Pandemic Spring: February & March

I’ve had this WordPress window open for over a month, and daily life is changing so rapidly for so many people that it’s been difficult to nail down a good time to get cracking on this. I’m still unsure of my take on the pandemic unfolding across the world: on one hand, a grotesque curiosity of mine has become a reality in my lifetime, and I watch daily with deep (and admittedly morbid) interest, even as my brother, sister, brother in law and many of my closest friends reside in/near what is currently COVID-19 Ground Zero, NY Metro. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, or are furloughed with more uncertainty than savings. I am quite curious as to how long I will have a job, as I also work in the hospitality/service industry, which is the most grim sector in which to be employed currently. Further, my beloved state will certainly have some deep scars from the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the crash of oil. Alaska is fucked, at least in the short term, and I have no doubt the tourism industry will lose 30% or more of its operators by the time this is over. I actually think this will depopulate the state a fair amount; I am unsure we are capable of recovering from so many consecutive catastrophes… earthquakes… forest fires… government shutdowns… and now a pandemic. I think this kind of chaos will bring some long-term positive change, though, some of which are mentioned in this NY Post article.

As for me, I’ve spent most of my adolescence and adult life fascinated by infectious disease. The single newsletter I read with any regularly is CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases. I’m not surprised this has happened… it was only a matter of time. And even early on, as people poo-poo’ed news out of China of a new virus, I was pretty sure this would be a months-long shit show, upending most of the world, at least temporarily. Lo and behold, here we are. I’m actually not sure life will resume as it was, when this is over. People will act differently. And feel differently. I think a prolonged period punctuated by fear of other people will have deleterious effects on how we function socially, which is already severely stunted in the modern age.

On the positive side (for me), presently, apart from having to cancel a few months of travel plans and not being able to log an hour on the stair machine every day, I’m largely unaffected. I quite like being home, I have an enormous stack of books, I live in a big house in a cool neighborhood (one of Anchorage’s urban moose up the street in the photo on the left) with someone I don’t hate, and I have a cute dog who is enjoying extra exercise. Spring is around the corner, and I eagerly await a snow and ice-free patio so I can reconstruct my Eastside Shangri-la. If we are still on lockdown in the actual summer, I’ll have my ski condo to hang at, at the very least. Life could be a lot worse… there has never been a better time to be an introvert.

That said, I think a part of me has decided I don’t, for the time being, care much for the future. This may be a good skill to have. I only mean that insofar as I am not crippled by anxiety and uncertainty. I had said in the beginning of the year that 2020 would be my year… which will certainly not be the case. I try to balance the sadness I feel for my friends and my industry and the uncertainty I feel for my loved ones’ safety with a sense of gratitude that I’d be pretty OK if I lost my job, I’m not dying of boredom and not particularly miserable as a result of any of these mandated pandemic rules. I do not think the end of this is near. I am not convinced I will remain employed. But, eh. There has always been a silver lining to choosing to bypass my chosen career path for something more versatile… during uncertain times, the field of possibility is much more vast.

In the meantime… I’ve read a ton of random shit over the past two months, and obviously there’s a lot more to come. Reminder that I feel it’s a complete waste of time to write full reviews; I’d sooner expound briefly on whether I liked a book or did not (with some exceptions where I’m inspired to ramble), and link to someone whose job it is to review books. These posts take long enough as it is ffs.

The Price We Pay: What Broke American Healthcare — and How to Fix It | This was a pretty interesting book, and definitely relevant today, in a period of time when tens of thousands of Americans will not only become critically ill, but then be bankrupted by our healthcare system. The author takes a pretty ambitious trip around the country and covers a lot of subject areas — obviously price (and hospital billing) is a big part of it. Our healthcare system is as confusing as it is unfair, and this book was oddly hopeful. Here’s an NPR review/interview. Sounds like a boring topic, no? It’s actually written in a pretty casual tone and the author keeps it interesting.

The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy | Financial Times review here; Economist review here; Foreign Affairs review here. This is one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in years, and that says a lot — I read a lot of excellent stuff. Many of the points in this book are insane in their obviousness, and yet there’s so much in here I had not ever fully constructed in my own head. I will very likely read this again at some point (or at least peruse); I could not get over how many times reading this book I was completely floored by how much sense the authors made. Truly incredible book with a really ambitious topic.

The Elementary Particles | I quite enjoyed this. I had never read anything by Houellebecq before; I don’t think he’s a particularly talented writer, but there were some memorable pieces of this often very depraved story of two brothers. I definitely want to read Whatever, one of his other well-known novels. Quillette has published alternating views of him, but they did cover Elementary Particles here. There’s a more recent article on him here.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol | I’m just going to come out and say that I’m not a huge fan of Gogol. This stories are a bit too folksy for me, though in a way I find difficult to describe. There’s something grotesque and surreal about his style I really enjoy… that said I had a really difficult time getting through some of these stories, which often unfold at a very slow pace. Probably worth reading some of his more famous ones if you’re into Russian literature; the entire Collected Tales was a bit too much for me.

The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities | I acquired two books by Robert Conquest over the winter: The Nation Killers and Harvest of Sorrow (about the Holodomor). For whatever reason I found this book profoundly depressing; the resettlement campaigns in the USSR were unbelievably cruel. I’m not sure if this strikes me as awful because so many people died living in mud holes in Kazakhstan or if the calculated way people were stripped of their sense of homeland is what is so sad about this… further, that this happened is by no means widely known, and like everything else in Soviet times, countless people died as ghosts, unrecorded… the lucky ones ended up in the death count.

Few books have been written about this, and it’s dry reading for sure, but sometimes reality is more morbid than anything concocted in the imagination. Such is the case here. I took a photo of a map that shows to a small extent the absurdity. The book goes so far as to explain why they did this, which makes sense (in a sick way, of course), though I am somewhat sympathetic to their wariness of nationalism. So many things that transpired in this country are so mind-blowingly cruel and were also so successful in destroying millions of people, literally and figuratively. There’s some disjointed information on Wikipedia about these resettlements. Much, much moreso than dark classics like Kolyma Tales, this deportation — the scale of horror that was never fully uncovered and is now lost in history — is nightmare material for me.

My Struggle, Book 6 | I can’t fully express how it feels to have finally finished this series, after beginning it over two years ago while living in Fairbanks. I have listened to the Audible version of this book all over the world, on a lot of airplanes, while living in different houses, in different parts of Alaska. As this is an autobiography of sorts, I’d say it is much like a person: there are good parts, bad parts, boring parts, annoying parts. Book 6 returned to a lot of the thoughts the author had in the beginning of this series; Book 6’s lengthy part on Hitler was not good… even if it were, I don’t find Hitler (or Mein Kampf) nearly as interesting as he does: Mein Kampf is one of the shittiest books by one of history’s villains I’ve ever read… even Stalin is better, and Stalin was also a dreadful writer. I was struck by a sort of irony with Hitler with regard to the importance of the individual — this entire series revolved around the immensity of a single person, the sheer multitude of thought wrapped up in one person’s life, his experience, his actions… to end the book focusing on a man who only valued some individuals with the right racial makeup is strange indeed. Further, Karl Ove, despite writing this and many other books, has accomplished little in his life, though he has ‘done’ a lot (otherwise what would he fill 3600 pages with?) and that I suppose is part of the story as well… to what extent is someone expected to provide any kind of value to the world?

Ultimately I’m pleased I managed to claw my way through this gargantuan series: my feelings for this author run the gamut. You get to the end and you feel as though you know him; I also came away with a feeling that I would love to have a conversation with him, but I’m unsure I would say I “like” him. I admire his ability to expose himself, his cowardice, his poor decisions, the monotony and selfishness that overwhelms him at times. This was an impressive series, though Book 6 received tepid reviews: New York Times here and Slate here. I felt the entire series was hit or miss, but it was much more hit than miss, and the boring parts were worth the struggle for the nights I, lying in bed, sat straight up and said “WHAT??” and hit the 30-sec rewind to listen to a beautiful thought, or an incredible passage, 2, 3, 4 times. Last note, the Audible version of this is incredible… so incredible in fact that I already purchased all 4 of his recent seasons books (which are much shorter) just to continue to listen to Edoardo Ballerini.

Transparent Things | This is another book I really just did not get into. It’s short, so I finished it, but I found it pretty boring. None of the characters were particularly likable. The New York Times’ archive has a great review; it seems they saw a lot more in it than I did. Most of the reviews end in general admiration for Nabokov (this Guardian review is one); I concur, but this book was nowhere near his best work.

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia | The author of this book was a correspondent for NPR, apparently, and the book is interesting because her material comes out of her experiences in Chelyabinsk. The book is mostly a series of human interest stories with characters she meets in the city; post-Soviet identity (or lack thereof) is I think really difficult for Western people to understand; she does a really good job of explaining the roots of conflict. There are a lot of kinds of books people write to explain Russia: books about what happened, and books about what people feel about what happened, and this is the latter. Easy, quick read, super insightful. Would recommend. Foreign Affairs review here; YaleGlobal Online here; CS Monitor here.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs | I saw an interview with this guy on Joe Rogan and decided to read his book, seeing as how there’s pretty much no better time in history to do so. I’ve read some awesome pandemic books over the years; my favorite is probably Spillover, which features a cornucopia of diseases… this one primarily focuses on influenza and whatever is coming next, though he talks about HIV, TB, malaria and others briefly as well. Definitely a good read for anyone living in coronavirus times. Here’s a review from NIH… didn’t know that was a thing.

Marina Abramović: Walk Through Walls | I was pleased to see this on a shelf facing me at Powell’s in Portland a few months back; I’ve encountered her work throughout my life and having been somewhat familiar with her, I was still taken aback by the end of this book, by her ability to put her pain and suffering in the forefront in a way it for whatever reason really resonated with me. I read this and A Hero of Our Time simultaneously, and by the time I finished both books I was depressed af. Her work is incredible; the trajectory of her life is pretty interesting as well, and her romantic endeavors add so much depth to her (particularly in terms of suffering). I didn’t find this memoir to be particularly well-written, but she’s an artist, not a writer, and it was definitely worth the time. Truly fascinating person.

A Hero of Our Time | This is me, saving the best for last. How has it taken me 35 years to read this unbelievable book? The odd organization of events was difficult at first (the end of the book is really the beginning, and then it flashes back in diary entries)… I was completely amazed by the depth of the main character and how (especially these days) I identify so deeply with his feelings on life, namely in it being completely meaningless, endeavors often completely pointless, with the lack of reconciliation between how he acts and how he feels, with his deeply conflicted nature overall. I will never forget the part, toward the end, where his horse collapses as he is riding after Vera, and has this incredible opportunity to make a difference in his life, a grand gesture (maybe) and asks himself, “for what?” And lies down and sobs. He wanders off and eventually dies. All of this emptiness against the backdrop of the Caucasus, which are so vividly and incredibly developed in this book. I think something I also found interesting is how much the ethnic groups of the region all hate each other (Cossacks, Ossetians, Tatars, Circassians / Kabardians, Georgians, etc.), how diverse and strange (and beautiful) that part of the world is. I think this may be one of my favorite books of all time. I rewound, re-listened, and I’m grateful to have found a little copy recently that I can tuck into a bag if I choose to peruse it; I’ve realized other people rarely re-read books, but I go back to ones I love regularly. I loved some parts of this book so much that I screenshot passages from Google Books while lying in bed listening. This is a really unbelievable read.

Re-reads:

Heart of Darkness | I had forgotten until I nearly completed this post that en route to Hawaii, I listened to Heart of Darkness in its entirety. It had been a long time; and I often expect to not be as enamored by a book the second time around as the first; that is rarely if ever the case. Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are both brilliant — Conrad seems to be difficult for people to digest, or too dry, or something. It has always been disappointing to read about his supposed racism, which I never saw in the book: to me this was always about the fear of the unknown, the evolutionary fear of darkness (not blackness, but darkness) and the fear of things different than you. The way it’s written paints a nightmarish but often beautiful and mysterious portrait of the Congo, and the narrator in the end is forever changed by his experience, and his perception of civilization as he knew it prior to his trip is forever changed. Both books: Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim have bizarre analyses — I saw Lord Jim as much more about shame than free will and determinism. Heart of Darkness scarcely seemed racist to me at all: it was a product of colonialism, and if anything the narrator was more sympathetic to the natives (he had much more curiosity than contempt) than anyone else in the novel. I noticed many years ago that someone used an excerpt (one of the better known ones) in a tourism video for Malaysia. Pretty cool. Vimeo link here.

That’s all for now. Trying to keep these monthly moving forward (or more frequent) since there’s not much else going on.

Post-publish addition, I’m incredibly grateful to have squeezed in a beautiful week on Maui before this all transpired. At the very least the travel ban took place for me immediately after a very active early 2020… one of countless reasons for a lot of gratitude, despite present circumstances.

There’s a subscribe via e-mail field on the sidebar; I can’t seem to get it to show more prominently, despite request(s), sorry.

Q4 Reading Roundup (2 of 2)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure | This book starts with a completely absurd fictional account of the authors hiking up to some Zen master’s retreat and being granted some advice that is completely wrong. The long, unnecessary anecdote sets the stage for the rest of the book. The rest of it is good, and sad. I am glad I graduated from college over a decade ago, I am sure I’d be disgusted by campus society these days. My main issue with a book like this is that I’m not sure what good it does, other than provide confirmation of a problem will remain unresolved because the people causing the problem will not accept the book’s key points. I would happily pass along copies of this to people who could benefit greatly from its content, but those people have long un-followed me on Facebook and haven’t read much if anything I’ve passed along to them. You could build much more upon this idea, as this learned fragility flows into corporations and government from the university system, and the consequences are already frightening. Review here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined |While this 100-chapter book took me forever to get through; I really enjoyed it, I will never write a review (of anything) as complete or thoughtful as Aschwin’s, so I will link to his.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America | I’m still really unsure how I feel about this very lengthy and bitter-sounding history of poor whites in America. Further, while some explanation of inequality make sense to me (property ownership value compounds over generations, so if you start later you can have less inherited wealth), this tirade against a country that allegedly oppresses opportunities for the poorest whites, who are generationally poor, fails to account for the fact that millions of poor immigrants with even fewer opportunities landed in this country, dispersed and flourished. The book has no real topic order; some of her reflections on people like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin are interesting, and her cultural critique is worth considering. Overall I was not a fan: the disjointed style and the wildly resentful tone were not particularly persuasive. Two completely different reviews, one from the Washington Post here and one from the National Review here. There is a false comparison to Hillbilly Elegy: the two books are nothing alike.

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Book 11) | I will never forget the way this book opens, with the shelling of the National Library in Sarajevo. I consider myself a fairly rational and often unemotional person; the Bosnian War has always evoked very deep horror in me, and absent geography, I can’t think of a worse building to go up in flames than a library, though I attribute this partially to my own culture, in which burning books is taboo.

This book is similar in tone to The Serbs: it is highly critical of Serb politicians and nationalists. It is rightfully critical of the West and the UN. Its primary focus is Christoslavism, which is integral to explaining the history of the Balkans. The extent of cruelty and dehumanization and groupthink leading up to and during this war is staggering. That it dragged on for years before anyone intervened is sickening. The book details the rapid destruction of tolerance and history, and the way Serb and Bosnian Serb politicians fanned the flames of hatred. It is not unbiased, but it is very good. I wish I could say that September’s trip to BiH was fulfilling enough to stop reading books about the Balkans. It was not, and I have quite a few others I will read in 2019 before heading back to Sarajevo in June.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives |Not sure why or how I came across this book, it but’s a pretty diverse collection of stories by refugees in America. No real opinion, it’s always interesting to read about how other people live. Pretty good read. SF Gate review here.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border |This book was pretty well-received for offering a different perspective on border patrol, though I’m not sure in the end it lacks any sympathy. It’s tragic and torn; also really well-written. NY Times review here.

Q4 Reading Roundup (1 of 2)

Oops, it’s now December. And, the time of year The Economist and New York Times publish their best of the year: both contain some really great ones. Because I’m lazy and my readership is deliberately limited, I’m only covering Oct-Dec. I’ve read over 100 books this year: ain’t nobody got time for that shit. I will supplement my laziness with other peoples’ reviews — sometimes negative ones — and all reviews are limited to one paragraph, in classic millennial TL;DR style.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress | I am currently reading this, but figured I’d include it anyway. Quite honestly I find this a bit boring, but it’s not Pinker’s fault, it’s mine; I read too many books that end up confirming my world view (I don’t necessarily mean to) and am familiar with (thus far) all of his included references. Many sweeping societal views are deeply flawed: one that I find consistently bothersome is the belief that today’s world is worse. This book is filled with the work of Kahneman & Tversky; Johann Norberg and many others who have commented on this erroneous belief and why people believe this. This book was not widely loved and admired, for obvious reasons. Here’s a positive review, and here are two critical ones, one from the New York Times, and one from Vox (a site I reference because it tends to occasionally feature writers who are not sanctimonious assholes). The New York Times review is particularly interesting, as the group of people who would be inclined to agree with the reviewer’s argument (‘things are overall better, but not individually’) are the same ones who would bleed upper-middle and upper class individuals for the sake of the argument that collectively, society would be better if they paid more taxes. This book is simple, even for Pinker; thus far it reads as a light, data-centric but emotional argument defending prosperity. Some current issues, especially societal polarization, are glazed over. Chapter 4, about how progressives hate progress, made me laugh, though it was cynical laughter, and a point driven home by my own personal experience of gifting Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future to some of my most progressive friends a number of years ago… not one of them has read it. I like Pinker’s books for the references to other books; this one was a bit light on that as well. I will always read his books, this one is my least favorite, but only due to standards set by his previous work. As an aside, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the subtle silver lining to the current ‘life sucks more than it used to’ narrative: it could, and likely will, in some instances, perpetuate further progress. Gratitude is not required to raise the bar even higher in the future.

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool | I wasn’t a huge fan of this when I began reading, but by the end I was pleased I did. While her distaste for libertarians is obvious throughout the book, I think she makes some good arguments for the high utility of shame, and its misuses, as well as further opportunities to wield it to change corporate behavior (and possibly public policy, but not holding my breath). I was pleased to see a pet issue of mine featured in many chapters: big agriculture (her specialty is environmental protection, and it is a much larger source of ire than industrial farming). Her lack of interest in including the presence of government subsidies seems to fall in line with her political views; shame has diminished utility in agriculture, pharma, biotech and many other industries where government subsidies exist, and she could have made a better case for the shame brought about by modern writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, which increased consumer demand for organic food and humanely reared meat, both of which were incredibly difficult to find 15 years ago. Shame has also not worked for American airlines, where consumers can only purchase sub-par services due to government constraints on supply and competition. Environmental protection shaming will also not help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the relationship between ASRC and the government; the ideas are good, and the book is thoughtfully written, but I think there’s a limit to the power of shame where government and lobbying are involved. It’d be impossible to shame the postal service for arbitrarily closing yesterday due to the GWB ‘day of mourning,’ but consumers could shame a grocery store for doing the same. For that reason, there is a lot of disparity in the power of shame. Chicago Tribune review of two books on shame; I chose this one instead of the other.

The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire | This was an impulse buy following reading The Economist review. Read with a lot of scrutiny; its style echoes Psychopathia Sexualis, in a way, and to the writer’s credit, many of the stories encompass mental issues I’ve never heard of (and I am a person who spends hours scrolling through articles and photos of infectious disease and obscure mental and physical illnesses). I don’t love his writing style, he has a way of weaving his general psych knowledge into the chapters and then being self-deprecating in a way that annoys me, but the mental problems he covers in the chapters are really interesting. These characters are fascinating and deranged; it’s difficult to ignore their innocence, the author displays a lot of empathy and curiosity, traits which, when combined, are not always attractive or unbiased.

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good | I read this because I read the one below, which blew my mind to some degree. Woodard is not the first to divide America into ideological regions, but his book helped me answer some of my own questions: I spent a long time ruminating on the underlying causes of feeling unimpressed living in Boston, yet having undying love and admiration for New York: this writer’s theories on the subcultures of the US really fascinated me, and a lot of American Character refers back to his former work, though the author spends an awful lot of time railing on the apparently stupid libertarian ideals and making fun of Hayek. He comes to a fairly reasonable conclusion: that we need a blend of ideologies for real progress. Overall, the book below is the better read, but American Character is an easy read that gave me things to think about. Bonus points for the Ceaușescu reference. WSJ review here. Side note, it surprises me so many authors believe there is an adequately straight solution: I find it highly likely, especially due to so many regional subcultures and states’ rights, that America will always oscillate between federalist and anti-federalist, between excessive laissez-faire and over-regulation. It’s especially American to fight and bitch and argue about everything, and to run constant experiments in different states and regions. The squabbling has been a pretty important part of our so-called exceptionalism.

My Struggle, Book 3 | I loved Book 1 and 2 of this series, I found Book 3 to be boring but probably necessary. Thankfully it is shorter than the others. Much of this revolves around the author’s relationship with his father, and the fear conveyed in this book adds a lot of context. I love the order of this series so far… only in book 3 does he return to his childhood. I had no idea how I would feel about the series as a whole, the books take absolutely forever to get through. I’m “reading” this with Audible.  The reader is theatrical, which is an incredible and probably underappreciated feature of the audio version: Scandinavian languages have a completely different cadence, and this feature doubtless increases my enjoyment of the material. A somewhat monotonous Book 3 has not dissuaded me from continuing, and Book 4 is coming up in the queue quickly. I imagine this is the kind of work you either love or hate. I expected to hate it. I’m linking to the Book 6 review in The Economist, where the reviewer implies the high readership is perhaps partially attributed to his “craggy good looks.” This one sentence in an otherwise insightful review earned The Economist another pissed off note from me; after all, it would be taboo to make a statement like that about a female author. His outrageous honesty, in all things relevant and irrelevant, is what makes this an incredible project, especially for a Norwegian (though his honesty would be even more scandalous if he were a Swede).

Part 2 of this roundup coming before the end of the year. I promise.

TL;DR

One of the items on my current to-do list was to create a recommended reading list for my colleagues. I’m a part of a high performing team (I don’t dole out compliments like this; we consistently beat our numbers and we have no interpersonal drama, which combined is a monumental achievement), and twice a year or so we go through our so-called ‘Group Norms’ in order to ensure we are all on the same page, and we properly integrate newcomers and keep the bar high. It has been a brilliant strategy for us to maintain ‘synergy,’ a buzz word I hate but a concept that is integral to consistent performance. On top of that, I am the team bookworm weirdo, and I am fairly sure they did not expect this long of a list. But I want to ‘keep it 100,’ as the young people say.

I think it’s safe to say I’m obsessed with reading. I spent three years of my life in a ‘good school’, Boston University. Otherwise, I don’t consider myself well educated in the way a lot of people mean it. I am well self-educated, and my glory years at a private college were wedged between primary education at a crap public high school in upstate New York and a tediously boring online MBA program I completed as quickly as possible (7 months) to stave off prolonged torture. Watching paint dry is more interesting than getting an MBA. If given the option of doing it again or a shotgun shell to the knee cap, I might honestly choose the latter.

I read all kinds of books. One category of many is what I guess you’d loosely call ‘business books’. I’d venture to call some of them ‘self help’ books (aren’t all books self help books? Books help you to learn, by yourself). Mostly they are books about being a part of the world and functioning in different segments of society.

In any case, below is the list I posted for my team. I left off the few I read that were wholly unimpressive. Most of these are very good, some are better than others.

Top 10 with asterisks.

If you’re ambling around here and think I’ve missed one (or ten, or fifty), leave them in my comments.