Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.10

The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells. Old timey sci fi is kinda wordy. That said, it’s really a remarkable novel with incredibly modern themes. In some of these themes, the book differs quite a bit from the old 1950s movie I watched a lot as a kid. I was absolutely struck by the portrayal of the cowardly curate, who whimpers, and wonders why god has forsaken him, and follows the unnamed narrator for lack of any better ideas of his own. He is never redeemed, and finds his end after selfishly consuming too much of their limited rations and generally losing his shit, jeopardizing the narrator in his tantrum.

Wells comes down pretty firmly on the side of science and Darwinism, and takes a kinder, gentler, less “I have dominion over all the animals of the earth” view than I would have expected from the time period. At one point, as the narrator is crawling from a hiding place after a night of attacks, he says:

Strange night! Strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place–a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity–pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion”.

There are several other instances where he compares humans to “lesser” animals and uses this as an object lesson in treating those other species with more kindness. You could even interpret a case being made for vegetarianism, or at least for more mindful eating. When discussing the anatomy of the Martians and how they eat (humans, btw), the narrator observes,

The bare idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit”.

There are also strong discussions of the presumed social order, which is inevitably turned on its head by apocalyptic events. At one point a few weeks into the invasion, a lowly infantryman is sheltering with the narrator and starts telling the narrator what he sees happening, what the ultimate outcome of the invasion will be on the human race, and the way he intends to survive and fight back. The soldier has clearly thought about this in detail and has come up with some very good working theories and ideas, and he stands in stark contrast to the curate, and even to the narrator who is still wandering somewhat aimlessly at this point.

The narrator is struck by this and says,

In the days before the invasion no one would have questioned my intellectual superiority to his–I, a professed and recognised writer on philosophical themes, and he, a common soldier; and yet he had already formulated a situation that I had scarcely realised.

All in all I was surprised by how progressive many of the themes in the book were, but upon reflection, I think that was foolish of me. Science fiction often allows for the exploration of ideas that may push society to think beyond the status quo; that is one of the things that I find so appealing about it.

Definitely worth the read as one of the seminal works of science fiction, and really a bloody good story in its own right. Plus, there’s the added juvenile humor value in the language differences between our two times and places. My favorite example is presented in a portion of the book talking about the experience of the narrator’s brother, who was in London during the invasion and attack: “His landlady came to the door, loosely wrapped in dressing gown and shawl; her husband followed ejaculating.”

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain. I’m really not quite sure what to make of this book. On the one hand, Twain challenges the concepts of slavery and class structures, and takes issue with the notion that the historical monarchical system of government in England was ever any good for the majority of its citizens. On the other hand, it could be difficult to slog through in many parts.

Getting through large sections of the book was difficult for two reasons. First, were the lengthy sections when Hank was relaying what the medieval people were saying in their own voices; the sections when Hank was speaking as himself were quite easy to read and full of good humor, but these other parts didn’t flow very well and became difficult to follow. I found it telling that Twain even stopped trying to use this technique about halfway through, and relayed what other people were saying in a more modern voice. This wasn’t the same as when people actually began to modernize their speech and talk like Hank, which did happen nearer the end of the book; Hank actually said, in effect, “I’ll just tell their part of the story in a more modern voice now because it’s easier.” I wonder if even Twain got tired of the effort.

The other thing that made it a challenge were the long sections where Sandy, Hank’s groupie, was allowed to drone on and on. It was part of her character that she would talk for great stretches of time in run-on sentences that would last for a few pages. But when even your narrator says, after one such stretch, that he had totally zoned out on what she had been saying, you’d better believe I did! Perhaps there is great brilliance in these sections, just waiting for someone who is able to concentrate on it, that would explain why Twain felt the need to actually write pages and pages of Sandy-speak instead of just a few sentences about how she droned on. But any such meaning will have to wait for someone with more fortitude.

I also frequently wondered if Hank was actually in an asylum. This initial thought was brought on by the beginning of the book, when Hank was apparently passing through time, and he wondered if Camelot was the name of the asylum. I kept waiting for that to be the big reveal at the end of the book.

Instead the book ended fairly inexplicably to me. Throughout the whole thing, Merlin had been shown to be a charlatan with no actual magical powers, always made to look the fool in light of Hank’s “magic”, which was all science and engineering. How Merlin was suddenly able to pull a Rip van Winkle on Hank was very perplexing indeed.

One part worth calling out for its sheer brilliance, though, was when Clarence, Hank’s protégé, was responding to Hank’s desire for a bloodless revolution followed by the birth of a Republic. Clarence thought that there would still have to be a hereditary monarchy because people such as they, who have known the joy of worshiping a monarch, couldn’t possibly live without one. Hank cautioned that kings were dangerous. Clarence said,

then have cats. He was sure that a royal family of cats would answer every purpose. They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and the same treacheries, the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats, they would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive

Yes, that idea definitely speaks to me.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and I did enjoy Twain’s humor to a large degree, but I don’t think this particular book will rank as my favorite of his works.

A People’s History of Quebec – Jacques Lacoursiere and Robin Philpot. On a long drive to Santa Cruz, a Québécois friend gave me a 15-minute crash course on the history of French-Canadians and Quebec. I tried to keep up, but she was moving very quickly and was quite passionate about it, so I’m sure I missed some of the finer details; plus her rapid movement through the political landscape undoubtedly skipped some points. A couple of days later a daily ebook deal appeared for this title, and I thought “what the heck”. Should the unthinkable happen on Election Day, I should start learning things about my to-be-adopted country anyway.

The history is interesting, but this is not a well-written book. It may have been translated from French, so some of the strange sentence structure could be a bit excused by that, but it really isn’t just that. Minor details appear in randomly placed paragraphs that take away from the flow of the historical narrative; actually, there is very little “narrative” anyway, with a disjointed text that moves awkwardly from time point to time point. Although some seemingly minor moments are emphasized, other big questions seem to remain unanswered.

I’ll admit, there were points when I was skimming the text because it wasn’t flowing well, or didn’t seem to be covering a major point (I didn’t really need a list of the menu items Quebecers usually ate), so I may have missed it, but one big example of an unanswered question was – why didn’t the Québécois join with British colonists in America in the Revolutionary War? The French had already handed Quebec over to the British, much to the Québécois’ dismay, and the book made it clear that the Continental Congress specifically called upon Quebec to join the fight, something I hadn’t known about before. But I never saw an answer to why Quebec chose not to. I can make a few guesses based upon other information imparted throughout the book, but in the text’s treatment of the American Revolution, the war was just suddenly over with no further discussion of whether or not Quebec would participate.

One point that I found particularly interesting was the book’s take on Catholicism, the religion of the French-Canadians. The basic point was that the Catholic Church believed that all authority was endowed by God; therefore, questioning any authority was questioning God’s will. So, even though the transfer of Quebec from French to British rule jeopardized the practice of Catholicism in the region, the church still maintained that Quebecers should respect British authority.

One particularly cringe-worthy quote was from Thomas Cook, Bishop of Trois-Rivières, in response to the continued opposition by the leader of the Liberal Party to the 1867 Canadian Confederation:

Now that the bill has been sanctioned by the Imperial government and has become the fundamental law of the country, we must remember that our duty as Catholics is to put an end to all discussion about it.

I mean Jeezum. It’s no wonder I was never able to connect with Catholicism.

I have not heard this interpretation of things before, perhaps because I grew up after Vatican II and maybe things changed then, but I have to be honest, it explains a lot. The power of hierarchical authority (parents above children, husband above wife, and State above citizens) certainly plays into the acceptance of Church above all, doesn’t it? I mean seriously wow. I was never really a player, but I haven’t participated in or studied anything related to Catholicism since I was maybe 15 or 16, so any comments from my more knowledgeable friends and family to verify or call this interpretation into question are welcome.

At any rate, I could certainly see this as being the reason Quebec didn’t join the American Revolution – that the priests bid them to obey the authority of the British government – but the book didn’t discuss these things in relation to each other, so I’m just connecting potential dots.

One funny bit was in the section talking about sending troops to South Africa to support Britain in the Second Boer War. Henri Bourassa, a representative in the House of Commons, wanted Prime Minister Laurier, a fellow Québécois, to take into account the opinion of French-Canadians who were opposed to any Canadian participation in the war. The Prime Minister replied:

My dear Henri, the province of Quebec has no opinions, it only has feelings.

Ha! Definitely a reflection of the passion with which my friend spoke about French-Canadian history in the car.

In any case, if you’re interested in the history of Quebec, I suggest finding another book, because this one just isn’t very well-done.

Raccoons: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Them but Were Too Busy Cleaning Up Their Mess to Ask – Jim Rankin. I found this short ebook for free a while back and didn’t realize exactly how short it was. It’s actually just more of a particularly long news magazine article like you’d find in a Wired or Slate feature. It took me all of one commute to read it, but it was quite charming anyway. It focuses on the urban raccoon population in Toronto, which may rightly be called the raccoon capital of the world. It was framed around an interview with the woman who did the fantastic National Geographic program, Raccoon Nation.

It’s definitely a fun read, that imparts some, but not much, natural history information. It’s well-done for what it is and I recommend it to my fellow raccoonophiles. Just don’t expect much more than a raccoon-interest story.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot. I was continually floored by this book. It is so many different things. Obviously it’s a history of genetic and cell culture science, and Skloot does a good job conveying the information so it’s accessible to non-scientists. But this is not a scientific story with a human interest slant; this is story about our society framed by a specific scientific line of study. It’s a history of paternalism in the medical field and the relatively recent development of concepts of bioethics, patient privacy, and informed consent. I was frequently stunned not just by the attitudes of the doctors in the 1950s, but by their continued lack of understanding of the patient’s family even when Skloot was interviewing them in the modern day.

It’s a study of racism and our society, and the failures of the education system to reach some segments of the population. It’s the story of overwhelming poverty; the descriptions of Lacks Town in the 2000s are right out of the developing world.

And just when I thought I had gotten all the aspects of the ways the medical and scientific community had failed the Lacks family, I was suddenly struck by the fact that it’s also the story of a motherless daughter, as Deborah, Henrietta’s surviving daughter, tries desperately to know and understand what happened to the mother she can’t even remember.

You will learn science and medical history, but it’s the story of Henrietta, her family, and our society that really comes through in Skloot’s narrative, and it’s a story that was ignored for decades by the thousands of people who worked with HeLa cells.

The end of the book does focus a bit too much on Henrietta’s descendants, at least in terms of how the rest of the book is structured. I wish that when Skloot was creating her book outline she had left a little bit more of the story that focused on Henrietta herself and on the scientific impact of her cells to weave into the final chapters. But that’s a pretty minor complaint in the grand scheme of the importance of this story.

So much more than a work of popular science. Really an important read.

Skloot’s Afterword covers a lot of ground in terms of the ethical questions that remain to this day surrounding the use of patient tissues in research, when consent should be required, and issue of possible remuneration to patients whose tissues turn out to be a gold mine. Skloot notes that most people don’t really want to become rich off of their removed appendix, but do wish there was a bit more of an acknowledgement of the importance of the individual people behind the tissues. Personally, I don’t need to have my name attached to a tissue sample, but if my tissues suddenly became invaluable to medical science, I would certainly want to have access to health insurance that would adequately cover my health care needs, and this is something that the Lacks family continues to lack.

While reading the Afterword, it occurred to me that the commercialization of tissues could be a great way to fund a national health service. If all human tissues and related cell lines that are currently being sold by private companies could belong to the Federal government, the money from the sale of those products to drug companies, scientists, and other researchers could help ensure all Americans had adequate health care. There are a lot of details that would have to be carefully worked out (not least of which would be the people who insisted the government was creating a biometric database of every American – guess what? Your tissues are already being used in the way I’d be proposing.).

Possibly most importantly, you’d want to protect against a Hyde Amendment type of restriction on the types of research for which the cell lines could be used. The same restrictions that would normally apply if it were a private business would need to apply to the public entity, with access available to any scientist conducting legal and ethical research. Would it be a Quasi-Public Corporation that runs itself like a business, like Fannie Mae? Or would it make more sense to leave the products in the hands of private entities, but apply a surcharge to all sales that would be paid to the government health system account?

Maybe this is naïve, but I think most people would be okay with not making a lot of money on their extracted tumor if they knew it was being used to fund their and other people’s continuing coverage. Just a thought to throw out there.