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Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of early life
Peter Godfrey-Smith

This was Fucking Epic.

Godfrey-Smith combines two of the most awesome things in existence: cephalopods, and neurology. He takes the coolest octopus and cuttlefish and squid stories ever and pulls them together to explain the evolution of bodies, and the evolution of our minds, and theory of mind (what does it mean to be self-aware?). And my mind was blown, all the way through.

Starting with this: have you ever realised that intelligence has evolved *twice* on this planet? We know that chimps and dogs and dolphins are all pretty smart, but we all came up the same branch of the evolutionary tree, from the same evolving brains, and some species developed fancier thinking than others. And some birds are startlingly intelligent, though we split with their lineage much further back, but still, our last common ancestor was some kind of lizardy dinosaury thing, that at least had a primitive brain that helped it figure shit out to hunt or scavenge or something.

But have you ever thought about the fact that our last common ancestor with octopuses - crafty, clever, curious octopuses - was 600 million years ago, in the sea, some kind of blob with the barest beginning of a nervous system? Maybe it had two clumps of cells that could detect light. Maybe it had the means to propel itself along the sea floor like a slug. From that humble beginning, on two completely different family lines, two very different nervous systems evolved, and built complex (but different) brains. Octopuses are quite legitimately an alien intelligence. If you didn't just say 'Whoa!' out loud, then I'm afraid I just don't know how to help you.

Of course this is a long post. If you're already convinced, skip this and just buy the book before I spoil the good stuff. )

To comfort you in the meantime, here's a video of an octopus carrying around a coconut shell.

The Upside of Unrequited
Becky Albertalli
(Youth Fiction)

Where is Judy Blume these days? Right here, I tell you. This is so Judy Blume.

Molly has two moms, a more-confident twin sister, a love of Pinterest, and a new job at a store full of pretty stuff.

Everyone else seems so comfortable in their skin, and their cool clothes, talking about bikini waxes and sex stuff, like they all figured out how to grow up while she was off in the bathroom or something. Molly has crushes all the time, thinks constantly about kissing or being with someone, even if it gives her feminist guilt, but she's awkward and overweight and hasn't figured out how to be cool like everyone else, so she hasn't even spoken to most of her crushes. Now her twin has a girlfriend, and Molly fears being left behind.

So many lovely little details: girls who think and talk about sex (though Albertalli pulls it off without being explicit about the deeds), the guilty worry that people might judge you if you date someone who isn't cool, the niggling concern that the person who made it totally clear last night that he was into you might be totally over it today, straight guys arguing with gay girls about the definition of losing virginity, a subtle assumption of gender fluidity which nails where the teens I know are at right now, girls using the term 'vag-blocking'. There are no wild twists, just the ongoing inner angst of growing up.

There is one spectacular WTF, which is a room of 17yo girls all wondering what orgasms feel like, in which the assumption is that orgasms can only come from sex with a partner. Huh? None of these girls have figured out how to take care of themselves? None of them have heard that most women do? And they think another 17yo will do it for them? That bit was weird. But just that bit.

This is the second book from Albertalli. Her first was the marvellous Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Experience, so I'm calling her a must-read.
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After the Woods
Kim Savage
(Youth Fiction)

This had some cool ideas, adequately executed...

Julia and her friend Liv went running through the woods. A man attacked Liv; Julia saved her, Liv ran away, and Julia was abducted for two days. Now, a year later, Julia is doing okay, though she has blanks. She copes by endlessly studying the case. Liv, meanwhile, is desperately shoving the incident behind them while spiralling through bad decisions.

The characters are well-drawn, and it's all female-driven. Julia's smart and science-y and doesn't really have a hook on how other people see her. I like the book as a reflection on how girls/women cope with troubles and expectations (a theme which carries through to all sorts of secondary characters, and particularly all the mothers involved). But structurally it's a bit... There's a boy, but he's just shoved in occasionally when it's convenient without a real character arc (a bit like the girlfriend character in a male-driven book, actually), and the story is wrapped up with a slab of very unlikely exposition. (Goddamn exposition.) There seemed to be quite a few threads that didn't get wrapped up.

I liked it, but it could have been a really outstanding book if she'd had an editor that pushed her.

Seven Days of You
Cecelia Vinesse
(Youth Fiction)

Sophia is an ex-pat in Japan, with no real home: most of her life has been in Tokyo but she's never mastered the language; she lived a few years in New Jersey; spent time each year in her father's home in France. Now she has one week left with her friends in Tokyo before she moves back to New Jersey, and she's determined to wring every bit of Japan and her friends out of this week before it's all gone.

It's a nice but unremarkable plot of straining teenage friendships and romance, but it does a stunning job of capturing feelings of being anchorless, of being utterly at home and still a foreigner, of desperately gripping on to the last days, of the exhausting urgency of needing every single second to matter, of knowing that everyone you love is going to move on and the specialness of right now will fade. It feels like the last week of school, the days before getting on a plane, the final night of summer camp.

And if you've spent time in Japan, particularly, I think this will wrap you up like a lovely blanket of nostalgia.

Honest History
(eds) David Stephens and Alison Broinowski
(Aus History)

Hmmm. This was very thought-provoking. This is a collection of essays from historians, put together to make the point that the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in 1915 has been mythologised, and blown out of proportion to the rest of Australian history. I had some niggles with some of the essays, but if you like history that is messy, and if you like having your perspective tumbled around, there's a lot of good stuff in here.

For context, my non-Aus friends: Australia's first military expedition as an independent country (sort of, we still thought of ourselves as a British outpost) was as part of an Allied beach (bottom-of-cliff, really) landing at Gallipoli (Turkey) in 1915. They stayed there for nine months, hardly made any progress, lots of men died, and then they mounted a spectacularly successful withdrawal in which no one died. If you take the cultural importance that the US puts on the War of Independence, the Civil War and Pearl Harbor, and roll it all together, you have what Gallipoli is for Australia. Australia had its own Pearl Harbors - in WWII Japan flew almost a hundred raids on northern Australia, and a couple of submarines made it into Sydney Harbour - and I never heard either mentioned even once in all my years of schooling (as opposed to Gallipoli, which we covered every year of primary school). Australians fought at the Somme and Ypres and on the Kokoda Track and in Korea and Vietnam (and actually, all the wars, we go to all of them). But I knew Gallipoli inside out. Gallipoli is seen as the defining moment, the birth of our nation.

What's most fascinating in this book is the meta-discussion of history. It's the reminder that all history is constructed. Even when we are talking entirely in the realm of facts, we choose which events are most important, and we choose which specifics of those events to focus on, and these are political choices. More to the point, politicians, the media, the people who write the school curriculums choose, and this becomes history as we assume it always has been. Numerous essays in this book peel this back by examining how our commemoration of Anzac has changed over the years.

This is a long one. )
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Okay. I'm cross-posting this. Dunno if I'll keep it up, but here's a start.
I won't be uploading my past lj, because I have my own copy, and can't imagine anyone else cares.

The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar
Matt Simon
(Pop Biology)


Look at this fucking thing. That's a lowland streaked tenrec. It's not the weirdest thing in this book, but you can damn-well thank me for not sticking a picture of a surinam toad in your facebook feed, because it's really hard to get vomit out of your keyboard. Google image search that one at your peril.

Anyway. If you like weird animal shit, move this book to the top of your reading list, because it's great. It's a safari through some of the weirdest stuff around, framed through how evolution solved various survival/breeding problems.

For example, the surinam toad protects its young by planting all its eggs in the female's back, and the skin grows around the eggs, which skip the tadpole stage, and instead mature until wee adorable little toadies wiggle forth whole from the mother's pocked flesh, which later sloughs off.

More cool animal stuff. )

When Michael Met Mina
Randa Abdel-Fattah
(Youth Fiction)

USA title: The Lines We Cross (available May)

Oh, this was so marvellous! Put it in your local library!

Mina is a refugee from Afghanistan who made a home in Auburn, a melting-pot suburb in western Sydney. She has won a scholarship at a fancy North Shore private school for her last two years of high school, so the family is uprooting and opening a new restaurant in the Whitey McWhite northern suburbs.

Michael is instantly struck by the new girl. He is thoroughly, thoroughly anglo, right down to his earnest parents, who are founding members and spokespeople for the new political action group, Aussie Values. They're not against foreigners, of course; they're just worried that other cultures won't fit with our great Australian culture. They don't like them flaunting their differences. They don't like halal labels on Vegemite. They want to stop the boats.

If for nothing else, I would have loved this book for how it nailed the world as I know it, instead of all the usual fiction tropes. For starters, this is the school experience that I knew, which I never seem to find in American books. None of that weird clique shit: people just befriend people who are in their classes, and friend circles are kind of amorphous, and there might be snobbery but it's occasional off-handed comments, not a caste system. Intelligence is an admirable trait, not an identity. Geekiness is a thing plenty of people have in common, not a specific lunch table. The people who hurt your feelings are your friends, not some mean girls trope.

But what really did it for me, what really carried me back and I've never seen captured in any other book, was Michael coming to realise he didn't share his parents' political views. I was raised by conservative-voting parents, and so that was the political party I understood to be right. I was raised around casual comments about immigrants taking jobs (but also welfare) and refugees being 'queue jumpers' (not that there was any passion for the rights of those who waited their turn) and Aborigines using their race for all the advantages it brings. They weren't *my* opinions, it was just the stuff I'd absorbed from my parents.

But in school, half my social circle were children of immigrants. My friends were people, not stereotypes. And their parents were people, not stereotypes. (Okay, except for Greek mothers being obsessed with stuffing you with food. That's 100% true.) Adolescence is all about getting to know and respect people with different opinions from your parents, and starting to shuffle though it all for yourself. My teen years were a slow shift from accepting my parents' view of the world to finding all the ways it didn't square with my own, until I found myself on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

This is a bit long, so I'll throw in a cut. )

Seriously, this book is awesome. That's two of Abdel-Fattah's books I've loved. 'Does My Head Look Big in This?' (about a Muslim teenager choosing to wear a hijab at her private Anglo school) was great. I'm going to pick up more of hers.

Talking To My Country
Stan Grant
(Australian non-fiction)

Stan Grant is a television journalist, and I would say the best-known non-sporting Aborigine in Australia. Or at least top three. This book is... a plea for the rest of the country to understand how his identity has been shaped by both his Wiradjuri tribe roots and by the incredible damage wreaked on Aboriginal cultures by white settlement and all the terrible government policies since. It's a little bit of a memoir, as Grant takes us through his poor and itinerant childhood, his unimpressive teenage years, to his experiences as an international reporter. But Grant's life takes a back seat to the things that shaped him: his own grandparents who'd lived through abuses that today are shrugged off as ancient history, family and neighbours' fears of government intervention, schooling that considered his culture irrelevant, and a society that seems to have given up.

He presents statistics that would make Americans blush: indigenous people are less than 3% of the Australian population, but a quarter of the prison population and half of the juvenile detention population. This although indigenous people murder and rape at half the rate of the general population, and commit about an eighth of the drug crimes. Six in ten Australians have never met an Aborigine (as far as they know).

A cornerstone of the Australian mythos is classless equality: convicts were sent here on boats, and Australia offered them the chance to start over. You could land in Australia a penniless murderer, and make it into the land-owning classes. And yet, at the very time new settlers could make their own success, Aboriginal cultures were being wiped out. There was no path for Aborigines to find success, by white capitalist measures or by any other.

Australian conservatives decry the 'black armband' view of Australian history, that dredging up the massacres perpetrated by white settlers and government policies of extermination is bad for the nation and we should just move on, but it seems to me that those are the same conservatives who fetishise Australia's military defeat at Gallipoli in WWI.

Some of the most thought-provoking observations come from Grant's experiences reporting from overseas, where telling people he was Aboriginal didn't come with the baggage that it has in Australia, and he got a close-up look at how other local cultures were shaped by their history.

I think one of the big problems we have dealing with our past is that I don't know what reconciliation looks like. And there isn't an answer to that question, because 1. On some level that question is asking, "So what can we do to make the past go away?" which is an idiotic question, and 2. Aborigines are not a monolithic hive brain who can present a neat answer. Clearly, our current refusal to deal with it at all is a steaming pile of garbage.

The story is moving for how thoroughly Grant lays himself open: his poverty, his insecurities, his guilt in success, his emotional breakdown in remote Mongolia. I don't think it's going to change minds about reconciliation - mostly because people whose minds need changing won't pick up the book, partly because I think this will only provoke empathy in people who are already offering it. It's not like Trevor Noah's 'Born a Crime', which invites you in to enjoy the funny stories, and then sits you down to explain in small simple words how institutionalised racism shapes our internal view of reality.
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I don't use this journal. If something has led you here to find me, you should try the same ID on lj.



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April 2017

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