What I’ve Been Reading (in Quarantine)

Reading while sheltering-in-place:

1. Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World by Peter Zeihan.

Zeihan, a foreign policy and geopolitics guru, is having a moment right now. A lot of people in tech are reading him and enjoying his bearish take on China and bullish take on America — among other provocative predictions.

This is his latest book. I found it informative. Much of it is a country-by-country analysis of the country’s prospects for the next 50-100 years. It reminded me of Stratfor newsletters, which I used to subscribe to. While I enjoyed Disunited Nations as someone who follows foreign affairs reasonably closely, I’m surprised this book has achieved such a mainstream audience — it’s rather in the weeds geopolitically. I found myself skimming pages about countries I’m not as interested in.

Zeihan’s overall argument seems right: The American-led order — pax Americana — is collapsing and in its place is a fractured multi-polar world. This is an argument others, like Ian Bremmer, have made before, so it’s not exactly new, but it’s well composed in this version. What makes this book stand out is the level of detail with which Zeihan makes specific country predictions. In summary: “On a grand scale, many of us are betting on the wrong horses. France will lead the new Europe, not Germany. We should be worried about Saudi Arabia, not Iran. We should be thinking about how to remedy mass starvation in China, not counter its economic and military clout.”

There’s a lot I could excerpt on China, but here’s one theme: China has a lot of enemies, including its neighbors: “The best example of the difficulty the Chinese face in establishing trust is the country that provided the Americans with their most memory-searing war: Vietnam. Agent Orange. Napalm. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi. America’s war in Vietnam was messy and angry and lasted for two decades. In contrast, the Han Chinese fought the Vietnamese for two millennia. In 2020 the Vietnamese are eager to welcome American businesspeople and carriers because they don’t think the war with the United States lasted long enough to qualify Americans as epic foes. In contrast, the Vietnamese view of China borders on the pathological.”

I found his focus on physical geography a little quaint, seeming. E.g. a country’s potential over the next 100 years being as affected by which mountain range it would surrounded by. Seems dated in a cyber world.

Overall — a good read for foreign policy nuts, probably a skip for general readers.

2. The Ask: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte. Many laugh out loud moments in this compelling, breezy novel.

3. King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone by David Carey and John E. Morris. An interesting history of Blackstone. Quite a lot of detail on hundreds of specific deals that led to the building of such a behemoth. So, interesting to industry insiders only.

4. Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison. An extraordinary memoir about foster parenting. You can’t help but be in awe of the size of Harrison’s heart; the extraordinary generosity she extends to some of the neediest children in her community. Many very sad scenes here, about children in the foster system. Harrison writes about her experience with what seems to be the exact right blend of head and heart; warmth and empathy that’s balanced with cold steel eyed resolve when things aren’t right. A must read for anyone interested in the foster system.

Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is a memoir from lawyer Bryan Stevenson about his work fighting against the death penalty and mass incarceration in Alabama. A couple months ago the book got turned into a Hollywood film featuring Michael B Jordan (which I haven’t watched). There’s also an HBO documentary about Stevenson (which I did just watch), and the TED talk that brought Stevenson’s work to the mainstream for many in the tech community a few years ago.

I found his memoir incredibly inspirational. And of course sad and infuriating at the same time. Stevenson details numerous instances of injustice; some of which are never rectified prior to the alleged criminals’ execution. Some injustices are innocent men dying (or about to die, were it not for Stevenson’s intervention) for crimes they did not commit. Others are guilty men who were subject to excessive punishment (e.g. the death penalty) or suffered from a failure of due process that is inhumane.

Separate from the stories of specific stories of justice denied, Stevenson argues for proper historical understanding of the current state of affairs in the American justice system. He starts with the settlers’ genocide of Native Americans –> slavery –> lynching –> the mass incarceration of today. It’s all connected. The inequities in today’s justice system find their roots in racial discrimination of the deepest sort dating back centuries. I was rather persuaded by his argument that truth & reconciliation needs to occur in America about the Civil War and slavery and Jim Crow in the same way that other countries have reconked with grand scale injustices, e.g. South Africa, Rwanda, Germany, etc. As Stevenson says, you have to first deal with the truth, then address reconciliation.

Of my Kindle highlights, here’s one paragraph: “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”

Stevenson as a human is something to behold. The passion, the relentless, the desire to serve a purpose larger than self. Bryan has never married or had children. There are no close personal friends who receive routine mention in the memoir. He doesn’t appear to have any hobbies outside of work and playing the piano. He is consumed by his mission and it’s a very admirable mission at that. We owe people like Stevenson a debt of gratitude for sacrificing so much for the greater good. I frequently ask myself, when I read memoirs or biographies about men and women of this disposition (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind), whether I could ever see myself so subsuming my own desires and personal needs in service of any sort of mission, be it a noble one such as Stevenson’s or a purely selfish one. I usually conclude I cannot. The single mindedness and complete subjugation of the individual to the mission — the dissolution of the ego, if you will, but not in the Buddhist sense of that phrase — is something I don’t see in my past, present, or future. But who knows. There’s a purity to life purpose that’s appealing. There’s no question as to how to spend your time when you wake up in the morning. You go and do the work, day after day after day.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the holidays reading this epic Russian tome, my first Russian novel. It was a good book to read while on Christmas break — being able to sink into it for a few hours each day allowed me to stay grounded in the plot and keep track of all the characters over the course of the 800+ pages. I had the expectation that I’d get lost; I don’t tend to do well when the character count exceeds a handful. But now, with a couple months of distance from the experience, I still have a vivid sense of Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Anna, which shows the depth of the

2. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. A compelling memoir of a therapist reflecting on the act of being a therapist and going to therapy herself. Lots of excellents nuggets into how therapy works and doesn’t work. A few highlights:

Therapists use three sources of information when working with patients: What the patients say, what they do, and how we feel while we’re sitting with them…

“We’ve talked before about how there’s a difference between a criticism and a complaint, how the former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. But a complaint can also be an unvoiced compliment…

Anger is the go-to feeling for most people because it’s outward-directed—angrily blaming others can feel deliciously sanctimonious. But often it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and if you look beneath the surface, you’ll glimpse submerged feelings you either weren’t aware of or didn’t want to show: fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, insecurity…

As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.”…

Sex comes up with almost every patient I see, the same way that love does. Earlier on, I’d asked John about his sex life with Margo, given the difficulties in their relationship. It’s a common belief that people’s sex lives reflect their relationships, that a good relationship equals a good sex life and vice versa. But that’s only true sometimes. Just as often, there are people who have extremely problematic relationships and fantastic sex, and there are people who are deeply in love but who don’t click with the same intensity in the bedroom.

3. Autumn by Karl Knausgaard. I love Knausgaard — search my blog for my other reviews. This one didn’t stick for me. I did like this paragraph though:

But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York or Tokyo, for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty metres above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.

4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. A modern, funny, incisive novel that’s being widely read, apparently, by those in the in circles of Brooklyn lit, etc etc. I enjoyed it a great deal. I didn’t find it, in the end, as feminist a book as I was expecting.

He explained to Toby that presence in a yoga class, no matter your ability, was a shortcut to showing a woman how evolved you were, how you were strong, how you were not set on maintaining the patriarchy that she so loathed and feared….

She was now an inner ear problem, something affecting his balance…

I’d read those stupid blogs about Disney, and they all warned me that the character lunch at the Crystal Palace would fill up fast, so I should book at eleven A.M., but they did not warn me about the existential dread of being there. It was like I could finally see what I’d become, made clear through my presence among yet another entire set of women who looked just like me. I couldn’t bear being this suburban mom who was alternating between screaming at her kids and being the heartfelt, privileged witness to their joy. But the people around us—the haranguing mothers and the sexless fathers—I kept trying to find ways that I was better than these people, but all I kept landing on was the fact that the common denominator was me.

5. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of interesting observations from one of the strongest non-fiction storytellers at work today, even if the big picture thesis eluded me, a bit. Still recommended.

And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population…

In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.

Book Notes: The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison is a searing account of her struggles with alcoholism.

It’s long. I read the first 400+ pages and got distracted by something else and never came back to it. But the 400 pages I read were phenomenal, and gave me great insight into the mind of a super high functioning alcoholic and the nature of addiction. I’m no expert in the genre of addiction memoir but this one, apparently, is considered among the best.

Some of my Kindle highlights below. Bolded sentences my own.


In John Barleycorn, a novel published in 1913, Jack London conjured two kinds of drunks: the ones who stumbled through the gutters hallucinating “blue mice and pink elephants,” and the ones to whom the “white light of alcohol” had granted access to bleak truths: “the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic.” The first type of drunk had his mind ravaged by booze, “bitten numbly by numb maggots,” but the second type had his mind sharpened instead.

Life with Daniel was weird and ragged and unexpected. It tingled. He was a messy eater. There were bits of cabbage in his beard, patches of ice cream melted on his sheets, crusted pots and pans in his sink, tiny beard hairs all over his bathroom counter.

drinking and writing were two different responses to that same molten pain. You could numb it, or else grant it a voice.

My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered. My fascination owed a debt to what Susan Sontag calls the “nihilistic and sentimental idea of ‘the interesting.’” In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag describes the nineteenth-century idea that if you were ill, you were also “more conscious, more complex psychologically.” Illness became an “interior décor of the body,” while health was considered “banal, even vulgar.”

My own pain seemed embarrassingly trivial, self-constructed and sought.

At a certain point we were on my bed and I didn’t want to fuck him—but I was too drunk and too tired to figure out how not to fuck him, so I just lay there, still and quiet, while he finished. The situation would sharpen into awareness, in fleeting moments, and I’d think, This isn’t what I want, and then it would dissolve into soft focus again.

In early drafts, there were no explicit traumas in the narrative that produced their self-destructive impulses. The mystery of these impulses was what I wanted to explore, the possibility that you might damage yourself to figure out why you wanted to damage yourself—the way exhaling into cold air makes your breath visible.

Being just a man among men, or a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary about your flaws or your mistakes—that was the hardest thing to accept.

A few scientists eventually wondered: What if they were given some company? What if they were given something else to do? In the early eighties, these scientists designed Rat Park, a spacious plywood habitat painted with pine trees and filled with climbing platforms, running wheels, tin cans for hiding, wood chips for playing, and—most important—lots of other rats. The rats in that cage didn’t press the coke lever until they died. They had better things to do. The point wasn’t that drugs couldn’t be addictive, but that addiction was fueled by so much besides the drugs themselves. It was fueled by the isolation of the white cage, and by the lever as substitute for everything else.

Their aliveness, their daily-ness, their back-and-forth energy, came like a sudden slap, a confirmation of my fears: He would always crave the sharp tingling sensation of falling for someone, rather than having her.

Pool told me that he started shooting heroin after dropping out of college, operating under the notion, as she put it, that “writers needed conflict and adversity. So he deliberately went out to find some.”

Describing Dave to a friend, I invoked that scene from Out of Africa where another character explains what’s charming and infuriating about Robert Redford as a big-game-hunting, impossibly restless lover: “He likes giving gifts, but not at Christmas.”

When Dr. Chisolm told me that she sometimes attaches a warning when she encourages certain patients to seek out AA, it didn’t surprise me. “You’re really smart,” she tells them. “That might work against you.” The idea of being “too smart for AA” immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple.

At meetings, I hated when other people abandoned narrative particularity in their stories—I accidentally crushed my daughter’s pet turtle after too much absinthe—for the bland pudding of abstraction—I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wanted crushed turtles and absinthe. Clichés were like blights, refusals of clarity and nuance, an insistence on soft-focus greeting-card wisdom: This too shall pass, which I once saw on a cross-stitch in the bathroom of a Wyoming meeting, followed by It just did. Long ago, I had learned that to become a writer I had to resist clichés at all costs. It was such accepted dogma that I’d never wondered why it was true.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books. Many of which I didn’t fully finish but I take pride in that (not finishing most/all books I start).

1. The Problem With Everything by Meghan Daum. I read everything Daum writes. I even took a writing workshop with her earlier this year. She’s one of the premier essayists around, in my view. This book is not a collection of essays, though, it’s a continuous narrative documenting her “lived experience” (the phrase of the moment) navigating the culture wars. I found myself sympathetic to many of her arguments about the extremes of modern left wing cultural norms.

2. String Theory by David Foster Wallace. Collection of old DFW essays about tennis. Always great and worth perusing if you’re learning to play tennis, as I am.

3. One and Only by Lauren Sandler. Excellent summary of the research on being an only child and excellent personal reflections on what it’s like to be and parent an only child. Refutes many inaccurate stereotypes about being an only. She points out that singletons are immune from modern political correctness culture — it’s still fair game to make fun of the self-centeredness of only children, even though that stereotype (among others) is unfounded.

Some quotes:

“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self,” May Sarton wrote—a musing that makes me want to pull on a coat, leave behind my cell phone, and take an indulgently long walk on a crisp day.

“Only children are well self-connected in their primary relationship in their life.” By primary relationship, what he means is that whether we like it or not, married or single, identical twin or only child, every relationship we have is secondary to the one we have with ourselves—nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

In their much-discussed analysis of a survey of 35,000 Danish twins, women with one child said they were more satisfied with their lives than women with none or more than one. As Kohler tells me, “At face value, you should stop at one child to maximize your subjective well-being.”

The University of Chicago’s Linda Waite, whose research focuses on how to make marriages last, tells me, “You’re better off to ignore your kids and focus on your relationship than to focus on your kids and ignore your relationship”

4. Recursion by Blake Crouch

Fairly compelling sci fi. I read it on a beach — a good book to get absorbed by on the road. That being said, I preferred Crouch’s other novel Dark Matter.

“His mind races. It is the lonely hour of the night, one with which he is all too familiar—when the city sleeps but you don’t, and all the regrets of your life rage in your mind with an unbearable intensity.”

5. Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream by Nicholas Lemann

Some big ideas that didn’t captivate me.

6. The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes by Frank Bures

Some fun stories about how culturally determined many diseases are. Eating disorders are uniquely American, for example. Penis snatching (the feeling that someone has stolen your penis) is unique to certain countries in Africa. Makes you wonder what other beliefs in life are so culturally influenced. I read the first half but didn’t finish. Here’s Nick Gray’s summary.

7. A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. I love Keith’s writing. I eagerly dove into this novel. The writing is spare and expert…so spare, in fact, that at halfway I began to bore of the slow-moving “and today I woke up and helped my grandmother down the stairs” plot developments. I’m okay with micro observations but prefer more elaborate Knaussagardian flourishes.

There are, though, some touching scenes of the protagonist taking care of his aging grandmother, whose mind is going, memory flickering in and out.  Or of the grandmother trying to not go mad of boredom, as she never figured out a way of “doing leisure” in the late afternoon witching hour.

8. Open by Andre Agassi. A super well written memoir from the tennis legend — likely credit the same ghostwriter who penned Phil Knight’s renowned Shoedog, J. R. Moehringer.

The most stunning fact from Agassi’s memoir: he hates the game of tennis. Always has. His abusive father turned him into a tennis maniac as a child against his wishes, basically, and there was no turning back — from playing the game he became amazing at, or from hating every second of it.

I like playing tennis but I’m not that into the history of tennis tournaments to desire so much detailed blow-by-blows of matches and tournaments. I’d still recommend the memoir for any casual tennis player or fan to get inside the head of a world class sports champion and better appreciate the sacrifice and mental fortitude that made him so.

9. This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

I dipped into a few chapters of this one. Spiritual freedom is defined as being able to ask what you should do with your time — you possess a meaningful degree of autonomy with which to challenge norms and shape a life. And secular faith is defined as acknowledging the fundamental finitude of life, and consoling oneself over the unchangeable fact that no one gets out alive. Religious faith assumes the ability to live forever in the afterlife.

The loss of loved ones is the experience that is hardest to bear in a secular age. – Charles Taylor