be of the huge, sweeping variety that can only be effected by organizations with incredible manpower and financial backing (i.e. the government). Unless I want to completely reinvent my apolitical self (hint: I don't) there's not much I can do beyond what I'm already doing.

This book enriched my knowledge of the hoped-for scope of the Green New Deal. I knew the GND involved changes to benefit the environment, along with ensuring that workers who lost their jobs due to these changes would be provided with equivalent (but greener) jobs. What I had not previously realized was that the ambitions of the Sunrise Movement are far greater, encompassing not only climate change, but also social movements, social justice, economics and politics. The aim of the Green New Deal is not merely to halt global warming and ensure that everyone who goes into this with a job also comes out of it with a job; the aim of the Green New Deal includes social equality and an end to injustice for all. This sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky. Not that I don't want what the GND calls for--who wouldn't want what they're suggesting??--but I am too cynical to believe that these lofty goals are possible to reach. 

It's obvious why the Sunrise Movement has chosen the Democrat party to be their champions in a simple big government vs small government calculation, but it's depressing to realize that most of the Democrats currently in office don't support change of this magnitude. I thought with a Democrat as president we would see progress for the environment, but that's not looking likely. It will take, as Sunrise knows, a realignment into a new coalition, supported by change from within (voting old party members out and voting in GND supporters). Disturbing as my lack of faith may be, once again I circle back to the feeling that this will be impossible. I feel like the American government never gets anything done, and what they do accomplish is only by half measures. 

I wish I knew more about the original New Deal. My vague understanding is that it was a big government intervention to restore the American economy after the Great Depression, and that it was a good and successful thing. I am sure that there are strong supporters of small government who think the New Deal was terrible, but (other than it being a prime example of big government) I wish I knew specifics of why they think it was terrible. Also, I can't imagine anything like the New Deal being enacted in today's political climate. (Yes, this is me once again saying that I find it hard to imagine that the Green New Deal will find success.) But . . . is the impossibility of reaching a worthy objective any reason not to try? Surely it's better to aim high and fall short than to remain where we are now. I know people who say that it is incredibly arrogant to believe that humans can have an effect on the environment; I say it is even worse to see the deterioration of our planet and not take steps to make the world a better place. Even if it turns out that nothing works, that possibility shouldn't be an excuse for inaction.

Big talk from me as I sit at my laptop bathed by air conditioning and sipping fresh clean ice water . . .

"The Night Tiger" by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger is a story of weretigers, Confucian virtues and murder in 1930s Malaysia. It is told from two points of view: that of Ren, a small houseboy for a recently-deceased doctor who moves to a new post to fulfill the last request of his old master; and that of Ji Lin, a smart young woman who has been prevented from reaching her potential due to her gender. There are missing fingers, a number of deaths (two natural, others not) and even a little bit of lovin'. 

I'm not sure why I never really got into this story. It had a relatively intriguing mystery at its heart (or actually a small collection of interrelated ones) but I wasn't sucked in the way you'd expect. Maybe it's because Ji Lin seemed to have the voice of a modern American. (No, I don't mean she talked about Twitter or wanted to be an "influencer." But also, I don't know how to put into words exactly what I do mean.) You would think (as I am a modern American) that this would help me identify with her. Instead, it made her seem less real to me. 

Another thing that I think kept me from really sinking into the story was that I would have preferred more subtlety. Yes, that same subtlety that can drive me crazy at times, as I wonder, "what did that mean??" and then I spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about possibilities. An example: Ren meets someone at the train station. There are hints about who she is, but then we are actually told her name. And then back at the hospital, there are hints about who is leaving on a stretcher . . . and then we are actually told her name. Please just let me guess! It's what I do!

Friday, October 22, 2021

"Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals" by Oliver Burkeman

Despite its title, Burkeman's is not the usual time management book. If you want a 1-2-3 for "here's what you do to make the most of your life," this is not that.

The purpose of this book is more to encourage a shift in perspective. Burkeman baldly states that for each of us, there just isn't enough time. There will always be too much to do. But far from allowing this to be a depressing realization culminating with "and everybody dies, the end," Burkeman pushes us to embrace the limits. Our time and attention are finite, therefore valuable.

Throughout his writing, Burkeman reminds us that "our lives are outrageously brief but full of shimmering possibilities . . . the world is bursting with wonder--the ultimate point is to experience more of that wonder . . . make room for engaging productively with your fellow citizens, current events, or the fate of the environment."

We can't "do it all," and we shouldn't even want to. Being more efficient and getting more done, far from giving us a calm and tranquil life with increased leisure time, actually leads to more anxiety and a greater possibility of feeling too busy. What we need to do instead is to pare down what we do to only what is important or necessary, then be fully present for it. This works better than what many people seem to do, which is to live mentally in the future, trying to reach a point where they have beaten back the chores enough to address whatever it is that they truly find important. That point is impossible to reach, so we need to be sure to incorporate those things we find truly important into our lives now

Burkeman asks a few questions at the end of the book, and one of them stuck with me. Is there anywhere in life I am pursuing comfort when what's called for is a little discomfort? What Burkeman means by this: Am I not pursuing life projects that matter the most, because it's easier not to? But I added my own spin. Is there any issue I am not addressing because doing so would cause me discomfort? It's a good question to contemplate.

Burkeman also makes some final suggestions, one of which is to keep two "to do" lists: one open (everything you'll ever want to do goes on here) and one closed (a limited list of perhaps ten things that you actually plan to do very soon). As you mark things off the closed list, you can move other items to it from the open list. This was my favorite suggestion, both because it is something I was already doing before I read this book (yay me!) and because it's a solid, reasonable method that I have found works well. 

Did this book change my life? I am thinking more about my finitude. I intend to be more mindful of the ways I choose to spend my time. And this pushes me one step closer to the freedom of not finishing books that I'm not enjoying. Still not there yet, though. 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

“Remember the Alamo?” by Alison Rattle and Allison Vale

Here’s a little book I picked up a while back and have been reading very slowly ever since. When I first saw it at Books-A-Million, I thought reading "American History in Bite-Sized Chunks" sounded like a worthy use of my time. My grasp of history has always been abysmal; maybe I would finally learn something! And when I was flipping through the book and came to the list of US presidents on page xix-xx, my decision was made immediately. The list ended more than ten years ago. I had to have this book. 

So, yeah, I bought this book because it was out of date. Which makes it perverse of me to complain about the weirdly abrupt ending, with Watergate in 1974. That seems an odd year to halt a book on American history that was first published in 2009. Had nothing historically important happened in the intervening years? I mean 9/11 is a huge one. Even Reaganomics and the War on Drugs would seem to merit a mention.

Overall, did this book do what I wanted it to do? Well, if I had any kind of memory it would have. It seems like a pretty comprehensive (at least up until 1974), if not in-depth, overview of our nation’s history. But I don’t feel like I retained any of it. It’s like when I read it, it’s all totally familiar—there wasn’t much in here that I hadn’t at least heard of before. But as soon as I read it, it was gone out of my head again. I’m thinking about re-reading the book. (You might say I’m doomed to repeat it.) But just exactly how many times will I have to go through this?

Saturday, October 2, 2021

"Second Place" by Rachel Cusk

I liked this less than other books by Cusk that I've read. I somehow found it less easy to identify with or engage with. It's the story of a middle-aged woman, M, wife of Tony and mother to Justine (from M's first marriage; Justine is now a woman herself, married to Kurt). M had discovered the paintings of L years before in Paris. Now, living with Tony at the edge of a beautiful marsh, M decides to write to L and invite him to stay for a time in the guest house on the marsh. L actually does come to stay, but it's nothing like M imagined. L is harsh and rude and ungrateful, not to mention accompanied by a young woman named Brett.  

As with Arlington Park, Second Place was inspired by a work of literature I'm unfamiliar with (in this case, one I've never even heard of: Lorenzo in Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan; thus, L is inspired by DH Lawrence). I can't decide if I'm curious enough about that book to actively pursue finding a copy, but I'm definitely curious enough to put it on my TBR list. 

Oh, and who the heck is Jeffers