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The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

Just when you think you’ve already heard the most daring of castaway sea voyages from the historical record, comes now author David Grann to regale us with a remarkable chronicle of woe. In The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, Grann weaves together a myriad of sources, recounting events with such vibrant prose they unfurl before the mind’s eye. These events, however, happened over 280 years ago. As revealed by his previous book, Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann’s talent is not just in narration, but also in finding historical narratives that turn the looking glass back around on us.

Mark Twain purportedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” During the 18th century, naval warfare was one such rhyme. In 1740, the Royal Navy dispatched a squadron from Portsmouth on a mission to seize the treasure aboard a Spanish galleon. Grann does capital work in describing the socio-economic profile of the crew, ranging from striving officers to men pressed into service against their will. Aboard these warships, pitiless hierarchy is the name of the game. For a ship to slice through the ocean, each crew member has to work with machine-like precision. Any dereliction is met with the lash—or worse. As we already knew, democratic these ships are not, for any glint of mutiny portends chaos.

On this voyage, typhus takes its toll. Also, as the squadron sails around Cape Horn, scurvy ravages the crew, rendering them near useless. Traversing the Cape’s furious waters is certainly an inauspicious time for a weakened crew. For centuries it bedeviled sailors. Grann notes that those who experienced it “strained to find a fitting name for this watery graveyard”: “Blind Horn’s hate,” “Dead Men’s Road,” or just simply “Terrible.”

Some of the squadron’s ships make it. Some turn back. One ship, a former merchant vessel (an East Indiaman) retrofitted into a warship, decidedly does not make it: the HMS Wager. Grann lays out, with great drama, how the ship runs hard aground just off a Chilean island. Water floods in, rats scurry up from the holds, and those well enough to flee scramble into smaller boats. Then there are those who break into the ship’s store of alcohol and go berserk in a mixture of revelry and fighting.

On that speck of land, later named Wager Island, commences the rest of the book’s subtitle. There is scant food on the island to sustain life. Celery grass, however, does alleviate the scurvy. A potential lifeline also manifests with the appearance of the Kawésqar.

Inhabiting the Patagonian archipelago for thousands of years, the Kawésqar people marvel the Wager’s crew with how they keep warm in constant near-freezing conditions, lathering their exposed skin with animal fat and tending small fires in their canoes. They extract sustenance from the sea and share it with the castaways. Eventually, an entire Kawésqar village relocates to the island. And then—and you knew this was coming—some of the crew promptly ruin it all. Quite often a group is only as good as its worst members. The worst of the Wager’s crew would, on occasion, take a boat to the ship’s wreckage, drink their fill of spirits, and then return to harass those on the island. One night, as the crew slept, the Kawésqar quietly gather their belongings and disappear.

Two crewmen’s journals supply much of the content on which Grann draws. One is John Bulkeley, a gunner. The other is from John Byron, a young midshipman and future grandfather to poet Lord Byron. Bulkeley is a savvy scribe, for he knows his journals need to reinforce the narrative he’s going to relay to the English admiralty.

Of course any relay is subject to a big-time fact conditional: getting off the blasted island. How this transpires is best left to the reader. But when the mutiny comes, the language used by the mutineers is similar in spirit to what American colonists will argue in the Declaration of Independence some 30 years later. Just as the mutineers name their despot, Captain Cheap, so will the Declaration’s signers name theirs: King George III. In essence, Enlightenment precepts were used, arguing that it’s not they who were in rebellion but their disgraced leaders, men who failed those they were charged to lead.

One faction makes it back to England before the other, commencing the race to peddle a narrative. There are plenty of London broadsheets more than willing to print the various stories from those on the Wager. For the crew, it’s more than an abstract winning of hearts and minds. It’s about solidifying a narrative that will be told to Royal Navy authorities. Under naval codes, punishment for dereliction of duty was already greatly feared by officers and sailors alike. Grann quotes Voltaire’s “Candide,” saying “that the English believed it proper to ‘kill an admiral from time to time in order to encourage the others.’” The admiralty’s ultimate decision is both unexpected and telling.

The Wager is every bit the historical thriller, deserving of the praise it’s garnered. But Grann is also asking the reader to consider larger questions. Why was it necessary to send out warships at all? The events happened under the auspices of the War for Jenkins’ Ear. And if—just by name alone—this sounds like a ridiculous undertaking, you’re not far off. Lives were lost, all in service of…what exactly? Quite a few of the Wager’s crew disappear from the historical record. Grann also mentions the many slaves lost (read: killed) in the Middle Passage during this time period. It’s no accident these nameless lives rarely entered any record at all, except perhaps as a ledger expense. Those responsible certainly had no interest in highlighting such barbarity. Says Grann: “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

We meet “the girl” as she runs through a land that’s “innocent of story.” She thinks not of what‘s being left behind, lest she “die of grief.” She’s fleeing a settlement where even the good have become awful. Through snow and ice she runs, “speed and fear” constituting her sails.

We never learn of the girl’s name. The girl doesn’t know it either. In The Vaster Wilds, Lauren Groff’s harrowing new novel, there’s plenty left unnamed. Though the settlement from which she flees is unidentified, think of Jamestown during “the starving time” to provide some orientation. And just as the Old World meeting the New World provides an overriding theme of disorientation, so too does the struggle of the immediate. The girl is in trouble, and we are with her every step of the way.

Wise beyond her years, she seems to know that survival requires her to suppress any emotion that may lead to a loss of control, thus hastening her demise. “O do not cry, girl,” she tells herself upon meeting the dead eye of a frozen fish that’s just below the river’s ice, “its blue lips pressed in a kiss to the surface,” a fish she subsequently devours. Being of such a low station does truck one advantage: there’s scant much to her past she wishes to hold. “A nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past.”

Nonetheless, she’s ghosted by the few individuals who extended her kindness. And she aches when thinking of the toddler with whom she was charged, it being not a “labor of serving but rather a labor of adoration, and thus almost no work at all.” What she clings to now are the few inanimate objects vital for survival, personifying them in turn. “The hatchet was blunt but faithful, the knife was two-faced and angry but always ready…”

Wilderness survival is new to the girl, but basic survival is not. For it’s not just the natural world that’s red in tooth and claw. Predators, she knows, live among the civilized as well. Still, it’s civilization she again seeks. She has a vague sense that there are French to the north and a great ocean to the west that may harbor an English ship. (She’s already experienced the ocean to the east.) Until then, it’s the monotony of daily survival along with moments of abject terror.

It’s not only man and beast she fears (more so the former than the latter), but also her “own small starved feverish self.” Onward she plods, equating nature’s vulnerabilities as her own: the exposed roots of an overturned tree, “tender as toothaches.” And she knows that those who dwell on this land should fear her too, as she carries the scourge of her civilization: disease.

There are fleeting moments of levity such as when the girl watches “a huge porpentine walk his bristles through the undergrowth with the weary pomp of a crowned prince.” But this is not a Robinson Crusoe tale. Nor is the girl becoming physically stronger like Buck in The Call of the Wild.

The reader can ponder much about the book’s themes. The story’s premise essentially has them jumping off the page. At times, Groff is pretty much stating them. Ordinarily this would be a touch annoying. Themes are good, stating them less so. But it works here because the reality of the unnamed girl out in the unnamed wild is such a stark one. The girl can’t help but think of the nature of dominion, what it meant back in England and the settlement, and what it means now out in the wild.

Or don’t ponder any of this at all and just follow the girl. Groff’s writing is vibrant. So it’s reason enough to join in, even if this beautiful writing is being used to describe horrible things.

The girl is deep into the woods. Because of her sporadic delirium, she often views herself as the keeper of civilization. But the urgencies of the moment are becoming too much, and the only thing that’s real is what’s upon her. As a result, what’s unnecessary starts to leave her concern. It’s through her struggles she’s learning to let go. The Sun becomes her benediction. And even though she’s heretofore been pious, yearning for another life beyond death, a deliverance from hardship, there is—right now—“no angels, no harps, no gates, no fires singeing the sins back into the sinner.” No, “there was only wind drawing itself endlessly over the dark crowns of the pines… And feel it now, so soft, so eternal, this wind against your good and living skin.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine by S.C. Gwynne

Word association with “airship” probably yields responses ranging from “Goodyear Blimp” to “Hindenburg.” Perhaps there’s also a vague sense that airships had their greatest run in popularity during the early 20th century, transatlantic crossings and all. In His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, S.C. Gwynne unfurls this period with a white-knuckled briskness. Entertaining as it is edifying, it recounts many moments that left me in near disbelief.

An early chapter entitled “Brief History of a Bad Idea” pretty much sums up airships in the main. First, they were filled with an explosive gas: hydrogen. Helium was a known alternative, but its extraction was in the nascent stages. Case in point, in 1905 the “world’s supply of helium…remained on a shelf at the University of Kansas in three small flasks.” Second, airships were notoriously difficult to fly. Wind speeds, along with constant gas expansions and contractions, required constant ballast and lift adjustments.

Even with these substantial detriments, Gwynne notes that lighter-than-air travel was still seen as a viable consideration, especially since heavier-than-air travel (the airplane) was literally just getting off the ground. In the early 1900s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin ushered in the era of rigid airships (dirigibles, or “big rigids”), eventually captivating the German public. His Zeppelins must have been a grand sight, all eyes on the cigar-shaped airships floating overhead, each over 400 hundred feet in length.

Gwynne says that Count Zeppelin’s worldview was “more feudal kingdom than Europe of La Belle Époque.” This is telling in that World War I looms, with Germany growing increasingly militaristic. These new airships were seen less as travel vessels and more as a means to drop munitions in times of war. In fact, German schoolchildren were taught a song that included the verse “Fly, Zeppelin! Fly to England! England shall be destroyed by fire!”

Still, Zeppelin’s company wanted to showcase its airships’ travel capabilities. In 1910, a handful of passengers embarked on what was supposed to be a three-hour luxury flight. What the flight actually did was underscore the unavoidable problem with airships: navigating through storms is harrowing, if not impossible. A storm tripled the flight’s duration, often sending it flying backward, with the crew finally admitting to passengers that they had no idea what to do.

German airships decidedly did not destroy England by fire during World War I. Quite the opposite. They were easily shot down. Given this, it’s somewhat puzzling that Great Britain would vigorously pursue its own airship program. Yet it didn’t take long before its own airship program would astound, for in 1919 a British airship crossed the Atlantic Ocean (twice). To add perspective, Lindbergh made his famous solo flight in 1927.

Gwynne provides many tales of derring-do associated with these airship flights, all with the backdrop that a mere spark from static electricity could send the ship ablaze. The flights included wild altitude spikes that left most crew members scrambling for footing, let alone controlling the ship. Given the vast catalog of mechanical errors, it’s amazing that the ocean’s vastness was traversed at all. Regardless, to many a Brit, the successful to and fro flights were evidence of English pluck and resourcefulness.

Ten years later, Lord Christopher Thomson, holding the fantastic title of Secretary of State for Air, sought to navigate Britain’s immense imperial skies via airship. In Cardington, England, he spearheaded the building of the R101. At 777 feet it was the world’s longest airship to date. Millions of cubic feet of hydrogen were held within gasbags made of cattle intestines. Riggers working within the cavernous hangar would either sing or hum as a safety precaution. If workers on the ground noticed that the riggers above were carrying on with high-pitched voices, they knew to alert them that they were slowly being asphyxiated by an odorless gas leak.

The whole enterprise was a boozy affair. Workers of all stripes consumed vast amounts of spirits throughout the building process. When R101 was brought out for test flights, it was docked atop a mooring mast, over one hundred feet high. One night, selected guests were invited aboard for drinks and a tour of the ship. As the drinks flowed, winds tussled the moored ship. At the end of the night, some of the more intoxicated guests believed that they had actually flown.

Thomson, a Savile Row-clad chap, pushed R101’s designers and builders to be ready for a 1930 flight to India. As the date neared, both engineers and crew alike knew the ship was not ready. It was too heavy to sustain lift for such a long flight. There were precious few mooring masts between England and India, so it had to stay aloft. Thomson pushed ahead anyway. He had a schedule to keep. A state dinner in India was timed in conjunction with his landing in India, plus one in London upon his return.

It’s unclear why he forged ahead in the face of these concerns. Thomson had spent so much of his career striving. Would a successful flight lead to his becoming viceroy of India? He had also spent so much of his adult life trying to impress a Romanian princess: Marthe Bebesco. Would a post in India bring them closer? Even Thomson’s best friend, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, was confused as to why the flight went forth.

In 1930, Thomson and 47 others perished aboard R101 en route to India. They didn’t even make it to Paris. The growing popularity of radio made the fiery crash a world-wide mass media event. Gwynne provides a thorough investigation of the R101 crash, piecing together what little is known and making a convincing case as to why it crashed then and there. What was known at the time of the crash: no amount of future swashbuckling was in store for the British airship program.

Upon seeing R101 just outside its hangar, Gwynne notes that one British observer stated that it looked like an “ambitious toy.” I thought something similar years ago when I saw the Goodyear Blimp, remarking that it looked like an overgrown party favor. But it’s also a reminder that history is full of ambition and folly. Thomson’s predecessor remarked that Thomson possessed the “sin of impatience.” Hard to argue against that. He will be forever tied to the R101 disaster. Yet we also learn in Gwynne’s fine book that Thomson was also instrumental in bolstering the Royal Air Force, an entity that would prove essential in thwarting Nazi attempts to destroy England by fire.

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Review by Jason Sullivan

Trust by Hernan Diaz

How vast individual wealth is amassed often hits its mark in biographies. We know the usual suspects: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Jobs. Within each is a story of a commodity or a manufactured good, something tangible for the mind’s eye. Concentrated wealth by way of finance capital is a more nebulous biographic endeavor. Rarer still are novelizations about finance capitalists.

If such a novel sounds beyond dull and has you mentally placing it back on the shelf, then this year’s co-winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction should have you reconsidering. I’ll take it even further: If there’s one novel I would recommend, here and now, it would be Trust by Hernan Diaz, the aforementioned winner. It’s a brilliant work told in four parts, each with a different narrator. As such, it’s tempting to label all narrators as unreliable. Fair enough, yet some narratives appear truer than others, with each casting doubt on what you think you’ve already learned. Throughout, the reader is putting together an intriguing narrative puzzle: Who are Benjamin and Helen Rask?

The novel begins with a novella that reads like a biography that’s essentially free of dialogue. Written by a man named Harold Vanner, he pens as his first sentence: “Because he had enjoyed every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise.” Bookish and solitary, a young Rask enters the 20th century with “no appetites to repress.” When his father dies during his senior year of high school, “relatives and acquaintances alike were impressed by Benjamin’s composure, but the truth was that mourning simply had given the natural dispositions of this character a socially recognizable form.”

To say that he’s without appetite is somewhat of a misnomer. True, the tobacco business that yields great generational wealth within the Rask family bores him. Using that wealth to buy and sell securities decidedly does not bore him. In fact, as he moves through early adulthood, the New York financial community is awed by his ability to capitalize on the market.

But Rask has a problem. His localized fame works against his need for solitude. Continuing his monastic life carries the risk of being labeled, understatedly, “a character.” Rask is cognizant enough to know “there was nothing more conspicuous than anonymity.” He finds the remedy in Helen Brevoort, his future wife. It’s more than a marriage of convenience. They both share ravenous intellectual curiosities. Helen, too, craves a life of the mind. Yet she’s more adroit in crafting their image, understanding that “privacy requires a public facade.” She and Benjamin host numerous gatherings at their New York City mansion, notably chamber orchestra performances.

Throughout their marriage, the Rask fortune grows to levels that leave other financiers wondering exactly how this was achieved. Helen, in turn, uses this wealth to become the nation’s leading benefactor of the arts. Then comes the stock market crash of 1929.

Rather than being ruined, the Rasks inexplicably profit from the crash. They are vilified in the newspapers, Benjamin accused of orchestrating the calamity for personal gain. The Rasks become social pariahs before a brutal illness takes Helen’s life. In the end, despite their lavish parties, no one can say that they really knew the Rasks.

The novel’s second narrator is a financier who worked during the time in question. The novel’s third narrator is Ida Partenza, a woman who’s recalling—many decades later—her employment by the second narrator. And the final narrator’s diary entries completely change the novel’s tone, revealing and answering much. To expound on these narrations here would steal some of the novel’s thunder.

I say “some” because even if someone had disclosed what was to come, I would have devoured the novel nonetheless. Diaz’s writing is exquisite. He captures the voices of the learned, ranging from securities traders to cultural elites. He can also jettison any high-mindedness and share the musings of someone—regardless of socioeconomic class—who’s nearing the great equalizer: death. “Is the strawberry in my mouth alive? Or is its flesh, speckled with the unborn, already dead?”

Partenza’s narration also reveals a life outside the rarefied air of the wealthy. She and her Italian immigrant father are barely surviving the Great Depression in their Brooklyn apartment. It doesn’t help that her father is a self-styled anarchist who detests the very concept of money, a quasi-Marxist who can’t stand the Marxists in power. Still, he and the financier who employs Ida have something in common. They both see the economic depression as a corrective, but for vastly different reasons.

Ida loves her father and doesn’t necessarily disagree with some of his views; yet she finds his dogma insufferable, bordering on fascistic. She can’t help but take some pleasure in knowing that her father must accept that her income comes from a finance capitalist, money that keeps them housed. This period of her long life is short, but a certain person and event within it will also become the standard by which she will forever “measure hatred.”

The stories within Trust surround how paper capital begets more paper capital. But it’s also a story about how views on money bleed into all interactions, whether someone realizes it or not. It’s a story about how reality can be made to fit mistakes, about the “bizarre sort of violence in having…memories plagiarized.” Some of life’s narratives are born of deceit, becoming earnestly told and believed with each retelling.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

There’s a refrain that spans time and distance. When circumstances are what they are, someone will shrug and say, “It is what it is.” In Dennis Lehane’s gritty new novel, Small Mercies, the residents of 1970s South Boston say this, along with such things as “Whatta ya gonna do.” It’s not a question, of course, because it’s a given that, with some things, there’s nothing you can do. The Irish American inhabitants of South Boston embrace both pride and defeat. They proudly call their neighborhood Southie, yet they know that no matter how hard they work, being poor is a lifelong reality. It is what it is.

Mary Pat Fennessy’s first husband died and her second husband walked out on her. After her son returned from the Vietnam War, he became hooked on heroin and overdosed. So that leaves just her and her teenage daughter, Julia (or Jules), sharing an apartment in Southie’s Commonwealth housing project.

Mary Pat “looks like she came off a conveyor belt for tough Irish broads.” She’s small, but—as with so many other Southie kids who grew up in “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots” households—she’s ready to fight. Her mother once told her, “You’re either a fighter or a runner. And runners always run out of road.” Not that Mary Pat needed to be told that, really. It’s not as though there was anywhere to run within the cramped household.

Jules is different. There’s a softness to her that Mary Pat has never known but nevertheless tries to foster. Once, when walking with Mary Pat, Jules explodes into tears on a Southie sidewalk, prompting stares from others. Mary Pat, in turn, holds her daughter, proud “of this weak child she’s borne.”

Still, it’s Southie after all, where “most kids come out of the womb clutching a Schlitz and a pack of Luckies.” Here, Jules is no different, which Mary Pat accepts. And if Jules can stay away from some harsher influences (such as the heroin that killed her brother), she might be okay, Mary Pat thinks.

There’s something else raising May Pat’s ire. It’s 1974 and a court-ordered mandate to desegregate public schools is galvanizing Southie. Some white students from South Boston High School are to be bused to Roxbury High School, a predominately African American school. Jules is going into her senior year assigned to Roxbury. Mary Pat is having none of this. Nor are Southie residents accepting that some Roxbury students will attend South Boston High.

It’s in this charged environment that a young black man is found murdered in Southie. On the same night, Jules goes missing. A homicide detective, Bobby Coyne, investigates the murder as Mary Pat desperately tries to find her daughter. Are the murder and disappearance related? Bobby knows that he has a tall order in trying to solve a murder in Southie, its residents an “unknowable tribe.” Mary Pat, part of that tribe, must cross boundaries within her own neighborhood, which takes her into the world of Marty Butler, a neighborhood mobster who’s clearly a stand-in for real-life mobster Whitey Bulger.

Lehane not only keeps the plot rolling, his characters have depth. And throughout, there are nuances that place you right in the scene. When Mary Pat’s niece, for example, is described as “a girl who’s always managed to be twitchy and listless at the same time,” we see her, know her a little already. And, trust, Mary Pat certainly doesn’t stand apart from her neighbors when it comes to prejudices.

The Southie in this novel is not unlike other enclave neighborhoods. It possesses both benevolence and hate. It has a mobster who claims to protect his neighborhood, his people. But in reality, it’s “his people” he hurts the most. It, like neighboring Roxbury, has parents willing to do anything to protect their children from harm. But they know that, in the end, they can’t.

“It is what it is” may seem like a throwaway line. Frequently it is, to be sure. But it also embodies the heartbreaking reality that we, at times, live in an unjust world that metes out punishment for the simple audacity of being alive. The poet Charles Bukowski said there’s often “pain without reason.” Sure, you can unpack the events. But as Bobby says to Mary Pat: “This life. You know? Try and make sense of it.” Well, she does see how it is. And she’s done with anything resembling “Whatta ya gonna do.” She’s rendering judgments. And those on the receiving end had better watch out.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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Rikers: An Oral History by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau

A perk of landing at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is the resplendent rollout of the Manhattan skyline. As you descend into the maw of a great city, you’ll find it outside your left window. Taking off from LaGuardia, you’ll find another famous—albeit grimmer—NYC scene, this time just outside your right window: Rikers Island.
There’s exactly one narrow bridge leading to the East River island. And if you’re on it, leaving Queens, it means you’re heading to New York City’s largest jail complex. It’s been in operation for almost a hundred years and has, over the decades, become known by its prisoners as the “House of Dead Men.”
In Rikers: An Oral History, journalists Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau show what life is like inside the jail by sharing the experiences of both prisoners and staff. While the inmate population is constantly in flux, the average prisoner staying around four months, violence is a constant. Regardless, whether the account is via a prisoner, a correctional officer, or a warden, taken all together, it’s a tale of horror.
Before a new prisoner is sorted into a specific jail (there are ten jails total for men, women, and adolescents), joining a total prison population of around 5,000, there’s the intake process. A recurring theme for new arrivals, including staff, is noticing the abject filth. Prisoners are placed in “holding pins” that are filled to capacity and then some. If you actually get a seat, consider yourself lucky. One former inmate states that “it’s crazy,” a pin filled with 60 prisoners, some of them on their third day of waiting for a jail assignment; plus, some are dope sick in a jammed-pack pin where the plumbing has long since stopped working.
Once in a jail, it—as with any jail—is a world unto itself. If you happen to be a member of a gang that has number superiority on a tier, life will be easier for you than for someone who’s not similarly gang affiliated. This is especially true when it comes to phone access. Throughout the book there’s a consistent theme: gangs control who gets to use the phones, not the officers. In fact, historically, some of the officers have been gang members themselves. In the summer, there’s the risk of heat exposure in some cells. (One inmate died from the heat, a jail official actually saying, “He basically baked to death.”) There’s a chapter on the prison’s food, which I wish I had skipped.
This book is supposed to be a tough read, forcing us to face what incarceration actually looks like. And when it comes to reading about the treatment of the adolescents (and the mentally ill) inside Rikers, it almost shatters your belief in humanity. According to accounts, incarcerated teens were often forced to fight each other, which was unofficially sanctioned, if not outright encouraged, by guards. The adolescent jail became known as “gladiator school.”
One teen was held in Rikers for three years without a trial. (His parents couldn’t afford to make his bail.) Once released, the trauma of the experience was the stated reason for his suicide. What was the alleged offense that led to his lengthy incarceration? He stole a backpack.
It’s important to keep in mind that most of the prisoners in Rikers have yet to have their day in court. In fact, many wait so long for a court date, it’s faster to plead guilty, whereby credit for time served allows for an expedited release. Of course, doing so means they now have a record that will absolutely be used against them in the future. On the revolving-door nature of the system, one judge says, “I feel like I’m handing out a life sentence to these people, but I’m doing it thirty days at a time.”
One older ex-cop from Barbados refused to plead guilty, stating that he was charged with “steering.” His arrest went like this. While sitting on his stoop in Brooklyn, a man approached him asking to buy drugs. The ex-cop told him that such activity did not happen on his corner, that he would have to go down to a different corner. Thus, “steering” the man to an illegal drug purchase. He refused to admit that he did anything of the sort, sitting in Rikers for two years before the charges were dropped.
Humanity is a scarce resource behind prison walls. But educational programs, especially theater and poetry courses (not surprisingly, humanities courses both) are often brief lifelines to inmates, guilty or innocent. One inmate says, “the most horrible thing about being locked up is that you are dehumanized on a daily basis. In order to navigate the experience, you have to normalize the dehumanization. You have to buy into it in order to survive. Once you internalize it, you project it outward. If you are being dehumanized, that’s how you treat other people. That to me is the essence of incarceration: having to buy into the dehumanization.”
The New York City Council voted to close Rikers by 2026. The experiences in this book certainly seem to underscore that decision. But there’s still the question: Then what? That’s where opinions diverge dramatically.
Until then, Rikers is a reality, and there’s still one piece of advice older inmates sometimes dispense to younger inmates. When it’s time to leave Rikers and you’re on that narrow bridge out, don’t look back. “Don’t ever look back or else you’ll come back.”

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe

If you peruse a public library’s nonfiction section, you’ll eventually wander into a grizzly sector: true crime. Chances are you won’t bump into me there. While “understanding” the psychoses of serial killers is laudable, I can’t shake the horrid end that came to their victims. So, I’ll usually find something else to read, thanks. Still, true crime as a subject encompasses much, and there are some gripping tales out there.

Patrick Radden Keefe knows his way through the genre, writing about political murder in Northern Ireland as well as chronicling one family’s machinations in pushing painkiller drugs that fueled an opioid crisis. His latest book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, a collection of articles that originally ran in The New Yorker, hooked me straight away.

Wine fraud is a given in the wine-collecting market. Rare wine attracts wealthy collectors, which in turn begets swindlers. Keefe tells us of what happened when one billionaire was duped into buying wine that was purported to belong to Thomas Jefferson. The billionaire, Bill Koch (of Koch brothers fame), made it his mission to seek retribution, spending more for this satisfaction than what he spent on the bogus wine. Entertaining, to be sure. But, to me, Keefe’s exploration of the wine market, where fakes often best originals in tastings, is where the essay thrives.

Also, judging by his wine ledgers, Thomas Jefferson certainly liked to lean into a bottle. According to Keefe, Jefferson “might also have been America’s first great wine bore,” as evidenced from John Quincy Adams’ diary. After one dinner with Jefferson in 1807, Adams noted, “There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines. Not very edifying.”

There’s an article on Mark Burnett, the man who brought us such television shows as “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” the latter styling Donald Trump as an icon of business success. It’s yet another stark reminder that there are those who underscore what can be promoted and sold over what is fact. Nothing new there. However, when one assumes the presidency on this marketed foundation, we should all take pause.

Keefe writes of a Swiss bank heist and of an international arms broker. Financial scandals are unpacked, as well as an account of a man seeking justice for his brother, a victim of the Lockerbie bombing. There’s an article on a criminal defense attorney who defends some of the most heinous criminals. Her representation is not to prove their innocence; she’s trying to keep them off death row by humanizing them in the eyes of the jury. Not an easy job, that.

There’s the Dutch gangster who kidnapped Freddy Heineken (of the beer dynasty) for ransom. A more violent gangster is profiled in Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former leader of a brutal Mexican drug and money-laundering cartel. Despite their fame, the daily lives of both gangsters read as positively banal, with Guzmán having to change up residences every few days to evade capture. It’s the opposite of glamorous. He and his family tediously schlep their belongings from house to house. (There is, however, an occasional mad dash through a sewer.)

Perhaps the most chilling article concerns Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist who was denied tenure at the University of Alabama. At the next faculty meeting, she shot and killed three coworkers. At first, the story appears to highlight the pressures of academic life. But there is so much more to Bishop’s life story. As dangerous as, say, Guzmán is, his violence emerged from a violent upbringing. With Bishop, however, the source of her murderous ways is not so easily explained.

The last article features Anthony Bourdain, the chef turned writer (a talented one) and television travel host. Keefe states that part of Bourdain’s popularity springs from his circumventing “homogenized tourism.” As viewers, Keefe notes that we are given a “communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous.” In spite of Bourdain’s image as a rebel, Keefe found him to be “controlled to the point of neurosis…He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.”

Since these articles were published over a span of 15 years, there are addendums at the end of each. Doubtless, many readers already know that Bourdain committed suicide and that Guzmán is serving time at the supermax prison in Colorado. With each article, Keefe’s writing is a reminder of the value of longform journalism: giving complex stories the space to be thoroughly told and appreciated.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile by Candice Millard

The Victorian era conjures much to mind, and it’s often a word salad of Britishness: the Brontë sisters, tea and crumpets, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” It can go on and on. Conspicuous consumption had long been in place among the British aristocracy, where the finest of art was displayed to demonstrate one’s perceived cultural superiority. Now, with a vast empire flying the Union Jack, unsuspecting lands were potentially subject to British exploration and consumption. It wasn’t always about dominion. Often there was the want to learn and map what was, to them, the unknown.
And sometimes cultural hubris and genuine craving to know the world via exploration were entwined, as evidenced in River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile by Candice Millard. A book so expertly written, it becomes almost cinematic when read. It helps that Millard spools together material that almost sells itself. Foremost is Richard Burton, the “genius” part of the subtitle.
Born to a peripatetic British Army officer who wanted his son to have a proper English education, a young Burton experienced both the boarding school and, while living with his father at various worldly outposts, tutors. Wherever he lived, violence was a mainstay, and Burton gave it back in turn. Once he smashed a violin over his music tutor’s head. Eventually serving in the army of the East India Company, Burton cared to be anywhere but England. To the famous line “the vast (British) empire on which the sun never sets,” a young Burton sardonically added “nor rises.”
Burton excelled at languages, a tutor later stating that he “could learn a language running.” (He spoke 24 languages.) Attending Oxford University, he was insufferable to the dons. Millard notes that Burton often didn’t either know or care how others viewed him. This trait would later be of great consequence.
In 1853, and in his early thirties, Burton did the unthinkable and joined the annual pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Muslim. To the Christian world, the Hajj was full of mystery as only believers of the Islamic faith were allowed. Discovered nonbelievers were subject to the punishment of death. Millard says of Burton’s audacity for the journey, “It was an undertaking that simultaneously acknowledged what was most sacred to the Muslim faith and dismissed the right to protect it, making it irresistible to Burton, who studied every religion and respected none.”
Burton, having long since mastered Arabic, spent months dying his skin brown with henna. He didn’t have to worry about masquerading the color of his eyes. They were already about as dark as eyes can get. After meeting Burton, author Bram Stoker was so mesmerized it’s said that Burton’s look (all the way down to how Burton spoke, with the flash of the canine tooth) was his mental image during the writing of “Dracula.”
The excursion a success, and gaining him some renown, Burton set about contemplating his next exploration. It didn’t take long. The Royal Geographical Society had announced that finding the source of the White Nile would be answering one of the great geographical questions of the age. Burton, having been on the Nile only once and finding it a “double dullness” of scenery, leapt at the chance to venture into Africa’s interior, writing, “I shall strain every nerve to command it.”
Awarded the command, Burton needed additional military officers to join his party. Through a series of happenstances, Burton chose John Hanning Speke after meeting him at what today is Yemen. Speke was in many ways the opposite of Burton. Speke was firmly a member of the aristocracy. Whereas Burton was bookish and constantly preparing for his outings, Speke was decidedly not studious and seemed to live only to hunt game. But Speke had ostensible uses to Burton: an experienced traveler (by way of the army) with some surveying skills, and an excellent shot.
In 1855, as Burton and his party were commencing their trek into Africa’s interior, a Somali clan attacked their encampment. Speke was stabbed multiple times and Burton was speared in the face, the javelin going through one check and out the other. It’s miraculous they survived. A disaster, the expedition was abruptly over. More than anything, however, it was the resentment Speke developed against Burton that would have lasting significance. The impetus: During the attack, Speke stepped out and then immediately back into a tent, prompting Burton to say, “Don’t step back, or they will think we are retiring.” Speke took this as a charge of cowardice, internalizing the affront. Also, when Burton published his report on their brief expedition, he added some of Speke’s observations without sourcing them. Apparently, this was commonplace, as Speke was a subordinate. No matter, Speke started to turn on Burton.
Given Speke’s lack of knowledge concerning Africa (other than that there were hippopotamuses there he wanted to shoot), it’s surprising that Burton chose him for a return trip. It was woefully underfunded, but Burton made as many supply purchases and local African hires as possible. Millard notes that in England “armchair geographers and gentlemen scientists” were suspect of “native testimony.” Explorers knew better, however. Local knowledge was paramount. And the most beneficial hire Burton made was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former slave who was kidnapped as a boy and taken to India. He eventually achieved his freedom and returned to his homeland. Both Burton and Speke would go on to credit him for keeping a disparate caravan of personalities together throughout the 1856-1859 expedition.
Millard keeps the pages turning with tales of their many tribulations. In addition to crocodile-infested waters and the roars of lions at night, there were the columns of safari ants that sent the caravan into a frenzy, Burton journaling that it was “ludicrous to behold.” One night, Speke briefly lit a candle in an attempt to right his tent after a storm. He was immediately beset by black beetles. No amount of frantic gyrations could remove the swarm. Resigned to their presence for the night, and falling into a fitful sleep, he was shocked awake by a beetle burrowing into his ear. Attempting to remain calm, he tried pouring salt, oil, and melted butter into his ear. But the mandibles kept burrowing. In desperation, he stuck a penknife into his ear, killing the tormentor but also rendering him deaf in that ear for the remainder of his life. And then there were the diseases that almost killed Burton and Speke on more than one occasion.
After reaching a lake, the caravan double backed, eventually stopping to resupply. On word that a large body of water lay to the north, Speke and Bombay trekked to find it. Burton was too ill to make the journey; plus, he believed the lake they had just turned back from–but didn’t have the means to fully explore–was the Nile’s source. Reaching the southern end of Lake Nyanza, Speke was certain this was the source of the Nile.
Speke returned to England promising Burton (not yet medically cleared for sea voyage) that he would wait for him before reporting to the Geographical Society. He did not wait, and turned on Burton once and for all, slandering his competence and character. Speke eventually returned to Lake Nyanza, teaming up with Bombay once more, where they found the source of the Nile.
Although he didn’t have the scientific measurements to definitively prove it, Speke believed the matter of the Nile’s source closed, renaming it Lake Victoria. As the years passed, Speke’s vitriol spread to those who had once supported him, which is perhaps why he was goaded into publicly debating Burton, a spectacle that was sure to humiliate Speke. The debate never happened, as Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound the day before the event. Whether it was intentional or an accident is an open question.
Burton would always be perplexed by Speke’s actions. Once he learned of the catalog of grievances Speke had collected against him, he said the matter could have been settled had Speke addressed him directly. Burton could be aloof, but he had thought that, given their shared hardships, he and Speke had an unspoken comradery. But Speke was all British, where being second to just about anyone was not an option. Burton would live out the rest of his days famous and never fully accepting a British aristocracy that didn’t know what to make of him.
Then, and as Millard notes, there were the Africans who were not consulted on whether Burton and Speke should explore their lands at all. Bombay, who had every reason to resist an outsider’s presence, accepted them warmly, nonetheless. And then there were the people already around Lake Nyanza, from the southern inhabitants who believed the water extended to the edge of the world to those in the north who stood and watched as the water flowed into a great river, not knowing there was a whole civilization at the other end racing to find what was already found.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids by Scott Hershovitz

At the risk of alienating some readers right from the jump, I’ll go ahead and say that having children in your life is a blast, especially during the toddler years. My son and daughter are well past this age, but I revered being a part of their daily soaking up the world anew. All children are naturally curious of course. And all parents are exquisitely charged with introducing the world to them. It often feels just as much to our benefit as it is to theirs. For we too see the world anew and try to hold back any reflexive jadedness.
Scott Hershovitz, author of Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids, more than runs with his children’s curiosity: He’s teaching them how to think. Granted, when I first stumbled upon this book, I was dubious, thinking it would be too cute by half. You know, one of those “look at me as I try to learn/teach something with/to my kids and end up making a royal mess of it, all in an attempt to be humorous” books. But then I read the introduction. Hershovitz is a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan and clearly divulges his intent. “This book is inspired by kids, but it’s not for them. In fact, kids are my Trojan horse. I’m not after young minds. I’m after yours.” After reading that, I was all in.
Hershovitz maintains that all kids are philosophers not only because they ask “why” a whole heck of a lot but also from their need to know what’s in your mind. When your young daughter, for instance, asks what the color red looks like to you, she’s unknowingly carrying forward seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke’s shifted color spectrum question. She’s trying to make sense of what she sees by asking how you see it. It’s a deep question because she’s not only trying to understand her own consciousness but yours as well. As we get older, Hershovitz says we tend to stop asking such questions because we stopped seeing them as viable questions to ask. Given the difficulty—perhaps even the ineffability—of conveying what we experience, it’s understandable that we stop asking. Yet doing so trucks a price: often not understanding each other.
As a philosophy professor, Hershovitz is well poised to lead his young sons in practicing philosophy. He’s constantly asking them questions so that they have to think and reason through, well, just about everything. (A few times I thought, “Maybe ease up a little, yeah?”) But, as he said, the conversations he has with his kids are the set up for the broader topics. Thankfully, the exchanges are often humorous. (If you do pick up the book, you’ll behold a fair amount of cursing. Not only does Hershovitz admit that he curses freely, he makes the case for it. To wit: studies showing better group cohesion when cursing is allowed; also, people are better able to withstand physical pain when in the act of cursing. He has a whole chapter on language.)
In the chapter on “rights,” Hershovitz introduces a rather famous contemporary philosophical puzzle: the Trolley Problem. It goes like this. A runaway trolley car is careening down the track and will certainly kill five oblivious rail workers farther down. But you happen to be standing by the switch that can divert the car down another track. Unfortunately, there’s one worker on that track who will be killed if you, the Bystander at the Switch, redirect the trolley. What do you do? Allow five to die, or save five by actively killing one? Pose the question to whomever. I asked my teen-aged kids and found out that my 14-year-old already knew of the puzzle. So it didn’t take long for “what ifs” to fly. What if you knew the one solitary worker had a terminal illness? Would knowing this change your decision? What if one of the workers was a beloved relative (or a sworn enemy)? The broader question here is what rights do all of these workers have as they relate to your actions? “When you have a right, someone else has an obligation,” says Hershovitz. However, as we know, defining rights and obligations can be a tenuous endeavor. Yet they can’t be ignored. It’s why we debate such things as bioethics and the rules of war.
One day, one of Hershovitz’s sons confided that he was called a floofer doofer by a preschool classmate. (No one knows what a floofer doofer is. What is known, ostensibly, is that you don’t want to be called one.) While the details are sketchy, Hershovitz’s son retaliated in some fashion as he received a mild scolding from his teacher. Hershovitz did not scold his son nor lecture him about avoiding the temptation to retaliate. He has little use for the old saw “two wrongs don’t make a right.” To him, not only can the second wrong “set things right,” it probably shouldn’t even be called a wrong at all. The second wrong could, in fact, be called justice. It’s why we have a legal system, notes Hershovitz, who is also a law professor at Michigan. (He clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) He makes the case that, broadly speaking, “litigation is the best substitute for revenge.” And it can do double duty: rule against the wrongdoer and send a message to others that said wrongdoing will not be tolerated.
If this sounds basic and obvious, recall that Hershovitz is asking us to revisit concepts upon which we’ve set as our foundation, providing just enough conceptual history to add continuity. For instance, we learn of Aristotle’s thoughts on justice and Immanuel Kant’s theory on rights. This helps with understanding our institutions along with our more prosaic daily interactions. The questions start as basic, sure, but the answers are certainly not always obvious. Or, an answer may at first seem obvious to you but not to me. It’s not that I don’t understand your answer. I just have a few questions for how you arrived at the answer. And then we’re off.
As the book progresses, other traditional philosophical ideas are briefly explored, such as knowledge and truth. In the wrong hands, this thorough fare could be an arid one. But Hershovitz knows his audience and keeps it relatable. He describes, for example, how René Descartes’ theory of justified true belief once ruled the day among philosophers and for quite some time. You know something because you are justified in believing it true. But then, in 1963, a little known philosopher by the name of Edmund Gettier published a brief paper that upended this theory. Here’s my mashed-up version of his counterexample. You own a copy of Infinite Jest by the (great) David Foster Wallace. You’ve picked it up and read from it many times. You can even visualize where it sits on your bookshelf. Therefore, you are justified in believing that a copy of Infinite Jest is in your house. Indeed, there is a copy in your house. But here’s what you don’t know. Your spouse loaned out your copy to someone a few weeks ago. This someone then lost it. But then someone else just so happened to buy you a copy for your birthday (thinking you didn’t own it already) and mailed it to you. It’s sitting, wrapped, on your dining room table. Gettier would argue that you just got lucky there’s a copy in your house. But you actually didn’t know there was a copy in your house.
If the title of Hershovitz’s book sounds familiar, it comes from seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that with the absence of government, humans are back in the state of nature, where life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” And regarding government, Hershovitz makes the case that it’s not perceived oppressive governmental entities one needs to worry about (in the U.S. anyway). To him, legally speaking, it’s your employer. And there’s much else he covers, such as Cartesian dualism (back to Descartes again) and the subsequent “the ghost in the machine” derision that eventually followed.
Speaking of dualism, there’s a bit of that in Hershovitz’s approach. On the one hand, he absolutely steps back so that his sons (and others) think through an idea without undue persuasion. Yet, on the other hand, there are times when he seems to positively relish ending a debate by bringing down his tremendous intellect.
Whether you regularly engage with children or not, Hershovitz’s book is a reminder that the study of philosophy is frequently an exploration of how much we don’t know. And that’s okay. Often, through the process of learning what we don’t know, we actually learn quite a lot.

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The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World by Riley Black

It’s something we know without recalling perhaps when and where we learned it: The dinosaurs were taken out by an asteroid. (Well, the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. The avian dinosaurs—birds—made it.) The most famous of the Earth’s mass extinction events (its fifth), it happened around 66 million years ago. Without it, this very day could very easily still be in the age of the dinosaurs.
In The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, Riley Black not only takes us back to the impact event but also briskly carries us forward, from the first hour after the asteroid slammed into what is now known as the Yucatán Peninsula to one million years later. She shows us just what exactly the earth’s flora and fauna experienced, and would continue to experience, during this cataclysm. While other mass extinctions may have eliminated a higher percentage of the earth’s species, it took much longer (millions of years) to do so. The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction that Black details happened remarkably fast. It’s about as wild a ride as you can imagine: millions of years of evolution “undone in mere moments.”
Black notes that it’s important to understand the role the phenomenon known as contingency played. “Not all impacts are equal,” she says. The asteroid that smacked into Siberia about 35 million years ago was larger than the one from K-Pg. Yet it didn’t spur world-wide devastation. Impact angle and the type of rock receiving the space-punch mattered. So had the dinosaur-killing asteroid landed somewhere else on earth, conceivably the opportunities for mammals to climb atop the evolutionary ladder would not have materialized.
But it landed where it did. A “deadly crag,” it spanned about 7.5 miles across. And, traveling in excess of 44,000 mph, it was exceptionally fast. “If we were to stand at a single point and try to watch its passage, we would feel it rather than see it,” states Black. To make matters worse, it landed at a lethal 45-degree angle. There was instant vaporization where it hit coastal water. Tsunamis resulted, hundreds of feet high. Earthquakes spread. In present day Montana, dinosaurs there would have felt the impact in about fifteen minutes.
The earth, so violently shook, tossed up unfathomable amounts of dust and debris, darkening the sky. Billions of tons of sulfur and carbon dioxide were flung into the atmosphere. Then the debris started its descent, igniting fires. Any animal that could take shelter did of course. And if it could burrow, all the better. Climate change was almost immediate. Within the first day, fires engulfed the earth, a pure hellscape.
Already, just finding shelter above ground was proving futile. If an animal couldn’t dive into soil or water, it was in desperate straits. Temperatures climbed. This was a big problem for the gargantuan non-avian dinosaurs who were already prone to overheating. Black says it well and succinctly: “Evolution prepared them for the world of tomorrow, and perhaps the day after, but not for this.”
As the world burned, the debris created “a vast dome over the atmosphere.” Sunlight became scarce. This was the “impact winter,” a period of endless night. The days turned into years and then the acid rain started, slowly degrading the nutrients vegetation needs to grow.
One thousand years later the earth’s biodiversity was (surprise) greatly compromised, “shot through with gaps.” However, this created opportunities for the surviving organisms clinging to the happenstances they were dealt. Here’s one: Algae kept the oceans alive. Another one, going back to the first days after impact: The first primates could have perished (but did not of course) in the ubiquitous tree fires. (Black also notes that ferns, “a disaster taxon,” did very well during the recovery.)
One hundred thousand years after impact the earth was shaking off the coldness of winter, the forests growing higher. As we move to one million years, flowering plants proliferated, which in turn burgeoned insects. And as Black points out, such insects were a boon to primates, as they provided a source of nourishment.
Throughout the book, Black’s fascination with dinosaurs is palpable. She strikes me as a dinosaur-loving kid who grew up never having lost her wonder. And it’s as though she feels guilty they had to perish in order for her to exist and subsequently long for them. While most of us stop short of such longing, she does explain our collective intrigue of dinosaurs very well. We try to wrap our minds around the fact that such colossal creatures once ruled the earth and for such a long period of time. Whether gazing at their remains in a museum or watching a T-Rex redux chase down some poor human on screen, we can’t get enough. And to Black, it’s more than that. “Dinosaurs live again where our imagination touches bone, the consequences of impact creating a great, constantly unfolding puzzle in which the discovery of every new fossil feels like a victory. Against the odds, this creature was fossilized. And against the odds, we found it.”
Black soberly reminds us that, in the end, “extinction comes for all species,” the dinosaur fossils a “memento mori.” Dinosaurs were on earth for over 165 million years, yet they are long gone. And as we gaze up at their erected fossils, it’s natural to wonder what will become of us. Will we end by chance or by our own undoing? Either way, we know life, some form of life, will persist. Here’s Black, once again sharing her awe: “From the time life originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment.”

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