the gene: an intimate history by siddhartha mukherjee

 

Hindu philosophers have long described the experience of “being” as a web—jaal. Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that sticks is what transforms every individual web into a being. There is an exquisite precision in that mad scheme. Genes must carry out programmed responses to environments—otherwise, there would be no conserved form. But they must also leave exactly enough room for the vagaries of chance to stick. We call this intersection “fate.” We call our responses to it “choice.” An upright organism with opposable thumbs is thus built from a script, but built to go off script. We call one such unique variant of one such organism a “self.”

 

 
 

although, of course

 

Hello, readers.

Michael Chabon, writer of glorious essays , hilarious shenanigans , and pulpy masterpieces, has a new book out this week (at least in the US) called Moonlight.

I am literally more excited about this than anything else in the world. By which I mean that I’m not, really, but I am. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing that matters, but then, usually, I end up thinking about other things.

That’s art for you. Sometimes everything, although, of course, not.

 

Doree Shafrir, profiling Michael Chabon, in Buzzfeed.

The grandfather in Moonglow — who is only ever referred to as “my grandfather” — is the protagonist of the book, even though it’s told in first person through the eyes of his grandson, Mike, who is putatively Chabon. Although, of course, not.

“In a weird way, it’s a memoir of not my life, but my imaginative life, like a history of my imagination and also my experience of marriage and family, having children, even though the marriage in the book’s not like my marriage, and the parent–child relationship, that’s a stepdaughter and a stepfather,” he said. “Yet, still, I felt so much. I was reading it to submit it for the last time, and Ayelet was reading the last time, too, and we just started talking about, like, it’s weird how it feels like that grandfather’s really me in a lot of ways.”

Michiko Kakutani, reviewing Moonglow.

Mr. Chabon is one of contemporary literature’s most gifted prose stylists, and in novels like “Telegraph Avenue” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” he’s demonstrated his Jedi-like mastery, his ability to move effortlessly between the serious and the comic, the existential and merely personal. In “Moonglow,” he writes with both lovely lyricism and highly caffeinated fervor. He conjures Mike’s childhood with Proustian ardor, capturing his fond memories of his mother (who smelled of Prell shampoo, making him think of those old TV commercials showing a pearl languidly drifting through the mentholated green) and his worst boyhood fears (convinced that a gaggle of evil-looking puppets were lying in wait, plotting to kill him). He makes Oakland, Calif., in the 1970s come alive — and does the same for Baltimore in the 1950s and Florida in the late 1980s.

The book won’t arrive in the UK until January. I could, of course, buy an e-book when it comes out in the US. Although, of course, I won’t do that. Most likely, while waiting for this new book, I will return through the various wonders of Chabon’s past, tangling with my tendency towards aetataureatean delusions and flying with joy through the galactic air of his prose.

Happy reading, readers.

 

 

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storyological

Hello, readers.

I’m now the co-host and producer of a podcast.

It’s called Storyological.

storyological new ident smallest

It’s about stories, life, the universe, and everything.

This nice lady did the art and is also my co-host.

We’re pretty proud of it.

You should give it a listen sometime.

The first episode is up here. We talked about the stories “Angel, Monster, Man” by Sam J. Miller and “The Time Travel Club” by Charlie Jane Anders.

I hope you like it.

Happy conversations, readers.

 

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the modern age

Hello, readers. Felicia Day periscoped herself watching herself in Supernatural. She expressed it thus, “I’m alone in a hotel room sharing a live video of watching myself on TV. This is the modern age.” Another fantastic element of our modern age is William Boyle. He’s a human, through and through, and sometimes titles his blogs, ‘death in the world’ and also he has appeared on television, even. We shared a few drinks in our time at City Grocery, and, one day, we will again. Here’s us and Barry and the gang. 1908385_10203729754668614_3777624354595359285_n He also writes wonderful things. His stories punch you in the heart and ask if you’re okay and then hug you and punch you and that’s how it is with life. He just did a reading at Oxford’s Off-Square Books for his new collection, DEATH DON’T HAVE NO MERCY, that I wished I could have attended but oceans. Alas. Feel free, though, like me, to compensate for your lack of skills re:traveling through space and time (the modern age has connected everyone and still we end up so far apart) by reading all the wonderful things on the internet related to my faraway friend. Here he is at largeheartedboy, taking part in Book Notes.

Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is an early story, written in 2007. I pretty often take a title of a song I love and play off of it. I was listening to this obsessively back then. I knew I wanted to write about bad luck and trouble and the meanness of the world. The lyrics hit so hard. No matter what you think, there’s death waiting at the end of everything. Shut up and put your ear to the floor. Here comes big bad death. It doesn’t care what you know or don’t know. It’ll cut you down blindly.

Here he is in an interview with Nerve.

You can understand a lot about a character by knowing what he listens to. I’m not trying to make a character listen to a certain type of music to make him seem cool. Or to make me seem cool. Music can be a lonely occupation. A character in one story makes a mixtape for a girl he’s slept with. I can remember staying up late at night making mixtapes. It was a lonely experience and kind of wonderful. Cassettes are sad, too. There’s another character in the story “Poughkeepsie” who still listens to Alice in Chains. He’s stuck in that moment from the ‘90s. And I understand that. I have great empathy for those people. I understand that feeling of nostalgia for hearing something for the first time. Or associating what you heard in the past with the only time you felt good in your life.

Here’s a link to a Spotify playlist Bill made for DEATH DON’T HAVE NO MERCY. Fantastic. Music and film and tv and Whedon played a large part in many of our talks. He’s a damn fine fellow and you should go buy and follow him. I am. Happy Thursday, readers.   ttfn.

things you know but don’t know how to live with

Hello, readers.

It’s Tuesday.

Sometimes you read a book to remind yourself of something you already know but don’t know how to live with.

Several years ago, possibly on several Tuesdays, you could find me curled up in a comfy chair located near the back of a Barnes & Noble’s. I didn’t have very much money. The chair was very soft and very near a great many books. I used to sit in that chair and read books the library didn’t have. And also write.

One of the books I read in that chair was EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The thing I knew but didn’t know how to live with was two things.

1) Animals for to be eaten were, and are, generally treated in a way that I didn’t support.
2) The system of factory farming pollutes and that didn’t seem too good either.

After reading Foer’s book, I decided to commit to being vegetarian. I could have committed to meatless mondays, or meatless weekends, or any number of things that might cut back on my consumption of meat. But, well, I didn’t choose those other things. I chose the first.

Two days ago, I bought CLIMATE CHANGED by Philippe Squarzoni. It’s a brilliant walk through the science of climate change framed through Squarzoni’s own life and his own love of stories, particularly films.

After I finish this book, I don’t know what I’ll do.

Sometimes I wonder how much of the money we raise to fight malaria and other such things is money that only exists because of the present state of things.

Sometimes I wonder if climate change is a movie we came in half-way through and the ending’s already set.

No one wants to deprive themselves of things.

The thing I know but don’t know how to live with is two things.

1) The present state of things can’t last.
2) Something has to change.

Vague. True.

That is my mood at the moment.

Vague and true.

In less than a month, I’m flying back to the U.S. to visit love and sort out bureaucracy. Maybe buy a new phone with a more awesome camera. These things will bring joy to my life.

No one wants to deprive themselves of things is a thing that Squarzoni says in CLIMATE CHANGED, and it’s true.

I grew up inside of the evolution of global warming discussion from possible to definite to denied to omgisittoolate? It’s always seemed real and just another thing for humanity to handle. Which we definitely would. Because clearly we’ve lasted this long. But. Well.

I wonder how much energy it takes to post a blog?

Happy Tuesday, readers.

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john mccain is not a puppet

Hello, readers.

In the flat at the moment, with drying clothes hung over radiators and a very warm delicious cup of tea in an orange mug resting on a coffee table which is, in fact, actually, a very large foot stool. It’s pretty awesome. Another thing that’s awesome is outside. By which I mean, all of outside. It looks, well, I don’t know. I left my words behind yesterday. Let’s say it looks like the inside of a nickel, which makes it sound less awesome, but, well.

Yesterday, I left a comment on the internet.

Today, happily, it appears that a day or so ago John McCain left a comment on things as well and it, very much like the sky, is more awesome than you might expect. I’m going to embed it here because I watched it and cried. Before 9/11, my concept of the United States of America was just beginning to complicate itself, and after that, it became wonderfully complicated. I very much cared about when and how and if and in what manner we went to war and I was upset and then we clearly tortured people and it was wrong and now we drone people and that seems wrong and also we kill unarmed people, in part, because whether or not they have guns doesn’t matter, since the social construct of race and poverty continues to demonstrate that however much we may think make believe is something we stopped playing as children, we actually still play make believe all the time and the stuff we make our beliefs has profound, tangible consequence.

Anyway.

Here’s McCain.

If tl;dw, here’s how The Daily Show reported it.

And also, because, happiness. Here’s some list of books you might want to read.

1) Tor’s Reviewer Choice Best Books of 2014
2) The avclub’s best graphic novels and comics of 2014
3) Buzzfeed’s list of best science fiction and fantasy novels by women of color

Make believe being as powerful as it is, it’s useful to get some exercise making believe outside of your experience as much, and as often, as possible. Stories are empathy machines. They’re like treadmills for your conscience. Or something.

Happy Thursday, readers.

As the nerdfighters say, don’t forget to be awesome.*

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*http://www.projectforawesome.com/

p.s. The above link is for the project for awesome which is this thing that happens once a year where

the invention of me

Hello, readers.

There’s an excitement in the air, or possibly the soil, or maybe the clouds, and there’s a question for you, are the clouds a part of the air? Is the wind? Are you? Once, there was a book called THE INVENTION OF AIR, which is a great phrase as phrases go. I wonder if the author of that book would say he was made up mostly of air, or clouds, or heart. I wonder if anyone’s ever written a book called THE INVENTION OF ME. If they did I bet it would have to go back a long way. Probably before television, but after the big bang. Sometimes I also think about the first person who ever thought. Not about anything in particular. Just thought anything at all. Right now my other wonder is whether or not the invention of me came before, or after, the invention of you, or if it was concurrent. Concurrent being a cool word we should all use more because once you accept the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it’s not a big leap towards accepting the fundamental concurrentness of all time. Except, sometimes it’s too late. Which is sad, but probably for the best. If everyone was always on time for everything then a lot of things would probably never get invented. It’s the things that steal our time and take our air away that generally invent who we are and sometimes that means we miss out on other things. I’m not sure where this is going, but here we are.

John Oliver interviewed this amazing human at one point in time and I watched both parts this morning and this is part of my excitement.

This weekend, EG and I met up with a girl whose initials are IY and I will use those initials because it might stand for I & You, even though it doesn’t, though that’s pretty close to you and me which we were talking about earlier. We met up at a coffee shop over near Bloomsbury. It didn’t have a bathroom. It did have some lovely peppermint tea and a coat rack on which to hang our heavy, London in December coats. While we were there, one of the baristas looked at EG’s sketchbook and made happy noises. The three of us talked about our books and our futures, which is a way of saying we talked about the things we were hoping to invent, things that none of us could see, but we were happy to imagine how we might pull them out of the air and make them real and read by others. I have been working on my book for a while, and not saying much to EG about it, keeping all the excitement to myself, putting it on the page, and it was nice to take this get-together as an excuse to talk a bit about it and listen to their thoughts and this is part of my excitement, too. I don’t have a link to this excitement, though. Not yet. Just wait. You’ll read it one day.

The sun’s already setting. It’s a London in December sun. It rises late and goes to bed early. December 21st is coming up, though. Almost to the mid-point, the solstice, halfway out of the dark.

Happy invention, readers.

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thanks

Hello, readers.

I wrote a thing about Nick Drake for the folks over at And now we rise. It came about after listening, and tweeting about, the 99% Invisible episode about him, Three Records from Sundown. Here’s the beginning of that thing I wrote:

Under the television, behind a couple of cabinet doors, she kept her collection of CDs, a myriad of albums, artists, and mixes. For a time, after she left, she left that collection behind. I guess I knew one day she would come back for it, and she did, but in between when she first left, and when she came and collected everything, I listened, I swallowed, I absorbed, I pushed that music deep, deep down into my soul, holding on to what we had and what I knew we had lost. Among those CDs–so many of them just CD-R’s with the name of an album, artist, or mix written in black marker–were Weezer, Neutral Milk Hotel, Badly Drawn Boy, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and one mix called “The Frantic Panic Mechanics.” The music blurred into a soundtrack for that moment. One of those CDs had a name written on it I had never seen before.

Nick Drake.

Head over to And now we rise to read the rest. Music is the best time machine. Well. Except for a delorean.

Also. It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S.

So, remember, if you make a bear, undo it, whether you meant to make a bear or not.

Also, also. Someone quoted this passage from To Kill a Mockingbird the other day. It seemed right.

“Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep.”

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (published in 1960 – based in 1936)

Happy today, readers. Be awesome. Be worthy of thanks.

Thank you.

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The Great Perhaps

Hello, readers.

Recently, I began reading Looking for Alaska, John Green’s first book. More recently, I finished it.

Here are some thoughts about my thoughts.

Thought #1: That’s a lot of cigarettes.

Thoughts about thought #1: The characters in Looking for Alaska burn through more words and ideas and cigarettes in one scene than a great many characters sniff at for an entire novel. They smoke in the shower. On the soccer field. Under a bridge, by a lake, in a spot they call the “The Smoking Hole.” And while they smoke, they talk about writers, labyrinths, the last words of the famous dead, and, on occasion, a little bit about themselves and the mysteries of being themselves and wanting to be closer to the selves of others. They talk about themselves, and their ideas, the way they burn through cigarettes, as though their lives depended on burning through the very things (cigarettes, themselves, each other, their ideas) that might one day kill them.

The story of Looking for Alaska is, in so many ways, so terrifically small in scope–there’s a handful of teenagers attending boarding school. But, it’s so much bigger on the inside, so full of what Miles, the main character, calls, ‘The Great Perhaps.’

Thought #2: There was this girl.

Thoughts on thought #2: A very great many stories could begin with the words, “There was this girl…” And it’s a problem on the whole, because, on the whole, it tends to reinforce the idea, so very often idea-ed in stories, that women exist as something for people to stare and wonder at, and be transformed by rather than, you know, for them to exist as and for themselves. Stories of, “There was this girl…” include: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Leon, Scott Pilgrim vs. All the Things and Stuff , and Anna Karenina. And, of course, in some of these, the girl in question is absolutely a character unto herself rather than existing solely as a symbol for whatever thing about life the writer wants to write about, or a fulcrum around which another character’s life pivots. In the case of Anna Karenina, for example, we get it all, because Anna has her own story, her own arc, as well as, more or less, functioning as a symbol for, um, I don’t know, the existential horroradventure of being a woman in late 19th century Russia, both bursting with and being swallowed by love and convention. In the case of Looking for Alaska, Alaska is also, like Anna Karenina, both herself and a symbol, if in very many fewer pages, and with far more smoking and drinking of Strawberry Hill than probably Anna Karenina or Tolstoy would go in for. Alaska is a character unto herself, with a past, and concerns, and sorrows. But she’s also a symbol for the Great Perhaps, for those mysteries and sorrows of the larger world for which Miles, the ‘main’ character, has set out in search. Also, possibly, she doesn’t have terribly much of an arc. But, in this book, in this story, there’s something to that, because unlike Anna Karenina, our narrator here is not Leo Tolstoy, a.k.a. possibly god, but a sixteen-year-old boy, Miles Halter, who may not understand the arc of Alaska until later, until, looking back, he understands his story through the stories of others.

Corollary Thought to Thought #2: Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) gets thrown around a lot of late, possibly beginning with Eternal Sunshine, and continuing on into this day. It refers to a girl in a story who exists as a mess of wonder and terror (very often sexy, very often with a slight bent towards death and destruction, or endless joy, which is a kind of death, all situations of stasis–whether of joy or terror or anything in between–being a kind of death) that awakens the hero (generally a boy) to the mess of wonder and terror that is life. It’s very much a part of the larger canon of stories referred to in Thought #2 as “There was this girl…” I happen to have loved a great many stories of said type, and several MPDGs (Clementine/Eternal Sunshine, Ramona/Scott Pilgrim, Summer/500 Days Of, Anna Karenina/Anna Karenina, Penny Lane/Almost Famous), but I’m aware that the best stories, the best tropes, transcend themselves, and that the MPDG trope is part of a larger and always necessary trope of how sometimes, in your life, someone appears at just the right time and changes everything, of which movies like Almost Famous and Once are perfect examples in which there are so many manic pixie dream guitarists and girls and vaccuum repairmen that enter into each other’s lives and all of them are changed by it.

The characters exist to transform each other and themselves.

So, if at the end of your story in which “There was this [insert appropriate pronoun here],” the person referred to by the appropriate pronoun has not undergone any change, has not experienced a story of their own, you might want to look at that again and wonder over whether your story might not be bigger and better for having a MPDLGTBQETC. that is not simply magical and mysterious, but also mundane and unambiguously a person capable of growth in their own right.

Thought #3: Someone once said that every story is about sex and death.

Thoughts on thought #3: Yes. Sometimes there are lasers, too.

Thought #4: That’s probably enough thoughts, for now.

Thoughts on thought #4: But about the fox hat? Or the labyrinth? Or last words? Or all of those discussion questions John Green helpfully answered and posed at the end of the book?

Thoughts on thoughts on thought #4: I’m hungry and want to eat lunch now.

Happy Wednesday, readers.

Go seek your Great Perhaps, wherever and with whomever it might wait.

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Time and its Discontents

Hello, readers.

amazing_stories_uk_195204_n11

It’s Sunday and, so, as it sometimes seems to happen, I’m writing to you. Outside, there is Saigon, and there is rain. My dad was here many decades ago. That’s strange to think about.

I’ve been putting together short reading lists to share and discuss with my crit group in Saigon. The first list featured three stories about space and aliens: “Surface Tension” by James Blish, “Semley’s Necklace” by Ursula K. Le Guin, and “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

The second list featured stories about space and time: “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” by Alfred Bester, “The Fire Watch” by Connie Willis, and “The Remeberer” by Aimee Bender. This second list I titled, ‘Time and its Discontents.’

Earlier today, I had sad thoughtful thoughts about my sister and our mom and the house where my mom lived, and where her parents lived, and where her brother lived, where, for different and sometimes overlapping periods of time, I and my sister lived. Mom died earlier this year. The house is still there. At some point the house will not be there. At some other point, it may or may not belong to other people. This got me to thinking about how a long time ago maybe people stayed in one place for a very long time because it was hard to move. It’s still hard to move, but people do it a lot now. I’ve gotten quite good at it. I wonder sometimes if I will ever be some place for more than a couple years. I imagine if I stayed in one place I would want a house with secret passages and a bookshelf or twenty. It seems silly to stay in one place and not make it worth it.

A lot of my favorite stories focus on memory and time. Solaris. Eternal Sunshine. The Rememberer. Prisoner of Azkaban. Etc. So on. My head is full of time and space. So is yours. I wonder what my cats think when I’m not there, or when they move houses. Do they remember? Science probably knows the answer to this.

I finished Alif the Unseen. It was magnificent. Here are some articles about it. The book had me thinking again about myth and time and gods and spirits and how very much I love to exist in a place of uncertainty and how much it scares me, too. Roger Ebert said of belief that he’s much more interested in questions than in answers. I don’t know if I agree with that. But, I do know that I love asking questions.

How are you today, readers? Well, I hope, or if not well, then gainly occupied with the business of traveling through time and adding some joy to the goings on.

love.