The Waayyy Behind Book Club – August 2022

Welcome back to the third edition of the Waayyy Behind Book Club. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month. Let me know if any of these books appeal to you and I can tell you more. If you’ve already read one of them, let me know your opinion. I’d love to hear it. And if you’re currently reading a book that you just can’t put down, I want to know more! I’m always looking for my next great read.

The first book I read this month is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Many years ago, I read his book Black Swan Green, and really loved it. It was about a boy in a small UK town who was struggling to make sense of, and overcome a bout of bullying. I don’t remember many of the details, but I remember thinking it was sensitively and intelligently written.

Fast forward a few more years, and I saw a trailer for the film Cloud Atlas, based on another book written by David Mitchell. It starred Tom Hanks, one of my favourite actors, so I immediately wanted to know more! I saw the film, but was mightily confused. There seemed to be a lot going on that I didn’t quite understand. I was still moved by the film, as it has a rewarding ending, but thought perhaps it had been adapted poorly.

Well, having now read the book, I would say the book is also confusing! There are questions that are never answered. It’s a bit mysterious – just like life, I guess. The ending still moved me to tears, but I don’t know if the confusion in the middle makes it entirely worth it. In short, although I like the final message of the book and the film, I’d give it a pass.

The second book I read this month is Enlightenment Now by Stephen Pinker. I read his previous book, The Better Angels of our Nature a number of years ago, and was compelled by all the graphs and data he provided. He makes a strong argument that, contrary to popular belief, life is getting better, safer, and less violent for the majority of us humans. Whenever I talk about this book, I am bombarded with blank looks, disbelief, or outright hostility. But the numbers speak for themselves.

Think about the days of, say, the Irish famine in the 1850’s. Poor Irish farmers were dying in the streets and the rest of the world simply shrugged its shoulders and went on with their lives. Could that even happen today? No! It would be reported all over the news. People would be sending in donations to help the Irish poor. The British government that decided not to help would be declared monstrous. That’s the difference! That’s what’s changed. Does this mean we now live in some kind of utopia? No. Does it mean that something like this will never happen again in some other country? No. But it does mean that, over the decades and centuries, we’ve gradually become better people. We’ve learned to care more about others. We may not be perfect, but deaths like this now weigh more heavily on our consciences. They are now cause for outrage, not indifference.

In Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker provides more graphs and more data. He refutes some arguments about the research in his previous book. And again, he holds out hope, this time showcasing the Enlightenment ideas of reason, science and humanism. Once again, he shows far we’ve come as a species. He does not deny that there are problems ahead – global warming that threatens to make our planet unlivable, the rise of authoritarian leaders like Putin and Trump, who threaten democratic principles, the rise of misinformation that threatens the very idea of truth itself.

Maybe he is too optimistic, but he believes that we can overcome these problems just as we’ve overcome all our problems before. We just need to stick to the data and follow where it leads. He insists that ensuring everyone has a democratic voice is essential, no matter how messy decision-making becomes. He shows that we need to continue to provide opportunities for the less fortunate, even if that means greater use of fossil fuels in Third World countries. He holds up nuclear power as the solution to all our energy woes. If any of this doesn’t make sense to you, I challenge you to read the book for and then get back to me. We can talk. 🙂

The third book I read this month was The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. I found it an intriguing title, and the book description also called to me. It is essentially a book about place and time. Using a single home as a backdrop, it explores all the lives that filtered into and out of it over the decades and centuries, their lives connecting and overlapping in mysterious ways. The clockmaker’s daughter is the main character, and her story is also the most intriguing. I liked the book and enjoyed the dreamy dip into the waters of time, but wouldn’t say I loved it.

The fourth book this month is Thieves of State, by Sarah Chayes. Chayes started out as a reporter for NPR. After the initial invasion of Afghanistan in the early 2000’s, she decided to move there and help support the country as best she could by setting up a soap-making business. She learned how the country works, as well as how to speak the local language, and ended up as a policy advisor to several US administrations as the years went on. Her thesis is that government corruption is the main issue whenever you are trying to support a fledgling democracy. If you don’t tackle corruption, then fighting and terrorism will never cease, because that is how people seek justice. If justice cannot be found through a government system, people will take revenge in their own way, typically through violence. I found it an interesting hypothesis and, based on her supporting data, I’m inclined to believe her.

Finally, I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I had heard good things about this book for years, and have always thought Patchett was a fantastic author. The book did not disappoint. It’s about a terrorist attack in Peru that went awry, and it’s based on true events. The idea is: what happens when a group of terrorists and their hostages are holed up together for too long? Patchett supposes that they become friends. They start to empathize with one another. The threat of death can no longer be carried out because the terrorists no longer want to kill anyone. This is a beautiful book about barriers and how they slowly break down with enough exposure. Barriers of language, barriers of race, barriers of class – once you remove those barriers, people are just people. Anyone who lives together for long enough can become a family. It’s an inspiring look at our potential to be kind, and to love one another.

And with that, I’ll end this month’s book discussion. If you’ve read any of these books and would like to comment, please do. Until next time, happy reading!

About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

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