This was a good reading month! I read nine books (which I’m pretty proud of 🙂 ), five non-fiction and four fiction, including one re-read. If I had to pick a favorite… well, I’m not sure I’d be able to. At least five of them would be in the running. A summary and some of my favorite quotes from each book are included here, and if you decide to read any of them, please let me know what you think! Talking about a book with someone who’s also read it is just about as good as reading the book to begin with – and sometimes even better.
How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
Author: Merlin Sheldrake
This book is an amazing introduction to the absolutely fascinating world of fungi – where life exists in a completely different than our typical view of isolated species and individuals. My main takeaway was that life takes on radically diverse forms, and that taking the time and effort to understand that diversity – to see the world from such different perspectives – can be important not just for understanding the ecosystems that exist on every level of life and maintain the world as we know it, but also for understanding humanity more deeply. The story of fungi, and their potential as incredibly resourceful and adaptable fellow inhabitants of our planet, is one that has been neglected and under-studied but which is brimming with potential.
“Life is nested biomes all the way down.” – chapter 3
“We ask questions from the perspective of our cultural context. And this make it extremely difficult to ask questions about complex symbioses like lichens because we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals and so find it hard to relate.” – Toby Spribille, as quoted in chapter 3
Author: Octavia E. Butler
This book follows the journey of a not-so-human not-so-child as she discovers who she is, who her people are, and how she can forge a family and a place to belong amid the unknown dangers that surround her. It is at times deeply uncomfortable, as it addresses power dynamics in a variety of contexts – there is sexual content of dubious consent, the knowledge and experience of elders arrayed against the weakness of youth and amnesia, and racial tension complicated by speciesist tension. Because oh, yes, this is a vampire novel.
Author: Naomi Novik
“I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.” – chapter 21
This reimagining of a classic fairy-tale (I’m not going to tell you which one!) weaves together fantasy and reality as cultures collide, powerful forces contend over a kingdom, and three women from vastly different backgrounds find in themselves the strength and determination (and sometimes calculated harshness) needed to save their people – and then eventually the openness and understanding needed to make peace where there was enmity. The book is told from the perspective of a number of characters, and while it takes some time before their stories begin to intertwine, each one’s unique voice adds to the growing sense that power and hope are found not in our tendency to tribalize our societies and demonize those different from ourselves, but rather in the coming together of people across lines of ethnicity, religion, and class: in finding our common humanity and learning to love. And it is those things, however simple they sound, that require the greatest courage.
I Contain Multitudes
The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
Author: Ed Yong
“To control a microbiome is to sculpt an entire world – which is as hard as it sounds.” – chapter 9
Yong is so enthusiastic about the microbiome – the communities of microbes living on and within and around every living macroscopic being on earth – that he may wax a bit hyperbolic at times. We cannot yet predict or control microbiomes with much accuracy or success; we are still often unsure whether observed effects are causative or merely correlative (and if causative, in which direction the causal path proceeds). All the same, this book is an exciting and interesting read, and an excellent introduction to the unparalleled natural breadth and depth of microbial populations, specifically with regards to their interactions with animals. I was particularly interested in how the microbiome can allow us to think of taxonomies and diseases in terms of ecosystems as well as individuals, and I think that overall the book is engaging and curiosity-inspiring, written at an accessible popular science level that even non-scientists should be able to enjoy.
“These illnesses are caused by communities of microbes, which have shifted into configurations that harm their hosts. None is a pathogen in its own right; instead, the entire community has shifted to a pathogenic state. […] This altered community still communicates with its host, but the tenor of their conversation changes. Sometimes it becomes, quite literally, inflammatory, as microbes overstimulate the immune system or wheedle their way into tissues where they don’t belong. In other cases, microbes might start to opportunistically infect their hosts.
“That’s dysbiosis. It’s not about individuals failing to repel pathogens, but about breakdowns in communication between different species – host and symbiont – that live together. It is disease, recast as an ecological problem.” – chapter 5
Children of Time
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
“On the shoulders of others, she had said, but she had not stopped to think about those beneath her in that pyramid of achievement. Even the lowliest of them had to agree to hold her weight, or all of it would come falling down.” – chapter 1.1
“She understands, in a real and immediate way, how she stands on the backs of giants, and that her own back, too, will be strong enough to bear the weight of many generations to come.” – chapter 6.1
To me, these two moments reveal the heart of this novel, in which post-apocalyptic human survivors stranded in a space and a terraformed world where an evolution-accelerating virus has settled into arachnid rather that the intended primate hosts play out a desperate battle for survival – the humans against time and dwindling resources, the spiders against disease and invading intelligent ants, and both against each other and their own innate prejudices. Where individualistic hubris leads to the destructive behavior that poisoned the Earth, communal pride rooted in empathy brings peace and greater achievement, no matter the species in which it is found. I loved the realism with which the full scope of vice and virtue plays out within the characters, the world-building that imagines how an advanced sentience born in arachnid biology might be both similar and different to our own, and the stunningly beautiful ending that took me completely by surprise. (Please don’t give up on the story if you, like me, find the first chapter, with Dr. Kern, to be difficult and unpleasant. I promise the book is worth pushing through!)
Beyond Women and Men
Author: Lori B. Girshick
“[Binary] terms often obscure the fullness of reality.” – chapter 1
This sociological study looks at the lives of about 150 transgendered individuals, as well as the biological, cultural, historical, and political contexts surrounding our understanding of gender and people who fall outside binary gender roles. It is both well-researched and sensitive to the very personal nature of the topic, referencing related studies and sharing quotes from the individuals who participated in this research. A lot of the points made reminded me of what I’ve been learning through the disability and neurodiversity movements: that recognition and acceptance of a person’s authentic identity has major ramifications for their mental health and ability to form meaningful human connections, for example, and that society has a habit of placing moral stigma on deviations from the biological average instead of making room for difference (in other words, translating the normal into the normative, or turning an is into an ought). It made me notice how the church says that the gospel is for all people, and yet has excluded intersex, non binary, and transgender people through both practice (such as gendered Bible studies offering only male and female options) and doctrine (such as gender complementarity). As this book is a secular study on the topic, it doesn’t touch on how the church might find a Christian understanding of diverse gender identities and expressions, but it provides a foundational understanding that could help inform that much-needed discussion.
Poverty and Profit in the American City
Author: Matthew Desmond
“without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.” – epilogue
This is an incredibly honest, convicting, and challenging look at the housing crisis in our country, and how it perpetuates and worsens poverty. By describing in detail the lives of several families and communities struggling with poverty and unstable housing, while at the same time providing the sociological and historical background of those communities, Evicted shows the poor choices that people can make when they are overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, and the systemic obstacles that keep people down even when they are trying to make the best choices available to them. Like healthcare, housing is an issue that exposes the stark divide in our society between those who “have” and those who “have not” – the institutionally-supported inequities that we, the comfortable and complacent, tend to ignore. While this book is primarily a snapshot of the present state of the housing situation in one city, it does present a few possible solutions at the end. However, the author also notes that the best response will differ from city to city. The obvious question the reader is left to wrestle with is, what will work best where I live? What is being done already and how can we make it better?
“The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can “be ourselves”. Everywhere else, we are someone else. At home, we remove our masks.
“The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play and question […]. When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.
“In languages spoken all over the world, the word for “home” encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family – the womb. […] The home remains the primary basis of life. It is where meals are shared, quiet habits formed, dreams confessed, traditions created.” – epilogue
The Story of More
How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here
Author: Hope Jahren
“Ultimately, we are endowed with only four resources: the earth, the ocean, the sky, and each other. Because absolutely everything is at stake, it behooves us to begin by thinking clearly and simply.” – chapter 2
Jahren goes through topic after topic in the broad categories of sustainability and climate change, rarely make predictions and never doing so without a caveat, simply covering the historical trendiness across an astonishing breadth of data. By the end of the book, I was left overwhelmed by the massive problems of our current predicament and unsure of how to make a difference, though convinced of the need for change. Unfortunately, though Jahren provides an actionable challenge for the committed individual, counter-cultural change is hard, especially since in so many of these areas our choices impact and are influenced by the people closest to us and not just ourselves. I believe this is a good book for those who are slightly skeptical of climate change, because it is fact-based rather than speculative and is written in a blunt, matter-of-fact voice; personally I would have been interested in going a step or two deeper and further with the information in each chapter.
A Thousand Ships
Author: Natalie Haynes
“But this is the women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn. […]
“If he complains to me again, I will ask him this: is Oenone less of a hero than Menelaus? He loses his wife so he stirs up an army to bring her back to him, costing countless lives and creating countless widows, orphans, and slaves. Oenone loses her husband and she raises their son. Which of these is the more heroic act?” – chapter 21
For those unfamiliar with the ancient epics, Menelaus is the husband of the famed Helen of Troy, who abandons him for Paris, prince of Troy, setting in motion the Trojan War; Oenone is the wife of Paris, who abandons her for the beautiful Helen offered to him by the goddess Aphrodite. A Thousand Ships tells the story of the Trojan War through the stories of its women: the Greek wives waiting through the long years of the war for their husbands to return; the Amazon women who fought alongside the Trojans; the goddesses whose vanity and strife sparked Paris and Helen’s relationship into being; and the women of Troy who lost their families, homes, and freedom to the war; priestesses and human sacrifices cursed by capricious gods; and a host of others. Assuming that the reader is already familiar with the Iliad, Aeneid, and Odyssey, this story fills in the human eddies around the great and glory-seeking arcs of those narratives, showing the painful consequences of war in the eyes of the women who lived it alongside those more well-known men.
What have you been reading lately? I’d love to hear about your January books as well, if you want to share in a comment or link to a post of your own!