Some thoughts on the books I read. Most recent book at the top.
I like fantasy and science-fiction, but also autobiographies and reading about what life is like for other people.
An Accident of Stars (Foz Meadows)
This is fantasy, but it hits different than the usual fantasy books, as in it feels way more real. The author doesn't shy away from describing her characters experiencing trauma, giving them scars even if there is magical healing.
It's about an Australian white girl finding suddenly herself in another world, so we see with her eyes how the society there is different: for example her inner dialogue when she realizes that she has trouble to see the country's queen as a queen because she's black, and her fighting back against this racist habit. This was something I found a bit awkward: there are condemnations of racism, sexual assault, transphobia, and psychophobia, but mostly inside characters' inner thoughts or as dialogues between the heroin and other characters, where it sounds somewhat forced and written explicitly as a lesson to the reader. I do approve the message though, and it only happened a couple of times. Other messages are shown less explicitly: for example queer and polyamorous relationship are normal in this new country.
All in all I loved the book and immediately jumped to the next one, because the ending broke my heart, and I couldn't leave it at that.
Als ich vom Himmel fiel (Juliane Koepcke)
This was an autobiography, written in German. She grew up in Peru in the 1960s, partly in the rainforest where her parents, German researchers, were studying biodiversity. After her high school graduation in Lima, she and her mother took a plane back to the forest. It was hit by lightning in a thunderstorm and crashed. She fell from 3 km high above the forest, attached to her seat. She wasn't the only one to survive the crash, but she's the only one who then made it out of the forest by walking for 11 days while the rescue operations were unable to locate the plane.
She's telling the story mixed with describing the present, when she goes back to Peru after a long while, to try to get the village in the rainforest as a protected area. I had never heard of her, an I didn't know much about Peru either — nothing more than what I learned up about the Incas when I was 10 and a fan of The Mysterious Cities of Gold. I suppose I got a better feeling for the country now, for what the rainforest is like, and what it does to suddenly be famous for being the sole survivor of a traumatic event.
Objective Morality, Based on Scientific and Rational Reasoning (Eugene Khutoryansky)
This is not actually a book, but a website. But since I downloaded it in ebook format to read it more easily, I'll count it as a book. Here's the original:
The introduction explains that he's going to try to prove the existence of an objective morality, independent of any culture or religion. He defines moral or immoral actions as actions made or not made, with the intent to benefit or harm others, even not necessarily exclusively (there can be a part of self-interest). He argues that although some consider that altruistic actions don't exist because they make people feel good about themselves and are thus not altruistic, some actions can't be explained by self-interest, for example sacrificing one's life for others in a sudden enough way that one doesn't have the time to feel proud about it. He's going to try to explain why one should behave morally without making any appeal to religion, rewards or punishments.
In the second part, he tries to show that an objective morality exists, just in the simplest case of "one shouldn't inflict suffering on others just for fun". Suffering can't be defined without defining consciousness, and we don't know where consciousness comes from. But even if living beings are only a bunch of atoms following the rules of physics, since consciousness is apparently able to emerge from it, it's not impossible to imagine that morality also emerges from it.
We don't understand where suffering comes from in the same way that we don't understand where gravity comes from and only have gradually better approximations to it, but we can understand how it works in the same way that our approximated theory are good enough to predict what will happen to a rock thrown in the air. We have experienced suffering, thus we understand what it is, and so we know that it is wrong for others to make us suffer for no reason. As we currently assume for physical laws, a morality law should be invariant, so it would also be wrong for us to inflict suffering on others. The hardest part is to recognize whether someone / something is experiencing suffering, because it can't be proved. But we know how our suffering manifests, so when we can see the same manifestations in others, it's reasonable to assume they are suffering too.
In the third part, assuming that an objective morality does exists, he discusses how to determine what it is. For example, if killing for entertainment is wrong, what about killing someone to stop them from killing others? The same way that the law of gravity gives different results in different settings, the law of morality does too.
He explains that determining the morality of an action can be done by thoughts experiments, by comparing it to other agreed moral or immoral actions (akin to building a physical theory) and seeing if there is any distinguishing characteristic making the comparisons invalid (akin to a physical experiment), and looking for flaws invalidating those distinctions. The result might turn out wrong, the same way that a physical theory might be suddenly discovered wrong. History, religions or how wide a theory is spread are not enough to make it true.
His first example is about eating animals. Assuming cannibalism is wrong, there must be a reason why eating any non-human beings is moral, while eating any human being is immoral. Pointing out that some being are humans and some are not is not sufficient as a distinguishing characteristic, because it doesn't say why they are to be treated differently. Using brains or intelligence doesn't work because it is not true for every human versus every animal. Same for arguing that the humans have people caring about them: true in average but not in every case. The animals can have been raised with the purpose of eating them, but this could also hypothetically happen to humans.
Alternatively to find a distinguishing characteristic from the immoral action of eating humans, one could try to compare to the action of eating plants, assumed to be moral. Then we need to find a distinguishing characteristic between plants and animals to prove this comparison wrong. The obvious characteristic is that animals have a consciousness and feelings while plants don't, but this needs to be proven. Another comparison would be to animals eating each other. That's where the author argues that our objective morality needs to be human-specific, and we should act morally even if others don't. Carnivorous animals eat other animals because it's their only way to survive and by hunting in a way fitting in the ecological balance. His conclusion is that only in these situations it is acceptable for humans to eat other animals.
He then argues that some things can be immoral even if they don't inflict suffering on others, for example trying and failing to harm someone, or wanting it to do it but not being able to. So there is such thing as internal morality.
In the second half of the third part, he talks about forcing one's morality on others, in particular in the form of laws. It's permissible when it's the only way to prevent them for harming others. It's more unclear when it's about harming themselves: for example we don't forbid adults to smoke, but we do children. The difference is about the person harming themselves being fully aware of all the consequences. It also depends on how forcing one's morality on others is done. He also argues that punishing criminals for vengeance is wrong, as we should behave morally independently of others' behavior.
His example is about abortion. Assuming it's wrong to kill a child but not to kill a sperm cell or an egg, the distinguishing characteristic is about consciousness. But where is the threshold separating the two in time? A newborn is conscious as it can feel, but a fertilized egg isn't. So we need a method to establish whether another being is conscious. Like suffering, it can't be explained but it can be recognized. Language, intelligence, reasoning are not good criteria. He proposes that having a central nervous system or engaging in behaviors that other conscious being have are good criteria, but they can't give an absolute certainty. Then our conclusion towards hurting a being with for example 5% probability of being conscious should be the same as our conclusion towards hurting with 5% probability a conscious being.
On the topic of war, he points out that people generally have inconsistent positions, valuing the lives of "enemy" citizens less than of people from their own country. But morality should be independent of who does the action, so one can't kill one's neighbors, foreigners shouldn't either, so reciprocally one shouldn't kill foreigners. His way of determining the morality of an act of war is to picture one's own family as the enemy soldiers that one aims to kill, because it would be inconsistent if the identity of the people changed the decision, as the lives of strangers are not less valuable.
He then proceeds to talk about whether every life has the same value. This is not to be confused with monetary value: someone's life is inherently valuable, independently of how much money anyone would pay for it. Someone's value is also different from their skills, as skills are more like possessions, they can be acquired or lost. Same about intelligence. When choosing between lives to save, it's not their value which differs, but rather how much help one can bring. He concludes that it's wrong to try to quantify the value of lives.
In the last part, he compares the compatibility of his position with some other moral frameworks, and alos concludes that he believes morality is in average increasing, like science is progressing towards describing better and better the actual physics.
My Vanishing Country (Bakari Sellers)
This is an autobiography from someone I had never heard about before. Bakari Sellers was a black kid in a rural region in the USA, who was influenced by his father's stories of political activism and surviving of the Orangeburg massacre. He grew up to be active and successful in politics while studying law, and he's currently a political commentator. He wrote about trying to make life better for both black people and rural people, being deeply touched each time black people are murdered.
I don't have much to say about this book. This political system is foreign to me, and I don't know anything about real life Bakari Sellers. But I hope he managed to help making the change he wanted.
The Birthday of the World and other stories (Ursula le Guin)
Usually I'm easily bored by short stories. The majority of the books on my reader which are “in progress” are collections of short stories that I gave up after one or two. Maybe it's because I barely have the time to understand the setting and start caring about the characters? The beginning of stories are my least favorite part, because it takes me some time to really get into it; and short stories are basically only beginnings.
But in this case this wasn't a problem. Maybe Ursula le Guin is particularly good at making readers immediately interested in a foreign world. Of the 8 stories in this book, I liked all of them from the first couple of pages on. I suppose all of them are happening somewhere in the Hainish world from her other books, so some of the stories were set on planets already known from other books. I didn't remember much of it and it was perfectly fine. Only the fourth story, “Mountain ways”, felt a bit short at the end. I didn't get was happened and it left me a bit frustrated. But otherwise, it was a good reminder why she's one of my favorite authors.
They thought they were free: the Germans, 1933-45 (Milton Mayer)
The book is written by an jewish american who went in the 1950s in Germany to interview normal people in an average village, who were members of the nazi party. He gets close enough to them that he calls them friends and tries to understand what motivated them.
Ordinary people--and ordinary Germans--cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency unless the victims are, in advance, successfully stigmatized as ennemis of the people, of the nation, the race, the religion.
So, in the body politic as in the body personnal, nonresistance to the milder indulgences paves the way for nonresistance to the deadlier.
He explains that nine of his friends embraced nazism because they promised and provided a better life for everyone they could see (as in jobs, educations, holidays, joy and hope for a better future), so that even after WW2, they don't comprehend why foreign people call the nazis evil -- for them it's only propaganda from their ennemis. The people the regime failed were kept out of sight. The tenth interviewee used to oppose the regime, but spent time in prison and then joined the party by fear of being sent back.
It is actual resistance which worries tyrants, not lack of the few hands required to do the dark work of tyranny.
So far it seems the answer to the question is complacency. Of course that doesn't apply anymore to current-day nazis; they know history and have no excuses. But it's interesting nonetheless to make a parallel with today: what is happening around us, that we don't see because we don't care to pay attention to the people who suffer from it, and everything seems fine to us? I suppose I'm guilty of that too: I do my best to not participate in anybody's oppression, but what do I do to stop it?
In the next chapters, the author goes on about how is friends were unaware of the dark side of the nazi party. Whoever knew didn't want to publicly say it and put themselves in danger, so it was mostly rumors.
So people heard rumors, and the rest they could guess. Of course, the people did not believe the stories of Jews or other opponents of the regime. It was naturally thought that such persons would all exaggerate.
It seems to me that being accused of exaggerating will still be a common experience today.
Then even the german people who believe or really knew something was going on also failed to act, because it was an additional responsibility they felt, and their personal responsibilities to their own lives came first. The author here mentions to one of his nazi friends that japanese-american people had been deported out of the US in 1942. Contrarily to the nazi, he knew about it as it was happening, and he knew that it was wrong, but he also did nothing. It's a good reminder that good intentions are not enough.
Then he describes by which mechanisms the population massively joined the party. Opponents joined it to hide or try to sabotage it from within, and partisans didn't join because they didn't have the money for the fees or their boss was anti-nazi, so that it makes no sense to cast all party members at that time as evil and the other as brave resistants.
But we know how little mass opposition to National Socialism there was prior to 1939 outside Germany, where opposition would have been less dangerous than it was within. Those who […] lived outside the system and were not its beneficiaries could see its evils better. How many of those saw them or, seeing them, raised their voices even to demand that their own governments grant refuge to the system's victims?
That's a good point about the responsibility of other countries. I'm usually a bit hesitant if it's fair to criticize what happens elsewhere, because how much can we truly know? It's easy to deflect the attention on how some other country is bad, so we must be the good ones. But I don't see any way to do wrong when helping whoever wants to get out of a place to do it safely.
In the following chapters, the author talks to another professor, who finds himself even more guilty of having done nothing because he belonged to the educated class and was supposed to know better. He explains that the changes were too progressive and insidious, so that each further step was easily accepted.
They say, “It's not so bad” or “You're seeing things” or “You're an alarmist.” And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. There are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure, or even surmise, the end? On one hand, your enemies, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic.
It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait. But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes.
The last third of the book was less interesting to me -- the point of view was too dated and specific to Germany. One specific point the author mentions is that romani people were treated even worse than the jews, but even after the war ended nobody cares.
I also regret that the only women mentioned in the whole book are silent wifes listening to their husbands' struggles. I wonder how they would have talked about what happened. Could women even be members of the nazi party? The book doesn't say a word about it.
Akata witch (Nnedi Okorafor)
This is YA fantasy set in Nigeria and it's AWESOME.
I don't have the second book yet, but I'm looking forward to it. It was published in 2017, 6 years after Akata witch, so I'm a bit worried about how long it will still take until the last book of the trilogy is out.
This is all I got (Lauren Sandler)
This one is written by a journalist who is following a year in the life of a homeless mother in the US, nicknamed Camila. I guess it would be a good read for anyone who believes meritocracy is a thing (particularly in the US but I have no doubt it's as bad in other countries).
They meet as Camila is at the end of her pregnancy and living in a homeless shelter meant for new mothers. We learn that she grew up with an absent and abusive mother herself living in poverty (but at a time where it was easier to get a government-founded apartment), and an absent father barely recognizing her. She's not homeless in the sense of living in the street, but in the sense of never meeting the conditions to get stable housing. Apparently there is a homelessness hierarchy, and people in long-term shelters do look up on people living in the street.
She dreams of studying criminal justice. She even got a grant to go in university because she's a good student. But once she has a baby for which she needs to find affordable childcare at times compatible with her studies (with hours of commuting each day), has to leave the shelter and find another place, struggles because it takes months for the paperwork for child support from the father to go through, she's several times close to having no other place to go than the street. The nuns who persuaded her to keep the baby stop providing support once the baby is actually here. She loses governmental support for reasons such as missing an appointment they forgot to warn her about. She misses exams because she needs to be at some governmental office applying for different helps.
She's the kind of person who fights relentlessly to get what she wants, takes advantage of every opportunity, has ambition. Nobody could blame her of not trying hard enough.
as I came to experience her, within and beyond her story, one thing was clear to me: If Camila couldn't use her wits and persistence to make the system work for her, no one could.
Ich bin der letzte Jude: Treblinka 1942/43 (Chil Rajchman)
[TW: description of nazis death camps]
I read this one in german. It's an autobiography from the author who was sent to the death camp of Treblinka. I had heard the name but never really cared to read what exactly was happening there.
He was deported from Poland with friends and his little sister. I guess it was close to the beginning of the camp, because while the others were already executed, the men were kept to work and continue building the facilities. He made himself useful and volunteered for works such as cutting women's hair before they were executed, extracting golden teeth afterwards, transporting the dead to mass graves, then taking them out to burn them instead when the need arise to hide the proofs of what is happening there. They were constantly whipped to work faster to keep up with the murdering of hundreds of thousands of people. After more than a year, the prisoners organized an escape. Most of the ones who made it out were found and shot in place, but he separated from his group, was hidden by farmers and managed to make it.
That was a hard read, and I don't mean because of the language. The descriptions are so gruesome it felt irreal. I don't comprehend what kind of people are able to treat other people this way.