Category: Reading

Featured Author: Michael Haase

Today The Warbler features Michael Haase, whose book, The Madness of Mr. Butler, looks like an interesting pseudo-Galilean tale in an absolutely fascinating setting. Read selected entries from Mr. Butler’s journal that he kept prior to the events chronicled in the novel at The Diary of Mr. Butler.

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About the book: 

The Madness of Mr. Butler is a satirical space opera packed with adventure, mystery, and drama. Swiftly alternating between character perspectives, the novel has an aggressive pace that keeps the reader locked into the story. Mr. Butler is packed with sharp turns around every corner that will drive you to read more and more until you’ve finished the entire book, reflecting on how it made you think, laugh, and wonder the entire time.

The story follows Thaddeus Butler, a man thought to be insane because he is the only person who believes his world is round and floating through space. One evening, Mr. Butler tracks an object he witnessed fall from the night sky, only to find a strange helmet. After deciding to don the helmet, he is overjoyed to hear a voice inside that proceeds to answer all of his questions about the universe. Mr. Butler then shares his discovery with the intention of both educating others and proving his sanity. Unfortunately, he accidentally convinces a growing majority that he can speak directly to God, and he is treated as a prophet, not a scientist. Mr. Butler suddenly finds his life turned upside down as he must fend off a growing number of followers he does not want, violent attempts to steal his “God helmet,” a King hell-bent on hanging Mr. Butler for blasphemy, and the demands of a voice that claims to be God himself. 

About Michael Haase: 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t long to create. I have been unable to keep my head out of art, always experimenting with music, painting, drawing, poetry, and storytelling in some form or another. I have focused the majority of my artistic time on writing, and The Madness of Mr. Butler is my third (and favorite) novel thus far (I’m still polishing the other two). I also compose poetry and children’s literature under the pen name Sleepyhead Williams, and I am currently seeking publication for two children’s picture books.

After becoming an incredibly happy husband, father, and emergency room nurse, my heart and brain decided that storytelling is my best and most productive artistic outlet. Having a daughter (and very soon a son!) has influenced and focused me in a way I never felt before. Witnessing the most beautiful human being I have ever met (next to my wife) learn, laugh, grow, and interact with this world has given me a fresh, unselfish perspective on storytelling. It is simply beautiful to watch someone interact with a world that is new to them, which has changed how I present one I’ve created. 

Becoming a published author is a great dream of mine, and the only way to be sure it doesn’t happen is by quitting, and that’s not going to happen…what kind of message would that send my daughter and son?

Q: What inspired you to tell this story?

A: I was presented with the challenge to write science fiction, a genre I adore but have never attempted. Turning to the ancient scientists seemed obvious in finding an influence, as they all had to dabble in science fiction before they could prove it to be fact, so I wondered what their world might have felt like to live in. While considering this, I was suddenly seized with the idea of creating a world that held the pre-Socratic idea of being flat as well as the pre-Copernican view of being the center of the universe. Naturally, the main character in such a world has to contradict that view, and thus Thaddeus Butler was born. The conflict then seemed obvious to me: write about how this entire world’s viewpoint is turned on its edge and challenged by Mr. Butler. The fun part was coming up with how it all unfolds, and for whatever reason it seemed only reasonable that the process of convincing an entire planet to change its perspective would be a maddening, dangerous, and sometimes comical experience. From there, somehow alien beings and the destruction of Earth got involved, which perhaps makesThe Madness of Mr. Butler not your conventional space opera, but it certainly has plenty of adventure. 

Redshirts – John Scalzi

RedshirtsI’ve been meaning to read the work of mega-prolific writer John Scalzi for quite a while, and was never able to get around to it, despite having purchased several of his novels last year.

Then, by a happy chance, audible.com had Redshirts available for less than $5 during their Black Friday sale and I thought, “What the hell…I’ll pick it up.”

I went into Redshirts confident that I knew the central plot based only on the title and the synopses I’d skimmed of it a while earlier. Turns out that my assumptions only captured one layer of this impressive and fun meta-novel. I usually shy away from meta-izing things, but it feels appropriate here because the term doesn’t really capture what’s going on in the book.

Before diving into the layers that make up Redshirts, I’d like to talk a bit about the narration, which contributed to some of the meta-ness of the Redshirts experience. Wil Wheaton, who notably played Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, narrated an audiobook that gets its title and a fair amount of its content from the show he starred in as a youth. Very meta, no?

And while I usually enjoy a narrator using different voices for each of the characters, I think that Mr. Wheaton was the logical choice of narrator for the novel, and he did an excellent job of it. His voice simply felt appropriate. I can’t imagine anyone else narrating the story, and if I read it on paper, I’d probably have done so in his voice.

So what is Redshirts? Maybe it’s a quantum novel. Allow me to explain.

First, the term “Redshirt.” It’s a Star Trek term, referring to the extras who appear in episodes and are killed off for dramatic effect. The main characters are in yellow and blue shirts, for the most part, but the unknown extra in a red shirt who just so happens to go down to the planet with them—usually dies.

In Scalzi’s Redshirts, we meet a group of characters who are all assigned to the same starship, the Intrepid, and discover upon arrival that something’s amiss. Technologies that make no sense. Unnecessary drama. All-too-frequent and implausibly-violent altercations for a ship on a mission to simply explore the cosmos. Not only that, but a pervasive paranoia coursing through the crew who’ve been on the ship a while. A fear of something called the “narrative.”

The crew of the Intrepid discovers that they are not the masters of their own destiny—that they’re being written into a sci-fi TV show in a universe parallel to their own (presumably the reader’s). They are at the whim of the show’s writers, who shoehorn bad science and odd plot holes into the very real lives of the characters. During their time off screen, they live normal lives. If they happen to enter a written scene, all bets are off and anything can happen.

Unwilling to die for dramatic effect, the heroes of Redshirts decide to travel across dimensions—to Burbank—and end the TV show. They meet the actors who play themselves, the head writer, and the producer. The quantum-entangled plot-within-a-plot is an enjoyable thing to read—it’s wonderful to see characters becoming self aware. The simple elements of the story wrapped up nicely, and made for some very fun listening as I wobbled on BART trains to and from work in San Francisco.

Redshirts became more interesting after the climactic conclusion of the Burbank-to-Intrepid saga. The book’s protagonist goes a level deeper, and directly questions whether he is, in fact, the protagonist of a different story. A story, within a story, within another story. Quite fun to ponder alongside him. The conclusion gets a bit odd, and is without a doubt my favorite part of the book. I’ve spoiled enough of it in this review, so I’ll leave the details out and let you find out for yourself, should you be interested in investigating further.

This wasn’t my favorite book—by a long shot—but I’m glad I listened to it. It was straight-up fun. And sometimes that’s all we want a book to be.

Featured Author: Jason Chestnut

Author Jason Chestnut (Facebook, Twitter) is today’s featured Inkshares / Nerdist contest entrant. His book, To Live and Die in Avalon, looks absolutely wonderful. I am definitely getting this one.

To Live and Die in Avalon CoverAbout the book:

On New Year’s Day in the year 1970, the planet Earth was scorched and made uninhabitable by a mysterious alien terrorist force known only as the “Cleansing.” A benevolent race of beings saved over a quarter of the world’s population as well as many of the planet’s animals, cultural artifacts and history and relocated them to a massive space station on the far side of the Earth’s moon. The humans called it Avalon.

Fifty years later, the human race has flourished on Avalon, which has now become a hub for humanoid aliens from throughout the galaxy. The remnants of humanity adopted what they believed to be the height of their culture and history…the aesthetics of the 1960’s.

Penelope “Penny” Thorne is a secret agent for the A.I.S. (Avalon Intelligence Service) tasked with recovering a cryopod containing MIT scientist Dr. Anita Baxter, who was frozen in 1969 before the world ended. The military forces of the “Sons of Mars”, made up of humans who deserted Avalon and embraced the idea of galactic domination, are eager to recover the scientist by any means necessary…but, why? What secrets could a scientist from 1960’s Earth hold that could possibly catapult the galaxy into war? And how does this tie into the mysterious faction that laid waste to the Earth in the first place?

About Jason Chestnut: 

Jason Chestnut is writer of science fiction and fantasy who lives in the mountains of Asheville North Carolina with his wife Shannon, their two kids and pug. When not writing he is tinkering with computers as an IT security analyst, playing punk rock or apologizing to people who think he’s being sarcastic. In all fairness, he usually is. “To Live and Die in Avalon” is his first novel.

Q: What about your universe really excites you?

A: The feature of the world/universe that excites me is that it is a blend of classic science fiction serials with old-school spy movies. While writing the book, if I ever got stuck I just framed the story like a Bond movie, but instead of taking place in exotic parts of the world, the action moves to different planets in the solar system. In place of the usual spy movie bad guys, you get robots, mutants and evil warlords, not unlike the kind of aliens and villains you’d find in a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial.

Featured Author: RH Webster

Today, The Warbler is glad to feature RH Webster, another contestant in the Inkshares / Nerdist contest. Her novel, Lucky, sounds like a wonderful space-romance. Check it out!

Lucky_Cover_New About the book:
This novel is everything a reader could want from a space opera: space ships, romance, mystery, bar brawls, and a high speed car chase!

Lucky is the story of down-on-her-luck graduate student Cassandra “Lucky” Luckenbach, who has been stranded on a far-flung, dusty, run down mining colony on the planet known as San Pedro. After working odd jobs around the colony for close to three years, she finally saves up enough money to get back to her family on Earth. She books passage on the freighter Rosebud (the spaceship), unaware that one of the crew members had been killed the night before (the bar brawl). She is offered an opportunity to work her way back to Earth as an administrative assistant to the ever-confusing, often-grumpy commander of the Rosebud, Trigg Donner.

What neither Trigg nor Lucky planned on was the attraction they feel for each other (the romance), nor the strange goings-on that continue to occur on board the ship as they make their way to Puerto Nuevo (the mystery). Life only gets stranger as they find themselves embroiled in a smuggling scandal (the high speed car chase, another bar brawl) and they’re forced to make difficult decisions in order to save what is most important to them.

About RH Webster:
I have been telling stories since I was old enough to hold a pen in my hand. Before I knew how to write, I would draw unbelievably bad stick figure cartoons with dramatic titles such as “Baby Deer by a Fireplace” or “Mermaid Seeks Lost Sister”. Finally, to every one’s joy, I stopped drawing and started writing stories. My first stories were the typical fan fiction and fantasy stories one would expect from a shy pre-teen kid with very little social life. As I aged, my writing aged with me and I like to think became something actually worth reading.

Lucky arose my final year of graduate school. I had recently gotten married and had only 12 hours before put my new husband on a military transport plane to do a nine-month tour of Afghanistan. I was taking his pick up home from El Paso, Texas to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The drive regularly takes 21 hours, even with excellent interstates connecting the two places. I was bored, there was nothing to look at in west Texas, and one can only sing along to “Fat Bottom Girls” before being bored to death. I began to imagine a universe with far flung mining colonies on dusty and inhospitable planets connected by a network of interstellar highways and only occasionally visited by freighters and military transports. By the time I reached the eastern border of Texas, I had my first notes for Trigg and Lucky scratched on napkins and ready to go.

Q: What about your universe really excites you?
A: One thing I loved about the universe and is a theme I like to keep going throughout this book and the draft for its sequel is the distance from Earth, where the central government resides, and the far flung colonies that supply Earth with income and valuable materials. While nominally the central government runs the colonies, mostly they govern themselves, relying mainly on martial law to keep criminals in check.

The second thing I enjoy weaving into the story is the fact that paper books are no longer produced. All literary content is produced and distributed digitally. However, the numerous books that are already in existence are locked into vaults in universities and are only seen by the extremely wealthy and privileged. However, a few beat up copies of some books still exist around the rest of the colonies, where they can be bought and sold in flea markets. This element of the universe actually leads to several interesting scenes between my protagonists.

Featured Author: Patrick Jamison

Inkshares is running another contest with the Nerdist, so I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce the work of a fellow author. Without further warbling, here’s Patrick Jamison’s Infinity Mind.

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About the book:

Mason is a non-violent protester against the dictatorial government of Raquel Velasquez, the reigning leader of El Dorado, the oldest and most secluded colony on Mars. For his actions, he is thrown in jail, beaten to within an inch of his life, then recorded as dead.

Waking up in a lab, Mason soon discovers the government’s ulterior motives for his arrest when he realizes he has been surgically altered to have telepathic abilities. He is the first success in an ongoing experiment to create unstoppable assassins — a telepathic police force that will quell all resistance to the Velasquez regime. Despite his resistance, he succumbs to the brainwashing techniques of his new master, Oduya, the right hand man to Velasquez.

Oduya, the project’s mastermind, is a terrifying man on his own. With a past both dark and dangerous, he has his own motives for creating telepathic agents, motives that could have deadly consequences. Mason is sent on missions to eliminate all individuals who threaten Velasquez’s government — many of whom were former colleagues — but when his next mission is to eliminate his wife, Sabina, remnants of his old self create a war that jeopardizes his programming.

Will Mason break free and rise up against the dangerous man whose control extends far deeper than the grasp he has on Mason’s mind? His actions, for good or ill, will define a new political era and a power that extends to the infinite depths of the mind.

About Patrick Jamison: 

Patrick Jamison is a life-long lover of space opera, starting with Star Trek and moving far beyond from there. He is fascinated by alien cultures, galaxy-spanning plots, and the deeply flawed humans that inhabit these stories.

Outside of his passion for sci-fi and space opera, Patrick works in a community resource center, has two cats, and has a deep love of coffee and chocolate. Quite often, he can be found on a Saturday morning in a coffee shop, furiously typing a story, while listening to electronica.  He’s also currently learning how to play the violin – so far, it’s ear-piercingly screechy.

Q: What inspired you to tell this story?

A: Considering my love of Star Trek, it might be surprising that the inspiration for this story is because of a disinterest in sci-fi with aliens in it. It seems every sci-fi blockbuster from Hollywood deals with aliens that are on their way to obliterate humanity.

Then I stumbled on three things – the movies Moon and Children of Men, and the short-lived TV show Charlie Jade.  All three tell compelling and engrossing sci-fi stories that feature no aliens.  Moreover, they also feature average people in the lead roles, someone who is not ready to be the hero of the story, yet somehow manages to save the day.  Usually, this is from accepting the importance of their unique skills play and the realization that if no one else is able to solve the crisis, then it has to be them.  (Well, the guy in Moon doesn’t exactly save the day, but he leads the viewers in a compelling exploration of self and what it means to be who he is – it’s absolutely fascinating.)

I wanted to write a story like that, but make it a bit more space opera-y than Moon, Children of Men, or Charlie Jade.  That’s how Infinity Mind came about.  It takes place in a colony on Mars and involves space opera elements like telepathy, but it takes it in the direction that these inspirations led me in – Mason starts out as an average person, not ready for the monumental task ahead of him, but then he realizes that no one else will do it for him.  He sets out to free the colony from oppression.  But in the true tradition of space opera, there are other strategies at play from competing powers – everybody has their own agenda and rarely do those plans ever overlap.

Infinity Mind is, I believe, a compelling story with fascinating characters.  I wanted this story to be told by these characters only – so I took the time to really enrich them.  I didn’t want a plot where, basically, any character could be swapped out with someone else.  No, these characters were meant for this story, and this story was meant for this book.  Infinity Mind is a real ride, I promise you, but I hope you’ll also come to care as deeply about the characters as I do and really root for them throughout the story.

Lurk – Adam Vine

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After reading The Monstrous, a collection of horror shorts edited by Ellen Datlow, I fancied myself reborn; a fan of a new genre. So when Adam Vine emailed me asking if I’d review his debut horror novel, Lurk, I was quick to accept.

Here’s the thing I learned from my second foray into the genre: I’m something of a scaredy-cat. And I shall henceforth wear that mantle with pride. Another thing I learned is that I really enjoy reading horror.

It is a peculiar thing, to discover that a genre which has no appeal for me in visual media resonates so strongly in literary form. I should like to study this more closely, but I imagine that it’s not all that complicated. The feeling a page-turning novel like Lurk elicits in me is likely the same feeling most fans of horror get from watching a scary movie or TV show. That slight rush, the combination of anxiety and excitement, the curiosity. For me, books seem to generate that perfectly, whereas horror films and shows merely terrify me to my core without an ounce of enjoyment.

Point is, I enjoyed reading Lurk. Very much, in fact.

It was most certainly a debut novel-there were some logical gaps that occasionally kicked me out of the story, and several unanswered questions that needn’t have been asked for the story to feel complete, but it was a good story nonetheless.

It may have also been that the story resonated with me on a different level; it took place in a college house in Santa Cruz, an experience I’m all-too-familiar with. I graduated from UCSC, lived in a filthy party-house for a time, and enjoyed many a silly shenanigan against my better judgement. I could hop in and see the world of Lurk in a very personal way.

A bunch of college students who feel invincible, except one who can’t shake his own self-doubts, insecurities, and fears. That one, the protagonist, finds himself at a series of crossroads punctuated by a supernatural set of Polaroids that drive him nearly mad. A creepy stalker harassing our protagonist’s crush who, of course, falls for the protagonist’s best friend, all while a too-friendly cop and sex-offender neighbor complicate the lives of our party heroes.

While it was important to the plot, the relationship and personal-image drama didn’t interest me as much as the surreal supernatural elements that coalesced into an overwhelming wave at the climax of the novel. Adam Vine’s skill shone in the scenes he painted of the Valhalla of the party house, of the sordid and wretched lives of the forgotten dead that share a certain something with the protagonist.

Those pages were the ones that demanded my attention unlike any others in the book. The ones that gripped me and threw me into the void where I, too, looked into mouths of mirror-teeth and vacant eyes like the lenses of a super-temporal camera.

I say “protagonist” instead of “hero” because Vine placed an unlovable character at the head of his tale. Pitiable, yes, but not lovable. He is petty, judgmental, arrogant, and self-loathing. He is intelligent, but foolish. He is jealous, but unwilling to change.

All the same, I willingly followed him through his adventure, because I wanted to see what was going to happen. And I was rewarded with the horror I sought.

Adam Vine’s Lurk is a strong debut novel, and definitely worth reading, if horror interests you.

Lurk, by Adam Vine, is published by Forsaken and available on Amazon.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

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I’ve now put a second Haruki Murakami novel on my “read” shelf, and while I have several more to work through, I think I’ve read enough to form a solid impression of his work. I’m looking forward to reading the others, but for the time being I can comfortably say that he’s an incredible writer. His stories so successfully instill a sense of floating disconnect from reality that after reading (or listening) for an extended period of time, my perception of the world needs time to recover.

More than once, I’ve sat silently in my car at the BART station, minutes after turning off the engine, staring out of the window at nothing, thinking about the surreal world Murakami built under the nose of a normal, functional society.

Thematically, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle shares quite a bit with the other Murakami book I’ve read, Kafka on the Shore. Lost cats. Strange and disturbing events in World War II. Physical love. Romance and relationships. The fragility of sanity. Death. Healing. Distancing oneself from the rat race.

Murakami’s presentation of these issues is particularly interesting because it always rides a fine line between mundanity and absurdity. There are moments of pain and fear, separated by a paragraph or a page from moments of laughter. Reading Murakami’s books can feel like a roller-coaster in that way.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fractures into pieces about a third of the way through, and knits itself back together into a tapestry that makes little sense up front, but eventually settles into place and seems like the circumstances have righted themselves. As Murakami gets you accustomed to the bizarre, he flips it on its head again and the most normal situations feel far-fetched and difficult to comprehend.

It may be a part of Japanese creative sensibilities, but I thought more than once of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 sci-fi action film, while reading Wind-Up Bird. Like Murakami’s books, Akira begins within an understandable framework. A catalyst shatters the relative stillness and as the pieces come together again to form a new picture of reality, much is left unsaid. And the viewer is left to question symbolism and minutiae throughout the film.

In Wind-Up Bird, many questions are asked—most of them indirectly—and a good deal of them are left unanswered. I’ll definitely need to read the book again, or discuss it at length with someone who has read it, in order to “get” the book.

To be honest, I’m finding it difficult to fully articulate my feelings about Murakami’s writing. It is brilliant, moving, occasionally haunting, intriguing, and often beautiful. But I’m never blown away by his books the way I expect to be. When I pause to think about them, I know they are fantastic. I know that they are compelling reads written by a master of language. But something never sits quite right with me. I feel slightly put out when I read his books. And then I think that maybe I’m supposed to feel that way.

I can say that I like Murakami’s work. I can say that he’s an extraordinary, imaginative writer with an almost unparalleled skill at this quasi-magical slipstream genre. But I can’t say that I love it. Most people seem to love it, and I’d be remiss not to recommend that you read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which, despite my personal confusion and issues, is an excellent book.

Oh well, I’m going to read more of his work anyway. I can’t seem to stay away from it.

Collected Fiction – Hannu Rajaniemi

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There’s just something about Scandinavia, I guess.

Tachyon published a collection Finnish Author Hannu Rajaniemi’s short stories last year, and while (I believe) it is sold out everywhere, it’s well worth finding a used copy so that you can experience what it might’ve been like if Knausgaard wrote science fiction.

While Rajaniemi isn’t quite as good as Knausgaard (is anyone?) he is extraordinarily good, and often employs similar style in his short fiction.

Most of the pieces in the collection approach scifi from dystopian angles, and while they are occasionally superficial in a way—the end-game effects of data-hungry social media, for instance-they are nonetheless effective. Raja noemi builds worlds both believable and un-, equally compelling in their frightening proximity to things as they are now and in their far-flung and wild postulations.

Rajaniemi has a way of describing even the most spectacular visions with eloquent simplicity, such that his fantasies begin to seem concrete and plausible. A daughter of a death-god trapping a man in his vacation home after a rousing bit of fun in a sauna? Why not! A conscious city, filled with sapphire-eyed pigeons that communicate with the buildings, all of which have been assimilated by a single, powerful consciousness? Sure!

Rajaniemi makes it all digestible and necessary, because what owns the core of the reading experience is emotion and character. That daughter of death is a vehicle for the character to feel, and the sapient city turns out to be the son of the protagonist, who had given up technology to live in the wilds and write poetry.

They are stories of love, of learning, of challenge. Ultimately, they are stories of the human condition, set against a backdrop of extremes.

The stories are all magnificently written, and you should absolutely seek out a copy for yourself. You won’t regret it.

Physics: A Short History from Quintessence to Quarks – John Heilbron

27210521In Physics: A Short History from Quintessence to Quarks, John Heilbron sets himself an ambitious task: to cover some 2500 years of scientific development in a few hundred pages. Thinking about non-fiction in terms of pacing seems odd, but one of the things I thought about most while reading Physics was that it was moving too fast for me. Ironic? Maybe.

The book jumps rapidly through time, pausing occasionally to linger on critical moments in the history of the study of physics. In a way, that makes it an excellent book for the layperson/enthusiast, since it can point interested readers to periods of time that pique their curiosity in particular. For my part, I now want to read much more about the development of astronomy and mathematics in the age of Muslim intellectualism, the ancient Greek schools, and 19th and 20th century developments.
There are portions of Physics where Heilbron relies heavily on jargon and lightly-defined terminology. I consider this a point against the book, only if this is the reader’s first foray into the casual study of physics. I thought I was familiar with a fair amount of concepts and terms in physics, but I found myself lost more than a few times when Heilbron tossed a term or equation into the mix, satisfied that it served as a solid enough basis for continuing his sprint through hundreds of years of inquiry.
Part of making that sprint possible is the careful selection of details to focus on; alternatively, that can be seen as the careful selection of details to omit. It was fascinating to get the occasional glimpse into the broader sociological conditions that aided or hindered the development of scientific thought, and I would have loved to dig a bit deeper into the broader settings in which some of the more monumental discoveries were made.

I suppose that’s the crux of my experience reading Physics: it moved so fast that I wanted a longer history of physics. As it is, this is a very good book to whet the appetite of a dabbler in science literature—the perfect foray into other, more detailed accounts of the epochs Of scientific discovery. In a perfect world, Physics: A Short History would serve as a long-form index, and Heilbron would release several other books that take a closer look at some of the moments touched so briefly in this book.

Caveat Emptor. If you haven’t read many books on physics, consider putting this one a few rungs down the list, after reading some simpler texts. If you’re somewhat familiar with the content, dig in—this is a hearty and filling sampler that spans centuries of cerebral achievement.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Writing about a book as monumental, as vital, as shattering as Between the World and Me is a difficult task. For all its difficulty, it is drop against a universe’s weight in water compared to the difficulty with which it deals, the difficulty MacArthur genius Ta-Nehisi Coates faced in living and writing it.

It’s difficult to write about a book like Coates’s painfully honest, stripped-down look at the state of things for the black community in the US. It is difficult especially because it is written as a letter to his teenage son, a letter filled with the fear, pain, and sadness that are part-and-parcel of the black experience in this nation. A letter in response to the confusion, mistrust, and pain his son Samori felt after the lack of indictment in the killing of Michael Brown; one of many such events and subsequent injustices that have only recently begun to surface in the media.

One thing that makes Coates’s book so powerful is how he explores the black experience through a simple lens: the safety of one’s body. The physical body.

The safety and vulnerability of the body is a thing that every human (every living being, really) will confront at at least one point in life. The job of a just society, presumably, is to minimize those occasions for all of its people (and, one would hope, for people outside of that society as well). Coates illustrates the difference between a life of privilege and one under the boot of the system simply: when your daily life, every action you take, and every decision you make, are dictated first and foremost by a conscious awareness of immediate danger to your body, society is not just. When you are constantly in fear for the safety of your body, everyone and everything becomes your enemy.

I do not have the tools to relate to the experience. But in reading Between the World and Me my thoughts fell on my brother, whose father is African-American; on my girlfriend and her brother, who are black; on people of color dear to me who have all faced, in some capacity, the harsh reality of being born into a society with deeply-entrenched systemic racism that batters them into a kind of submission.

Coates’s letter to his son does more than approach the complex discussion of race in the US from the perspective of the safety of the black body. He lifts away the veil of the dream; the hope of “making it” in America the way we are all taught to believe is possible. That dream, according to Coates and his predecessors, is the dream of “becoming white,” and the people who have accomplished a semblance of that dream are the “people who believe themselves to be white.”

The notion of people who believe themselves to be white struck a particularly deep chord with me. One I did not expect would resonate vis-a-vis my relationship to my Jewish heritage.

I am—have never not been—proud of my Jewish blood. I am proud to be an Israeli citizen. I am proud to share my lineage with physicists, artists, mathematicians, linguists, and sociologists. I can experience this fierce pride while also feeling terrible shame at the behavior of some of the members of my tribe, whose recklessness and selfishness in Israel and abroad has dug us deeper in the mire of intractable conflict. We can love and criticize our own blood; it’s one of the gifts of being a conscious being.

I am also a proud atheist. Well, you’d probably call it agnostic, but tomato/tomato. For a time I fell victim to an all-too-common trap—the ethnic/religious divide of Jewishness—and did not know how to define myself.

I have white skin, so I “believed myself to be white” in the way Coates describes when I came to call myself atheist. If I did not believe in the core tenets of the ideology that “binds” my people, can I consider myself one of them? Am I Jewish if I don’t follow Jewish liturgical ritual? Am I Jewish if I don’t believe in a creator God and a talking snake?

Yes. Of course I am.

That’s something I didn’t fully understand for a few years. My father, in his special way, brought this fact to my attention several years ago when he told me that “the Nazis wouldn’t have cared if you called yourself an atheist.”

And that’s that. I am a Jew. I am an atheist. I am also a Capricorn, and astrology is total nonsense.

Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded me once again of my iron connection to Jewishness when he referred to some of the groups who have “become white” in the past: Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, etcetera. I reeled and repositioned my relationship to what I was reading. It occurred to me as I read that I am “white” as long as it is convenient. “White” in my day-to-day life, and for the purposes of taxes and the census. “White” until the divestment movement capsizes and becomes outwardly antisemitic. Certainly not “white” enough for the signs that appeared as recently as a few years ago in Belgium declaiming that people of my heritage were unwelcome in some cafes and other establishments, or for the increased rates of anti-semitic hate-crimes in France over the last few years.

These are the kinds of thoughts the bubbled up as I read Between the World and Me. I searched for a means through which to relate. But one of the most important things I learned is that I don’t have to be able to relate. In fact, assuming that I can is a big part of the problem. Understanding that there are fundamental differences in experience is a crucial step toward making meaningful change. Despite the feeling that we’re careening toward the event horizon with no hope of escape, I honestly think better times are ahead of us, provided there is a stronger education system established, wherein young people are encouraged to engage with material that expands their world views and upsets the delicate balance of their lives.

This is what I think Toni Morrison means when she says that Between the World and Me should be required reading. I wholeheartedly agree. It is extraordinary.