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October 2016

The Mortifications: A Novel by Derek Palacio

The Mortifications asks, answers, and asks again all the important questions about life, love, family, and fate. Why again? Because the answers change which is what you would expect when a story goes from Cuba to Connecticut by way of death threats and hostage-taking in three paragraphs. It begins with the fracturing of the Encarnación family, the father, Uxbal’s political activity inciting Soledad, the mother, to escape in the Maribel boat lift with the twins. There is a frightening scene where she threatens to kill her son Ulises if Uxbal does not let the their daughter Isabel come with her, and their subsequent flight to Connecticut, far away from the Cubans of Miami who might keep memories alive. So much, so fast tells you from the beginning that author Derek Palacio is not going to waste your time.

The first part of The Mortifications is called The Land and it tells the story of their immigration success. Soledad finds work, the children go to school and they grow and prosper. Soledad finds new love and Ulises finds Latin and agronomy and Isabel finds religious passion. But all is not right, Isabel’s religious fervor is rooted in a promise made to her father, a promise she cannot fulfill in America so she transfers her vow from her father to the church, taking a vow of silence and entering a novitiate. Ulises, employed by Henri Willems, the tobacco farmer who is his mother’s lover, excels and writes and writes and writes about tobacco, writings that Willems sends off to be published in trade journals and magazines. Even in staid and traditional Connecticut, Palacio weaves the magic of magical realism in Isabel’s mysticism and Ulises’ classicism and extraordinary growth.

All of a sudden, a letter comes from Uxbal, their father, after all these years. He read an article and wrote to Ulises and revived their memories of Cuba and of their father. This is a single chapter section, called The Sound, an interstices that shifts the narrative of their lives.

The usual American migration story focuses on the immigrant struggle to succeed and prosper in their new home. There’s not much about the longings of exile, how their lost home can be like a missing limb, an aching void, an itch that can’t be scratched. Palacio’s The Mortifications not only recognizes that aching emptiness, he sends the exiles home to scratch their itch.

Prompted by the letter, Isabel disappears. It’s obvious to everyone that she went to Cuba and when Soledad gets breast cancer, she sends Ulises to Cuba to look for her. This is the third section, The Sea. When the book begins in The Land, Ulises does not believe in fate. When The Sea begins, Ulises recognizes he was fated to return. Eventually, so are Soledad and Henri, all coming together with Isabel and Uxbal, not so much to answer questions, find resolution or solve anything at all, really, but to pose the eternal, unknowable questions of fate, family, love, knowing and unknowing and what does it really matter. In the end, the twins Ulises and Isabel struggle with the question of what people need to know of their lives, what must be told and what must not be told and find different answers.

The Mortifications is an excellent, engrossing and deeply moving novel. Palacio has an ability to write you deeply into a scene so you feel the wind, the heat, hear the sounds and smell the bouquet or the stench. There is a lot of stench, but you won’t care. You will sink into his book and not come up for air. I don’t recommend trying to read a chapter or two before bed because you will find yourself at 4 a.m. wondering where the night went.

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes

Holmes offers truly interesting and entertaining examples as he illustrates many different ways of knowing. So many insights in this book. Each chapter covers a different aspect of knowing. Ideas are clear and well presented. Great balance of explanation and example. An enjoyable, educational, and ultimately useful read!

As Holmes points out, this book has much to offer in this age, “Estimates are that 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last five years. We’re drowning in information, a reality that makes even the simplest decisions – where to eat, which health plan to sign up for, which coffee maker to buy – more fraught… Managing uncertainty is fast becoming an essential skill.”
Holmes offers the following summary of his book: “Part 1 will lay the groundwork. We’ll explore the trade-offs inherent in our mental machinery and meet a young psychologist in the Netherlands who is leading a vanguard movement toward a new, unified theory of how we make sense of the world. Part 2 focuses on the hazards of denying ambiguity. We’ll look at the differences between wise and hasty reactions to destabilizing events, watch a master FBI negotiator deal with an ambivalent cult leader, and see how a cancer patient’s comfort with uncertainly is helping change the ways that we make medical decisions. We’ll also learn how one business readies for the future by acknowledging the futility of predicting it… We’ll explore how to handle ambiguity in daily life, especially in stressful situations or those that require an immediate response. When we are under pressure, our urgent search for patterns and our dogmatic approval of ideals can play out with dramatic consequences. Guarding against the pitfalls of the most powerful feelings of uncertainly in our lives means coming to grips with how our minds wrestle with ambiguity under hardship… Part 3 highlights the benefits of ambiguity in settings where we’re more challenged than threatened: innovation, learning, and art. What are the uses of uncertainly? How can teachers better prepare students for unpredictable challenges? Can embracing uncertainty help us invent, look for answers in new places, and even deepen our empathy? We’ll see how a Grand Prix motorcycle manufacturer responded to a surprisingly dismal season, and we’ll get to know a Massachusetts inventor who pushes beyond the hidden limitations of language. We’ll look at the advantages of bilingualism and meet a daring filmmaker in Jerusalem. Along the way, I’ll hope to convince you of a simple claim: in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IG, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”

Since, at least at the time of this review, Amazon doesn’t offer a preview of this book, here’s the contents:
Part 1: Making Sense
CH 1 – The Resolving Mind: how sense making works
CH 2 – The Hidden A’s: the secrets of sense making
Part 2: Handling Ambiguity
CH 3 – Shocks and Tremors: the problem with urgency
CH 4 – Fifty Days in Texas: why intentions are misread
CH 5 – Overtested USA: when to resist momentum
CH 6 – The Hemline Hassle: a strategy of ignorance
Part 3: Embracing Uncertainty
CH 7 – Building a Better Ducati: the uses of uncertainty
CH 8 – The Puzzle Man: where to find hidden answers
CH 9 – The Art of Contradiction: what diversity offers

Holmes has so much to offer in this book that can help individuals grow, that can strengthen relationships, and that can help businesses and causes. Highly recommended!

Food52 A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead by Amanda Hesser

A great cookbook for looking ahead for the week. I like the sound of prepping for only a few hours on the weekend and having enough meals for the week. Personally, my problem is I don’t plan that far enough ahead of time, some of these ingredients I haven’t heard of before and sometimes if I eat something too often I tend to get sick of it even if it is made into something completely different.

However, putting aside my personal cooking problems this cookbook is laid out really well. The pictures are gorgeous and there are definitely recipes that I will try but I would probably cook them as individual recipes until I am ready to tackle the week at a time approach. Now the only problem is deciding which recipe to start with because they all sound delicious.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology byJohnjoe McFadden

his is a well-written book on a complex topic. I was fascinated by the description of how photosynthesis in plants is a quantum mechanical process. So much that we can learn from the dissection of this process. Likewise, the analysis of how human’s smell – the electro-chemical and quantum transport of data into an interpretation within the brain. And, the brain as a possible quantum computer – a neural network using quantum entanglement to integrate neuron based data into a human (mechanical) function but also consciousness. This is leading-edge – the intersection of biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, quantum mechanics, and life. Thank you Professors McFadden and Al-Khalili.

The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen

This little book is gorgeous. If you like Scandinavian art this it’s one for your book collection. The work of illustrator Sanna Annukka was very inspirational. The short story, is kinda cool, but it’s not for everyone. I loved the complexity and clever message of Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Little Mermaid, but the intended message of The Fur Tree (“Enjoy Your Youth”) isn’t as helpful in this day and age. The Buddist-y undertones are intense for both kids and adults alike who already worry too much, but I enjoyed discussing the story with other people, so all together I’d say it’s worth purchasing.

Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino

If you ever wanted to serve aboard the space shuttle, read this book. Vicariously become an astronaut in training, be picked for space shuttle teams and repair the Hubble, the most intricate telescope in the known universe.

Oh, and complete multiple degrees, throw out the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game and be a parent, a spouse, a good friend.

The author dedicated himself to overcoming obstacles, facing fears and accepting risks in order to be an integral part of the NASA team. His words gave me an insider’s view of the process.

Because of this book, I explored space. And no, that is not science fiction.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

Most people who have some knowledge about the Holocaust are familiar with the existence of Auschwitz a network of German Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II. Over one million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. The average person assumes that Auschwitz was the oldest and most notorious killing center. Timothy Snyder in his book BLACK EARTH makes the reader aware of the fact that during the Holocaust most of the Jews were shot before Auschwitz began systematically gassing Jews. The Jews were murdered over pits by the German invaders of Poland in 1939, as well as by Ukrainian collaborators. Thousands of locals witnessed those massacres as narrated in THE HOLOCAUST BY BULLETS by Father Patric Desbois. It is imperative for contemporary and future generations to be informed about every aspect of WW II and be able to refute Holocaust deniers.
To me, as a victim of the Holocaust, most episodes in the book are reminiscent of my own observations and personal travails. I saw people collapsing and dying from hunger. I saw Germans looting, expropriating, beating, torturing, shooting and hanging. Being exposed, for over five years, to such inexorable pattern of cruelty, I still carry physical and mental scars of the Holocaust. I feel the Holocaust through the marrow of my bones. I may wear today nice suits; I cannot forget the striped uniforms I had to wear in concentration camp. The travails during my adolescence shaped my life (recorded in my autobiography From a Name to a Number.)
BLACK EARTH, is very well written and brilliantly authoritative. It quickly engrosses the reader into a sad chronology of horrific events under the yokes of Stalin and Hitler, tyrants of the 20th century. It is supplementing Bloodlands. BLACK EARTH is a tour de force for anybody interested in history.

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

What happens after we die is the great question that everyone has an answer to because everyone wonders about it and anyone’s answer is as good as anyone else’s. Many religions are built to varying degrees on the comfort that something does happen after death, and the something is going to be fun and happy. Religions come and go. In the years after World War I, spiritualism had a great following. Getting in touch with the spirits on the other side was something like tuning a radio to the right station, a metaphor from an engineering gadget that had been brought forth by practical science. Indeed, finding those spirits was likened to a scientific endeavor; Thomas Edison proposed to construct a valve that would amplify the transmissions from what the spiritualists called “Summerland.” Another scientific endeavor would be simply to investigate the mediums who said they were talking to, or manifesting actions from, spirit sources. _Scientific American_ set up a panel to investigate mediums, and got some impressive results. _The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World_ (Crown Publishers) is about the most impressive results. It is written by David Jaher, and this is his first book. It is a surprise to read about him that he has been a professional astrologer, and in his acknowledgement pages, he thanks someone without whose help “I would still be reading natal charts, rather than writing books, for a living.” Jaher indeed believes in psychic phenomena, but even readers who are more skeptical will have no difficulty in enjoying his engrossing story of a scientific foray into the spirit world.

_Scientific American_ was ready in 1923 to put up money as a reward for real psychic displays, $2,500. Scientists can be fooled by magicians, but magicians are less likely to be fooled, and so Houdini was part of the investigating committee, which found a lot of frauds. Then the committee discovered the spooky effects wrought by Mina Crandon. (For the investigation she was given the pseudonym Margery, but her identity became public in the middle of things.) She was a vivacious blonde, married to an older man who was a respected surgeon in Boston. Her effects were astounding, with galloping tables and objects flying through the air, all while Margery’s limbs were being held or restrained. Houdini had respect for a fine display of magic, but not one in which the performer claimed to be aided by the spirit world. He found that Margery had the slickest ruses he had seen, and while a particular séance impressed all the other attendees, he pronounced it, “All fraud – every bit of it.” He could reproduce all the effects himself, he said, without any supernatural assistance. And he did so, in his stage shows, as part of his debunking crusade. The truth is, though, that he may have met his match in Margery. Although he did expose her methods, at the last session he attended, he said he could duplicate what he had seen, but he never did. Margery and her promoter husband thought this was a victory.

The prize, however, was not awarded. There was infighting among members of the committee, but no agreement overall that Margery’s effects were supernatural. Never fulfilled were the hopes of people like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that science would verify visitations from the other side and that spiritualism would be the religion to overtake all other beliefs. The world moved on from the dizziness of the Jazz Age to the grimness of the Great Depression, and the fad for séances waned. So did the newspaper publicity; Boston and national papers were wild about Margery and then fashions changed and she was forgotten. _Scientific American_ no longer has a prize to give a genuine psychic, but spiritualists have not been able to claim the analogous prize maintained by Randi. The Margery vs Houdini duel was a sensation in its time, and has been brought back here in full, in a funny, dramatic retelling fair to both sides, and to their considerable egos and those of the rest of the investigators.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alex Kershaw

Despite not being especially naive or uninformed, it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly cruel, cowardly, and monstrous humans can be. It also amazes me how brave and generous they can be. This book showed both sides of that human-nature coin.

The author writes of the time of the German invasion of France during WWII, and of the avenue of spies, a very affluent neighborhood in Paris where some of the worst of the worst that Germany had to offer took over the homes. And the story of an amazingly brave American, Sumner Jackson, and his courageous wife, Toquette, and son, Phillip, who lived cheek by jowl with these same monsters, and who were unflinching part of the resistance.

It is always appalling to see how easily France at that time just rolled over and showed their underbelly to the Germans invading their city, and how many of their political and governmental leaders collaborated with the enemy. “That night the lights did not go on in Paris. The unthinkable had happened. The Nazis had taken over without a shot being fired.” DeGaulle “implored patriotic Frenchmen to join him in London and continue to fight the Germans.” In London. And yet on D-Day, when the Allies were saving France, “From Vichy, Marshal Petain called for all patriotic Frenchmen to remain neutral. French blood, he stressed, was too precious to be wasted in this fight.” “The French were to play no part in liberating themselves.”

The bravery, cunning, and perseverance of the members of the resistance, both French and non-French, is in start contrast. Phillip, as re reminisces, was a boy and then a man with never a chance to be an adolescent.

Author Kershaw pulls no punches in describing the horrors of the time. However, this is a relatively short book, not drawn out, and it packs a wallop in less than 250 pages of text, not counting notes and bibliography.

<spoiler, if there can be a spoiler in historical nonfiction> Phillip who went on to live a long life and continued to enjoy hunting, amassing big game “trophies.” It also amazes and saddens me that someone who has seen so much death and cruelty in his life can inflict the same on animals who want nothing but to be left alone to live their lives.

I guess we never will learn.

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