The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

From the Hardcover editionWu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction.  He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise.  The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.

Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan.  She lives alone.  Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest.  Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the  small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.

Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.

Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’

Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age.  While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea.  The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales.  The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch.  Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan.  Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together.  As expected, each impacts the other’s life.  There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?”  He repeat the question  so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him.  Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’

We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.

If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book.  My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages.  The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man.  As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy.  Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted.  That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.

Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later.  By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right.  But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the  other plot points which occur in the interceding pages:  the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay;  the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i  loves.  There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well:  Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism  (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end.  Dizzy yet?  Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.

By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole.  My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me.  I hope  more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7


Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video.


A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was an amazing man by the standards of any age. He was a physician, had a degree in law, spoke multiple languages, was a mathematician, translator, an officer of the church, administrator and governor of church lands, an economist and an astronomer.  With crude instruments (and no telescope) he observed the night sky.  And the data he collected told him that the Earth and planets orbited the Sun.

I wonder if it’s possible for modern readers to fully understand how mind-blowing this revelation must have been?  Or how dangerous?  Copernicus lived in an era of contradictions – the Renaissance & Reformation were both in full swing.  Men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Martin Luther were changing the world.  But the church was still very much in control.  One of the chief arguments cited against a heliocentric universe was the biblical passage Joshua 10:12-14.  It states “And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.”  The Catholic church insisted on a literal interpretation.  It seems unbelievable, illogical and ridiculous.  Yet 90-years after Copernicus’ death Galileo would stand before the Inquisition and be forced to recant his support of Copernicus’ findings.

Dava Sobel makes “the Copernican Revolution” emotionally accessible.  She establishes the historical context and immerses her readers in it.  A More Perfect Heaven:  How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos is part history, part speculation;  the literary version of an interactive museum exhibit.  Sandwiched between two sections of fairly traditional, narrative non-fiction is a two act play in which she brilliantly addresses the turning point in Copernicus’ life.  She tells how Georg Joachim Rheticus (a young mathematician and a Protestant) arrived on the 66-year old astronomer’s doorstep and somehow convinced him to publish his findings.  The play humanizes the historical figure. We are made privy to the worry, indecision, sacrifice and fear.  While the actual conversations may be Sobel’s creations,  the mental state behind them is indubitably authentic.

Dava Sobel does a lot of things right in A More Perfect Heaven.  She’s a hell of a writer.  For example, when discussing Copernicus’ time as a district administrator in the diocese of Varmia Sobel randomly sprinkles excerpts from the official ledgers he kept amidst details of his duties and scientific research. The result creates a three-dimensional picture of the astronomer’s daily life.

…With or without calendar reform, Copernicus still needed to ascertain this fundamental parameter.  The length of the year defined the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – or, as other astronomers believed, the Sun’s orbit around the Earth – and pertained to almost every calculation in the heliocentric or any other planetary theory.

“Petrus, a herdsman in Thomasdorf, took possession of 2 parcels, which are vacant because Hans ran away.”

Copernicus fashioned a new yardstick for the eyar in an open loge on the south face of Allenstein Castle, just outside his private apartment.  Laying white stucco over the ruddy bricks, he painted the gird of a sundial onto the smooth surface.  The lines and numbers must have been black and red when new, though only a hint of color survives in the faded dial fragment still clinging to the castle wall.  Underneath, either on a table or the floor, he set a mirror – or maybe he used a bowl of water – to catch the Sun’s reflection and throw it up to the dial, where he charted the changing solar altitude through the seasons.

Part 3 of A More Perfect Heaven discusses the journey from manuscript to book.  It provides portraits of those who facilitated the publication of On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and gives credit to the ones who built on Copernicus’ theory and played a part in its eventual acceptance.  Sobel covers all the angles.  Mostly, though, she tells a great story.  One that entertains.  No prior scientific knowledge required.

Publisher:  New York, Walker & Co. (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 8027 1793 1

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Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service by Mark Pendergrast

Mark Pendergrast’s book, now available in paperback, has a little bit of everything.  History, politics, adventure in distant lands, men & women putting themselves in harm’s way for the good of mankind, epidemics, outbreaks and (I know this is gross) lots of diarrhea.  It’s hard to know where to begin. Officers in the Epidemic Intelligence Service specialize in tracking diseases and epidemics, on the ground, as they occur.  They excel in fieldwork – their logo features the worn sole of a shoe – and Pendergrast obviously sees them as the Indiana Jones-es of disease.  Inside the Outbreaks is a frenetically paced overview of the history of this agency and its greatest hits.

The Epidemic Intelligence Service was begun in 1951, the brainchild of Alexander Langmuir, and is now a part of the CDC (Center of Disease Control & Prevention).  Pendergrast keeps events in chronological order – dividing the book into 3 parts: 1951-1970, 1970-1982 & 1982-PRESENT.    In the beginning this made for unwieldy reading  (particularly on a Kindle).   The  EIS is an incredible multi-tasker.  At any given minute agents are in dozens of countries, researching a multitude of symptoms – with  mixed outcomes.   While this is a testament to the dedication of the agents, the constant jumping back and forth makes keeping track difficult.  In addition to the history of the diseases, you’ll read about the politics and the heartbreak of epidemiology:  who carried a grudge against who, what it was like to be the spouse of an agent, the slow rise of minorities in the EIS, who lives, who dies.   Pendergrast is fair, presenting the good with the morally repugnant (testing performed on the mentally handicapped, African-Americans, orphans and prisoners).  Trial and error is the underlying theme. Agents frequently build on their predecessors’ work.  Admittedly, it took me until the 1970’s to feel I had a grasp on what I was reading – but once there I was riveted and loathe to put the book down for even a second.

It was clear that the Biafran enclave would soon fall, and the U.S. Department of State wanted someone from the CDC to conduct a nutritional survey.  On October 14 Karl Western flew into Biafra with a State Department diplomatic team.  The Biafrans, focused on negotiating a peace settlement, did not want a nutritional survey done. “I anticipated this,” Western recalled.  “I had brought two jerry cans of petrol, a letter of introduction from Bill Foege, and somewhiskey for the missionaries.”  He slipped away from the negotiations and hitched a ride by holding up a jerry can.  Since gas was rare, the driver stopped.

Western conducted a random population survey in thirty-six widely distributed sites in eight provinces of Biafra.  Of the 2,676 villagers he examined, 31.4 percent were severely malnourished.  There were few very young or elderly villagers, since most had died.  “The most important question was how many people were in the enclave,” he recalled.  “Some said one million.  Some said ten million.” Western found that 67.2 percent of his sample had smallpox scars.  Knowing that over a million doses of smallpox vaccine had been administered in the area during the campaign, he extrapolated to estimate the total Biafran population was 3.23 milliion.  Of those, roughly a million suffered from advanced protein malnutrition.  Amazingly, Western accomplished all of this in less than two weeks.

All your big name diseases make an appearance: polio, measles, small pox, malaria, Reye’s & toxic shock syndrome, Hep B, influenza, Ebola… I’d go on but I hate to name drop.  Even if you have only a passing interest in science and medicine I recommend this book.  Inside the Outbreaks is inspirational and for my money a better real life adventure story than the more popular The Lost City of Z.  The original dust jacket featured a comic book style superhero – whereas the new cover is a much more somber view of a slide under a microscope.  The former is better.  There is definitely an episodic, graphic novel, quality to Pendergrast’s writing.  It also reminded me of the old black & white news reels  – complete with the booming voiced, up-beat narrator.  You probably think I’m mixing metaphors here, but what both graphic novels and black & white newsreels have in common is that each installment tells a self-contained story, the threads of which are picked up and expanded on in later installments and eventually become part of an even larger story arc.   It can be difficult at first to wrap your head around the fact that this is not a book about a specific disease but one dedicated to an agency that deals in diseases.  Instead of Batman, Inside the Outbreaks gives you the whole Justice League.

Note: you can find a simplified CDC timeline here of the history of the EIS.

Publisher: Mariner Books, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 0 54 752030 8

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In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor

The hypothesis on which Norman F. Cantor bases his book – In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made – is sound. That the Black Plague swept across Europe and performed a kind of natural selection that set the course of history is indisputable. Cantor manages to also make it completely uninteresting. Almost immediately the book falls into a pattern of “because this person died of the Black Death, that person came into power”. And while this is all probably true, men and women in the Middle Ages did not exclusively die from the Plague (a point Cantor makes as well, undermining his own argument). The title and subject of his research could easily have been Cholera & the World It Made or Small Pox & the World It Made. All were equally deadly, comparatively devastating and arguably as influential to Western history. People can die of many, many things – what Cantor fails to do is convince the reader as to why his vehicle of death was so much more devastating than all the others.

Which is a shame, because there are some very interesting bits to this book. As a connoisseur of disease non-fiction (a.k.a. – a hypochondriac-in-training), I found the theories on the possible origins of the Black Death and the bio-medical data fascinating. What’s not to like about extraterrestrial viruses dropped to Earth in cosmic dust? Or the idea, really quite convincing, that the Black Death was actually concurrent outbreaks of multiple disease – such as Bubonic Plague and Anthrax? Or that a genetic relationship may exist between the Black Death and AIDS, which causes modern ancestors of those who survived the former to be immune to the latter disease? In my opinion, that’s wow-factor Cantor was looking for. Not the fact, however interesting in its own way, that Princess Joan of England died on the eve of her marriage to a Spanish prince and thus thwarted an alliance between the two countries that could have changed history. <yawn>

The other day there was a program on The History Channel about WWI trenches, many of which still remain part of the European landscape. I love WWI history and was instantly transfixed. But I quickly became frustrated as I realized that, based solely on the belief that more people were interested in WWII & Adolf Hitler than on WWI trenches, the host kept repeating (like clockwork, before every commercial break) that being a German soldier in the trenches during WWI made Hitler the man he became. It was a ridiculous and obvious ploy to use the name “Hitler” to drum up additional viewers. Ridiculous, because if it is true how  do you explain away the thousands of soldiers, on both sides of the Western front, who didn’t become Hitler?

It’s difficult not to feel that Cantor (like the producers at The History Channel) refused to follow the direction In the Wake of the Plague wanted to take in a misguided attempt to make it commercially viable and to target a more casual, “narrative nonfiction” reader. The result is a book that is schizophrenic – structurally choppy and which jumps from one topic to the next without linkage or logic. Worse yet is the tone of the writing, which I believe was meant to be conversational but instead comes across as cranky and grudging. Norman F. Cantor is obviously an intelligent individual – a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Professor and a Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellow at Princeton University (I’ve no idea what that is, but it sounds impressive). So it seems a shame, and a decided loss to his readers, that he chose to serve us history lite this time around.

Publisher: Harper Perennial, New York (2002).
ISBN: 978 0 06 001434 6

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“Plan B” or Instructions for Gardener’s (Take Your Pick)

Blame it on the  zombie movies. For years I’ve collected survival books and worked on what I like to call “Plan B”.  Sure I thought this might be a tad unusual, or at least that I was in the minority, until I discovered Smiling at the Apocalypse on the blog Sweet Juniper.

My people are out there.

Frankly, I doubt that a few books will save my husband, the dog or myself (the dog has the best odds).  But should we make it out of the city, avoiding major highways and sticking to back roads – yep, saw The Book of Eli over the weekend – at least we’ll be ready.

Two books integral to my apocalyptic preparedness library are The Homesteader’s Handbook: A Guide to Independent Living by James E. Churchill and The Mother Earth News Almanac: A Guide Through The Seasons.  Churchill was a contributor to The Mother Earth News (a back-to-the-land magazine started in the 1970’s and still in print today) and so, in many ways, these books complement each other.

Amongst the pieces of information to be discovered in The Homesteader’s Handbook are instructions on how to do your own butchering, clean an old well and construct a latrine.  Churchill  discusses shelter options – whether it be recycling an old house or building your own (models include sod, log, stone, adobe or tepee).  Every section comes complete with diagrams.  And like all good hippies he provides detailed info on  composting, beekeeping, organic gardening and growing/raising your own food (indoors or out).   The Homesteader’s Handbook is much more narrative in style than The Mother Earth News Almanac – with lengthier and more in-depth chapters with names like The Water Story; Growing an Indoor Garden; Meat, Milk and Egg Producers and Preserving Foods.

The Mother Earth News Almanac is a mishmash of information ranging from basic farming strategies to tips that Martha Stewart would be proud to feature in Good Things.  (For example, storing twine in old gloves with the fingers clipped, making a v-notch weed cutter and storing fish hooks between two pieces of tape).  It definitely has a folksy, Little House vibe to it – but that’s part of the charm.  It’s packed with useful stuff for even the amateur gardener, such as  supporting tomato plants, fast & easy composting, constructing a cold frame (for starting seedlings in winter) and growing a sprout garden.  Whereas the Homesteader’s Handbook focuses on the logistics of dropping off the grid and surviving, The Mother Earth News Almanac focuses more on what to do in the day-to-day.  And, I’ll be honest, at times the day-to-day in a techno-free world is looking a little bleak.

Novella Carpenter mentions referencing books very similar to these two when she began her Ghost Town Farm.   So there’s no reason to fear that these books will gather dust prior to the Big Flash (or global zombie pandemic, meteor crash, adlib your disaster here _________ ).  Close to 40 years after being published,  The Homesteader’s Handbook and The Mother Earth News Almanac remain relevant for those who want to get in touch with their agrarian roots.