Review: Everybody has a story… These are ours…


Everybody has a story... These are ours...
Everybody has a story… These are ours… by Audrey N. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This author has one of those rare “ears” for the beauty in words, sentences, and ideas. “The Closet” is reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and “Chamele’s Rules” is reminiscent of The Help. My favorite story, that is, the most deeply disturbing and darkly beautiful, was “Fading Frost.” It was also the most troublesome. It never held my suspension of disbelief. Both the characters’ actions and complacency seemed contrived to fit the desired plot, but the plot itself was original and harrowing. Two of my favorite sentences in the book:

Between them they had 11 children, three grandchildren, five dogs, two cats, a bird and had been married 138 years.

I wonder who you complain to, or to whom you file a report, when for four days in a row the weathermen are wrong.

View all my reviews

The Long Peace


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 5

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 5: The Long Peace

“War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a recent invention.” ~ Henry Maine

Name five 20th century wars as quickly as you can. Go! … Pretty easy, right? Now, name five 17th century wars as quickly as you can. Go! …(crickets)… Why is that so hard? Don’t you know that the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, which took approximately seven million European lives? Well, don’t feel too bad. A lot of people don’t. Nor have they heard of Russia’s “Time of Troubles” in the early 17th century, which took another five million, or the Fall of the Ming Dynasty (also 17th), a conflict whose death toll ranks around twenty-five million. You’re getting the picture.

To take some random examples, the Dano-Swedish War (1516–25), the Schmalkaldic War (1546–47), the Franco-Savoian War (1600–1601), the Turkish-Polish War (1673–76), the War of Julich Succession (1609–10), and the Austria-Sardinia War (1848–49) elicit blank stares from most educated people. (p 341)

This is all indicative of a phenomenon called “historical myopia,” and professionals are as guilty as laypeople. Recent events weigh on people’s worldview more heavily than events of the distant past. The result in this context is that people almost universally believe that we live in the most deadly, violent time in all of human history. This is simply, factually not the case. You may know that World War II claimed more lives than any single war in world history, fifty-five million. But you also know there were many more people alive in the 1940s than at any previous time. As a proportion of world population, World War II ranks ninth in deadliness among the major conflicts in human history. What takes first?

The worst atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time. (p 294)

Don’t worry. I hadn’t heard of it either. Thirty-six million 8th century people perished. For comparison, had that conflict taken place in 1940, when the world population was far higher, the equivalent death toll would have been four hundred twenty-nine million. The point is, our intuitive narratives of history are based on our perceptions, and our perceptions are skewed myopically toward the present. When we adjust for this skew and create a narrative of history based on actual data, a new trend comes to light: The frequency, duration, and deadliness of wars, world wide, has been in steady decline from the ancient to the modern world. This trend is visible whether you count the casualties individually or as a proportion of the population. To rephrase, your chances of dying at the hands of another human being, whether on the battlefield or otherwise, as opposed to a natural death, are lower than at any time in human history.

So again, why has war declined? Nobody knows for sure, and again, it’s probably a complex combination of technology, the capacity for empathy, globalism, democracy, medical science, and humanism. If you ask a typical person today “Why did World War III never happen?”, you’ll generally hear that weapons have become so advanced (nukes, drones, biological) that a large-scale war would be too damaging to justify any standard war motive. While that may be partly true, the trend toward peace has been in the works a very long time. In fact, the “weapons too deadly” argument (besides being slightly oxymoronic) fails in application. Most historians attribute the high casualties of the American Civil War to advances in riflery, so proving nations war on in spite of higher casualties. Also, World War I was iconic for its extensive and horrifying use of poison gas, so reviling leaders that World War II was fought entirely (on the battlefield anyway) without it. So, nations do go to war while leaving their deadliest toys at home.

Which brings us to the big one: nukes. No country has used nuclear weapons in war since 1945. You may invoke deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction, but for the first few years of their development, there weren’t enough in existence for MAD to work. While the world nuke counter ticks ever upward, the length of time the world has gone without using them ticks upward as well. So much that small countries have given up their nuclear programs while bigger ones have started dismantling their stock piles. While “fear of fallout” can’t be completely discounted, the fact of the matter is that war as an institution is fizzling out. It is increasingly unpopular, decreasingly deadly, and marginalized to the poorest and least stable nations in the world. When phrased another way,

If one were to calculate the amount of destruction that nations have actually perpetrated as a proportion of how much they could perpetrate, given the destructive capacity available to them, the postwar decades would be many orders of magnitudes more peaceable than any time in history. (p 368)

Historians call the period from 1945 to present “The Long Peace.” That phrase is not intended to be disrespectful to the millions who died in the Korean War, Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan. It is meant to signify that the world powers have transitioned from constantly feuding neighbors to international peacekeepers, and that interstate war has changed from an institution “needed as a cleansing and invigorating therapy for the effeminacy and materialism of bourgeois society” to an increasingly unnecessary evil.

Again, history is not driven by physics equations, and no trend is guaranteed to continue, so the most important lesson here is not that we can breathe easy and ignore the sufferings and threats in the world today. The lesson is that as a species, we are doing something right, and it is important to identify those somethings (multi-country coalitions, democratic self-government, aversion to torture, women’s rights, etc), so that we can keep doing them.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

The Humanitarian Revolution


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 4

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 4: The Humanitarian Revolution

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” ~ Voltaire

Iron Maiden. Breaking on the Wheel. Drawn and Quartered. Burned at the Stake. Crucifixion. Impalement. Disembowelment. Put in Stocks. Beheading. These are not pleasant images to think about, but they were common punishments in Europe for centuries, even in response to such tame crimes as working on the Sabbath or insulting the crown. Why do these punishments no longer exist in modern times? If your answer is along the lines of “those were unenlightened times” and “we have a constitutional amendment protecting us from cruel and unusual punishment,” then you already know about the Enlightenment. But what caused the Enlightenment? For that matter, what caused human beings to be so cruel in the first place?

One attempt to answer the latter question is the “life is cheap” hypothesis. The idea is that life expectancy was so low, natural death and disease so common and horrific, and nature so forbidding, that primitive peoples were violent by default, because life did not carry with it particularly high premiums:

“Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for them to ask, ‘What kind of god would create such a world?’ A plausible answer was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer.” So, they might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, why not be proactive about it? Better him than me. (p 211)

This is an interesting theory, and seems to jive with the quantitative trend. As medical science advanced, quality of life improved, the valuation of life increased, so people were less likely to destroy each other. It’s a cute theory, but still a bit circular: Did medical science cause a humanitarian revolution, or did an appreciation for human life spur on medical science?

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, several prominent movements began, spearheaded and recorded by the likes of Adam Smith, Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire, Kant, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Newton. You probably recognize every name on that list without ever having read their books, and that’s okay! Reading their books now is a very academic exercise, because the kinds of concepts they advanced are so ingrained in our modern worldviews that they seem almost silly and self-obvious. This was not the case in medieval Europe. Daring to pose that a witch being burned at the stake was in full possession of a soul, a sense of pain, a feeling of fear, and the love of her family was not only revolutionary, it was blasphemous.

Here are just a few of the moral issues tackled during this time period, culminating in several full-on abolition movements: slavery, dueling, cruel and unusual punishment (torture), debtors’ prisons, separation of church and state, animal cruelty, capital punishment, corporal punishment, witch-hunting, women’s rights, the scientific revolution, democracy, free market economy. Because of the timing, several of these issues (with one very notable exception) were explicitly dealt with in the American Constitution.

So, what caused such a sudden explosion of moral and reasoned social change? Most of us remember from our schooling that it was a time of “rediscovery” of the ancient classical thinkers and a renunciation of the crooked, oppressive Catholic Church. While there are many complex and interconnected causal threads to this intellectual awakening, there is one “exogenous” cause that Pinker discusses at length in this chapter: books.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, dramatically reducing the production cost of books. Over the next century, its efficiency improved even more. Suddenly books became big business as swaths of people from lower and lower socioeconomic strata could afford them. Literacy rates skyrocketed. But what exactly is the connection between reading and humanism? The most notable emotional change is empathy. Books teach us to see the world through different sets of eyes, effectively lifting us from our own bodies and placing us in others’ temporarily. Once this concept passed from spooky to commonplace, people began to empathize with the burning witch, by asking for the first time in history what that person must be feeling, and how would I feel in their place.

So, if the enlightenment was so overwhelming, how can one explain the atrocious violence of the 19th and 20th centuries? First of all, as the next chapter demonstrates, the 19th and 20th centuries were nowhere near as violent as the middle ages. Secondly, history does not obey neat, tidy physics equations. Trends ebb and flow. Humanitarianism rose and tended to erode some of the disgusting practices of times past, but there were other trends at work in the world too. The one historians most often blame for the two world wars: Nationalism. There was a time when borders changed so frequently that peasants never thought of themselves as a national or ethnic group. Once those borders stabilized, people began to take pride in their “blood and soil,” their common languages, religions, and values. This culminated, unfortunately, into interstate wars at unimaginable scales. No longer were two rival princes recruiting knights to battle over a barony. Now, generals were conscripting entire male populations to battle neighboring countries for dominance.

Despite these setbacks, the point is that attitudes about government change over time. The differences are stark between tribal leaders, noblemen, kings, and senators, and the attitudes of their corresponding flocks. Historically, we elide these differences and innately assume that the power dynamic between rulers and people has stayed more or less the same. Although each development added or subtracted from the overall bloodthirstiness, the landscape we see today was shaped by the thinkers who were considered radical in their time.

Instead of taking government for granted as an organic part of the society, or as the local franchise of God’s rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget—a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare. (p 245)

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

The Civilizing Process


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 3

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 3: The Civilizing Process

“It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.” ~ Sigmund Freud

Ever seen depictions of everyday life during the Middle Ages? It’s disgusting! Greasy, undercooked, mouldy food, bones being tossed to the dogs, rats running about the corners, lewd gestures toward the chambermaids… you get the idea. Whether it’s Braveheart, Beowulf, or Robin Hood, we seem to have this Bubonic Plague version of daily life in the Middle Ages ingrained in us. And it’s totally true.

So what does this have to do with violence? In the third chapter of Pinker’s book, he talks about the first anthropologist to advance a theory called “The Civilizing Process” to explain the connection between violence and, of all things… table manners. His name was Norbert Elias and he analyzed books on etiquette throughout the ages and noticed a pattern that seems to confirm our intuition: Graceful gentlemen, with good personal hygiene, diction, and manners, are less likely to brawl, rape, or murder than a boor. To put it a bit more bluntly, homicide rates are lower among the rich than they are among the poor, and that has been true throughout recorded history. Therefore, the building of wealth over the course of centuries and millennia “did not eliminate violence, but it did relegate it to the socioeconomic margins” (p 143). This helps reveal secularism and standard of living as social pressures that force rates of violence down. It was the kingdoms that took care of their people that saw less violence on the street.

The typical psychological explanation is simple: “A prime target was the inner governor of civilized behavior, self-control. Spontaneity, self-expression, and a defiance of inhibitions became cardinal virtues” (p 174). The very things that lack of etiquette imply are also indicative of an innately violent person. This does not mean that one is born into one class or the other and can never change. It means that there is a tangible connection between a community’s worldview, particularly their tradition of honor and justice, and that community’s crime rates.

Why does this have relevance today? Well, in Pinker’s own words…

An appreciation of the Civilizing Process in the American West and rural South helps to make sense of the American political landscape today. Many northern and coastal intellectuals are puzzled by the culture of their red state compatriots, with their embrace of guns, capital punishment, small government, evangelical Christianity, “family values,” and sexual propriety. Their opposite numbers are just as baffled by the blue staters’ timidity toward criminals and foreign enemies, their trust in government, their intellectualized secularism, and their tolerance of licentiousness. This so-called culture war, I suspect, is the product of a history in which white America took two different paths to civilization. The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance. (p 168)

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Review: Ship Fever: Stories


Ship Fever: Stories
Ship Fever: Stories by Andrea Barrett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I forget exactly how I came across this book, but the appeal obviously had something to do with the intersection of short stories with science, two of my favorite genres. Yes, this is a collection of short stories about science. Some characters & stories are fictional but all are at least inspired by, if not based on, real people and events. This in of itself is stunning. I’m actually surprised after reading it that I haven’t encountered this concept before. Why haven’t writers been interested in writing “fan fiction” about Darwin, Galileo, Mendel, or Newton? That aside, the prose is beautifully crafted and the stories are touching. They accomplish the same thing October Sky did: They remind the reader of the sense of adventure, thrill, and wonder that drives scientists as human beings.

My favorite story was The Marburg Sisters but I also liked The Behavior of the Hawkweeds and Birds with No Feet. The title story, oddly, didn’t do it for me. It felt too real. I’d have rather picked up a nonfiction account of the typhus epidemic on Gross Isle during the Irish potato famine than read a pseudo-dramatic short story about it. Not much sense of wonder, I guess, more of an historical exposé trying to place you in the shoes of the people who were there. Nonetheless, the entire book is cohesive and profoundly well written.

View all my reviews

Review: Pieces Like Pottery: Stories of Loss and Redemption


Pieces Like Pottery: Stories of Loss and Redemption
Pieces Like Pottery: Stories of Loss and Redemption by Dan Buri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so pleased to see so many positive reviews of this first publication by new author Dan Buri. I have always gravitated toward short stories, and this collection is so unique it beckons a new kind of reader. The stories are intimately yet subtly connected, giving both a feeling of cohesion, and that slightly thrilling feeling of spying a little clue that reveals how two characters from two separate stories are connected. In that way the author has structured it almost as a mystery novel, challenging the reader to pick up the individual pieces of the story and piece them together into a grander whole. Where it differs from a novel is of course, each story is self-contained and standalone, with a consistent, separate plot and point. But just as importantly, it differs from a typical short story collection in the following way: Each story follows the overarching theme, each story fits together into a larger story the reader is challenged to uncover, and most importantly of all, there really is no “strong” or “weak” story in the collection. In most collections, the reader will typically find at least one story they “liked best” and one they “didn’t get” at all. Not here. I can honestly say there isn’t a single bad or lacking story in the collection, and likewise, no single story dominates the collection or stands head and shoulders above the rest.

I welcome Mr. Buri to the community of creative writers, slightly surprised by the depth and originality of this first work. I am happy to have discovered this new voice and I hope to see more out of him in the future, hopefully something completely different, exploring a completely new avenue, and equally challenging and original. Mr. Buri reveals within himself a commendably deep emotional intelligence, the ability to convey grief, heartache, troubled love, healing, empathy, and a host of other equally difficult emotional wells to draw from. He deals with themes ranging from a parent losing a child, to a husband and wife taking a break, to a false criminal accusation, to visiting an ailing childhood mentor, without ever breaking pace or compromising that steady drumbeat of a moody atmosphere he’s created and maintained in this work. This is an author with lots of potential, and bravo for his first work.

* I received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. *

View all my reviews

Review: London Tsunami & Other Stories


London Tsunami & Other Stories
London Tsunami & Other Stories by Jaq Hazell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Looks like I have the honor of writing the first review. This is an excellent collection by an excellent writer and I look forward to reading more of her stuff. I’ve been focusing a lot more on indies lately, with mixed results. I’ve found in London Tsunami exactly what I’ve been looking for, though: extremely talented contemporary short story authors, the modern, living, active writers with the very real potential of joining the greats.

The best story in the collection was the first, Legend. I read it just before bed, and it absolutely stunned me. It reminded me of Antaeus and a handful of “classic” short stories in the vein of Ray Bradbury or Literary Cavalcade. Children decide to do something adventurous, daring, or naughty, get carried away, and a looming sense of foreboding swoops down ominously to confront them. There’s something about that classic Daedalus & Icarus symbology that’s extremely unnerving and fascinating, and I believe the short story is its natural home.

I also enjoyed Under the Flight Path, Stuff, and London Tsunami. The running theme in the book, if there is any, is a quiet sense of despair or bitterness, the feeling of treading water at the end of your strength, watching the world around you begin to come apart at the seams. While there are lots of stories in this collection, many of them too short, I appreciate the author’s artistic voice, and her ability to see the dramatic emotional turmoil of ordinary everyday life.

* I received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. *

View all my reviews