God Save Texas

I recently listened to Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas on a couple of long drives across the Great Plains. The book fit with my contemplative mood and the rolling hills of Middle America flying by.

Wright is a native Texan and journalist, who won a Pulitzer for his book on Al Qaeda and the road to 9/11. God Save Texas is part memoir, part history, celebration of Texas and critique of its many flaws. Just like me, Wright has a deep but ambivalent love of our state. The culture and history and natural beauty and politics of Texas all draw me back and repulse me away from home.

We claim Molly Ivins, Ann Richards, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson. But also produced Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, Rex Tillerson, and Rick Perry. We have the hallmarks of the American West – canyons (Palo Duro), mountains (Guadalupe), deserts (Chihuahuan), and ocean (Gulf of Mexico) – but none quite as deep or high, dry or dramatic as states further west. We were proudly independent, until we had the choice of ending slavery by accepting an economic bailout from Britain or joining the United States. Texas chose slavery. And, let me tell you, I did not learn that until reading this book, despite multiple courses in Texas history growing up.

Texas represents opportunity. The state economy weathered the Great Recession relatively well, and now bustles with tech businesses, fossil and renewable energy industries, tourism, healthcare, and research. It is deeply red and “politically immature” as Wright calls it. But the state is slowly, oh so slowly, turning blue and progressive. The 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate is a lesbian Latina, the first major party candidate in the state to be openly gay or Hispanic. Beto O’Rourke is giving Ted Cruz a run for his money for Senate. Texas is majority minority, since 2011. And Texas culture can’t be beat – a melting pot of the Deep South, American West, and Mexico in its music, literature, art, cooking, and architecture.

Wright, ultimately, can’t see himself living anywhere else, for all of Texas’ flaws. Nowhere else is home.

I am a postdoc in Minnesota, and am still trying to figure out the next moves in my career. Scientists, whether they are academics or working in other capacities, do not routinely have much flexibility in the location they land in, most of the time.  I love exploring places, and want to try living in new cities, states, even new countries.  I miss Texas. I have things that remind me of home – a print of a grotto in the Hill Country, a bottle with sand and shells from the Mustang Island beach, a candle that smells like bluebonnets. But I don’t, in the end, have much desire to go back, though. The state has changed too much from where I grew up, although many of those changes are for the better. Wright says he and a friend couldn’t “have lasted in Texas if it were the same place we grew up in, but we’re so powerfully imprinted by the culture it’s impossible to shake it off.” That imprint will stay with me, but the state is changing both too fast and too slow for me to want to return for now.

I visited recently, and everything felt different than the imprints I carry around in my head. The grackles still made ungodly, mechanical croaks as they flocked around the ferry in Port Aransas, but Hurricane Harvey had devastated the town. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but the old school building down the street is being converted into HQ for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.  It takes longer to escape the Hill Country McMansions, but the old cedar breaks are still heady with the scent of juniper. Fracking development continues to transform south Texas from flat, empty expanses of bad roads to busy highways dotted with drilling platforms and semis. None of these changes are bad or even very new, strictly speaking. It just all adds up to an Uncanny Valley version of home.

Plus, Texas is already too hot. I can’t imagine what 2°C of climate change will do.

God Save Texas encapsulates how I feel about Texas, how strange and great and problematic and frustrating the state is. Wright ends the book with a tour through the state cemetery, where he and his wife go to pick out their burial plots amongst other Texas luminaries such as Barbara Jordan, the astronaut Eugene Corman, and Ann Richards. He could have chosen to live somewhere else, may have been someone else – a player in Washington or big man in Hollywood. But, Wright reflects, he would not have been home.

I am thinking of my own path differently, as I navigate finding my next position and future career. Maybe I won’t be home. But I’ll take the pieces of Texas that I love with me.

Favorite Reads of 2015: Fiction

Favorite Reads of 2015: Fiction

I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy fiction, but there are a couple books from other genres thrown in here.  Again, not all of these books were published in 2015.  I just read them this year. Very brief thoughts below!

Ancillary Mercy by Anne Leckie

The conclusion to this series continues to ask questions about identity, class, and social justice against the backdrop of farflung space opera.  The first in the series is still the best, but Mercy is a strong ending – even if some of the aliens involved make me grit my teeth a little.

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

I stayed in London for a few days after a conference, and was chatting with my AirBnB host about books and the Arctic, when she handed this to me.  Kolymsky Heights is a post-Cold War thriller, which…not my usual fare.  But large parts of it take place in the Arctic.  In fact, most of the action happens in and around a town where I’ve done field work and written about a couple of time here - Cherskiy.  I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but I definitely got a kick out of it – the terrible science counterbalanced by bleak, engrossing set pieces of Russian winters.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg

Another thriller, again with questionable science and an Arctic bent.  I enjoyed Smilla’s Sense of Snow much more than Kolymsky Heights, though.  A Greenlandic boy is killed in mysterious circumstances in Denmark, and Smilla – herself half Greenlandic, and friends with the boy – investigates.  Smilla is dark and cynical and completely impatient with bureaucracy and Danish cultureYet she recognizes that her attitude is at times hypocritical.  Great characters, bleak settings, and some unexpected twists.

Shepherd’s Crown/ Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett

Somehow, despite having read Terry Pratchett for years, I’d never read the Tiffany Aching Discworld series until this spring.  Knowing his last book was the conclusion to Tiffany’s story, I started them shortly after his death.  And immediately regretted that I hadn’t read them twelve years ago when the first, Wee Free Men, was published.  Tiffany is a witch in the making, and the books chronicle her growth into being one of the greatest witches in Discworld.  Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s final Discworld novel, was particularly poignant. 

Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette-Kowal

The conclusion to Mary Robinette-Kowal’s excellent series, set in Regency era with a slight twist – there is magic, of a sort.  Glamour bends light and creates illusions, but has few other applications. Of Noble Family continues previous themes of family versus ambition and career for Jane, the main character, while tying into a bigger story of slavery and human rights in British Caribbean colonies during the early 19th century. 

Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

Ursula Vernon, author of comics and kids books, writes for adults under the pen name T. Kingfisher, mostly retold fairytales.  Bryony and Roses re-works Beauty and the Beast with a few wonderful twists.  Gardening becomes central to defeating the antagonist.  Vernon’s writing is more wry and humorous than Robin McKinley’s fairy tale novels, but are still compelling (if too short!) reads.

Uprooted by Noami Novik

Possibly my favorite book of the past year.  Agnieszka is a confused young woman, navigating entrapment by a menacing sorcerer, politics, and the archetypal, poisonous, evil Wood that surrounds her village.  She fights for her home, but especially for her friendship with Kasia, her closest companion.  While some high fantasy in this vein ends up feeling rather generic, Novik does an excellent job differentiating her world from any other, with Polish folk tales pulsing throughout the story and world.

The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Going meta a bit, I think there are three main aspects of storytelling that factor into whether a book is worth reading or not.  Character, plot, and world-building.  Do the characters have personalities, make decisions that are consistent with those personalities, shift and change as their circumstances force them to grow into a different person?  Is the world they inhabit rich and well-imagined and internally consistent?  Is there a plot that makes at least a little bit of sense?  Of these three, plot is the factor that actually interests me the least.  The Long Earth series, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, has relatively little plot.  Things happen, but the pace is slow and each book has a theme rather than a strong plot.  The characters are interesting though, and the world building – across an infinite number of parallel Earths that people can hop to – is excellent.  There are strange creatures, space exploration, and Pratchett’s patented brand of absurdism, combined with Stephen Baxter’s realistic science fiction. 

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

Another slow-paced series with strong characters and an intriguing world.  Steerswomen (and a few men) are wanderers whose only purpose is to ask questions and learn about the world.  If they ask a question, a person must answer.  And the steerswoman will answer any question asked of her.  Rowan finds some mysterious pieces of crystal that lead her on a quest across barbarian badlands and discovering weird creatures with a … unique way of communicating. These books cross genre from fantasy to sci-fi and back again, with wonderful imagination. 

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison

The other top contender for favorite novel of the past year.  N.K. Jemison is a master of world-building, creating setpieces unlike any other in fantasy.  Plus, a fast-paced story that jumps through time and space.  Her characters evolve and react – or sometimes over-react – in understandable ways as their world is literally shaken apart.  Excellent!

Favorite Reads of 2015: Science Edition

My goal this year was to read 75 new-to-me books, and I’m  nearly there.  I thought I’d take this week and next to highlight a few favorites.  I listen to nonfiction audiobooks a fair amount during long car rides and chores, so I’ll make note of which ones I listened to versus read, and maybe comment on the narrator.  Also, these are books that I read in the past year, but a fair number of them were published pre-2015. Science books first!  Next will be fiction, followed by history/social sciences. 

Song of the Dodo by David Quammen (1996)

David Quammen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Carl Zimmer are probably my favorite science writers.  Quammen, especially, does a magnificent job of weaving scientific theory, field anecdotes, and biographical notes of eminent scientists together into one seamless story.  Song of the Dodo, written in the mid-1990s, is the story of island biogeography and extinction.  Quammen jumps from Darwin and Wallace inciting “a shitstorm of resentment in Victoria’s England” to isolated patches of Amazonian forest amongst Brazilian plantations, and everywhere in between.  We learn how evolution, and its close cousin biogeography, developed as disciplines – and what these theories will ultimately mean for species survival in a fractured landscape.  One of my favorite books, ever.  I’d also recommend Spillover, Quammen’s more recent book on zoonotic diseases, and once again one of my all-time favorite  books.

Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey (2008) 

Richard Fortey was director of the British Natural History Museum for years, in addition to being a trilobite expert and writing quite a few popular science books on natural history.  This time, Fortey dwells less on the science and more on the people.  He gives a chatty, gossipy look behind the scenes of the BNHM.  Sure, there’s science.  But this book is mostly a description of the quirky individuals and sometimes controversial developments inside the museum.  Anyone in science will recognize a few personalities.  The stories reveal not just the comings and goings of people and ideas, but also the sometimes cut-throat politics of science at a public institution.  Fun, enlightening, and well-worth the time.  I read it shortly before actually going to the BNHM, and enjoyed knowing a bit of what was going on beneath the surface. 

Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth by Alan Weisman (2013) 

I actually switched between audiobook and the hardback (signed by author!) for this one.  I had the hardback first, but found that I never quite got around to finishing it, so the last half I listened to.  Weisman wrote World Without Us previously, imagining what would happen to Earth if humans disappeared.  He now tackles the opposite end of the spectrum: what are the consequences of too many humans, and how can we control populations?  Using on-the-ground interviews in places as different as India, Iran, and Israel, Weisman addresses what works and what doesn’t to limit population size.  What are the obstacles to accessible birth control?  Are the economic, cultural, political? The answers are surprising.  I found the section describing Iran’s successful family planning program – and how it was later dismantled – the most interesting and informative.

How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro (2015)

How does cloning – or rather, de-extinction - work?  What species (plant, animal; extinct or near extinct; charismatic or keystone) should be revived? What happens then?  Should we even try to bring back species that no longer have an ecological niche?  Shapiro addresses each of these questions in turn, or attempts to answer them.  As with anything in science, there are no easy solutions, and multiple ways to achieve any goal.  Even trickier than the scientific obstacles are the ethical ones, though.  The recently extinct (or near-extinct) species that would be easiest to revive mostly lack a home – their native habitats are gone or greatly reduced.  That applies even more so to mammoth and their ilk.  The great steppe tundra that mammoth perpetuated has gone the same way as the ice-age megafauna – Pleistocene Park notwithstanding.  There are no easy answers to these issues, but Shapiro has a fun and fast-paced style laying out all the complications de-extinction faces.

The Strange Case of the Ricketty Cossak by Ian Tattersall (2015; Audiobook) 

Science does not progress forward in a linear fashion.  There are leaps and bounds, sidepaths and backtracks.  Similarly, evolution itself does not progress forwards towards a particular goal.  Evolutionary trees are bushy, with many branches that diverge again and again, or end abruptly.  Tattersall demonstrates the complicated nature of both evolution and scientific progress through primate paleontology.  There may now be only one species of human, and a few Great Apes, but that wasn’t always the case.  Paleoanthropology sometimes had a hard time accepting that there were other Homo species, that humans are not the result of a regular ascent towards some apex.  Hence, the Ricketty Cossack  whose bones actually belonged to a Neanderthal, not a bow-legged horseman.   Tattersall tracks the scientific developments that led to our discovery and acceptance of a bushier family tree with anecdotes, biographies, and criticisms of those who tried to force scientific results to fit their own theories.

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures by William deBuys (2015; Audiobook)

 I started listening to this on my way to Austin over Thanksgiving, and did not want to stop.  William deBuys narrates his own book, which can be hit or miss – this instance is definitely a hit.  He details the search for saola, a rare ungulate in the mountainous forests of Laos and Vietnam.  Somewhere between antelope and cow, the saola was only noticed by Western science in 1992.  Faced with poaching and habitat destruction, the already rare beast is likely dwindling even further.  DeBuys accompanies a wildlife biologist, a couple of Laotian students and officials, and a rotating team of local guides on grueling treks through unpopulated (except for Vietnamese poachers) forests.  The subject and writing both harken to Peter Matthiesson’s search in The Snow Leopard, complete with quirky ecologists, exhausting hikes through remote Asian wilderness, and an elusive quarry, with occasional asides about the author’s personal life.  The Last Unicorn is less personal than The Snow Leopard, but the writing is engrossing and the science explained in a cogent, clear manner.

A few books

Well, there went my plan to update once a week or so.  I do have a couple of posts in the making – one on the Anthropocene and one on my own research on using satellite imagery to monitor Arctic rivers.  In the meantime, here are some books I’ve read in the past few weeks.  No particular order:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

If you like fantasy, fairy tales, or novels with a deeply rooted sense of place – read this book.  Agnieszka, a coltish young woman, awaits the day that her best friend, Kasia, will be taken from their home as a tribute to The Dragon.  The Dragon is no mythical beast, but a century-old sorcerer, who plucks one 17-year old girl from the valley he oversees, once every ten years.  Kasia is beautiful, self-assured, and talented.  Yet, Agnieszka is the one who is taken.  In doing so, she is drawn into a world of magic, intrigue and an ongoing battle against the malevolent Wood. 

Uprooted came out on the day that I flew back from New England to Texas last month.  I was spending the night in the airport, and rather than trying to sleep, I devoured this book.  Novik drew inspiration from Polish folktales, and that translates into a wonderfully atmospheric setting for her story.  The Wood feels like an archetype of an evil forest.  Plus, I found Anzieszka to be a very relatable character whose choices and actions actually made sense.  Not always the case in genre fiction!  Her friendships with Kasia, the Dragon and other characters evolve and motivate her in believable ways.  Suffice to say, I loved this book.  Novik already earned a spot on my comfort-reading shelf with her series of dragons in the Napoleonic War, but this is even better .

Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele

A few weeks ago, as part of a workshop, the National Academies hosted a webinar and panel discussion featuring Claude Steele.  He spoke about stereotype threat and implicit biases, and how we might be able to combat those obstacles.  About halfway through his talk, I bought his book (oh, ebooks, how I love thee).

People experience stereotype threat when they fear being at risk of fulfilling a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  High school girls (and younger) do poorly on math exams compared to boys, in part, because they have added anxiety from this stereotype threat.  That anxiety – the actual, physical and mental symptoms of it – prevent them from performing their best.  The same holds true for other groups – white men in athletics and black students taking academic exams are cited frequently in Whistling Vivaldi.  Steele steps through how this theory was developed, what the effects are and how it is possible to lessen  stereotype threat.  As someone who might be teaching students in the relatively near future, I found this book particularly interesting.  There are strategies here that could make any classroom more welcoming and effective – not just for a few privileged students already likely to succeed, but for all. Underrepresented groups in STEM face other hurdles, of course.  But stereotype threat is an important topic for any educator to understand.

Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

I started this a few weeks ago, and set it aside.  This weekend, I read the remaining 90% in one go.  I won’t lie – it is an upsetting read.  I had to pause every few pages (to alternately yell at the book or drink a bit more beer as fortification).  However, Jon Krakauer writes a gripping story, sympathetic to the people involved and backed by extensive research into the psychology and statistics of rapists and their victims.  Missoula may have grabbed headlines as a place of inordinate sexual violence, the “rape capitol”, but really it represents a standard college town in America.  Brace yourself, and read Missoula.

Robin McKinley

I needed a palette cleanser after Missoula, so I’ve been reading some old favorites by Robin McKinley.  Most of her books are standalones, but set in a very loosely related world – many are retold fairy tales.  Rose Daughter retells Beauty and the Beast, my favorite fairy tale.  I told a friend this recently, and she looked at my bookshelves, at my stack of books on the coffee table, and my necklace (a book made out of handmade paper and reclaimed leather), and said something to the effect of, “Is it because you relate to Disney’s Belle?”  She’s probably right.  Anyway, Rose Daughter also features gardening, and the best use of unicorns in any fantasy novel, ever.  Other favorites by Robin McKinley include Sunshine (best vampire urban fantasy with a baker as a protagonist); Spindle’s End (with fairy godmothers far less foolish than the Disney version); The Hero and the Crown (should be given to every 11 year old on their birthday). 

I’ve read other books the past few weeks, but these are the highlights (with one exception, that will be a longer post if I can get around to it).  

RIP Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett passed away this week.

I chronicle my life by the books I read, and few authors hold as prominent a place as Pratchett.  His books are funny and cynical, warm and pointed, comforting and probing.  I laughed with these books, and grew up with them.

I read Good Omens when I was 13 or so.  I couldn’t stop talking about it – I was a wee atheist, then, and had not actually told anyone that I didn’t believe in any god.  Good Omens poked fun at religion, alternating between vicious, uproarious criticism and a more gentle, good natured “isn’t this ridiculous” voice.  I knew the authors agreed with me, even if they did not say so outright. 

My overenthusiastic prattling about this book also led to the first time I was told to censor myself – a relative thought that the storyline I described would be offensive to some born-agains at Thanksgiving.  I bristled at that - the same way I do now when it’s suggested I keep my opinions to myself – but I kept the peace.  Terry Pratchett’s book affirmed my worldview, and led to the realization that not everyone would tolerate that view.

Soul Music, Hogfather, Mort.  Equal Rites, Maskerade, Witches Abroad. Eric, The Truth, Going Postal.

What other fantasy book titles reference a John Knox’s tirade against women leaders (Monstrous Regiment)? Or who models their entire plotline off of a Macbeth joke (Wyrd Sisters)?  Who sums up an entire theory of economics and why poor people stay poor with a boot metaphor (Men at Arms)?

Neil Gaiman wrote an eloquent memorial for Terry Pratchett, in anticipation of his passing from Alzeimer’s.  You should read it.  The fury and anger he describes are there in Pratchett’s writing.  These were books that helped me through being a teenager, that shaped my philosophy.  But also kept me from being too cynical, too down on humanity.  He was humane and hysterical.  That’s a rare combination, and the world is a poorer place without him.

And now to go re-read Hogfather and Feet of Clay.

Sustaining character

Whew.  Had bronchitis last week, had to miss out on seeing the whooping cranes.  I tried coming in to do work twice, and was told by officemates to go home in no uncertain terms.  Eventually, I bowed to their judgment.  Now I’m playing catch up, so of course I write a blog post.  To, um, get back in the habit of writing.  Yeah.

A couple weeks ago, I hosted book club.  We read Wool by Hugh Howey – which I keep wanting to call Howl – and all had thoughts about the book. 

Howey originally self-published Wool as a series of short stories that garnered some praise and attention, which were eventually picked up by a major publisher to be collected as a single book.  The five sections – each its own short story – are very distinct.  One book-clubber described the book as “post-apocalyptic mystery” which is as good a description as any.  I devoured the first three sections, then stalled out on the last two.  It took awhile for me to figure out why, but I think I’ve nailed it down.

Each of the first three sections has a very strong point of view, tight third person narrative.  We see through the main characters’ eyes.  Each section has a different narrator, but we are privy to their thoughts and perceptions of the world.  We only know as much as they do.  These parts are gripping.  I wanted to figure out the mysteries that each character confronted as much as they did.  And Jules is great – a female hypercompetent mechanic turned detective?  Sign me up.  The last two parts, however, begin opening to more points of view.  The events aren’t as grounded in one particular characters’ experience, but we see what happens from multiple places.  Suddenly, the book feels a lot less like a character pushing through obstacles to figure out a mystery, and more like there are Important Things Happening that the author Wants to Happen.  Plot takes over, at the sacrifice of a strong character worldview.  And everyone in the book club immediately lost interest.

I think a lot of authors and stories do this.  The Hunger Games is a perfect example.  I loved the first book.  The second book was good, if repetitive.  The third book, however, no longer felt like Katniss's story.  It was the story of Panem, and it is difficult to identify with an entire nation.  Suzanne Collins is hardly alone, though.  I love Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books (and Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille).  But one of them I refuse to re-read, because its…well, there’s a revolution, and Vlad’s wife is heavily involved, and the whole story is very plotty.  Nothing is untrue to the characters, but I still could not quite buy into the premise.  And I like revolution!  I grew up in a good Marxist household, after all.  

Revolutions are hard to pull off.  In the real world, or in writing.  I just re-read Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett – another all time favorite – and there’s a quote by the Patrician that I think is fitting. 

“You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people.  And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you.  But the trouble is that it’s the only thing you’re good at.  One day it’s ringing bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one’s been taking out the trash.  Because the bad people know how to plan.  It’s part of the specification, you might say.  Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world.  The good people don’t seem to have the knack.”

I don’t necessarily believe this – I’m cynical, but not quite that cynical.  But Pratchett has a point – the plan for what happens after the aristocracy or tyrant or plutocracy is displaced never quite coalesces.  I cannot think of a story where the author sells me on this.  And it tends to be particularly weak when the story starts as centering on one character, then tries to expand.  Dystopian stories, post-apocalyptic narratives, social upheaval.  They’re amongst my favorite premises, but too often feel unfinished.

A counter might be George R.R. Martin’s books.  You can hardly get more plot-driven than those.  I need post-it notes to keep track of events and characters.  Those work, though, because we are never wedded to just one viewpoint.  There are multiple strands that we follow from the very beginning.  Martin never tries to get you to buy into what is happening from just Tyrion’s perspective, or just Dany’s.  He also includes Arya and The Onion Knight and Cersei and Brienne and Stannos and dozens of others.  It is a big picture view of the world, told through many smaller stories. 

And that is where Wool falls flat, ultimately.  We buy into one person’s world – Holston, Jahns or Juliette.  Then we lose our connection with one character, and are asked to expand to multiple at a time.  Our expectations are no longer met.

Two conclusions, then, that I think are applicable to all writing.  First, character rules all.  People want to read about people, and they want a sense of who those people are.  Even in science writing, write about a person, and imbue them with personality, ambition, choice, goals.  Readers will forgive much if the characters stay true.  Second, the writer has a contract with the reader.  They set up certain expectations of narrative, approach.  Breach the contract, and there are no guarantees the reader will stay with you.    Twists and turns in plot are forgivable, even appreciated.  Abrupt, unexpected changes in voice are not.