A dystopian novel

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

-Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Rating: 3.5 stars
Days to read: 8

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to cling to YA in many of my book selections. For this category I specifically wanted to avoid YA, because as much as I loved Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner, I need to branch out a bit. When I was researching possible selections for this category I came across Brave New World, and it dawned on me that this is a classic that I really should have read a long time ago. Being a product of the International Baccalaureate program, a lot of my high school reading lists concentrated on translated works (no complaints here– it was great exposure to a world of literature!), so it wasn’t really on my radar until college. I think it’s really important to read the classics and I’m glad I did, but I don’t think this book will crack my list of favorites.

The story begins at a Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in central London in the future where we follow a tour of the facility with a group of young boys. In the future children are no longer born but rather ‘decanted’. We have apparently learned so much about development that the entire process proceeds from start to finish in a lab. People can be created by the thousands, often in identical batches. Not only can humans be created, they are tailored for designated social castes. For example, Epsilons are purposefully deprived of oxygen to their brains for a brief period of time, making them ‘well suited’ to the mundane labor jobs to which they will be assigned later in life. These descriptions are enough to send chills up your spine. As a scientist, there are times I think we fail to think about whether or not we should create a technology, only if and how we can. Because of these technologies and the control they allow society, words like ‘mother’ become dirty.

Most of what shapes society in Brave New World is indeed built around convenience and carefree living as the supreme goal. Solitary pursuits, including reading, are discouraged as they tend to take away from time people spend money on entertainment and material things. The majority of the plot revolves around two characters. Bernard, an Alpha, is a bit shorter than the rest of his caste (rumor has it there was some alcohol in his ‘blood surrogate’) but perhaps because of this he is naturally a bit more secluded from the rest of society in a quite unorthodox manner. He doesn’t get the same enjoyment as everyone else from mindless consumption of material goods. He also doesn’t rely on soma, a drug that provides a hangover free mental retreat and is poised as a cure all for any negative feelings. This relative social isolation provides the substrate for the beginnings of the realization that this consumerist world is not quite as fulfilling as it could be and he seems at first to escape the mindless conditioning that rules society. On the other hand, Lenina (a Beta) is interested in Bernard but confused by his continual refusal of her advances. She is the ultimate product of of her environment– completely unquestioning, content with the world she has been designed for, and troubled by Bernard’s unorthodox comments.

Through a series of events Bernard and Lenina take a vacation to one of the ‘savage’ reservations still left in America. Certain areas of land have been designated as almost a living museum to the “old ways” where people are allowed to live in something that vaguely resembles our current world. People age naturally, procreate naturally, and they follow a bit of a weird mix of all the world religions as one. During this trip Bernard finds Linda, a Beta who used to live in London but became lost on the reservation during a trip there many years ago and was abandoned. While she was abandoned she gave birth to John, who was actually fathered by the director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre in Central London.

Linda and John come back to London with Bernard and Lenina. John provides a little bit of political cover for Bernard spouting his unorthodox views (especially as it ‘outs’ the director for having fathered a child), and John becomes a spectacle for people to meet and comment on. Not surprisingly John becomes tired of being a tool for Bernard and is increasingly frustrated at the strange ways of the ‘new world’ (especially the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else”). Eventually John lives on his own in a remote cabin without the luxuries of the new world but he is still an object of intense fascination and bullying from people.

Although the plot felt a bit stilted and meandering, I found the theme of forgoing truth for happiness to be incredibly fascinating. In essence, if we want to know truth and grapple with it then we will know suffering as well. We could numb the suffering but that requires numbing truth, and the World Controllers in Brave New World know this and have explicitly chosen to do so as the greater good. Of course, the happiness that results in this scenario is false or at least incredibly shallow. There is something deeply satisfying about stumbling (and I truly mean stumbling) to figure something out your own way– it’s hard and it’s messy but you learn in a profound way so much about yourself and about the world. Convenience, for all its glory, can never give you this. One of my chief frustrations was that Bernard at times felt so close to grasping this concept but was more concerned with flaunting the superiority if his unique intellect and ideas rather than truly wanting truth. This perhaps is a fascinating warning in itself, that our intellectual pursuits can either truly be ordered towards pursuing truth or a false cover for our own ego.

Like 1984Brave New World is one of those books everyone needs to read for the sole reason that history repeats itself. It was written in 1932 but might be even more applicable now that our technologies are even closer to the fantasy world described in the book. The intersection of happiness, truth, consumerism, and mass culture is an interesting and worthwhile examination.

A satirical book

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Home sweet home..

“Mr. McIntryre,” Tierney said, putting his notepad on the desk, “now let me be candid. I don’t particularly care about Pan-Pacific.”
“You don’t?”
“To put it bluntly, another sleazy Washington lobby story is no longer front-page news.”
“Well,” Bird said, “I don’t know about ‘sleazy’, but if you say so.”
“My interest is Groepping-Sprunt.”
“Ah.”
“Specifically, a project they’re developing for the Pentagon.”
“Keeping America safe by keeping America strong. It’s on the letterhead. Under the eagle.”

-Christopher Buckley, “They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?”

Rating: 4 stars
Days to finish: 12

My first introduction to Christopher Buckley’s novels was back in college. It started with Thank You for Smoking and I devoured most of the rest of his work quickly thereafter. At one point (very briefly) I was an aspiring international relations major, and being a native of the DC area the drama of current events was something you had to converse in fluently. Buckley is the son of William Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. He was also a speech writer for George H.W. Bush and became known outside political circles in 2008 when he endorsed Obama over the McCain/Palin ticket. Our politics are somewhat different but he came from a time where you could go have a beer with your opponent and have a productive, meaningful debate. We are now sadly past this era, and frustration with the current mode of operations is reflected in the way he treats Washington as a subject in his books, mostly by poking fun of Washington mercilessly. What sets Buckley apart is that it’s the kind of teasing you do when you still reluctantly care about things, even if they feel hopelessly awry.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Bird McIntyre is a consultant for a large defense contractor and is trying to convince Congress to buy their latest and greatest. After a rough testimony he teams up with Angel Templeton (a character who can only be described as Ann Coulter if she actually knew the names of the people she insults), a pro-war lobbyist, to manufacture a fake threat from the Chinese to bolster American sentiment that Congress needs to increase defense spending. It’s both ludicrous and true to Washington form, and has enough threads of reality to be as scary as it is funny. Rounding out the characters are Bird’s wife, Myndi, who enjoys spending Bird’s money on new horses, his brother who has no other job than to reenact Civil War history on their large plot of land in Virginia, and his mother with severe dementia.

The narrative goes back and forth between DC and China, where President Fa is trying to placate the desires of an aggressive and manipulative cabinet. In parallel both Angel Templeton and the Chinese come up with the same goal: kill the Dalai Lama (who is of rapidly deteriorating health anyway) and blame it on the other country. For the DC crew, this would show how dangerous the Chinese are and how much we need to stop them. For the Chinese, this would prevent the Dalai Lama from returning to Tibet before dying, where the Chinese can take over the reincarnation ceremony and nominate a successor much more ‘compatible’ with their plans for Tibet. Each plan only works if they aren’t caught. The highs and lows of manipulating the unwieldy beast of public perception create an amusing roller coaster for both sides.

In some ways Buckley’s books are hard to review in depth because the themes are timeless and simple: people are crazy and reality is stranger than fiction. There’s no giant stirring of emotions but the witty back and forth dialogue is enjoyable if not downright hysterical at times. If you’re an amateur political wonk, Buckley’s entire collection is well worth your time.

A political memoir

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one of my favorite signed copies in my collection

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

-Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy”

Rating: 5 stars
Days to read: 6

One of my reading weaknesses is that I rarely read non-fiction. This is possibly because I spend so much of my time in technical science literature that escaping to a fantasy world seems far more enticing when reading for fun. But to be honest, even this is at least partially an excuse. History comes much less easily to me than science, so while I read multiple newspapers daily to stay on top of current events, I rarely dive into the history and context of many of our current problems. Abolishing the death penalty is an issue I feel very strongly about, but only recently did I come to the realization that I knew very little about the history of the death penalty in this country. A good friend who is a lawyer and feels the same way about the death penalty recommended this book and I couldn’t be more thankful that this book and the work of the Equal Justice Initiative got on my radar.

Just Mercy is the story of Bryan Stevenson’s career as a lawyer for death row inmates and children sentenced to life in prison. I was both entranced with his writing as much as I often struggled to keep reading the stories of many of his clients throughout the years. Featured prominently is the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who was convicted of capital murder in Alabama even though there were multiple eye witnesses that he was miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. To read about the gut wrenching racism of the prosecutors and jail staff, including using police dogs and other tactics to scare the supporters of the defendant from showing up at trial, I felt sick to my stomach. It made me want to slam my book down in the middle of the coffee shop and scream, this can’t be real, can it? People can’t really treat others this way and get away with it, can they? We know on some level that they can and they do, but each individual story is heartbreaking in its own way. Of course, to be this shocked and surprised is indicative of my relative privilege being white. I get to be unaware of these issues if I chose to, because I don’t have to personally experience this reality. However, to do so perpetrates the culture that allows these wrongdoings to occur. If I’m silent then the voices that demand finding person to be punished for a crime without regard for real truth, and by extension real justice, become that much louder.

Although this book was published a couple years ago, it felt timely against the backdrop of the current presidential race. The anti-PC pendulum has swung so far that we now call being abrasive and cruel as “honesty” and “keeping it real” (can we abolish that phrase? And “haters gonna hate” while we’re at it, but I digress..). Our sense of justice is so steeped in revenge, or downright swallowed by it, that we conflate mercy with being “soft on crime”. If we are truly to consider ourselves a Christian nation as some candidates would espouse, how can we revel in how forgiving and just God is in dealing with our own sins on Sunday morning and then go cheer on candidates who propose denying that same compassionate justice to our neighbors (especially those that don’t look like us) on the talk shows Monday morning?

The first response I normally hear when I get into these kinds of conversations is something along the lines of, what you just think these people should go free and be allowed to hurt people? Or, yea let’s give these criminals a cushy life, why would they be deterred by prison! The irony of course in this is that a prevailing belief in just mercy is not being “soft” on crime. It is merely the reminder that punishments need to fit the crime, not our desire for revenge and retribution, or worse, to look good in the next election. It feels good to say what we want to do to people who cause great harm to our loved ones and members of our society. But the ways in which we either allow or disallow ourselves from going down that road shapes our culture in profound ways.

Perhaps most indicative of Stevenson’s character, and probably what has allowed him to connect with and therefore better represent many of his clients, is how he recognizes his own brokenness and need for mercy, even (maybe especially) for those who seem least deserving of it. In one of the chapters Stevenson recalls a guard who put him through a strip search (not standard operating procedure at this jail), and among other things also points out his truck in the jail parking lot with a bumper sticker that reads “if I knew it was going to be this way, I would have picked my own damn cotton.” (I have no words for this.) Later that guard is in the courtroom while Stevenson presents his client’s extremely abusive childhood in grisly detail. When the guard next sees Stevenson back at the jail, the guard stops him and asks to shake his hand, explaining that he had a rough childhood himself in foster care and didn’t think anyone had it as bad as him. Instead of dismissing the guard as forever repugnant for his previous actions, Stevenson shakes his hand. Both men are changed by Stevenson’s mercy.

I’m saving my five star ratings for the books that absolutely change me, this book completely deserves it.