Friday, February 27, 2015

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Being Mortal

The best book I read in February, by far, was Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. This nonfiction book (which has now been adapted into a Frontline production for PBS) is an exploration of what Dr. Gawande has learned in his years in medicine about the choices made at the end of life. He is especially critical of the choices doctors make in managing patients who are in their final stages of old age or illness.

I was convinced by the book that the Hippocratic Oath has either been ignored or terribly misunderstood by the medical establishment when it comes to the dying. By mindlessly applying themselves to whatever immediate medical problem is at hand, and ignoring the reality that death cannot be put off forever, doctors unintentionally force people to endure terrible suffering at their end of their lives. As well as living in constant agony, people too often die in a soulless institution, hooked up to a machine, alone or surrounded by strangers. If you are very lucky, you are felled quickly, before your doctor has a chance to diagnose you with anything.

Gawande documents these failings in this book and prescribes a fix: mostly, for doctors to accept that people are mortal and to help them figure out what kind of death they want. For the terminally ill, he's very much in favor of hospice, because people who go into hospice often live longer and feel better than people who allow themselves to be talked into aggressive treatments and hospitalization. He doesn't say people must do hospice, though—it just depends on what the dying person wants, and what resources she and her family have. For the failing elderly, assisted living or a nursing home may be necessary: but they don't have to be wretched institutions. He gives examples of old-age homes that really try to be homes to the residents, not prisons. One of the most striking things about this section was the traditional nursing-home focus on safety above all else, as if preserving the life for its own sake was all that mattered. Newer, better old-age homes may make some sacrifices in the safety department, but allow for much greater autonomy and pleasure. Very few people want to live an extra decade staring at a blank wall and being handled by uncaring people in gloves and masks. Many people would be willing to trade in some remaining time if they get to have pets, walk as much as they are able to (even if it means falling sometimes), and having the occasional medically-ill-advised scotch or ice cream.

Gawande recommends to doctors that they go through a specific set of questions to help people figure out what's important to them and how to get their needs met. What is your understanding of where you are and of your illness? What are your worries and fears for the future? What are your goals and priorities? What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice, what aren't you? What would a good day look like? He recommends to the rest of us that we start thinking about these questions now for ourselves, and maybe more importantly, for our loved ones.

Dying people tend to be clearer about what they want at the end of their lives than their relatives are. Even Gawande's own father, who had a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) directive and very specific rules about not calling 911 in any circumstances, found himself in the hospital after he took too much painkiller one night. His wife, Gawande's mother, just couldn't follow his rules. It's much easier for the dying person to let go than it is for the people around him to *let* him go. If you're dying and you don't want to be a burden on anyone, or suffer interminably, you're considered practical and a bit noble when you sign that DNR. If you let your husband die instead of calling 911, you're considered heartless. And it's not just how you're perceived: people genuinely don't want to lose the people they love.

The stories about parents learning to let go of children were even more heartbreaking than Gawande's story about his own family. We are fed so many stores about miraculous recoveries and heroic mothers who insisted on never giving up that we feel that's our only option: never give up. In the vast majority of cases, terminal means terminal, and the time-left prognosis is optimistic at best. In fact, doctors typically overestimate how much time a terminal patient has left to live by a factor of five. Five!

Gawande does an amazing job of weaving together statistics, policy, and anecdotes. I'm like most people, so the anecdotes stuck with me especially. Sara Monopoli, Gawande's patient, and Peg Bachelder, Gawande's daughter's piano teacher, had especially poignant stories, almost at opposite ends of the spectrum. Sara was a young mother, still pregnant when she received her diagnosis, so her story was terribly sad. And frustrating, because it didn't have to be quite so sad. Bachelder's amazing response to hospice—no miracles, but so much better than it could have been—had me dabbing at my eyes with a hankie.

Just after I finished this powerful book, I heard the news that one of my favorite contemporary writers and thinkers, Dr. Oliver Sacks, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sacks is 81, so on some level he knew his time was drawing to a close, but he'd been in robust health till he received the diagnosis. His op-ed piece for the New York Times beautifully illustrates many of the lessons in Gawande's book: Sacks says he immediately felt his world constrict, with politics and worldly worries falling away and only his family and friends mattering. And that this constriction didn't feel like a bad thing. He acknowledges the inevitability of his death: he is not pursuing a miracle cure, or any cure. He says, "It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can." That is, ultimately, what Gawande hopes we will all pursue, and what our doctors will help us all pursue, rather than mindlessly attempting to keep us all alive another day, at any cost.

To read the other Coffeehouse reviews, or add your own, go to our host The Armchair Squid's page.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Glory of Battle

The Atlantic has an amazing piece in its current issue, one which I recommend everyone take the time to read. It's a long piece about the ideology of ISIS, one that is deeply researched and revelatory. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the Middle East and Political Islam, but I was unaware of the big ideological differences between ISIS and Al-Qaida, and how those differences might (should) effect US strategy in the region.

What I want to talk about here is a quote that jumped out at me from the end of the piece, and which has been rattling around in my head since. It was written in 1940 by George Orwell, explaining the strange draw that Nazism (and violent nationalism generally) had on many people.
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades ... Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
Graeme Wood, the author of the Atlantic piece, used this quote to illustrate the allure of ISIS. People from all over the world are joining its barbaric cause. Not many of them, but enough that the rest of us look at them and wonder, what the hell are you thinking? What could possibly be appealing about this? The recruits give up relatively cushy lives in Australia, Germany, Britain, and the United States, fly to Syria, burn their passports, and shoulder rifles. “They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden,” writes Wood. It reminds me in a strange way of the practice of cutting, or self-harm. Some people seem to need to hurt, to fling themselves headlong into trouble, to feel alive.

Robert "Musa" Cerantonio, preacher and ISIS supporter
As an individual quirk this is merely odd, but when strife-seeking becomes a nationalistic philosophy, we're all in trouble. The push-pull between the comforts of the modern world and the supposed charms of revolution and battle was no more apparent than the fascist movements of the 20th century. These were rooted deeply in the Romantic tradition, itself a reaction against the calm rationalism of the Enlightenment. (The Enlightenment, for those who don't know, is a philosophical movement that arose right around the time of the American Revolution, and most of the American founders considered themselves part of the movement.)

Steven Pinker, who wrote the groundbreaking book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, also noted a strong correlation between Romanticism and an uptick in militarism and bloodlust.
The counter-Enlightenment also rejected the assumption that violence was a problem to be solved. Struggle and bloodshed are inherent in the natural order, and cannot be eliminated without draining life of its vitality and subverting the destiny of mankind. As Herder put it, “Men desire harmony, but nature knows better what is good for the species: it desires strife.” The glorification of the struggle in “nature red in tooth and claw” (as Tennyson had put it) was a pervasive theme in 19th-century art and writing. Later it would be retrofitted with a scientific patina in the form of “social Darwinism,” though the connection with Darwin is anachronistic and unjust: The Origin of Species was published in 1859, long after romantic struggleism had become a popular philosophy, and Darwin himself was a thoroughgoing liberal humanist. 
The counter-Enlightenment was the wellspring of a family of romantic movements that gained strength during the 19th century. Some of them influenced the arts and gave us sublime music and poetry. Others became political ideologies and led to horrendous reversals in the trend of declining violence. One of these ideologies was a form of militant nationalism that came to be known as “blood and soil”—the notion that an ethnic group and the land from which it originated form an organic whole with unique moral qualities, and that its grandeur and glory are more precious than the lives and happiness of its individual members. Another was romantic militarism, the idea that (as Mueller has summarized it) “war is noble, uplifting, virtuous, glorious, heroic, exciting, beautiful, holy, thrilling.” A third was Marxist socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between classes, culminating in the subjugation of the bourgeoisie and the supremacy of the proletariat. And a fourth was National Socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between races, culminating in the subjugation of inferior races and the supremacy of the Aryans.
The rise of ISIS has more than one root cause, of course, and the fighters for the most part are not leaving comfort in order to seek strife: most of them were raised in strife. They've grown up oppressed and abused by secular dictators supported by foreign powers, and they are throwing that off in as dramatic a fashion as possible. But for those of us who see images of westerners boarding planes to Syria, anxious to join the cause, or hear barbaric executioners speaking in a British accent, the weird allure becomes somewhat more understandable when you connect some historical dots. Once those dots begin to connect, you may see them everywhere. Nazism, ISIS, Abu Ghraib ... even a certain strain of militant libertarianism at home. I know a man who is building a fortress in the mountains, right here in our local mountains, complete with sniper tower. He is ready for the Final Battle between himself the US government. Does he fear it? Look into his eyes and ask. He does not fear it. He can't wait for it. 

Add to the many other dichotomies of modern life the continuing struggle between the scientific, rational, humanistic principles of the Enlightenment, and the violent, passionate, thrilling desires of Romanticism. The Romantic believes we are only truly alive when we are wielding a sword ... or an AR-15.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Above the East China Sea

I read five books this month, and I'll start with the best one, which I gave 5 stars to on Goodreads: Sarah Bird's Above the East China Sea. I went in with high expectations, having read and loved her novel The Flamenco Academy a few years earlier. The narrative viewpoint of Above the East China Sea alternates between a teenage Okinawan girl who endures the tail end of World War II and a modern American teenager whose mother is stationed on the island, as Bird once was with her military family. We meet Tamiko as the Battle of Okinawa is nearly over—a battle that killed more people than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (I'll pause to let that sink in for a moment.) She is 16 years old and just getting set to throw her pregnant self into the sea. It is not a spoiler to say that she becomes a problematic ghost who haunts Luz, the modern-day half-Okinawan teenager who is stuck on a military base with her emotionally stunted, somewhat useless soldier-mom. The action for both girls takes place in a very compressed period of time, I think only a few days, but their backstories are seamlessly woven in. This is a literary page-turner that should satisfy any reader who enjoys historical novels, women's fiction, war stories, and even YA. There's a pleasing splash of romance in it, but Bird's real aim is to tell the story of Okinawa.

I also read two Michel Faber novels, Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things. Apparently these two are the bookends of his novel-writing career: the former is his first novel, and he claims the latter is the last novel he will write. Under the Skin was adapted into a very weird movie last year starring Scarlett Johansson, in which she lured unsuspecting Glaswegians (non-actors) into her van. We really enjoyed it, and it was voted best movie of 2014 by a few media outlets, but many people loathed it. So if you see it and you hate it, don't say I didn't warn you. At any rate, it's not that much like the book: the movie is highly artistic and leaves much to speculation. The book is quite straightforward. And it is disturbing. I read it in 24 hours and thoroughly enjoyed myself, even if I feel Faber didn't quite stick the landing. The Book of Strange New Things shares elements with Under the Skin that I can't get into without spoiling, but it's a gentler book. It's about a Christian missionary who goes on an interstellar mission to bring the word of Jesus to the indigenous population of a newly-discovered planet. Normally that's a plot setup I'd steer well clear of, but Faber pulls it off beautifully. He manages to write about religion without having a religious axe to grind: has any novelist ever pulled that off? But even more than religion, the book is about a marriage. The missionary has a wife he must leave behind at home, and their messages to each other and the way they handle the separation is amazing, moving, and very realistic.

Just yesterday I finished Euphoria, a slim novel by Lily King that received a lot of accolades in 2014. It's an interesting novel to read in conjunction with Faber's interstellar book, because they are both in a sense about marriage and foreignness. Our missionary goes to another planet and tries to figure out the natives and cope with a marriage under stress; in Euphoria, a woman goes to Papua New Guinea to study the natives and cope with a marriage under stress. The woman is Nell, and she's modeled roughly after famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. The story, set in the 1930s, is mostly told from the point of view of fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson, who finds Nell and her husband even more fascinating than the Kiona tribe he's purportedly studying. The three get tangled up in each other and in the indigenous people they are studying and everything goes a bit to hell, which is how most storytelling works.

And lastly, I read Dante's Inferno. No, I am not messing with you, I really did. My daughter was assigned the poem for high school (a few cantos, anyway) and I'd never read it, so I took the plunge. I was impressed with how modern it felt, and it was surprisingly easy to read. But it wasn't really about a sinner getting right with God: it was about Dante Alighieri reveling in the imaginary torments of his specific political enemies. Lots of names are named, nobody we remember anymore, and that part got tedious. I liked the first few cantos and the last canto — I mean, if nothing else, you gotta stick around long enough to meet Satan! Wonderfully horrible imagery there. The audiobook rendition by master narrator George Guidall is very good, as is the modern translation by poet Robert Pinsky. I was surprised how short it is: a little less than 5 hours.

Please visit The Armchair Squid for a list of the other Coffeehouse reviews. Happy reading, everyone!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Paradox of Forgiveness

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one episode that came out of a few days ago has really got my brain churning. Just as I get much more out of books by writing reviews when I'm finished, I think I'll get more out of podcasts if I review them as well. This review is long, so the most important bits I put in red type. Cut to those if you want the highlight reel.

The episode I'm reviewing today is from a podcast called Philosophy Bites, which is an excellent little podcast I highly recommend. The producer interviews various working philosophers on intriguing questions of our day, such as whether killing in war is justifiable, whether it's morally acceptable to put limits on the benefits we give our children, and whether it's ever acceptable to use genetic manipulation to select or deselect desirable traits in children. As the title promises, all the interviews are short, usually around 15 minutes. If you want to listen, you can click on the "listen" link on the site, or you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or another podcast player like Beyond Pod.

Philosopher Lucy Allais
The most recent Philosophy Bites, an interview with philosopher Lucy Allais, is about forgiveness. What is forgiveness? Whom does it benefit? Is it ever obligatory? If these questions intrigue you and you want more than a Philosophy Bite, see Allais' paper on the topic, titled "Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness."

So how is forgiveness a paradox? From the paper: “Forgiving seems to mean ceasing to blame, but if blaming means holding the perpetrator responsible, then forgiveness requires not ceasing to blame, or else there will be nothing to forgive.” The forgiver must somehow cease to hold resentment against the offender, while still believing that the offender did something wrong. If you continue to believe the offender has done something wrong, are you truly forgiving them?

It is important, Allais noted, to distinguish forgiveness from other actions that mimic forgiveness: accepting, minimizing, justifying, and excusing. These actions may help the victim to let go of resentment, but they "involve not thinking of the act as seriously objectionable and not requiring of the wrongdoer that she act differently or account for her action.” If the victim tells herself the offender did nothing wrong and is blameless, then there's nothing to forgive. So it's not "forgiveness" she's doing. "Forgiveness involves seeing it as not justifiable, not excused, not acceptable, and still coming to see it as something not to hold against" the offender, Allais says. "And that's puzzling." Forgiveness and blame must co-exist.

Blame is important. Not just to philosophers and to victims, but to a functional social system. "People often say 'wouldnt it be nice if nobody ever blamed anybody or got angry at anybody?' But firstly that would be failing to take wrongdoing seriously." [This point is especially important to Allais, who became interested in forgiveness because she's South African and was thinking about Apartheid. You can see why she'd want to take wrongdoing seriously.] "And it would be failing to take each other seriously as persons, failing to hold each other accountable." As blame is appropriate, so are the emotions tied to blame appropriate: resentment, anger, even fear.

Disproportionate anger is never appropriate, and people sometimes learn to let go of resentment by realizing that they have, in fact, overreacted to a perceived wrong. This is not the same as forgiving. "Forgiveness starts where resentment is warranted, or appropriate," says Allais.

The interviewer, Nigel Warburton, brought this down to a concrete level by talking about a real-life situation: His father abandoned the family, moving from the UK to South Africa when he, Nigel, was a teenager. "I've come to understand and maybe forgive him for leaving my mother, I understand the complexities of relationships, but I find it very difficult to forgive my father, who is now dead, for going to live in South Africa at that point." I'm not sure whether Warburton means here that he's angry at his father for abandoning him, or for supporting South Africa under Apartheid. Or both?

Allais doesn't worry about the details, but fixes on the salient point: Nigel Warburton is not obliged to forgive anyone. Nobody is. "People sometimes say it's important to forgive so that you're not eaten up with resentment and anger," she said, and we can agree that being eaten up with resentment and anger sounds bad. But is forgiveness the only way out of that? Allais says of course not. You can let go of resentment and anger without forgiving. One way is to simply let go of the person: if the offender is not part of your life anymore, you can stop thinking about him and move on. No forgiveness necessary.

This is an incredibly important counterweight to the terribly damaging notion that forgiveness is obligatory. I've seen dear friends, abused by partners or parents, get saddled with the weight of obligatory forgiveness. "You must learn to let go and forgive," they are told. "Or you will never move on." You may want to forgive someone, and that's great. But you may not want to, and that's totally fine, too. You may also not be able to forgive, even if you do want to. From my own experience and observation, forgiveness is not something most of us actually have a lot of control over. People can recite the words "I forgive you" and think they mean them, only to discover the deep well of resentment is still there, waiting to be tapped. Later in the podcast, both Allais and Warburton echo this: forgiveness, even if you want to undertake it, can be a long process—and it's not entirely subject to the will. (If you want to increase your will over emotions, she mentions almost as an aside, change your focus. In other words, don't keep spinning and spinning on the same thing.)

While we think of forgiveness as a virtue, and agree almost universally across cultures that it's worth striving for, it is not the same as owing someone a money debt, Allais says. When you borrow money from someone, you are obligated to pay it back. When someone hurts you, you are not obligated to "pay" them forgiveness in the same way.

So if forgiveness isn't obligatory as a virtue, and "isn't a matter of therapy for the forgiver," Warburton asks, "What is it?"

This is where the interview begins to get a bit academic. Philosophers have spent a lot of time, Allais says, studying the content of emotions. Yes, emotions have content. "Emotions represent the world as having ways of being," she says. What I think she means is that emotions cause us to perceive the world in certain ways—when we experience something and especially when we recall the memory of the event later, we're not just calling to mind a highly accurate newsreel. It's not raw footage we're watching. It's a carefully calibrated, highly processed, thoroughly edited story. Emotions dramatically effect the kind of story we're telling ourselves about an event, and about each person in that event. So if you're feeling resentment toward a person, that's going to change the story you tell yourself about who that person is. Not just what she did to you that day, but who she is.

Forgiveness, then, is the act of telling yourself a different story about the wrongdoer. The act of wrongdoing still happened, you hold the offender responsible for it. But you don't let it become the single most salient thing about the person. You don't let it become entangled with the identity of the person.

"So can I forgive someone and still hold justifiable resentment toward them?" Warburton asks.

"I think forgiveness means letting go of justifiable resentment," Allais responds. Going back to the debt analogy, forgiving someone is more than discharging a debt, which is like balancing the scales. Forgiving someone is actually giving the offender something, which perhaps relates to the etymology of the word. The offender isn't owed anything, and yet you're giving it to them anyway. You're giving them something that is not their due.

Forgiveness, says Allais, "is seeing someone as better than their action warrants them."

Love and trust are tied up in the concept, too. Trusting a person isn't just about calculating risk, it's about "having an optimistic attitude towards the other's will." I suppose she means you believe the person is essentially good and essentially means well, even if his actions don't always support that.

Forgiving someone for a trespass, Warburton points out, puts the forgiver in an incredibly powerful position over the offender. Because the forgiver is handing out something to which the offender, by definition, is not due, she is conferring a boon. (I imagine a queen generously proffering a gold coin to a subject.) Allais agrees and uses the character of Uriah Heep from David Copperfield as an example: David's ultimate forgiveness of offender Uriah Heep makes him look magnanimous. It puts him, David, in a superior position.

But at the same time, by saying "I forgive you," you are also informing the offender that you do consider him to be responsible for a wrong. In the film Philomena, the title character appears not to blame the Catholic institution that took her child. She's very placid and accepting of everything ... until the very end, where she says "I forgive you." Even in the quiet way she says it, she is placing blame. She could not offer forgiveness where there was nothing to forgive.

So we've established that forgiveness isn't about therapy for the forgiver, and it's not a moral obligation for the victim. What, then is the point of forgiveness, asks Warburton. Why bother? Should he forgive his dead father?

The major benefit of forgiveness for the forgiver, says Allais, is that it allows the victim and the offender to continue a relationship. In relationships, "we do hurt each other and wrong each other all the time, and we need to hold each other accountable, but we also need to move on." Relationships that involve love and trust are about people bound together, heading into the future together. And if everyone is keeping a tally of hurts and just deserts, love and trust will erode. The "togetherness" of the future may become impossible.

We assess who people are by watching their behavior: what they do shows us who they are. But loving someone requires seeing them as more than the sum of actions. If you just judge someone by their actions, you'll be keeping a tally and thinking about what they deserve. We don't love people because they've got the right tally or because we think their behavior obliges us to love them. So when forgiveness is tied up with love (which it isn't always), it draws on our habit of loving people whether they "deserve" it or not.

The last couple minutes of the podcast are dedicated to discussing crimes against humanity, and whether groups of people can forgive other groups of people. It's an interesting discussion and I suggest people listen all the way through, but this blog post is already quite long so I'll stick to the personal side of it. And I will wrap up with an open question Allais didn't get to: what is the role of apology in forgiveness? It's more difficult to forgive if the victim is scared the offender will cause the same hurt again. A sincere apology, one that accepts responsibility and reflects an understanding of the hurt caused, can go a long way toward easing that fear: if the offender understands she made a mistake, she's less likely to make it again. If she refuses to acknowledge she did make a mistake, if she thinks her actions were perfectly justified, than the trust that is so inherent to forgiveness is badly damaged.

The most helpful thing I got out of the 15 minutes is this idea: forgiveness does not mean you pretend nothing happened. It does not mean the offender gets away with something. It does mean putting the offense in its place, and refusing to allow it to define the person (and the relationship) entirely. 

"Forgiveness offers something that punishing cannot give," Allais writes in the conclusion to her paper. "In forgiving, we allow the wrongdoer to make a genuinely fresh start; the slate is wiped clean."

Related reading:
Wiping the Slate Clean, by Lucy Allais
How to Give A Meaningful Apology from UMass Amherst's Family Business Center
Must We Forgive Our Abusive Parents? from Slate Magazine
Restorative Justice As A Pathway to Forgiveness, by Jac Armstrong

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: The Music Edition

With only a few hours to go before the ball drops, I am sneaking this last "best of" into 2014. I thought about doing it by album but opted for songs instead, after my daughter reminded me that this is actually how we buy music nowadays ... if we buy it at all. (She streams a lot: I still tend to purchase.) Although I feel compelled to buy a few entire albums, especially anything new by my tried-and-true artists, my most-played tracks this year include a number of one-offs. If I stuck to best-of albums, I'd miss a lot.

So, organized randomly, is the list of my favorite tracks of—and released in—2014:

1. Tongues, by Joywave. This song is equally beloved by me and my 13-year-old son. Whenever it comes on in the car, we crank it up and do car dancing. This might be a good time to note that my love of these tracks is unrelated to whether the video is appealing. I didn't even watch some of these videos till I started writing this blog post. Music videos are often incomprehensible to me.

2. Beneath the Brine, by The Family Crest. As one of the commenters said, "Sometimes you just need a big song for a big year." And this giant wall-of-sound song kind of captures the sheer drama that was 2014.

3. Fever, by the Black Keys. Somehow I hear Peggy Lee in this song, even if the only thing they really have in common is the title.

3. Coffee, by Sylvan Esso. Here (and for the next few picks) we turn the volume down a bit. This has a little bit of Norah Jones sultry mixed in with a some delicious weirdness.

4. Beside You, by Phildel. I think Phildel released her album in the UK in 2013, but my iTunes insists it's a 2014 album and that's when I got ahold of it, so I'm counting it. I listened to this entire album pretty much nonstop for a few weeks, then I sort of forgot about it. I'm not sure why, because relistening to it now, it definitely holds up. Beautiful stuff.

5. The Body Electric, by Hurray for the Riff Raff. I discovered this band recently, thanks to NPR's All Songs Considered podcast. This song sounds like it comes from a hundred years ago, both in lyrical structure and in delivery. Reminds me a bit of "Hey Joe."

6. Warm Foothills, by alt-J. Alt-J is probably my favorite band right now, period. Their first album, An Amazing Wave, blew my mind. Their newest release, This Is All Yours, is a much mellower collection, as you can hear here, but still does gives me aural delight. Some music is for blasting and car dancing. I think this track is worth putting earbuds in, closing your eyes, and really listening to.

7. Awake, by Tycho. From their album of the same title, this song is representative of Tycho's whole. I don't buy ambient music often, but I've discovered this album is incredibly useful when I need to have some sort of pleasant sound in my ears that I don't have to pay a lot of attention to. I listen to it on airplanes, I listen to it when I'm upset and need soothing, I listen to it when my husband and daughter are fighting over how to do a calculus problem.

8. Passerby, by Luluc. Another new discovery via NPR's All Songs Considered. Pretty much the entire panel of music people at NPR unanimously named Luluc's album (also named Passerby) as a best album of the year. Very pleasant folk-pop, a little bit like Hurray for the Riff Raff but not as dark. Kind of reminiscent of Joan Baez.

9. Figure It Out, by Royal Blood. Have my last few selections put you to sleep? This will WAKE YOU THE HELL UP. You're welcome! It's actually hard to believe one person, namely me, could like both Luluc and Royal Blood. I'm probably the only one.

Make sure you have good speakers, then turn this up. Way, way up.

10. Gold, by Chet Faker. I don't know almost anything about Chet Faker, except it's the nom de plume ... er, chanteur for one Nicholas James Murphy. I also know I just love this sexy, bluesy song.

11. Angel of the Small Death and the Codeine Scene, by Hozier. OK, I've already talked up Hozier's Take Me To Church and most people by now have probably heard that, as it's Hozier's most famous song. So I'm giving a shout-out to another song from his self-titled album, all of which is amazing. I have a hard time even ranking these in order, I love them all so much. This one's pretty rockin'. Hozier may be young and pretty, but he's also a classically trained vocalist. Boy's got pipes.

12. I Bet My Life, by Imagine Dragons. This is not my very favorite Imagine Dragons song ever but it's a 2014 release and almost anything by them is going to be on heavy rotation in our house. This single will be part of their upcoming 2015 album. (Daughter and I are hand-flappy with anticipation.)

13. Stolen Dance, by Milky Chance. I enjoyed this song well enough when it came on Alt Nation (a Sirius XM channel), but I didn't really pay close attention to it until my daughter got obsessed. Then I got pretty into it, too. I'm such a follower.

14. Riptide, by Vance Joy. Vance Joy hit a sound that is just perfect for our house: bouncy folk-pop. Lots of guitar and tamborine, but unlike some of my earlier selections, no murrrrder. Just a cheery, catchy single.

15. Heart Is A Drum, by Beck. Beck is an artist I generally do buy by-the-album, and when I first got his newest album, Morning Phase, I listened to it nonstop. Then, like Phildel, I kind of forgot about him. Which is too bad. Morning Phase is a very mellow, sweet, somewhat melancholy album. All the tracks are good, by this is one of my favorites.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Best of 2014: The Books Edition

I am folding two things together: My Cephalopod Coffeehouse review with my Best Books of 2014 overview. Goodreads has made it so easy for me to locate my best reads of the year: I simply sort books by publication date to filter my 2014 reads from all the rest, then look for my 5-star books within that 2014 subset. (A longer list would include my favorite books all around that I've read in the past year, but I'm trying to be a bit more concise.) Here are those books, in order of publication date (most to least recent).

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: Reading this novel was like watching a good season of Doctor Who, with magical timey-wimey vampire things instead of Daleks. We follow the life of Holly Sykes, whom we meet as a lovelorn teenager in 1980s England, and we follow into a post-apocalyptic near-future. Mitchell's previous novel, Cloud Atlas, had lots of narrators with their own distinctive voice, and he does that again here, though The Bone Clocks is more cohesive than Cloud Atlas. While there is some darkness and some didactic bits about how foolish humans are, overall Mitchell seems like he is having a fantastic time here, and I couldn't help but have fun along with him. Named a Best Book of 2014 by The Telegraph, NPR, The Guardian, the New York Times, Goodreads, Buzzfeed, and the editors of Amazon. In fact, every single "best of" list I Googled included this book.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters: Another reliable English novelist with another reliably great book—and my best read of December. The Paying Guests is set a century ago in post World-War-One England, which was a very rough period in English history. So many men were fed into the maw of that horrible conflict that women ended up practically alone for a generation, and this novel is partly about that: Protagonist Frances Wray and her widowed mum are ex-aristocrats trying to scrape out a living and keep their home afloat. They have to take in lodgers to make ends meet, and that's where things get interesting. The couple that moves into their home introduces romance and chaos to the staid Wrays, and things get both sexy and deadly pretty quick. Named a Best Book of 2014 by most of the above outlets as well.

The Bees, by Laline Paull: When I say this is a story told from the point of view of a bee, I mean that literally. A bee. With six legs and antennae. Her name is Flora 717, and she's a lowly sanitation worker in a hive that's run like North Korea ... which probably pretty accurate. Paull seems like she knows her bees, but she also manages to anthropomorphize Flora 717 believably enough to get readers (at least, this reader) to empathize with her. Flora has to cope with outside threats (weather, wasps, pesticides) and inside threats (the priestess caste of bees), and is individualistic enough to change her own circumstances.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor: The conclusion of Taylor's stunning YA trilogy. I do not understand why Taylor is not way more famous than she is. I like the Hunger Games and all, and Divergent and the Maze Runner were OK, but this is the real business. I guess I shouldn't exactly compare it to those others, as Taylor's trilogy is not dystopian. It's fantasy. But it feels very similar, because it's about a modern teenager coping with giant forces beyond her reckoning. Karou is the teen, and when we meet her she's just a blue-haired kid in Prague who happens to be an apprentice to a couple of actual monsters. Chimaera, to be exact. Then she falls in love with a really pissed-off angel bent on annihilating everything she holds dear. I absolutely inhaled all three of these books. I would strongly recommend them to any teenager (or adult) who likes Twilight, because there are some similarities but Taylor is such a superior writer. I mean, it wouldn't take much, but she is amazing. Puts everyone else to shame. And her female characters aren't klutzy hapless wimps (or banal killermachines with boobs).

Redeployment, by Phil Klay: A short-story collection written by an actual Marine who served in actual Iraq. Klay (rhymes with "fly") is also an incredible writer who brings the horrible reality of war to gritty life. You know, I didn't have to live this war, but I'm part of the democracy that chose to send these men and women into the fray, so I kinda feel I owe it to them to really face what we've put them through. It's been a miserable decade of war. The least we can do is listen to the soldiers who walked through the mud and blood. This is fiction, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like a confession, and our job is to hear it out. Named a Best of 2014 book by NPR, The Guardian, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Kirkus Reviews, Goodreads, Buzzfeed, the President of the United States, and the editors of Amazon. Also, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for fiction.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This slight book takes what appear to be scraps of insight the narrator/author scrawled on receipts or backs of envelopes and through some sort of narrative alchemy turns them into a great novel. The narrator is unnamed, but she mirrors Offill's life closely. You have to assume this is highly autobiographical, and that's part of the charm. A story you think is real is processed differently, with more adrenaline, than a story you know is fiction. There's the thrill of voyeurism here, watching someone's life unravel spectacularly. With so many books circling around extraordinary events (super-flus, terrorist attacks, zombie uprisings), it's refreshing to see a gripping story that's just about ordinary life, with all its sadness and joy and terror.

The Other Language, by Francesca Marciano: Of all the books I read this year, this is the one I want to go back and read again. Some books, like Gone Girl, are incredibly-written and demand five stars for craft, but are not exactly a pleasure to read. This book was delicious. All my metaphors about reading it involve food; there is something so sensuous about the prose it can't be described any other way. It's luscious. It's tasty. It's also not a novel, but a short-story collection, which (if I'm sticking with the culinary metaphor) turns it into something like a feast of tapas. Each story is set in an exotic locale (Venice, India, Kenya) and features mostly female protagonists dealing with some sort of crisis. The crises move the story forward but each story is as much about place as it is about people. Take this collection with you on your next beach vacation—or in place of it.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart: Honorable mention goes to this YA novel, which only got 4 stars from me for various little complaints—mostly stemming from the fact that I'm not the target audience—but which I have been recommending to every teen I know. I checked it out from the library for myself, but I ended up buying it for my kids for Christmas and I will harass them until they read it. I'd maybe describe it as a mix of King Lear (the mad patriarch and his wretched daughters), Wuthering Heights (star-crossed lovers from disparate social spheres), and the Great Gatsby (the decadence and dissolution of the terribly rich). It is also an intense mystery with a shocker of an ending. And you can finish it in a day.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Best of 2014: The Television Edition

Television has gotten good. It's so good that when I watch older shows, I'm shocked at how bad they are in comparison. It's so good that I feel totally justified in watching TV over reading a book: they pack an equal intellectual punch. (I mean, they can. Bookworld has its Fifty Shades, televisionland has its Real Housewives.) Because we stream all our TV, I'm usually pretty far behind on television, so I've never really been able to participate in discussions of current shows. This might be the first year we've been watching the same things as everyone else. We started a few shows that turned out to be duds, but in general this has been a great year for the small screen. But man, have the shows been dark! I mean, three of my top five have the word "black" in the title. Reflections, perhaps, of our rather trying times?

1. Transparent: This show premiered in 2014 on Amazon. I find it interesting how many streaming companies are beginning to make their own products, rather than simply distributing others' shows. The producer of this show, Jill Soloway, says she shopped the idea around quite a bit before Amazon took it up, and she is both grateful to them for the opportunity and for the long leash they gave her. Traditionally, producers get to float only a few shows, and if the audience isn't biting, the show gets canceled. But Soloway was able to film and distribute the entire first season, putting all 10 episodes on Amazon at once. The show is about a 70-year-old parent of three adult children who comes out as trans. Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, born Mort and assigned a male gender at birth. Maura has decided at this late stage to embrace her female identity, and her kids react variably to this announcement. As I've said before, this is not a show for young viewers, but for teenagers on up it's a fantastic exploration of gender, sexuality, identity, siblings, and aging. There's a lot of sex on the show, most of it awkward and not meant to be titillating. (Which is an unusual choice.) Soloway, whose own parent came out as trans later in life, hired trans and other LGBQ writers to make the depictions of that community as real and non-exploitative as possible. But it's not a didactic show; watch it for the acting, the character development, and the story.

2. Orange is the New Black: A Netflix original that premiered in 2013, OITNB follows the funnydrama of Piper Chapman, a fairly sheltered pretty blonde chick thrown into a women's prison after she was arrested on drug trafficking charges. It's based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, but is only loosely based on her real-life experiences. Season 2, in particular, departs from Kerman's real story. Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is both adorably naive and tough as nails, and somehow manages to pull both personas off flawlessly. There's a lot of humor in this show but it's not a comedy. There's serious drama as well, and some interesting statements about prisoner abuse, race, sexuality, and the cost of the war on drugs. I watch this with my family and we find it totally addictive; be prepared to binge-watch both seasons and go into withdrawal while waiting for Season 3.

3. Orphan Black: This BBC America show premiered in 2013, and we were totally hooked within seconds of turning on the pilot. That's unusual: I find most pilots to be terrible introductions to a show, a ton of boring worldbuilding that we have to suffer through before we get to the real story. Orphan Black gets straight into it, and lets the backstory come through naturally through the action. Tatiana Maslany plays a whole bunch of cloned characters, which might seem gimmicky except she pulls it off so beautifully. Maslany should get an Emmy for this show, and most fans are outraged she hasn't already. The basic story involves a cloned young woman discovering who she is — and who else she is. It's a little bit sci-fi and a little bit techno-thriller. One criticism I've heard, which is fair enough, is that Season 2 got a little too interested in plot details and less interested in character. Hopefully the writers will correct that trend, because the characters playing off each other is far more compelling than the "whodunit" aspect of why the girls were created. Fans of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" will love this show, which is a similar concept but pulled off much better.

4. Black Mirror: Our newest addiction. Black Mirror is a BBC show that just became available to American viewers via Netflix — another reason I'm glad I kept up my subscription to that ailing service. The setup is very similar to the Twilight Zone: each episode is self-contained, there is no through-line. It's like watching one Christopher Nolan movie after another. Like the Twilight Zone, the show is speculative fiction, meant to highlight some moral quandary, warn us of a potentially terrible future, or to be thought-provoking in some way. And it succeeds. While there is no plot through-line, there certainly is a theme, which is "how can technology go wrong?" One episode is about a woman who obtains an AI version of her dead lover, only to find the sorts of disappointments one might expect. (And some unexpected and hilarious upsides.) Another is about a technology that allows people to record the entirety of what they see every day; think cop lapel cameras for every citizen. Imagine how having such recordings would effect any disputes you have. All those times you lay awake at night, replaying conversations, wondering if you heard something right, wondering if you saw those people really doing that, wondering how to interpret an interaction — you could literally replay all that. I've found each episode fascinating and uncomfortable in equal measure, and I appreciate creator Charlie Brooker's pulling no punches. My one complaint is that he sets up what looks like a real quandary for the viewers, but he can't quite stop himself from tipping his hand: he tells you how you should feel. He'd do better if he left viewers truly divided. I do not recommend this show for anyone with a weak stomach, and I don't think Episode 1 ("National Anthem") is actually a good place to start. New viewers: start with "Fifteen Million Merits" or "The Entire History of You."

5. Brooklyn Nine Nine: Let's finish up with something totally different. This is a very light comedy show about cops, and is our family's palate cleanser. Comedian Andy Samberg is the star, and his goofball charm is a perfect foil for Andre Braugher's straight-man bit. We were already huge fans of Samberg from his work on Saturday Night Live and with the comedy-music group The Lonely Island. B99 is much cleaner, but no less funny. The show has a great cast, each player pulling their full weight as various comedy archetypes. The show airs on Fox, but we stream it on Hulu Plus.

As with any best-of list, this one leaves off great contenders. What have I missed? What do you recommend?