What I’ve Been Reading (September, 2020)

More books.

1. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

A gripping, hard-to-put down narrative nonfiction close up account of three women and their romantic and sexual desires. Taddeo followed the women for years, inhabiting their worlds and writing about their intimate desires — their lust, their crushes, their actual dalliances and relationships, and in the case of one of the women, a relationship that became the center of a criminal investigation of rape. There are a lot of interesting issues explored in this book related to a woman’s sensual desires and how she both rules and is ruled by them.

There’s so much detail and literary flourish you’d think it were a novel. At times it seems hard to believe it’s non-fiction, and I suspect Taddeo took some liberties with how she portrayed some of the details. (Especially the sex scenes which are so detailed as to count as genuinely X-rated.) If you look beyond this point, you’ll find a lot to think about. And if you want to go really deep on how Three Women relates to various waves of feminism, there are various high brow reviews of this book already published that explore this dimension in more depth than I ever could.

2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean

A pretty interesting historical recap of an event I knew nothing about: the massive fire of 1986 that burned down huge swaths of the LA Public Library. I didn’t end up finishing -it – I think I meandered into a different book about halfway through and didn’t feel compelled to re-visit it — but I enjoyed the parts I read. And in the capable writerly hands of Orlean, there are many beautiful sentences, for example:

In Los Angeles, your eye keeps reaching for an endpoint and never finds it, because it doesn’t exist. The wide-openness of Los Angeles is a little intoxicating, but it can be unnerving, too—it’s the kind of place that doesn’t hold you close, a place where you can picture yourself cartwheeling off into emptiness, a pocket of zero gravity. …

Just then, the sliding door to the kitchen opened with a raspy screech, and her father stepped outside. He was a tall, beefy man with a big belly and a friendly, reddish face and silvery hair that stuck out straight, as if it were a quiver of exclamation points. …

Sometimes it’s harder to notice a place you think you know well; your eyes glide over it, seeing it but not seeing it at all. It’s almost as if familiarity gives you a kind of temporary blindness. I had to force myself to look harder and try to see beyond the concept of library that was so latent in my brain. …

The temperature reached 900 degrees, and the stacks’ steel shelves brightened from gray to white, as if illuminated from within. Soon, glistening and nearly molten, they glowed cherry red. Then they twisted and slumped, pitching their books into the fire.

3. The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal by Evan Ratliff

A real life thriller, exquisitely told, about one real life criminal mastermind who ran a vast organized crime operation shipping prescription pills and eventually all sorts of weapons and drugs and illegal paraphernalia. Entertaining and informative on crime rings in the age of a global internet.


Other books: The essay collection Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino didn’t grab me. Figuring by Maria Popova had a stunningly good opening chapter but I lost the plot after that; I may try again.

What I’ve Been Reading (August 2020)

Lots of books.

1. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Keefe

I was expecting a true crime story, and it is, but it’s much more. It’s a rather in depth exploration of the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where 4,000 people died amidst the violence between the Catholics who wanted to unify Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland battling against the Protestants and British allies who sought to remain within the United Kingdom.

It’s a tremendously informative, originally reported, and crisply written deep dive into this period of Ireland’s history. Be prepared for darkness, though. There are no heroes. Here’s one graf I highlighted:

When the torture ended, after a week, some of the men were so broken that they could not remember their own names. Their eyes had a haunted, hollow look to them, which one of the men likened to “two pissholes in the snow.” Another detainee, who had gone into the interrogation with jet-black hair, came out of the experience with hair that was completely white. (He died not long after being released, of a heart attack, at forty-five.) When Francie McGuigan was finally returned to Crumlin Road jail, he saw his father, and the older man broke down and cried.

2. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Super entertaining novel inspired by the Madoff ponzi scheme with fun plot lines involving the shipping and hotel industries. Strong character development, lovely writing, easy to read. A few highlights from Kindle:

“She was never Alkaitis’s secretary, she realizes now, when she looks up the word. A secretary is a keeper of secrets.”

In their late thirties they’d decided not to have children, which at the time seemed like a sensible way to avoid unnecessary complications and heartbreak, and this decision had lent their lives a certain ease that he’d always appreciated, a sense of blissful unencumbrance. But an encumbrance might also be thought of as an anchor, and what he’d found himself thinking lately was that he wouldn’t mind being more anchored to this earth.

A steady, low-key, intelligent person, much more interested in listening than in talking about himself. He had that trick—and it was a trick, Leon realized later—of appearing utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of him, and in so doing provoking the opposite anxiety in other people: What does Alkaitis think of me? Later, in the years that he spent replaying this particular evening, Leon remembered a certain desire to impress him.

She had studied the habits of the monied with diligence. She copied their modes of dress and speech, and cultivated an air of carelessness.

“You know what I’ve learned about money? I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country.”

(A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative.)

3. Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner

A spot-on take on many of the current social dynamics of San Francisco life during the modern tech boom. Artistically written by a young woman who ends up making money herself as an early employee of a unicorn company. Every phrase intentional, fresh. E.g. “After busing our own table, the engineer suggested we repair to a tiny cocktail bar in the Tenderloin.” (She actually uses “repair” in the same way in another sentence in the book elsewhere — the first and second time that I’d ever seen that verb used in that context.)

“I could not fathom interrogating my relationship with my parents as a form of socializing. I felt uptight, conservative, repressed, corporate by comparison—but I also felt okay with that.”

4. Make it Scream, Make It Burn by Leslie Jamison

Tremendous set of essays across a range of topics. See my previous review of Jamison’s book about addiction. I’m in awe of her writing talents. Highlights below:

It bothered Leonora that people conflated 52’s aloneness with loneliness. It bothered her that people conflated her aloneness with loneliness. Apropos of very little, she told me, “I haven’t been in a relationship since the last century. I haven’t been on a date.” She said it worried other people in her life, friends and family members who tried to set her up. “It’s like a woman is not a whole person until she has a man.” But it didn’t worry her. “I’ve never felt lonely. There is not this lonely factor. I am alone. But I am not lonely, okay? I go over to a friend’s, I buy cases of wine, I have people over, I cook.” It was hard not to hear a hint of doth protest too much in her insistence. But I was also hearing an argument for the importance of humility: Don’t assume the contours of another person’s heart. Don’t assume its desires. Don’t assume that being alone means being lonely.

It seemed much easier to poke holes in things—people, programs, systems of belief—than to construct them, stand behind them, or at least take them seriously. That ready-made dismissiveness banished too much mystery and wonder.

I hated its smugness—how she positions herself as a knowing skeptic in a world full of self-delusion. I started to believe there was an ethical failure embedded in skepticism itself, the same snobbery that lay beneath the impulse to resist clichés in recovery meetings or wholly dismiss people’s overly neat narratives of their own lives.

Their witty asides had become part of a well-worn story. Even its grooves of self-deprecation held the uneasy echoes of lines performed effectively and often.

We say, Wow. We say it again. We stay humble. We can’t know for sure until the body turns up in the river—and even then, it might not be the end. We walk toward the lights. We are safe, or else we aren’t. We live, until we don’t. We return, unless we can’t.

If you learn to pay attention, he says, “it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars.”

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me the question isn’t whether Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, hard drugs, adultery, a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

I have spent much of my life as a writer chasing poet C. D. Wright’s suggestion that we try to see people “as they elect to be seen, in their larger selves.”

The more frequently I was told I didn’t seem to be from L.A., the more strongly I wanted to defend it. It was a place other people loved to call shallow or fake, but I found its strip malls and their parking lots oddly gorgeous: sunlight glimmering off gritty streets, palm trees silhouetted against smoggy sunsets.

Marriage wasn’t the bliss of possibility. It was the more complicated satisfaction of actually living and actually having.

Marriage is what happens when the mirage shimmers away to reveal plain asphalt straight ahead. It’s everything you keep trying to summon faith in, and it delivers you to what you couldn’t have imagined: past that first flush of falling in love, to all the other kinds of love that lie ahead. You may never reach Lake Mead, but you’ll always have the drive itself—that particular glow of evening sun baking the highway, setting the cars on fire, light brighter than you can stand to look at, and already holding the night.

there was such a thing as too much honesty. “I find it incredibly difficult to like the narrator of this essay,” he said. I found his phrasing amusing, the narrator of this essay, as if she were a stranger we could gossip about. It was my first nonfiction class, and I wasn’t used to the rules of displacement—all of us pretending we weren’t also critiquing one another’s lives.

5. What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz

Solid discussion of corporate culture. Highlights:

Jobs explained: “We at Apple had forgotten who we were. One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.”

VMware’s potential partners would be extremely skeptical of any independent-operating-system company proposing a similar “win-win.” So Greene came up with a shocking rule: Partnerships should be 49/51, with VMware getting the 49. Did she just tell her team to lose? That definitely begs the question “Why?” Greene said, “I had to give our business development people permission to be good to the partners, because one-sided partnerships would not work.” Her rule was actually met not with resistance but with relief

It was of course no easier to measure an exact 49/51 split than a 50/50 “win-win,” but Greene’s employees understood her underlying point: “If you’re negotiating something on the margin, it’s okay to give it to our partner.” VMware went on to create a stunning set of partnerships with Intel, Dell, HP, and IBM that propelled the company to a market capitalization of more than $60 billion.

Stories and sayings define cultures. John Morgridge, the CEO of Cisco from 1988 to 1995, wanted every spare nickel spent on the business. But as many of his employees had come from free-spending cultures, simply reminding them to be frugal didn’t get his point across. Morgridge walked the talk by staying at the Red Roof Inn, but even his example didn’t prove truly contagious. So he came up with a pithy axiom: “If you cannot see your car from your hotel room, then you are paying too much.”

One thing to look for is volunteer work, which helpful people naturally like to do. It also turns out that during the interview, helpful people want to talk much more about the interviewer than about themselves: by learning about her they can anticipate her needs and be, well, helpful.

This one is easy to corroborate with references, and in an interview you can ask, “Tell me about a situation in your last company where something was substandard and you helped to fix it.”

The questions employees everywhere ask themselves all the time are “Will what I do make a difference? Will it matter? Will it move the company forward? Will anybody notice?” A huge part of management’s job is to make sure the answer to all those questions is “Yes!”

The final vital component of the decision-making process is “Do you favor speed or accuracy and by how much?” The answer depends on the nature and size of your business…. consider a business like Andreessen Horowitz, where I work. We make about twenty important investment decisions a year. Getting those right is generally a much higher priority than making them quickly. If you only have twenty shots on goal in a year, you want to make sure each one counts. So we’ll spend hours and hours debating, visiting and revisiting aspects of our decision—then work through the entire process again the next day. Accuracy is much more important to us than speed.

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.