The Martian

After some history books it was time for the future. Since the future is unwritten, it was time for fiction. The Martian was pretty great. I like Mark, and he was able to surprise me throughout the book. Other than being left behind on Mars he was pretty lucky. At one point, when he thinks he’s really going to be able to go home, he talks about how it’ll be strange to heave his home, and I thought, “oh no, here comes the PTSD.”

 

 

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Unbroken

Every time I read a story of survival I’m amazed at what people can put up with and still come out the other side. Unbroken is both a biography and a story of survival. Louis Zamperini’s pre-war life is amazing enough: he was an uncontrollable kid born to an immigrant family, the town troublemaker turned star olympic athlete, and even thief of a flag from Hitler’s house, (a little bit of the troublemaker stuck around).

During the war Zamperini’s bomber had to ditch into the Pacific, but he survived the crash then he and his pilot set a record for time alive in a rubber raft before ending up in the Japanese POW system. Louis seemed to be able to adapt to whatever environment he was in: School, the Army Air Force, a raft, POW camps, and eventually home, (which might have been the toughest). During the war, at least, he made sure to prepare himself for any possible situation, especially the possibility of having to survive at sea, by learning as much as possible.

Unbroken was published in 2010. It may be one of the last great biographies of the greatest generation, and the last war stories that relies on first-hand accounts. In writing Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand was able to interview many of the people featured in the book. By the time the book was published most of those survivors were gone, today I believe they all are.

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Give a Sh*t

This isn’t the first environmental book I have read, so there wasn’t a ton of material that I hadn’t already read or heard somewhere, but Give a Sh*t is an easy read, and it’s been a while since I read many of those other books so this was a good reminder how little some of what we do makes sense.

Ms. Piper is a strong believer in veganism yet maintains an encouraging attitude of “do as much as you can” throughout the book without coming across as judgemental as many proponents of veganism do. I had forgotten just how much of a climate change impact animal production has on the world, and while I enjoy a good BLT it should be a luxury, not my staple diet. Give a Sh*t got me thinking more about the food we eat, and the way animal-based food production has changed over the past century makes me angry. Yes, we get more food output per food input than we did a hundred years ago, but we have externalized so much of food production that it’s not a true comparison. At one point animals were a part of a full system on a farm: they are able to dispose of by-products of grain and vegetable production, provide nutritious food, (especially at times of the year when we might be running out of plant-based food), and make fertilizer that helps grow grains and vegetables. The modern food production system has turned this on its head: we use synthetic fertilizers to grow grains to feed animals, then have to dispose of their “by-products” somehow. By prioritizing meat and dairy society has taken what should be a self-reinforcing system of production and turned it into something with many inputs and externalities. The concept of “oil needed to produce a pound of beef” seems wrong, yet it is something measurable.

From an animal welfare side we have mucked up the system as well. Eating meat means killing animals, and eating dairy means taking milk that should probably be going to a baby animal, and we can choose how we feel about eating those products. But eggs are a by-product of a hen’s life. Hens don’t need roosters to produce eggs, and eating an egg doesn’t have to mean we’re snuffing out a potential life. On the 100-years-ago farm chickens would eat bugs & leftovers around the farm, and we would get tasty eggs as a by-product. Today egg-laying hens are caged indoors for their entire lives in horrible little boxes, so a formerly a guilt-free delicious food has become something that causes animal abuse.

Back to the book: Ms. Piper goes through great ways to live well without having a huge impact on the world, and her lists of brands that offer Give a Sh*t compatible products seem like a great resource.

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Dead Wake

As for submarines, I have no fear of them whatever.
Charles Sumner, New York agent for Cunard lines, May 1 1915

It wasn’t heralded as an unsinkable ship like the Titanic three years before, but the Lusitania was marketed as so fast that submarines couldn’t catch it, and even if they could, it was believed that it was so strong that submarines couldn’t sink it. The note I made when reading this quote was “Titanic all over again” and again, over a thousand people would die in part because of the hubris of a shipping company and crew. The position of the German government couldn’t be more clear – the embassy took out an ad in the New York Times – travelling by ship, especially by British ship, into the war zone around Great Britain, was risky, yet 1,266 passengers and 696 crew, as well as Cunard Lines and the British Admiralty, (which was in charge of civilian shipping because of the war), decided it was worth the risk.

Or maybe the Admiralty wanted something to happen. With the years that have passed formerly secret information has revealed that they knew that U-20 was in the area, had an alternate, safer, route available, and had destroyers in nearby harbours that could available to escort the Lusitania to port, yet they didn’t tell the captain that the alternate route was available, left the escorts in port, and provided very little, and often contradictory, information to captain of the ship about U-boat activity in the area, despite two ships being sunk the day before in the same area. There is correspondence, (read the book for details!), suggesting some of the people in power in Britain felt that some sort of incident to prompt the USA to join the first world war would be a good thing. There’s nothing showing clear intent to leave the Lusitania exposed with the hope that she would be sunk, but the leap isn’t hard to make.

Some other tidbits that I learned:

  • Captain Georg von Trapp of the Sound of Music fame was a U-boat captain in the first world war.
  • There’s a video of the final departure from New York. We can see Captain Turner on the bridge.
  • Cunard tickets did not identify babies by name, “possibly out of quiet resentment that they traveled free” – just like Air Canada!
  • It’s fascinating how people from all over North America were on the ship. There was a medical student at McGill University, and a reverend from Rossland, BC, among others.

One thing that I expected, and hoped for, was more detailed coverage and analysis of the inquests and attempted blame-shifting that happened after the sinking. I actually expected another whole part of the book to take a deep dive into the inquests and reasons why the Admiralty acted as they did, but that didn’t happen. We learn the inquests happened, the positions of several participants, and the general outcome, but the depth I expected never materialized.

 

 

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Career of Evil

The third Cormoran Strike novel is more gruesome than the first two, closer to Tess Gerritsen than the first two novels, and a lot of the quaintness is gone. The story is still good, and the mystery works well and I didn’t feel like I had figured it out too far ahead of time.

Interestingly, Strike has an epiphany and connects some very remotely related facts, ultimately solving the mystery, while he’s extremely sleep-deprived, which I recently learned is an undesirable condition in for someone who wants to make connections across wide arrays of facts.

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