Book: McSweeney’s Issue 54: The End of Trust

The End of Trust at the McSweeney’s Store

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issue 54: The End of Trust
published by McSweeney’s
2018

McSweeney’s first fully non-fiction issue had the Electronic Frontier Foundation as an advisor, and is so full of great writing that I ran out of sticky tabs.

Are you interested in surveillance capitalism and how we are going to survive it? McSweeney’s Issue 54 is for you! While it was published in 2018, it remains completely topical.

At the time I’m writing this, active dis- and misinformation campaigns from a variety of sources are hoping to influence the public in multiple countries to change their votes or behaviors with “stories” about the elections, the global pandemic, civil rights, race relations, protest voting, and other topics. These campaigns are using technology to inexpensively spread their messages, often through unwitting social media consumers, if not through individuals easily converted to new causes online. Meanwhile, a major social media platform is being criticized for secretly changing its algorithms to favor right-wing figureheads have been chummy with the company’s CEO. The manipulation had measurable, real financial impacts on sidelined news organizations, though the changes were hotly denied at the time. (You can read more here in Clara Jeffries’ Twitter Thread on this topic , which has some great links to other resources on this story.) There is no obvious path in this development to hold this platform accountable for its actions, or to keep it from giving resources to bad actors to spread misinformation.

There are companies using technology you enjoy to change your behavior, and the strange discomfort you feel about what you’ve shared with them (and their business partners, seen and unseen) is based on real concerns.

Issue 54 isn’t a compilation of the single-breach/oversight articles you’ve already read. This thoughtful collection of essays spans the technical AND the philosophical: the embrace of daily life surveillance by both “free” capitalist societies AND repressive regimes; the way data is used to maintain existing power structures, so majority communities tolerate surveillance at the expense of law-abiding minorities whose efforts for social justice are violently repressed; how individuals receiving any social services are forced to give up data about their families that the wealthy can keep to themselves; and what could happen if we reframe privacy from an individual choice to a community-wide asset, whether information is demanded by government authorities or corporate entities selling our data for profit.

This collection is SO THOUGHTFUL. In a world where people are programming their own biases into AI, it’s also quite urgent. I recommend this collection with great enthusiasm – and concern about where we think we’re going, versus where we actually seem to be going.

Book: Small Blows Against Encroaching Totalitarianism, Volume One from McSweeney’s Books

Link to SBAET, Volume One at the McSweeney’s Store

Small Blows Against Encroaching Totalitariansim, Volume One
from McSweeney’s Books and 22 contributors
published by McSweeney’s Publishing
2018

This compact collection of heartfelt essays was compiled after the first year of DT’s presidency. Each essay concisely (in as few as two pages!) reflects the individual inspiration to vote of a range of writers, poets, and journalists.

Their inspirations and concerns are diversely progressive: calls for kindness, democracy over fascism, the potential of refugees and immigrants to achieve their dreams, the injustice of war, the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ liberation, the reclamation of language, the climate crisis, science, and more.

I used to think of collections like this as merely ‘preaching to the choir,’ but I now appreciate the sense of community and thoughtfulness they provide in a landscape in which perhaps 40% of the country believes in conspiracy theories and white supremacy.

(I was certain I have Volume Two, but it is small enough to be hiding in any number of caches of books around my home… If I can find it, I’m sure I’ll find some solace in it.)

A subtext to the essays, delivered directly or implied : DO YOUR PART TO MOVE US FORWARD. Real change won’t happen without you!

Culture: National Novel Writing Month is nearly here

Someone made the mistake of saying they needed a hobby, and so I zealously promoted NaNoWriMo to them. Because: IT IS GREAT!

Do you want to write a first draft of a novel? In a month? As part of a socially-connected online community, with abundant daily encouragement? OF COURSE YOU DO!

NaNoWriMo

Yaaay, novel-writing!

I have four novellas from successful past NaNoWriMos, and while I’m trying to turn my attention to making photography books now, I’m still a zealot for sharing great experiences. Participating in, and successfully completing, a 50,000 word novel/la in a month is a GREAT experience!

It’s also surprising low pressure. When I was participating, the idea was that your first novel isn’t going to be your best, so let’s just get it done and out of the way without agonizing over it!

Also, 50,000 words divided over a 30 day month is just 1,667 words a day! You probably TEXT that (emoji aside)!

And the bragging rights! DO IT FOR THE BRAGGING RIGHTS!

I heartily recommend NaNoWriMo. Do it!

Words: Handmaid

There is some extremist judge being considered for the U.S. Supreme Court (again), and she’s in a spin-off religious sect that once bestowed the title of handmaid upon her. (AP)

This evoked the famous Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (en.wikipedia.org), and so there were some awkward news flurries about how HER faith group was NOT the inspiration for THAT story.

There was even a grumpy denial from the U.S. Senate Majority “Leader” (guardian.co.uk) in which he said, among other things, that the term was being used pejoratively, “because one liberal author put it in the title of an anti-religious novel in the 1980s…”

I’m in a religion, and I did not think the Handmaid’s Tale was anti-religious in any way… because I don’t naturally associate the oppression of women, including treating women as property, forcing women to conceive children with men not of their choosing, or restricting other basic human rights with religious values. You’d have to be part of a religion with a similarly oppressive belief system to see that horrifically dystopian novel as an insult to your— oh. OH.

Book: Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

My copy

Gift from the Sea
by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
published by Pantheon Books, New York
1955 (with 2005 updates)

Green Apple Books recommended this small book years ago, and their staff recommendations are EXCELLENT. I enjoyed this book VERY MUCH when I first got it there, and I was delighted to find this edition to reread.

A brief summary: the author makes a strong case for taking time for self-care in the form of peaceful solitude. She argues that women of her day had been raised to give themselves away, and to have anything to give, you need to renew and care for yourself. Lindbergh realized this on a solo vacation, away from her husband and FIVE children; while she enjoyed the companionship of her sister near the end of her trip, she felt whole again after having time with her own thoughts; after living simply and without concern for impressing others; and after having an open schedule without obligations to fulfil.

She also reflects on marriage, raising children, competing views of the role of women in society, and her own privilege.

Readers of my time will see this book as promoting “mindfulness,” enjoyment of the present moment, and a call to examine the noise of materialism to find a more meaningful peace.

It’s a concise, thoughtful, well-worded book on making time to be yourself. This particular edition has an essay by the author’s daughter, plus an afterword in which the author reflects on feminism and American women’s evolving expectations and achievements twenty-plus years later. I found it revelatory the first time I read it, and while I am now more steeped in formal mindfulness training, I still appreciate its concision and clarity.

What I didn’t know when I read it the first time is that Mrs. Lindbergh’s life was more complicated than I knew. I knew her famous aviator husband took a shine to Hitler; I knew her first child was kidnapped for ransom and murdered; I knew she’d written other books. I did NOT know until I was looking up her aviation accomplishments in her Wikipedia profile that one of those books was pro-fascist (!!) and widely condemned, that she’d agreed with her husband’s favorable view of Hitler, and that the book I’m reviewing was part of her efforts to redeem her reputation. Thanks to the same article, I also know that her husband had affairs AND a secret family in Europe (two sisters bore him kids, and he had 7 with at least the three women now known of), which means that I’m ESPECIALLY glad that she did some self-care, because YIKES.

Book: Mooncop by Tom Gauld

Yes, it looks like this.

Mooncop
by Tom Gauld
published by Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal
2016

Science-loving cartoonist/illustrator Tom Gauld’s adorable style is evident again in Mooncop, an accurately-titled, single story about… wait for it… a police officer who works on the moon.

The story is a bit melancholy, as our protagonist is living his dream, while other humans have largely lost interest in the place.

It’s charming. It’s spare. The small gestures in Gauld’s style are very expressive. I really like Gauld’s practical-looking, modular architecture, periodically interrupted by transparent bubble domes. I like the boxiness of the robots. And the cover even has the title in fancy silver foil! It’s a nice little book.

Book: Earth: Bernhard Edmaier Colors of the Earth

Gorgeous cover of the gorgeous through and through book by Bernhard Edmaier

Earth: Bernhard Edmaier Colors of the Earth
by Bernhard Edmaier
published by Phaidon
2013

Edmaier’s aerial photography work is justifiably famous; Phaidon is my favorite photography book publisher; this oversized photography book combining what I appreciate about each is a fantastic work, especially for those of you who enjoy geology.

This book is FULL of geology. Geology which is composed beautifully and makes me think of the abstract paintings I am so fond of.

This isn’t JUST a book of beautiful photography which happens to be organized by color: it is also filled with scientific explanations for the colors and forms in the images. I hereby give a special shout out to iron oxide, for all the magic it does around the world!

Before you ask: OF COURSE there are images of volcanoes, volcanic cones, and LAVA. And oceans, and coral reefs, and icebergs that have just turned over and are glassy and clear, and glowing blue pools of meltwater, and…

One of countless remarkable images of the natural world, so skillfully captured by Edmaier.

You’ll learn something new about how crystals or mountains formed; you’ll want to fly to remote islands and volcanoes to see their remarkable textures; you’ll have a new appreciation for all the colors a glacier can feature. My tiny, low-resolution teaser images won’t do this heavy, beautifully produced book justice, but I can say that I recommend it with great zeal.

You likely could have guessed this, but Bernhard Edmaier has a fantastic website, which reveals that he did study geology, and which features other books of his, some of which I don’t yet own. (Oh-oh.)

Enjoy the beauty of the natural world, and especially its geology, through the work of this talented photographer.

Book: Machine Art (Museum of Modern Art Catalog from 1934)

What a great cover! What a great band wrapped around it! Great design overall.

Machine Art (Sixtieth Anniversary Edition)
by The Museum of Modern Art
published by The Museum of Modern Art (and Abrams)
1934, reprinted in 1994

I don’t think I’ve written up a review of the de Young Museum of San Francisco’s show & book on Precisionism called Cult of the Machine (which I should do!), but suffice to say for now that I’m interested in how “the machine age” changed how we think about the design of utilitarian (useful) objects. While the de Young show was a retrospective, Machine Art is a catalog of a show DURING the era of fascination with what machines can do.

It’s a pretty funny catalog.

The new preface by Philip Johnson is a light-hearted acknowledgement that the catalog essays he’d written were a bit naive, and that he was very zealous with his ‘machine made = good, handmade = bad’ arguments. The essays are unbalanced in favor of mass production, though there is some acknowledgment that early machine production made inferior products to those of artisans. There is also a decoration-is-evil thread to the writing, because of course there is – this is how we know we are modern! 🙂

A phone photo from my couch of sample illustrations from the catalog

While the Precisionist show I’m comparing this to was a celebration of the best-of-the-best in retrospect, this catalog is far more… happy with chrome toasters of no special renown.

These functional design ideas have stood the test of time – these toasters were for sale in 1934, and models of the same appearance are available now – but aren’t something you’d necessarily buy a postcard of. (I buy some pretty weird postcards, just so you know.) They are plain enough to be shown as examples of a kind of functional purity (aside from the chrome, which is seen as functional rather than garish – I’m more pure than you, and I say this should be sheathed in plain concrete, bwa ha ha ha ha) , but are not glamorous. They definitely do avoid unnecessary decoration (again, I think the high polish IS decoration, but that’s me). The catch is that objects that look like this have become generic and somewhat invisible – which is either a great victory of function over the sentimentally decorative past, or… just the passage of time wearing the shine off these objects.

Oh look, the fancy drip coffee stacked labware setup has always existed! Who knew?

Summary: interesting catalog with essays of a zealous pro-machine/anti-handicraft bent, with objects which succeeded to such excess that the novelty and surprise of them sails past me. (Another thing ruined for me by architecture school and Bauhaus books & shows!)

Book: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A book that rightly earned great acclaim

Between The World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
published by One World (Penguin Random House)
2015

The best book I’ve experienced so far this year is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This memoir, written as a message to his young son, is both a sensitive, insightful autobiography and a thoughtful dissection of the constructs of race within the United States.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition of this work, read by the author. Coates is a very natural speaker/reader, and it was a pleasure to listen to him in this format. He is also an extremely gifted writer, and this book (especially in his voice) feels both brilliant and extremely personal. Like listening to a friend pour out his soul in a deeply meaningful and very penetrating way.

Coates shares his insights on his experience growing up in a tough neighborhood, on displays of fear, on how the racial dynamics of this country permeate parenting, daily life, physical presentation… On the extremely artificial construct of a “white” American identity, on the infrastructure that sustains a completely different reality for people who claim that identity… And on the crushing loss of police brutality, not only experienced by those who are arbitrarily murdered by the authorities on half-baked pretenses, but on the way those murders and the lack of justice that follows them scar entire communities.

This book manages to be thoroughly enjoyable while still touching on some of the most painful and tender topics in our current time. I gained some insights. I misted up. I felt shared joy over some of the author’s experiences. I appreciated the way Coates described his own personal growth in areas he hadn’t anticipated. The book feels remarkably contemporary at an up-to-this-second level, and I feel like my life is richer for having heard it from the author. I recommend it zealously.

Book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Cover of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
published by Penguin Random House
2016

“Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”
– The Husband, after his Wife’s spontaneous suicide attempt after she is physically attacked by her family.
(OMG, the lack of self awareness for this character is SO CONVINCING!)

The award winning novel, The Vegetarian, translated into English from Korean, tells the story of a woman living in a strictly conformist, patriarchal society, in a traditional marriage, from a domineering family, who decides to change just one thing about her life. After a dream of animal suffering, she decides to stop eating meat.

All hell breaks loose.

Our protagonist is nameless at first, and is initially defined only by her relationships to others. Her story is told primarily through the eyes of her self-absorbed husband, her obsessive brother-in-law, and her deeply concerned sister, each of whom sees her quite differently and has a completely different experience of knowing her and watching her change.

The story (or up to four stories, depending on how you view it) is a dark view of obligation, conformity, and custom, with glimpses of vivid, delicate, fleeting freedom.

(As a vegetarian who LOVES the vegan Buddhist temple food of Korea, the lack of understanding in this setting by her conformist family was especially striking. The precedent and ethics of her choice were not relevant to anyone at the time, which is more indicative of her situation than the specific choice she was making. )