What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books:

1. The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks by Ben Cohen. This was a lot of fun to read — full of fresh stories and research about the idea of the hot hand in basketball as well as in fields as varied as art and business and law. Originally, the hot hand existed anecdotally in the minds of basketball players (and other athletes). Then it was “disproven” by famous academics. Now it’s been proven again to be real in basketball (players can get “hot” and be more likely to make shots once hot). In fact, Cohen suggests a wide range of professionals can experience a hot hand. Shakespeare wrote many of his best plays in a period of a few months. Einstein “packed a career’s worth of intellectual achievements into a few months.”

Back when I was writing books, I often stayed up super late if I felt “hot” — unusually productive, focused. My productivity usually dropped off the subsequent day, due to lack of sleep or the chaos generated by pushing off whatever I had originally scheduled to have been doing during the period of time I unexpectedly got “hot” — but in the end it was worth it for the creative output the hot hand helped generate. I haven’t taken that approach in recent years. I run more structured days. I wonder if I should revert; whether I should be more attentive, at the micro productivity level, to when I’m feeling the hot hand in my venture work and “ride it” until I cool off. Thanks to Russ Roberts for recommending this book.

2. Writers & Lovers: A Novel by Lily King. An engaging, well written, pretty-easy-to-follow story chock full of quips that made me laugh or think. It’s especially resonant for anyone who’s tried writing a book though that background isn’t necessary to appreciate it, as the primary themes revolve around romantic life in general. Thanks to Marci Alboher for the rec.

3. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. One of the more troubling points of view that’s increasingly popular in our culture is the idea that some people ought to be banned from life if they make a serious mistake. I.e., if you make a serious mistake, your career ought to be ruined and you ought to live in shame for the rest of your life.

Most of the time, I believe we should not judge people for their worst mistakes in life if they’ve shown genuine remorse and rehabilitation. And we shouldn’t conclude someone’s even made a mistake until proof or evidence has been furnished. Yet modern social media culture seems to cultivate an atmosphere of take-downs, of kick ’em-while-they’re-down, of unrelenting scorched earth attempts to destroy someone’s reputation forever for whatever wrong they’re accused of committing. And accusation is all it takes; destroy now, find evidence later.

This book is a fascinating look at real life examples of people whose lives were destroyed — or attempted to be destroyed — by various internet mobs. “You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”

4. Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. Eric and I “grew up” on the blogosphere together a long time ago. His popular self-help blog is always full of interesting studies and factoids about how to live a healthier, happier life. It took me awhile to get around to reading his book for some reason (sorry Eric!) but I finally read it and enjoyed it. A bunch of good nuggets and if you’re familiar with his blog and like it, you’ll like the book.

Book Reviews: Killing Commendatore and Americanah

I’ve read more fiction in 2020 than in any other year in recent memory — maybe the escapist urge amidst all the insanity that’s going on in the world.

Fiction is good any year, of course. I recently came across this Marilynne Robinson quote in the New Yorker profile of her this week: “All literature is acknowledgment. Literature says this is what sadness feels like and this is what holiness feels like, and people feel acknowledged in what they already feel.”

Two recent longer novels I read:

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A wonderful, engrossing story about two Nigerian immigrants to America and the UK. A love story. A story of assimilation. A story about national identity. The plot is easy to follow, the ideas raised are deep, and the sentences are often gorgeous. I loved it. Separately, I want to learn more about why the Nigerian diaspora in America is so successful.

Some Kindle highlights from Americanah:


She did not tell him this, because it would hurt him to know she had felt that way for a while, that her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out.

Kosi led the way around the room, hugging men and women she barely knew, calling the older ones “ma” and “sir” with exaggerated respect, basking in the attention her face drew but flattening her personality so that her beauty did not threaten.

There was something immodest about her modesty: it announced itself.

Ifemelu told her about the vertigo she had felt the first time she went to the supermarket; in the cereal aisle, she had wanted to get corn flakes, which she was used to eating back home, but suddenly confronted by a hundred different cereal boxes, in a swirl of colors and images, she had fought dizziness. She told this story because she thought it was funny; it appealed harmlessly to the American ego.

Her mother asked breezy questions and accepted breezy replies. “Everything is going well?” and Ifemelu had no choice but to say yes.

There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing.

It puzzled him that she did not mourn all the things she could have been. Was it a quality inherent in women, or did they just learn to shield their personal regrets, to suspend their lives, subsume themselves in child care?

With his close friends, she often felt vaguely lost. They were youngish and well-dressed and righteous, their sentences filled with “sort of,” and “the ways in which”; they gathered at a bar every Thursday, and sometimes one of them had a dinner party, where Ifemelu mostly listened, saying little, looking at them in wonder: were they serious, these people who were so enraged about imported vegetables that ripened in trucks?

Fred mentioned Stravinsky and Strauss, Vermeer and Van Dyck, making unnecessary references, quoting too often, his spirits attuned across the Atlantic, too transparent in his performance, too eager to show how much he knew of the Western world. Ifemelu listened with a wide internal yawn.


2. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. My sixth Murakami novel over the past decade. See my reviews of: Norwegian Wood; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki; 1Q84; Kafka On the Shore. I also read half of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I usually recommend Norwegian Wood to people who haven’t read any Murakami. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is lesser known but equally good IMO.

Killing Commendatore is vintage Murakami. The pace is slow here. The language mostly lovely. Descriptions unfold in detail — houses, cars, people. Murakami captures the ennui of his characters. Surrealism abound: Talking spirits, portals that transport you to a different world, and so on. In his descriptions of female characters, there’s an obsession with breasts that’s extreme even by Murakami standards (known as he is for attempting to channel a Japanese male obsession with breasts, which is how a friend explained it).

From a review of the book that captures the intention of this novel pretty well:

….[it] express the truth that despite how rational and stable we may be, our lives are actually out of our control. We do not choose whom we love, or who will love us, or who will hire us, or any of the most important aspects of our lives.

And not only are we not in control, there is much more going on than we can see, know, or understand. That so much that happens is inexplicable seems miraculous. Murakami writes, “There are channels through which reality can become unreal. Or unreality can enter the realm of the real.”

By writing about metaphors and ideas, by ringing bells underground and animating two-foot-tall men, by having the desperate desires of others intrude on the simplest of plans and a whole lot else, Murakami is reminding us that the world is more enchanted than we might think. And an enchanted world is a wonderful place to live.

Special shoutout to the voice actor of the audiobook version of Killing Commendatore, Kirby Heyborne, as he was spectacular. He nailed the different characters’ voices; it felt like you were really listening to a movie. At 700+ pages, this one is probably 200 pages too long. But if your mood is right, you can settle in and enjoy this one. Especially if you have a long road trip ahead of you.

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.