Final books of 2020

I actually finished Darwin’s Ghosts two or three months ago but I didn’t want to write about it alone. Unfortunately my reading took a dip in the latter months of the year and it’s only in the last week or so that I finished the other two books. Now I am happy to make the last additions to my 2020 Book List.

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search Of The First Evolutionists (2012) by Rebecca Stott

Darwin had been worried about being accused of plagiarism and, to try and appease his critics, began listing previous scientists who had had even remotely similar ideas. In some ways this is a continuation of his work. Stott follows up on some of the key people involved in the development of evolutionary thought and describes their lives and work.

I found myself torn over her writing. It’s easy enough to read but I felt that it became so narrative that parts must have been made up, e.g. describing how, when someone went into a bookshop over a century ago, the books were arranged and the glances between the people. I know it’s just flavour but there’s a lot of it and it felt forced to me. One thing that came out in both the flavour and the facts is how scientific progress has been repeatedly suppressed by religion. One can’t help but wonder how much more we could’ve progressed were it not for the various churches and supernatural beliefs in the world.

Continue reading

Books that smell of wet fur

Additions to the 2020 Book List.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper (2020) by AJ Fitzwater

COVER1This is a brand-new book by a New Zealand author about a dapper, lesbian, capybara pirate. Instead of being one continuous story, it is made up of seven short stories that are loosely connected. It sounded like it should be fairly exciting, and it did have its moments, but I came away with far more mixed feelings about it.

I was rather disappointed that it shies away from what you would expect from a traditional pirate story. Although, perhaps expecting something traditional from it was a mistake. Instead of swashbuckling adventure, it’s a far more calm, exploration of a magical world. While it does conjure up some very nice mental imagery in places, it all felt a bit empty. It was like a literary equivalent of the video game The First Tree. It has the same calm, dreamy feel – which is nice enough – but it always feels like something is missing.

Looking back, there’s an aspect which makes it contrast with the next book I read. There was a lot of emphasis in it on Cinrak being a polyamarous lesbian and the many other LGBT characters, a contrast to most media, but it actually had little relevance to most of the stories. In contrast, a large part of Black Angel’s story is motivated by the main character’s conflicted sexuality (or, more accurately, asexuality) but without it being pushed so hard.

Black Angel (2016) by Kyell Gold

COVER2This is the third and final book in the Dangerous Spirits trilogy. While they are slightly related and share characters, it’s not really necessary to read them in order to follow each individual story. This isn’t the first Kyell Gold book mentioned here, I also reviewed The Time He Desires last year, but, although I read the earlier books, this is the first of this trilogy that I am reviewing here.

The story in Black Angel is focussed on an otter girl, Meg, who is unsure of many things including what she will do in the future and her own sexuality. She isn’t one to believe in the supernatural and is sceptical of her roommates’ (the protagonists of the previous books) accounts of spirits getting involved in their lives. She begins to have her doubts as she finds herself compelled to draw a comic with voodoo spirits set in the past and has vivid dreams of a techno-theocratic future where the subject of her dreams, dreams of her. Is she being visited by spirits or is it all hallucinations brought on by the combined stress of her best friends moving away, trying to understand her sexuality and coming off the anti-depressants she’s been on since a suicide attempt in high school?

At first, I found parts of the narrative frustrating, as it jumps between the three separate story lines, but, when they all start to come together in the climax, it just became hard to decide which one I wanted the story to focus on more. As with all of Kyell Gold’s work that I’ve read, Black Angel is extremely well-written. The characters all have their unique personalities and he puts effort into researching his subject matter. (There is a small explanation at the end of the book about the difference between Vodou and Voodoo.) I would definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in furry fantasy or alternative sexualities.

Books from the young and old

Additions to the 2020 Book List.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference (2019) by Greta Thunberg

COVER1This is barely a book; it is a short collection of Thunberg’s various speeches. They are all very similar and at times have whole sections repeated nearly verbatim. But that is to be expected when you are trying to give the same message to different audiences. But they are worth reading to get a sense of the desperation and urgency of the climate crisis; something which is not conveyed by most politicians.

I have a huge amount of respect for Greta Thunberg and I think it is terrible the way she has been treated and attacked by various people. She actually has the courage and conviction to stand up for her beliefs. This is in stark contrast to most politicians who are careful not to say anything too controversial with the public that will lose them support. And in contrast with many businessmen whose only interest seems to be how the economy is doing in the present. We need people like Thunberg who are not only focussed on the present but considering how our actions here today will affect the future. And, for those that would dismiss her just because she is a child, she is merely repeating what climate scientists are saying and have been saying for a while now. If we would listen to the scientists in the first place, we wouldn’t need a child to come and tell us what needs to be done.

Having finished this book just recently, I couldn’t help but comparing the way two different crises are being covered. Thunberg says how strange it was first learning about climate change because “if it was really happening we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turn on the TV everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers, you would never read or hear about anything else.” That’s how the corona virus is being covered! It’s strange that this one virus is getting all this attention while climate change is hardly covered in comparison. Is it just the speed? Frankly the media needs to drastically step up how it covers climate change if we are going to make the required progress.

Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide (2019) by Richard Dawkins

COVER2Outgrowing God is divided into two sections, the first of which directly addresses religion and The Bible. It’s the same arguments that always come up but in a simplified form. Although I knew most of what was discussed, there were a few interesting surprises, particularly the section on the non-canonical gospels and the stories they told about Jesus’ (alleged) early life.

The second section of the book is devoted to evolution and how it removes the need for a god in explaining the apparent design and diversity of life. From time to time, I found some new and interesting information but I felt the section was let down by being oversimplified and labouring each point to death.

Aside from one book (which has been sitting on my shelf for the past two or three years), I have read every single one of Dawkins’ books. This is not one of my favourites. Nearly everything has been covered before, and much better, in his previous books. The two sections also feel quite disjointed and could’ve been better integrated. While I really enjoyed the pacing and crescendo of the final chapter, the book as a whole felt lacking. That said, I am not the target audience and perhaps those that are less familiar with the topics will benefit from it more.

2020 Book List

This is the fourth year I’m doing this (2019, 2018, 2017) and I’m hoping to read two books per month. It’s a challenge but certainly not impossible; I just need to make the time and do it. I think making these lists has already helped me keep reading.

10/03/2020 Added No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference and Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide.

29/05/2020 Added The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper and Black Angel.

4/07/2020 Added The Unexpected Truth about Animals and Areopagitica.

15/08/2020 Added Ecotopia and The Hippopotamus.

38/12/2020 Added Darwin’s Ghosts, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde And Other Stories and Furries Among Us 2.

Permanent Record (2019) by Edward Snowden

This was a Christmas gift and something I’d been eager to read. Edward Snowden was the one who leaked the existence of PRISM and that the democratic societies in the world were willing to trample on the rights of their citizens just as much as the dictatorships and autocracies they ostensibly opposed. Since then we’ve heard time and time again how both nation states and large corporations have disregarded the rights and interests of people for their own benefit.

The book itself is fascinating, both as an autobiography of one of the heroes of our generation and also to get a glimpse into the secretive world of government espionage. It’s interesting to see how Snowden grew up and what events influenced him. I do wonder how much of it really transpired that way and how much has changed in the process of looking back with new insights. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. It’s entertaining, informative, inspiring and worth reading for everyone.

Ultimately, saying that you don’t care abut privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe. Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbour—or to the crowds of principled dissident I was following on my phone who were protesting halfway across the planet, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedoms that my country was busily dismantling.

Continue reading

Final two books: Total anarchy

These are the last two books I’ve read this year and almost certainly the last I will read this year. I’m also happy to say that I have now read 13 books this year which is more than the one per month that I wanted as my minimum. Perhaps, next year I will do even better! The complete list of all the books I read in 2019 is here.

On Anarchism (2014) by Noam Chomsky

Following a fairly interesting read into anarchism with Peter Kropotkin, I thought I would try to learn a bit more about the topic. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Chomsky apart from hearing about him as a major figure in left-wing politics and thought it might be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the book is not great and did not deliver on its promises.

Despite being published in 2014, On Anarchism is a collection of previous works, many of which were written in the 70s. This does not mean the information is necessarily bad but it was still disappointing. Furthermore, the book is generally not well-written. Chomsky has fallen into the worst excesses of academic writing; choosing fancy prose which obscures understanding. This is made worse by the fact that, although it seems like an introduction to anarchism, it requires a lot of background knowledge with one section being extremely difficult to understand without familiarity with the Spanish Revolution.

In the end, I found that the various chapters were only tangentially related to anarchism but did not explain anarchism itself, were much older than I expected and were poorly written. I would advise against bothering with it.

Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide (2005, revised 2009) by Ruth Kinna

In contrast to the mess that was Chomsky’s book, Ruth Kinna delivered exactly what I was looking for. Anarchism gives an overview of anarchy including the definition, some history, general beliefs and how different schools of anarchist thought differ. Each chapter has its own list of links, further reading suggestions and references for anyone that wants to learn more.

This is the sort of book that should probably be read more than once. While it is written to introduce the subject, it does so topic-by-topic and contrasting different anarchist thoughts. This parallelism is compact but doesn’t have the linear flow that lets you easily build up a single idea. I felt, when I finished, that I had lots of concepts and ideas floating in my head but would struggle to sort them out into the different approaches. That said, it’s a highly-informative book which sets out the different ideas, arguments and thinkers. If you already have some idea of the different players, you will no doubt gain even more from it than I did.

There were two things in it that I found surprising. The first was very little discussion of the online space where I think anarchist thought is probably more common. It would’ve been nice to see a comparison to open source development, such as with Linux, and with the ideals of free software and decentralised software. The second is the sheer amount of overlap and influence between anarchism, communism, socialism and libertarianism. There seem to be many shared aspects but while the latter three are well-known, little attention is paid to anarchism. I suppose that’s because it’s the most threatening to those in power.

Animals – both fictional and real

It’s been a while since I posted here. I better correct that by adding a short review of the last two books I read for my 2019 Book List.

Dissident Signals (2018) edited by NightEyes DaySpring and Slip Wolf

COVER1This is not a single novel but a collection of short stories; all set in a post-apocalyptic world and involving anthropomorphic (or furry) characters. Altogether, there are sixteen stories by various authors who approach the subject matter in wildly different ways. This makes it difficult to say anything which applies to the collection as a whole.

I can say that I enjoyed very many of the stories and the quality is extremely high. It’s also worth reading them to see how various scenarios could play out. While some stories are fantastical or only deal with the world after society collapses, others describe what happened to cause the dystopias. Some occurred because of all-powerful AIs, others due to environmental collapse and still others reflect what happens when our politics becomes callous and uncaring. These are all fears which society has today and potential worst-case scenarios which we want to avoid.

One of the nice things about fiction is while the worlds are not real, they often can say something about our current situation. There are stories which address very pressing and real concerns in our current societies but without the judgement that comes from talking about specific people or groups. It would be good for more people to read collections like this, take the lessons to heart and then think about the way in which they conduct themselves and how they would be portrayed in a novel.

A Plea For The Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, And Evolutionary Imperative To Treat All Beings With Compassion (2014, translation 2016) by Matthieu Ricard

COVER2This book is by a French author who studied molecular genetics but later became a Buddhist monk. I picked it up when I was visiting Paris with my sister. One of my aunts had already been in Paris for a few weeks and took us to an English book store near Notre Dame. This book turned out to be a great choice; not only does it address the topic of human-animal relationships well but it does so mainly referencing French authors and with a slightly Buddhist approach, both of which are fairly alien to me. In some senses it is similar to Dominion, which was written from a Christian perspective and led to my becoming a vegetarian, but I would say that this is the superior book.

Ricard examines the treatment of animals from a wide range of perspectives and over a long period of human history. He talks about the Romans and Greeks as well as Seaworld and Zoos and discusses the religious, philosophical and scientific aspects of various arguments for and against the use of animals. While there are some areas that I was curious about but couldn’t easily find references for, most of the book is well referenced and supported by extensive quotations. Particularly refreshing is that Ricard speaks and lives his convictions. He says how things are and how it deviates from an ideal world, even if some people do not want to hear that.

I loved the book and think it is perhaps the best on the topic that I have read. I prefer Ricard’s conviction to the watered down conclusion at the end of Dominion and A Plea For The Animals is more recent and up-to-date than Animal Liberation. I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in animals to read it but, more importantly, those that do not generally think of animals should read it and consider how their lives affect other living beings.

Political additions to my 2019 book list

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve finished two political books. They are being added to my 2019 book list.

And Yet… (2015) by Christopher Hitchens

COVER_1Published posthumously, this is either the second or third collection of Christopher Hitchens’ essays that I’ve read. I do believe that I found the others more interesting. It’s not that the writing is bad but they often failed to catch my attention. Partly this is because the topics he writes about are often far from those that I am familiar with. On the one hand, that does make reading them good for growing my general knowledge but, on the other, with no framework to fit them into, they fade far more quickly from my mind than other pieces that I have read.

Two of the essays did catch my eye; both written in 2008 and both attacking Hillary Clinton. I don’t think I was paying all that much attention to politics back then but it was interesting how the essays could just as easily have been published far more recently. But I guess a lot feels like it’s just repeating itself these days. This year sees a new Godzilla, a remake of Child’s Play and a new take on Spider Man. That’s not even mentioning Disney’s, completely unnecessary and unwanted, remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King.

There was a third essay that I found particularly interesting. All the way back in 2004, Hitchens wrote about how we should embrace partisan politics and mudslinging and he lamented how big issues were ignored because no one wanted to be controversial. Given the way politics has shifted now, particularly in the US, I couldn’t help wondering whether he would still encourage polarisation.

The Communist Manifesto (1848, translated 1888) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

COVER_2The Communist Manifesto was originally published in German in 1848 before being revised and translated many times but the 1888 translation is, apparently, the standard English version. As it is one of the most influential political works – and very short – I figured I really should read it. On the whole, I found it disappointing.

It’s written in a rather strange manner. I didn’t find most of it to be particularly clear or relevant, especially as it often addresses events and situations which were contemporary over 100 years ago. The overarching theme is still relevant but I didn’t feel that they really made their future desirable. At best I had reserved agreement with some of their points but the way it was all presented was quite off putting.

To me, it was a huge contrast with The Conquest of Bread where Peter Kropotkin outlined his ideas of anarchist communism. While there were certainly some areas that were not completely clear, his message was for more positive and the ideal world that he described seemed far more desirable than that of Marx and Engels.

Furry fiction additions to my reading list

It has been a couple of weeks since I finished reading my most recent two books. I figured I had better add them to my 2019 Book List before I couldn’t remember enough to properly describe them.

In A Dog’s World (2015) by Mary E. Lowd

COVER1This is a pretty simple romance story. If you’ve ever seen any young romance story where the main character is just arriving at college and has her eyes on an older student, then you probably know how this is going to go. It follows the basic idea without doing anything drastic but it really works for the story because it is just so enjoyable to go along with everything.

The book itself is not quite as simple. While the main story follows a fairly predictably plot, there are enough diversions to keep everything interesting. For one, it’s a world where humans have disappeared and now cats and dogs are the main inhabitants. The dynamics between the two species allow the story to explore issues such as racism and sexism in a gentle manner.

Simple and easy to read, it’s just a light-hearted romance with hidden depths. It makes a great palate cleanser of a book and I found it quite enjoyable.

The Time He Desires (2016) by Kyell Gold

COVER2This one is interesting because it’s a furry book that I first heard about through the mainstream media. There was an article on Slate which touted it as a way to resist the hatred of the Trump era. The book, as with many of Gold’s works, deals with homosexuality but the big difference here is that the story is from the perspective of a Muslim. While the book presents a more moderate form of Islam, I did see some irony in that I started reading it just days apart from Brunei enacting a form of Sharia law that punishes homosexuality with death.

The main character, a cheetah named Aziz, is having trouble with his marriage. He has grown apart from his wife and, a few years back, disowned his son for being gay. At the same time, property developers are trying to buy his and the neighbouring shops, to expand their shopping centre and apartment complex. Added to all of this, he becomes intrigued by a honeymoon tape of a gay couple, which one of the partner’s pawned but which the other is now searching for, and starts to consider other paths his life could have taken.

It’s a short, character-driven book as we see how Aziz handles the changes in his life and how they, in turn, change him. It’s interesting to see the motivations of a character from a religion that I have not experienced and in a situation which many people have to deal with in modern time. Although Gold is not Muslim himself, he was advised by a Muslim friend on the content of the book. As he describes it, he wanted to write about those who face problems with both Islamophobia and homophobia. It is certainly a good book to read to learn a bit about the two and to broaden one’s horizons.