My Goodreads review of “Rosewater”

Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy, #1)Rosewater by Tade Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this novel, considering what a horrible person the narrator is. Kaaro steals, cheats, and lies. He’s angry, impatient, insolent, violent, and lazy. He disobeys superiors and abuses people when he thinks they deserve it or when he just doesn’t care. But he’s also honest with the reader, observant, and often a victim of people worse than himself who exploit him, so his anger is righteous. So is his fear. And his love.

Kaaro finds himself in the middle of a ghastly situation. Aliens have come to Earth, but little is known about them. As a result of their presence and the changes they’ve made to the planet, Kaaro is a “sensitive”: he has certain psychic powers. These powers get him in and out of all kinds of trouble. Slowly, episodically, he learns more about the aliens and his abilities, and none of what he learns is good.

The author, Tade Thompson, displays his skill, moving through Kaaro’s past and present to weave a coherent, expanding, multi-faceted disaster. He makes Kaaro, with all his faults, the perfect person to tell a spellbinding story. This is the first of a trilogy, and the series is nominated for a 2020 Hugo Award. On the basis of the first novel, it’s a strong contender.

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The thoughts that gave us skyscrapers


Skyscrapers were invented in Chicago. Historians argue that their development had at least two causes: the economic need for intense urban land use, and technological improvements such as iron-framed structures and elevators, which made their construction possible. I believe, more romantically, that Chicago gave birth to skyscrapers also because the land is flat flat flat, and people longed for the emotional exhilaration of vertical elements in landscapes. As soon as Chicagoans could, they started building habitable mountains.

To support my thesis that the skyline is architectural melodrama, I offer quotes from two men who played key roles in the development of the city’s skyscrapers.

Daniel Burnham was a founding partner of the architectural firm Burnham and Root, which in 1881 was commissioned to create the Montauk Building, the tallest structure in Chicago at the time. Because of its soaring height, the word “skyscraper” was coined to described it: an astonishing 10 stories tall.

Burnham, an ambitious man, also played key roles in the design of the 1893 World’s Fair: the Columbian Exposition and in the creation of the Plan of Chicago, which gave the city, among other gems, its lakefront parks. In 1910, in a speech at the Town Planning Conference in London,he said:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistancy. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Louis Sullivan, another notable Chicago architect and a man of deep philosophical beliefs, did not have a favorable opinion of Burnham, calling him “a colossal merchandiser” obsessed with size and cost. He also thought the pseudo-classical style of the 1893 World’s Fair had set back modern American architecture by forty years.

Sullivan’s aesthetics inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School of architecture. His skyscraper designs incorporated girders and led to taller, slender buildings, which he often adorned with cast-iron or terra cotta motifs. In the March 1896 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine, he wrote of an architect’s emotion in the article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”:

“…what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone of its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it, the true exitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line — that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of the most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.

“The man who designs in this spirit and with the sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.”

The words of these two men aspire to lofty, staggering, magical exultation, and to mountain-making melodrama. They gave us the skyline that remains the boast and thrill of Chicago, a triumph of height over length and breadth. Can we equal that forward-looking ambition in our own time? What can we do that would remake lives a century from now? What spirit stirs us today?

To make this time different

BLMI haven’t said anything here about the recent Black Lives Matter protests and events. Frankly, I don’t have much to add to the insight being imparted elsewhere, except for one aspect that I want to underline.

This is going to be a long haul. Speaking as a white person to white people, we need to be ready to work for years, even our whole lives. (Black people are already there.)

The opposition will fight back. Among other strategies, it will try to use attrition — it always does. There’s money to be made by blocking justice, enough money to pay skilled people to work full time to fight to maintain white supremacy. You and I who make our livings in other ways can devote fewer of our own resources. White supremacists want to wear us down so we’ll give up, discouraged.

But just like an optical illusion, once you see what’s happening, you won’t get fooled. Exhaustion is a trick they’re playing on us. Rest if you must, but don’t stop.

If you haven’t done much so far, that’s okay. I was moved by the mass protests, but I’m worried about Covid-19, so I only went to a small, neighborhood protest, holding my little home-made sign. Covid-19 will be gone eventually. There will still be lots to do, and we’ll have more freedom to do it. Meanwhile, I’m helping with funding and carrying out projects from isolation. We’ll all find a role.

If you don’t think you understand the issue well enough, that’s okay. Read books, watch videos, and seek out Black viewpoints. It’s not Black people’s burden to teach us, but they are generously sharing an enormous wealth of wisdom.

If your life leaves you with little to give, at a minimum, register and vote. If you think voting doesn’t matter, then why would anyone try to suppress it?

Finally, whatever you do, make a material, not symbolic, difference. This little TikTok video by Joy Oladokun skewers fast, superficial cures to racism.

Words and expressions first used in the year when I was born

SueBurkeToddler235I recently had a birthday. Can you guess how long ago I was born? Here are some words that were first recorded that year by Merriam-Webster. Some of the words surprised me.

big bang theory
fabric softener
hidden agenda
intensive care unit
liner notes
New Left
red panda

Find out which year and see more of its surprising words at Time Traveler.

Dad’s three rules for workplace success


Headshot of my father


For Father’s Day

Late one Friday decades ago when the fish weren’t biting, Dad decided that instead of trying to catch those uncooperative fish, he and I could spend our time better having a beer at the little tavern in Green Lake Terrace, Wisconsin, where we had a summer home.

From the comfort of a bar stool, he told me three secrets to success at work — and he’d had a variety of experiences in life.

1. Always stay as polite as you can for as long as you can. If you start out mad, where can you go from there? Besides, if you’re polite, calm, and rational, the person you’re dealing with will feel obliged to act that way, too, and this is more likely to lead to success.

My dad added that this can require calculated self-control, and the moment might come when politeness doesn’t work. He earned the nickname “the bastard” at work for his ability to be impolitely assertive in a self-controlled, calculated way when he had to. For example, a machine had been delivered that didn’t work right, and in heavy manufacturing, operating errors can kill people. The supplier refused to fix the machine. Finally, my dad talked to the supplier and explained in simple Anglo-Saxon words why they had to fix their machine or else — and they finally understood the situation.

My father didn’t teach me how to swear, but he taught me when to swear.

2. Always remember that the people who work for you have it in their power to determine whether you’re a success or not. Treat them as well as you can. If your employees hate you, they have no incentive to work harder than they need to. In fact, they might even make things fail out of spite. This has actually happened.

But if your employees know you’re trying your best to get them what they need, fighting on their behalf with the powers that be, and respecting them, they’ll go the extra mile. Experienced workers treasure a good boss. My dad added that for some reason, good bosses seem to be rare.

3. Always tip bartenders. Bartenders remember regular customers who tip, and that means you’ll have a friend in the room.

When my dad entertained clients, he could pre-arrange for his friendly bartender to quietly slip him non-alcoholic drinks while the others were getting what they actually ordered. It helped to be clandestinely sober during business discussions.

This secret to success extends to all kinds of people who don’t work for you but who have a working relationship with you. If you appreciate them, they’ll return the favor in their area of expertise. Be on good terms with janitors, for example. They know more about the building than you ever will.