- Let's discuss HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND by Michael Pollan
From the popular author of a variety of food/plant based books like The Botany of Desire, The Ominivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and more, comes a new book whose subtitle says it all: "What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence." Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin are being used in psychotherapy to treat different problems, such as depression, addiction, and anxiety. His early findings showed that these substances provided improvement for both mentally ill and healthy people when administered under carefully controlled conditions. As a result he chose to explore the topic in the first person as well as the third. This book, part science reporting and part personal memoir, describes his experiences from his discovery of how a promising field of research became the target of a powerful backlash when a handful of psychedelic evangelists -- notably Timothy Leary, a flamboyant psychology professor -called too loudly to American youth to "turn on, turn in, and drop out." By 1970, all hallucinogens were banned for consumption or research. It was only in 2005 that a team of researchers published a series of scientifically rigorous studies showing long-lasting benefits to volunteers of an experience with the psychedelic psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms"). More research followed showing how therapeutically-guided psychedlic experiences could be valuable for a range of disorders. Pollan starts out green and walks us through the research literature on the subject. He tells his story well. Perhaps the most absorbing part are the many interviews that form the basis of his exploration -- researchers, patients, advocates. Further, he documents his own experiments with the same rigor and story-telling ability. His title reflects the double meaning of his book -- from the reorganizing effects on the brain of these drugs and also to the deeply held cultural stigma against psychedelics. A fun book and worthy of discussion.
- Let's discuss LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE by Valerie Luiselli
From the current crisis of migration and displacement, comes a twist on the American road trip novel in a station wagon rather than a covered wagon. It's also a novel about storytellers and storytelling and how we document our experiences. As well, it is a story of family, marriage, and parenthood. The father is a sound documentalist, hoping to gather an "inventory of echoes" of vanquished Apache warriors. The mother, a radio journalist, doumentarian, and volunteer translator for a handful of the thousands of misplaced children held in detention centers. Narrated by the mother and son, the novel also contains excerpts from various texts, song lyrics and images. The book is highly inventive and compelling in eloquent and beautiful prose. The author, Valerie Luiselli, is young (born in 1983 in Mexico City), but already an accomplished author of one other novel and three books of non-fiction. Among the latter is a 2017 work called Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions that is based on her experiences volunteering as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the United States. It was a National Book Award finalist.
- Let's discuss THE FIFTH RISK by Michael Lewis
In addition to the book under discusIon -- THE FIFTH RISK -- Michael Lewis is also the author of a number of other well-known books, for example, The Big Short, Moneyball, and a book we discussed a year or so ago -- The Undoing Project; A Friendship that Changed our Minds -- (about psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their research on the limits of human reason). In this book, Lewis describes the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election on the federal departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce. He tells his story through key informants and dedicated public servants from each of these departments. The U.S. government may be the most complicated organization on earth, according to Lewis, with over two million federal employees (70% in national security) and over 4,000 political appointees. A lot of the problems the government addresses are not ideological -- for example, how to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to deliver services to individual citizens -- but are part of the efforts of the government to contribute to citizen well-being. Accidents with nuclear weapons and climate change pose some of the top risks. Threats from North Korean and Iran are also critical. A fourth risk is the fragility of our electric grid. The fifth risk of the book title refers to the organizational competence (and will) to carry out the assigned mission. The book begins with a prologue describing the efforts of Chris Christie to create a transition team (as required by federal law). He was fired by candidate Trump because of the costs to the election campaign for this effort. Subsequent chapters deal with lack-of-preparedness impacts on Energy, Agriculture and Commerce. On the latter Department Lewis would rename it more descriptively as either the Department of Data or the Department of Science and Technology. His analysis of the National Weather Service and NOAA (Ocean and Atmosphere) is particularly cogent and revealing. The book is timely, popular, and written with a straight-forward journalistic style with colorful anecdotes and engaging profiles of key players.
- Let's discuss THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers
Richard Powers has a special purpose for his novel, THE OVERSTORY, which won the National Book Award for 2018 and was short-listed for the Man Booker as well. His purpose is to resurrect an ancient form of tree consciousness, a religion of attention and accommodation. He says that if he could have managed it he would have written a novel in which all the main characters are trees. In this book, we meet nine very different human beings who for very different reasons come to take trees seriously and believe them to be sacred beings. The first section [labelled ROOTS] is a series of separate short stories providing details about the early lives of his nine characters. Only after 150 pages do these separate stories become interconnected. Many of the characters are brought together in a doomed protest against logging giant redwoods in California. One couple, who have become eco-activists and who have renamed themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, live in the canopy of a giant redwood for an entire year. To some extent, Powers does manage to give individual trees a realized life -- the redwood described above, a lone American chestnut planted by a Iowa homesteader, a Thai banyan tree that saves the life of one of the characters when his plane crashes, a mulberry tree whose decline shatters a woman's family and releases her from a conventional life. The book also features communities of trees who communicate with one another and even provide sustenance and support in difficult times. This aspect of Powers' story is based on current biological research. After the sections on Roots, Trunk, and Crown, the last short section of the book is called SEEDS and speaks to a future beyond our current appetite for collective mastery over our planet. In an interview, Powers quotes a critic who speaks of the "pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will." He notes we currently have a system predicated on endless growth in a world of finite resources and that this can be a source for overwhelming despair. However, he is optimistic in that our planet has come back from the brink of nothing in the past even if not in the human scale of time but rather that of the trees, some of which live more than a thousand years.
- Let's discuss NOTORIOUS RBG; THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RUTH BADER GINSBURG
The book we will discuss started out as a playful project but has been widely acclaimed as a tribute to be read seriously. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton and began serving in 1993 as only the second female justice (after Sandra Day O'Connor). Much of her prior legal career was spent as an advocate of gender equality and women's rights. For her official robe she chose to wear a French robe d'avocat with a lace jabot. It has become a signature costume. Although Ginsberg is over 80 and appears somewhat frail and tiny, she has incredible stamina. She survived surgery and radiation treatment for colon cancer in 1999 without missing a day on the bench. Ten years later she survived another surgery and treatment for pancreatic cancer. She has served 25 years as a justice and participated in some landmark decisions as well as famous dissents. She says she hopes to emulate her former colleague, much missed John Paul Stevens, who retired at 90 after serving 35 years as a Supreme Court Justice. The phrase, "Notorious RBG," is a nickname conferred on her by a classmate (presumably after the 300-pound black, and now deceased, rapper, Notorious BIG). The nickname stuck. To her many admirers Ginsberg serves as a symbol of public resistance, private resilience, and justice. The book is a wonderful mixture of information, anecdotes, photos, and other illustrations. The authors, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, tell the story of how one small Jewish grandmother changed the world and is still out there carrying the torch for justice. Come and share your reactions.
- Let's discuss LESS by Andrew Sean Greer
LESS is a satirical, literary novel that is Andrew Sean Greer's 5th novel. It earned the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year. The antihero of the title is minor novelist Arthur Less, who is white, gay, and soon-to-be 50. His latest novel has been turned down by his publisher. His most recent relationship with a vain younger man named Freddy has just collapsed and Freddy is soon to be married. In order to get out of the country before the wedding and to lick his wounds in private, Less accepts as many invitations to literary events out of the country as he can manage. The book not only skewers the insecurity of authors but, even more pointedly, the vanity of the literary industry. We first meet our erstwhile hero in New York where he is chairing an event for a successful but wildly overrated science fiction writer. Then he's off to Mexico for a panel discussion about his former lover's genius. Next is Italy where an earlier novel by Less is being considered for an obscure but well-funded award. Then it's Germany where he operates under the misapprhension that he is a professor and speaks fluent German (he barely made it through a high school course). Then it's on to Paris, then riding a camel in Morocco. He spends time in Japan and then is trapped in a Christian retreat in India. The book is refreshingly funny about a tenderhearted man who is unfailingly polite and hypersensitive about boring anyone. He is congenial but "the tragicomic business of being alive is getting to him." To be 50 and to have lost his lover, his suitcase, his beard and his dignity seems rather hard. Let us enjoy his sad tale and wait for a rewarding but unexpected ending.
- Let's discuss THE WIZARD AND THE PROPHET by Charles Mann
The subtitle of this interesting examination of the environmental movement is "Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World." The scientists, depicted above, are Norman Borlaug, on the left, whose "wizardry" at breeding high-yield grains sparked the Green Revolution of the late 1900s, earning him a Nobel Prize in 1970. He represents the view, in Charles Mann's book, that our species with its ability to invent, adapt, and exploit new resources, is exempt from the supposed "iron laws of demographics" and that science will support a ever-expanding population in increasing affluence. The man on the right is the "Prophet" of the story. He is William Vogt, an ornithologist whose 1948 best-seller, THE ROAD TO SURVIVAL, quickly became "the blueprint for today's environmental movement." Vogt's thesis was that the ecological balance of our plant was already (in 1948) feeling the strain of a booming population, and that unless reproduction and economic growth were kept in check, certain disaster would face our species and our civilization. Further elaboration of his ideas have been provided by many subsequent writers, such as Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, and Bill McKibben. These two opposing paths might be termed the "hard path" of the wizard with technical fixes, such as nuclear energy, genetically modified crops and massive irrigation projects, as opposed to the "soft path" of solar and wind power, organic agriculture and water conservation. Charles Mann, the author examines some very large questions of policy grouped under the essential elements of earth, air, fire and water. He does not take sides but is a good referee of the contest. His book is a treasure house of knowledge of the triumphs and failures of both sides. Mann is a consummate tale-spinner and, despite the complexity of the issues, the book is a surprisingly quick read that will enlighten and inform you.
- Let's discuss LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
From the author of "Everything I Never Told You," a second novel with some familiar elements: racial tensions, unspoken family stress, the powerful force of motherhood, and the secret lives of teenagers. "Little Fires Everywhere" is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 1990s. The novel begins with a house fire and suspicions of arson. As in her earlier book, Ng (pronounced "ing") returns to the past to figure out the mystery of who set the fire and why. About a year earlier, an artist-photographer, Mia Warren, and her 15-year-old daughter rened a duplex from the Richardsons, an upper middle-class family. Both Mia and her daughter disappear after the fire. In another plot line, friends of the Richardsons, the McCulloughs who have no children, announce their plans to adopt a Chinese baby who has been left at the fire house and appears to have been abandoned. The child is soon revealed to belong to a Chinese immigrant mother who, suffering economic hardship, had temporarily parked her baby where she thought it would be cared for, but now wants the baby back. This 2017 novel of class, race, family, and the dangers of the unexamined life was named a Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, Amazon, Goodreads, and several other publications. It is currently ranked 45th in Amazon's Best Seller list and continues to hold its top-15 status on the New York Times Fiction list. The book is compelling. Vogue calls it "a nuanced study of mothers and daughters and the burden of not belonging to our families or our communities.
- Let's discuss EDUCATED by Tara Westover
Tara Westover's highly acclaimed memoir begins with her life as the youngest child (of six) of a fundmentalist Mormon family in Idaho. Her father, a survivalist and owner of a junk yard, was determined to protect his family from the dangers he perceived in the secular world outside. Westover had no birth certificate; she never attended school until she left home at 17; she survived terrible accidents and observed even worse ones befalling members of her family all without benefit of medical care. Somehow, Westover realized the need to overcome her ignorance (credit an older brother for example and support) and leave home. She taught herself enough to take a standardized admissions test for college and did well enough to be admitted to Brigham Young University at 17. She then made it to Harvard on fellowship and then to Cambridge, England, where she received a Ph.D. in History in 2014. She credits her leaning skills to covert study of "things I could not yet understand," in this case, her father's books about 19th century Mormon prophets. A book critic for The Guardian, Michele Dean, describes Westover's narrative style as "episodic, meditative, and repetitive." I particularly agree with the "meditative" adjective. This memoir is being compared favorably to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Many find it superior and less ideological. Come to our discussion and share your assessment of this book.
- THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko
Chapel Hill’s own Algonquin Press published The Leavers last year. The author, Lisa Ko (pictured above), won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction for this debut novel. The story has two narrators. One is a Chinese boy who his 11 years old when the novel opens. His name is Deming Guo. The second narrator is his mother, Peilan Guo, who renames herself Polly when she first arrives in New York City as a pregnant undocumented Chinese immigrant. Deming’s story begins when his mother abruptly disappears. He believes she has abandoned him and their makeshift family and run away to a new free life in Florida. Without his knowledge or consent, he suddenly finds himself taken away from his school and friends in the inner city Bronx by foster parents, college professors who live in a small town in upstate New York. His new life is comfortable and his adoption proceeds successfully. His new name becomes Daniel Wilkinson and the past seems to be behind him. Yet as he approaches adulthood he is adrift and unable to commit to college, as his parents want, or to music following his own inclination. In Part Two the narrator shifts to Polly who is now living in China. We learn about her earlier life in China. The novel then continues shifting back and forth between narrators until, through a combination of accident, luck and determined search, Deming reconnects with his birth mother and little by little, the painful story of her disappearance emerges. The story is compelling. You will learn a lot about immigrant life, ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) and the consequences of disruption by people caught in the system. The New York Times reviewer called the book “quietly sensational.” Join us to share your own reactions.