What I’m reading this week: “A Gentleman in Moscow,” by Amor Towles. 😀📚 Imagine being a member of the wealthy aristocracy in a grand city in the early 20th century. Your days and nights are filled with social encounters and clever repartee in every breathing moment. Servants are all around you, never betraying any hint of resentment at their confinement to a lower station, nor anything but utter contentment and devotion to their task of tending to your every need. Even when confined to house arrest by the Bolsheviks after the revolution has wiped out the old social order and replaced it with a new one, your prison is a luxury hotel, as befits your station. And naturally, the hotel is filled with interesting characters from every slice of the social strata with whom you may engage in fascinating conversations to pass the time and reinforce your social mastery though your sterling wit and charm. This is the world of “A Gentleman in Moscow,” and like a dinner guest who is impeccably charming, cultivated and au courant, the novel is endlessly entertaining — though the endless part sometimes obscures the entertainment. A well-fashioned escape into a rose-colored fantasy of old-world high society, set against the backdrop of a people’s revolution to provide essential cover for the reader to indulge in the guilty pleasure of high society role-play. The writing, especially the dialogue, is first-class and the plot development, though predictable at times, is interesting and keeps the pages turning. A pleasant and lightly edifying read, tailor-made for a richly costumed historical fiction film adaptation.
What I’m reading this week: The Secret of Thunder Mountain, by Fran Striker
The photos tell the story of this vintage adventure from 1952. Set in the deserts of the American Southwest, at the dawn of the nuclear era. A land of grit and desolation, where bold and wild characters search for rocks worth more than gold. Fran Striker’s journalistic writing style lends credence to the stark comic relief. Irony from another era. The descriptions and dialogue surrounding the gigantic main character, Gulliver bouncing over desert rocks in his customized jeep, are surprisingly entertaining. An unsung classic of the genre. #franstriker #bookreview
What I’m reading this week: “Lost in a good game,” by Pete Etchells 🕹💡📖 Is it worse for young people to experience killing and death IRL (in real life), or in a video game? This is not merely an academic question. Deranged individuals now regularly commit IRL mass shootings using IRL weapons of war to murder innocent people. Yet those weapons of war only exist because they are used every day for the IRL official killing and death of people in less fortunate countries around the world. Are video games to blame for real deaths? Or are video games merely another vivid example of art imitating life? This book takes the latter view, and begins by sharing how video games actually helped the author, a psychologist, cope with the death of a loved one. Video games do not cause violent deaths— they are works of art that provide a dearly needed respite from the harshest realities of a dangerous real world beyond our control, according to the author. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this interesting book to learn how this thesis plays out. 📚
What I’m reading this week: “What is not yours is not yours” 📚🗝😀 by Helen Oyeyemi. I’m loving this collection of dreamlike short stories that turns on the idea of keys as a metaphor for our hidden perceptions. A refreshing stream of clear, evocative, sparse yet mesmerizing prose that ebbs and flows into ever deeper locks of subconscious meaning and insight as each story unfolds. The tales are interlocking, but in a wholly unexpected way, which adds to its brilliance. Not for the overly literal, despite its declarative style. A breakthrough, transcendent voice. Can’t wait to read more.
What I’m reading this week: “Baracoon: the story of the last black cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
The story of Oluale Kossola, survivor of the last known slave ship to cross the Atlantic, told in his own words. In 1927, famed anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston spent three months with the then-eighty-six-year-old Lewis to preserve his story.
Kossola vividly describes being captured by a rival village in Africa as a young man, sold into slavery and shipped to America. He tells of his years in cruel bondage followed by chimeric emancipation after the civil war, and of being marooned for life in an inhospitable new world with no means to ever return to his home in Africa.
Hurston took great pains to preserve Kossola’s singular linguistic and storytelling style, which she rightly viewed as essential to the authentic voice of his experience. She allows Kossula to bring his stories to life in his own words, and deftly weaves together the historical details with spellbinding mastery. An uniquely poignant and irreplaceable landmark of American history and culture.
What I’m reading this week: “The Soul of an Octopus,” by Sy Montgomery
Strange and beautiful, weirdly intelligent, cold yet emotive, octopuses are in a word, fascinating. Octopuses see and feel the world around them in profoundly different ways then we do. Each tentacle has its own network of neurons—a mind of its own.
What I love about this book is how the author describes her interactions with captive octopuses in tanks, caressing them with her hands and arms, holding and being held by them. She documents each experience in lavish detail and with deep emotion, much to the book’s benefit. The book’s middle section sags when she dives into lengthy, sometimes boring technical descriptions of her scuba diving trips.
The big takeaway of this book for me is that octopuses are incredibly complex, intelligent and emotionally aware creatures. Montgomery emphasizes this fact over and over again, which naturally raises the question of whether these curious, self-aware creatures should even be kept in captivity. Octopuses are notorious escape artists, to the point of knowingly risking their lives to get out of aquarium tanks. She ultimately takes a position on the question, however indirectly, and I found myself disagreeing with her, even to my own surprise. I will leave it to you to read the book and decide for yourself.
For aquarium lovers and animal rights enthusiasts alike, “The Soul of an Octopus” is a stimulating close-up look at one of Earth’s most interesting and enigmatic inhabitants.
What I’m reading this week: “Rise of the Robots,” by Martin Ford.
Humans have a love-hate relationship with automation. We love automation when it gives us dishwashers, washing machines, and robot vacuum cleaners to relieve the drudgery of menial labors. But we hate automation when it enables telemarketers to endlessly spam our phones, corporations to displace real people’s jobs, and tech companies to surveil our every movement.
Pop culture is replete with nightmare visions of cold robot overlords taking over the world on one hand, and utopian dreams of effortless lives and limitless adventures supported by faithful robot servants on the other. The truth is probably somewhere in between— although robots themselves may never rule the world, the people and organizations who control the most powerful robots almost certainly will.
“Rise of the Robots,” written by economist Martin Ford is a detailed analysis of the current state of play. Will robots dominate society? The answer is yes, they already do. The more pertinent question right now is, who will control the robots? Ford’s book explores this question with skill and keeps it interesting, aside from a few sections that get out into the technical weeds. (He is an economist, after all.) An eye-opening look at the value and risks of living in a roboticized world.
Conquered. Occupied. Stripped of power and privilege. Dick’s classic 1962 novel imagines life in an America that lost World War II. The Nazis and Japanese fascists have conquered the United States and divided it into territories, the spoils of war, over which they rule supreme. The Pacific States are controlled by fascist Japan– the South and East states, by Nazi Germany. The Rocky Mountain states lay in between, dismissed and overlooked, a no-mans land where the German and Japanese superpowers struggle for power in a diplomatic Cold War.
Much of the action takes place in San Francisco and the west coast. It’s a horrifying world fraught with deception, cruelty, greed and prejudice cloaked in banality and extreme cultural control. In this nightmare world, the dream of an alternative universe in which the United States England, and Russia won the war captures the imaginations of millions-— sparked by a wildly popular book-within-a-book that describes this mirror world in vivid detail. The book’s central characters struggle to reconcile these twin visions, which are more alike than not, as the plot drives them inexorably toward the climactic confrontation with the book-within-a-book’s author, the Man in the High Castle.
Written in the 1960s, Dick’s novel remains a work of genius however its blunt style and raw depictions of deep-seated racial animus raise the question of how it would be received if it was written in today’s world of reactionary divisiveness and identity politics. Another question is whether he intended his book to be a subtle indictment of the post World War II new world order of the 1960s, which at the time had its own forms of social control, cruelty, deception, greed, and prejudice. The novel’s descriptions of what American life might be like under fascist control leaves no question that a German/Japanese victory would have led to a dystopian hellscape of a society. Yet it subtly hints at a third way, between the darkness and the light, for which we all unconsciously yearn, yet which may only ever be a dream.
The Google search box is the new confessional box for a digital age. A place where deepest fears and forbidden wishes find new, unfiltered expression. In this new confessional, we don’t seek salvation— we seek information. And the questions we ask it often reveal things about us that were previously hidden, or misunderstood.
Subtitled, “Big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are,” this book was written by a former Google data scientist who uses “confessional” search data on a vast scale to draw new insight into the human condition. It’s a fascinating and compelling work which kept me reading from cover to cover in one day.
I could quibble with the author’s overconfidence in the power of internet search data to accurately depict people’s true selves, because I believe that our relationship with the digital world is fundamentally a charade, and will one day come to be seen as such. But for now, the newness and sheer volume of this new form of data is electrifying and groundbreaking, and has great potential to shed new light on the previously dark corners of the human psyche. I eagerly look forward to the author’s planned sequel in which he intends to dive deeper into the “small data” that lives between the topline trends. 🔎
What I’m reading this week: “Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner.🌵📚 California has had abundant rainfall this year. Reservoirs are full and snowpacks are impressive. We’ve had so much rain that complaining about it has become de rigeur. So why am I reading this 30-year old treatise on “the American West and its disappearing water”? Partly because I recently spent a week in the Mojave desert where every inch of the landscape is a visceral reminder that water is precious, scarce, and fleeting—even when the desert flowers are in full bloom. And partly because our return trip brought us through the Central Valley, where water is the lifeblood of agribusiness that feeds us, and where bitter “water wars” have raged for decades on end. Marc Reisner’s landmark book is part history, part warning about California’s elaborate and unsustainable relationship with water. Updated several times since its first publication, Cadillac Desert also was made into a riveting documentary television series. A fascinating and searing examination of life’s most precious resource. 🌧