Cailin Reads: Eating Fossil Fuels by Dale Allen Pfeffer

Ah, peak oil. The catastrophe-of-the-moment for doomsday preppers everywhere during the administration of George W. Bush – the calamity that would destroy the evils of our technologically driven culture and send us all back, kicking and screaming, to an agrarian utopia. Those of us who survive, anyway.

Like every prediction of the End of Life as We Know It™, this one never came to pass… Or should I say, it hasn’t come to pass yet?

Although the dire predictions of skyrocketing food and fuel prices and global economic decline are a decade overdue, the concerns Pfeffer raises about our dependence on oil and natural gas for every facet of modern life still resonate. Likewise his prescriptions for change, with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture and the revival of local communities and economies, find an echo in the suggested solutions to climate change and other environmental and social ills.

While I cannot claim any special insight into the underlying science, the book’s analysis of several key issues – most notably the pace of decline in fossil fuel production – seems unjustifiably negative. After all, he expected we’d all be living in an era of crisis by now.

Does that make the principle any less sound? Again, I don’t understand the science well enough to evaluate specific claims but the basic idea seems valid on its face. After all, it isn’t as though fossil fuels are going to be replenished any time soon.

Throughout the book there is a fundamental lack of optimism, and a hefty dose of skepticism about human innovation and technological progress, that I found hard to embrace. The very idea of progress or incremental change to lessen the severity of the crisis is written off at every juncture.

Renewable energy, which has grown so much more efficient and economical since 2006 when this book was published, is dismissed in a mere sentence or two as impractical and not effective enough to have an impact. Nuclear, which is admittedly problematic but still part of our energy mix, gets even less attention.

Urban living gets similarly short shrift, cast as a relic of industrialization bound to be left behind in the return to subsistence living, with post-oil life depicted as necessarily small in scale and rural in character. It is hard not to envision this social structure as a neo-hippie commune of sorts, which struck me as both far-fetched and needlessly regressive. The alternative – inaction leading to the total collapse of the globalized economy and with it human civilization as we know it – is utterly bleak but far more believable, particularly in light of the prevailing political climate regarding global warming and carbon emissions.
As a call to action, the book missed its mark. Although some of the ideas presented are good ones, on whole the narrative spoke more to a missed chance for action and a looming catastrophe that cannot be averted or mitigated than an opportunity for meaningful change. When the best case scenario the author can offer is a “gentle” or gradual die-off of most of the human population and a drastic decline in the standard of living of those that remain, it is hard to find anything inspiring about the work.

Cailin Reads: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

I occasionally veer off into young adult fiction, usually because my daughter is reading something she thinks I would enjoy or would like to have someone with whom she can discuss the book. Once in awhile, I even pick up a YA series just because it sounds interesting and I feel like a lighter read.

Probably my favorite young adult books are The Giver quartet by Lois Lowry. But despite my love for that series, I’d never read her Newbery award winner Number the Stars. So when I saw it on Kindle Unlimited, not long after a conversation with my older daughter about whether my youngest would read it in 4th grade as she did, I decided to finally give it a read.

The story is actually rather sweet. Not the word that one would generally use to describe a Holocaust story, and yet it is the word that best captures my overall impression of the book. Rooted in history, brought to life with charming characters that are immediately likable, simultaneously frightened and courageous, and imbued with an innocence that is a stark counterpoint to the horrors of war and genocide unfolding largely outside of the main character’s understanding, the book is deeply moving and startlingly positive. 

Written for a younger audience than The Giver, Number the Stars faces the Holocaust head-on but with a message of hope. The story is not about the horrors perpetrated on the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. It is about ordinary people doing the right thing despite great personal risks, and difference such bravery can make in the world.

While the story is not without loss or danger, it is at heart a profound affirmation of the goodness of humanity. The afterword, which explains briefly where the line between history and fiction lies, is a moving testament to the power of the seemingly powerless. With straightforward themes about the goodness of everyday people and the protective force of community, it is the sort of read that just leaves the reader feeling hopeful and perhaps restores a tiny bit of the cynic’s lost faith in humanity as a whole.

Cailin Reads: Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Some people want to read the book before seeing the movie or watching the show. I like to do just the opposite. If I read the book first, I find I don’t enjoy the adaptation as well as when I get into the show and then return to the source material to see how it compares.

Although I have heard nothing but good things about the Amazon series based on this story, I haven’t actually gotten very far into it yet. I have a hard time getting into new shows. I don’t watch much television at all and what I do watch tends to be news or documentaries. But the shows I do enjoy, I enjoy to the edge of obsession and gladly re-watch time and again. Still, the first few episodes of Man in the High Castle, along with the fact that I’ve read other Philip K. Dick novels in the past, was enough to spark an interest in the book.

The two have little in common.

The book was engrossing, although the writing style used to capture the ways in which certain characters think was a little clumsy to read in places. I had a particular love-hate relationship with the abbreviated, often subjectless sentences of the Japanese and Japanese-influenced characters in the Pacific States of America. It fits so well with the structure of the Japanese language, which I studied briefly in college and practice a bit with my daughter who is taking it in high school, but at the same time it is choppy and disjointed from the perspective of a native English speaker.

The storyline itself was fascinating. The ways in which the two halves of the United States developed on different paths, split between the Axis powers that won WWII, and their starkly different cultural dynamics as well as the balance of power between them made for a fascinating backdrop to the action of the story. Touching on themes of politics, faith, and art, it was a book with a lot to say about the human condition without feeling heavy-handed or pretentious.

The ending, however, was terribly unsatisfying. After introducing a major threat to the setting in which most of the action takes place and adding a metaphysical aspect of questioning reality itself in the closing chapters, the book ended on a very unfinished note with no closure on either count. I have since read that Dick planned a sequel to the story, which would presumably have furthered one or both of these storylines, but it was never completed.

Even though I didn’t love the ending, I would still recommend the book as a whole. It is worth reading for the characters themselves and the insights that stem from how they navigate the complex societies that replace American culture in the alternative timeline.

And it was enough to renew my interest in the show, which I don’t think I’d have continued for its own sake. But reading the book made me curious about how the series will progress, particularly as it stretches out into a second season, and whether the unfinished themes of the book will feature or be somehow resolved in the television adaptation.

Cailin Reads: The Economics of Inequality by Thomas Piketty

Talk about a change of pace! After starting the year with a handful of enjoyable fiction reads, my first non-fiction choice of the new year was certainly not light reading.

Considered a classic economic explainer in some more intellectual circles, Piketty’s late-90s analysis of income inequality is a deep dive into economics and statistics over time and across borders. Highly informative but not especially readable, made worse, I suspect, by the fact that it is a translation rather than an English-language work.

Not a socialist treatise by any means, the book is structured as an evaluation of the available data and literature in the area of income inequality and the various means of addressing it via redistributive efforts. Some of the facets Piketty highlights seem almost prescient for the time in which it was written, with whole sections discussing the substitution of capital for labor (aka automation) and the role of human capital (education) in explaining wage inequality.

The international perspective, contrasting different policies implemented by the US and UK with those embraced by the major economies of the European continent, provides the data for interesting case studies in the causes, effects, and potential solutions for rising inequality. It also illustrates that, while rising inequality today is a global issue, domestic economic policy can have a measurable impact on inequality within a nation.

But what I found most striking about the work as a whole, and what makes me look forward to reading the longer Capital in the 21st Century, is the rational construction of his argument. Piketty makes a case for tax-based transfers as the most efficient means of addressing inequality, rooted not in socialist principles of labor power but rather from a perspective of non-interference in the price-setting functions of capitalism.

Unions, higher minimum wages, and other left-wing crusades are exposed as inefficient alternatives to what Piketty calls “fiscal redistribution”. The right-wing view of the market as above improvement or regulation is similarly eviscerated by data on market failures, including discrimination and human capital development.

The text of the work sometimes bogs down under the data, statistics, and tables used to analyse such a complex issue of economic and social behavior, but the conclusions are convincing. They are also deeply unsettling, when you look at the overall direction of politics in the United States and the nascent right-wing movements across Europe, because the very policies that the data and historical record point to as keys to prosperity are being demonized by leaders all across the developed world.

Cailin Reads: Pines, Wayward, The Last Town by Blake Crouch

Yes, technically this is three books. But since only one of them is a new read for me I’m only counting it as a single title for the purposes of my annual reading goal. The other two were merely a refresher.

I read the first book in this trilogy before the TV series started, but it was one of the rare cases where my commitment not to buy books got in the way of my reading. The local library had books one and two, but not the conclusion. So I read those, but got sidetracked and forgot to watch for the third to become available.

When I finally did get The Last Town, via Kindle Unlimited, I realized that watching the show had muddled the storyline in my mind and made it hard to just pick up where I left off. Fortunately the whole trilogy is available so I simply started over.

The basic premise of both the show and the books is the same – rich weirdo kidnaps people and puts them into suspension for centuries as a sort of Noah’s ark for mankind, awakening them to live under constant surveillance in a reproduction of Small Town, USA, unaware of the time that has passed or what lurks outside the fence that surrounds the town. But the story progresses along two very different lines.

Re-reading the first book, I remembered just how much I enjoyed it. The book is far better than the show, which lost my interest some time late in the first season. The development of the mystery surrounding the town progresses effortlessly and feels far less contrived than the same journey did on screen, beginning with the inexplicable aging of the missing agent Burke is searching for which was scaled back in the television version in favor of sexual tension and visual appeal. And the depth of print also allowed the psychological impact of the situation in which the characters live, both in the coerced Norman Rockwell lifestyle of the town and the barriers to honesty created by the post-apocalyptic reality outside the gates, to take a central role that doesn’t readily translate to television.

I devoured the second and third books. I think the whole trilogy took three days to read, thanks to a bit of downtime while having my car serviced. The character development of the supporting cast, from the megalomaniacal Pilcher willing to condemn humanity to extinction rather than relinquish control of his life’s work to the supremely selfish but fundamentally relatable Hassler, made the unfolding of the story feel natural, like the only way this particular group of people could have responded to the extraordinary circumstances in which they lived.

Even the ending, simultaneously bleak and hopeful, didn’t disappoint. I’ve heard more than a few complaints about the open-ended conclusion, which did feel at first reading like an obvious set up for a fourth title, but the more I think about it the better it fit. Like the characters themselves, the story didn’t resolve neatly into a final solution. Instead it ended with an open frontier, long odds, and the human spirit at its best, striving to survive in a new world.

Kindle Unlimited: First Impressions

For the third year in a row, my list of resolutions for the new year includes a commitment to refrain from buying books whenever possible. I know this probably sounds like sacrilege, but the fact is I ran out of bookshelf space years ago. And I hate parting with books, even when I know that I probably won’t reread them. So my resolution isn’t to read less. It is simply to do it in smarter ways, mostly by making better use of our excellent library system. But e-books are part of the equation too. After all, they don’t need bookshelves!

As a long-time Amazon Prime member and a reluctant e-reader convert, I read about the launch of Prime Reading with a great deal of excitement. Free book loans, wrapped up in what I’m already paying? Yes, please!

But Prime Reading fell a bit short of those expectations.

The main flaw, understandable as it is, is the limited library size. Some of the books simply aren’t up to mass-market quality, and many are the first installments in ongoing series… bait to entice the reader to buy subsequent titles. Which is smart marketing, no doubt, and did turn me on to a couple of escapist fiction series that I really enjoyed, but limits the selection to genres in which this strategy is likely to work.

Still, I did like the convenience of being able to pop onto my tablet and find something new to read easily and without cost.

So it only made sense to take the next step into Kindle Unlimited. The program is like Netflix for e-books – for $10 a month, you can read as much as you like from a selection of included titles. And with a one-month free trial, how could I resist?

Boasting more than a million books, many with included Audible narration, the library dwarfs that of Prime Reading. The range of choices is much wider as well, with far more non-fiction and stand-alone books as well as an ample supply of brain-candy in the romance, horror and mystery genres.

I signed up last week and so far, I’m reasonably pleased. I’ve downloaded a number of books. Some are classics – I jumped at the chance to re-read George Orwell’s 1984 and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, both of which I read in high school but got so much more out of with a more mature perspective. Others are newer titles, some of which have lurked on my to-read list for a long time.

The interface to browse the site is a bit clunky, both on mobile and on the desktop, with a limited number of genre categories and a carousel-style display within each on the main landing page. But as a means of organizing a million-plus book titles, it is hard to picture a more efficient alternative.

The titles which are displayed are selected based on reading history, which makes it easy to find books similar to those you’ve read in the past. Right now, the upshot of that is a rather narrow and strange hodgepodge of titles popping up at the front of each genre but the changes after each new book I download are obvious enough that the predictive potential of the recommendations seems promising.

Delving into the categories, I found myself scrolling through a lot of nonsense to find interesting titles. One example: in the “Politics & Social Science” category, the first page of results includes five doomsday prepper how-to guides and three true crime titles about serial killers. But it also features a couple of NYT bestsellers. So browsing that way does turn up some gems, if you’re willing to take the time to scroll past the clutter. 

My sense, just one week in, is that Kindle Unlimited has potential. How well the predictive algorithm adapts to my eclectic reading habits and how often new content is added will likely be the factors that determine whether I become a paying subscriber and for how long I stay.

Cailin Reads: 1984 by George Orwell

I found re-reading this book simultaneously reassuring and deeply unsettling.

Since the election, tensions have run so high in this country that it is easy to feel like we’re living in unprecedented times and that the challenges we face are entirely unique. Reading Orwell’s dystopian classic is a stark reminder that the world has seen this – or something very like it – before and mankind’s better nature eventually prevailed.

I would certainly like to think it will do so again.

The first time I read 1984 was in the early 1990s, at the dawn of the Internet era. Reading it now is a very different experience. Then, you could envision the control of information depicted in the story. Now, it is hard even to imagine any entity with the power to rewrite history when every minute detail of life is documented in so many ways.

The psychological analysis, on the other hand, resonates as well as it ever did. Better, perhaps, in the so-called “post-fact” era of picking and choosing news sources to confirm personal biases when it is painfully apparent how willing some are to be fed the conclusions they want rather than making judgments based on objective realities. The willingness to accept party propaganda even over the evidence of one’s own memories… that seems all too plausible at the moment and echoes personal experiences I’ve had in recent months. 

Likewise, it is impossible not to see a parallel between the state of perpetual war and the frenzy of xenophobic hate nurtured by the Party to keep the masses supportive of their government and the populist furor over refugees and undocumented immigrants that was on display in this year’s political campaigns. Our own country is engaged in something unsettlingly close to perpetual warfare, with an idea rather than a nation as our enemy, and it is not hard to see how that could be used to manipulate public opinion.

The whole concept strikes at the heart of one of my greatest worries about the near future – that warfare could conceivably become a tool wielded by an otherwise unpopular leader or party to cling to power. We as a nation are stunningly reluctant to vote out a sitting president in times of war.

But the passage that really stuck with me came not from the discussion of how the Party could impose a dystopian society on the masses without provoking rebellion, but rather from O’Brien’s the explanation of why it would do so.

“Power is not a means, it is an end.” Orwell writes. “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

Amid worrying signs about the health of our democracy, voters embraced the idea of revolution in 2016. Only time will tell if stoking that populist furor was merely a means to a dictatorial end.