2020

  1. The Fever, Sonia Shah (a). A tour of how malaria has changed geopolitics for the last few thousand years. The most effective drug against it was rediscovered in the 20th century in an ancient Chinese text from ~150BC! The Romans had a Goddess of malaria, malaria was used as a defence against intruders (who’d get sick and die), and it may have been implicated in the Fall of Rome! In what may have been an act of biological warfare (it’s contested), the German army triggered a malaria outbreak in Italy in 1943-44 and 100,000 of 245,000 locals were infected! More wild stories in the notes I took while listening.
  2. The Imagineers of War, Sharon Weinberger (a). A history of DARPA. I work on science funding, where the (D)ARPA model gets discussed a lot, mostly in the context of figuring out what made ARPA so unusually productive in the 1960s. This book had lots of memorable details. (Not everyone likes it, and there’s a competing DARPA history some people like more.) One high level takeaway I was left with is that the “no red tape” mentality meant that while one ARPA leader was overseeing the creation of what would become the internet, another (William Godel) was creating Agent Orange and testing it in bombing raids over Vietnam. I have many notes from this book, email me if you’d like them.
  3. Find Me, André Aciman (p). I cannot remember a literary experience I’ve had that was more disappointing than reading Find Me. It’s the sequel to Call Me By Your Name, a book so good that when rereading a dogeared page before starting this new one I had to sit down and close my eyes to collect myself. How could CMBYN be so deeply affecting and this sequel so empty? It is unmoving. The ending is unearned. ~None of the characters’ feelings were believable to me, especially not in the long first Part. It is childish fantasy that doesn’t even move the child in me (relatively easy). How did this happen?
  4. Dealers of Lightning, Michael Hiltzik (a). A history of Xerox PARC, the industrial lab where much of early computing was invented in the 1970s. I’m interested in the topic but this presentation of it didn’t get me going.
  5. Transit, Rachel Cusk (p). The sequel to Outline, I read last year. Some quotes I like from near the beginning: “And once Clara was born, the dilemma got worse: the only thing more unimaginable than the idea that Clara should have a childhood that resembled his own was the idea that she shouldn’t, that she might live her whole life in ignorance of everything that for Gerard constituted reality.” /// “We are so schooled, he said, in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.”
  6. The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa (p). Calmly disturbing, though it didn’t fully capture me. I struggled to trust the translation sometimes – originally written in Japanese, and the prose style seems important for the story.
  7. Up Country, Maxine Kumin (p). This is the first book of poetry I’ve read in a long time, since I usually find them more work than novels. This one was accessible, for a start because Kumin is great at opening lines: “On this day of errors”. “Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.” “Into my empty head there come”. Then it was nice to be reminded that poems get better with each read once you’ve found little tricks into them. My favourites were ‘The Hermit Goes Up Attic‘, ‘Country House‘, and ‘Morning Swim‘. The first two remind me of another New England country house poem by Robert Frost, who is approximately the only other poet I know, ‘The Black Cottage‘, and the third reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s ‘My river runs to thee‘, approximately the only Dickinson poem I know. What I’m trying to say is I’m unable to deal with poetry not about New England. ‘The Hermit Goes Up Attic’ and ‘The Black Cottage’ both use an old house as a fixed point to talk about the passage of time, remembrance, death, generations, etc. And more surprisingly both follow the same pattern of: seemingly simple and cute; things go totally unexpectedly mental near the end; pulls back into a calm last 3-4 lines that are now menacing. The line where things start getting ??? and cool in ‘The Hermit…’ is when she describes the attic as “this rooftree keel veed with chestnut / ribs”. I had to read that about four times. (Incidentally, ‘January 25th‘ by Kumin reminds me of ‘The Sound of Trees‘ by Frost; I liked the former, and the latter is possibly my favourite poem.)
    • Words: groundsill, caul, mullions, popple (verb), basswood, dewberries, rhizomes, peepers, lintels, inglenook, vetch, gelding, carrion, awl, cotyledon, quahogs, ruff, garret, jo, mortised, drumlins, puddingstone, winnows, leeward, chinking, whipporwill, Odalisque, salt lick, jack-in-the-pulpit, crazings, risers. Then ~every plant that appears in ‘The Hermit Reviews His Simples’: beewort, calamus, sweet flag, polecats (admittedly not a plant), pith (same), wallwort, cleavers, taproot, alliums, pennyroyal, elfdock, borage, comfrey, forfend (not a plant but HOW have I not been using ‘forfend’?), avens.
  8. We The Animals, Justin Torres (p). Short and evocative. The ending arc seemed rushed to me and I wasn’t totally onboard, but the first 2/3 hit the spot.
  9. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda (p). These didn’t click with me, which I was surprised by, and I suspect it’s on me not Neruda. Maybe I didn’t read them at the right time, or let my stresses about translation get in the way. Free pass.
  10. Normal People, Sally Rooney (p). Yes, yes, yes, I read Normal People, OK.
  11. Mrs Bridge, Evan S. Connell (p). Written in 1959, set in 1930s Kansas City, about a housewife who sleepwalks through life, unable to articulate to herself what is going on or why, connecting to no one, with brief moments of lucidity where the horror of what is going on hits her. I liked the structure (short vignettes) and narrative voice (heavy with irony). I was indeed horrified, and redoubled my efforts to make sure I’m not living a lie. I wasn’t sure how to react to the fact the novel was written by a male author in the ’50s, about the unstated interior life of a repressed+oppressed woman. Connell wrote a follow up 10 years later, Mr Bridge, but I doubt I’ll read it since the husband was so depressing this time around.
  12. The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944, Ed Conway (a). This is a history of the Bretton Woods conference where the IMF and World Bank were founded, which kicked off the monetary system the world ran on until 1971. It’s heavy on gossip, particularly about John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. That suited me just fine given I was listening on audiobook and was more interested in how the decisions that created these institutions were made than the workings of the system in detail. If you’re looking for the latter you’ll find the book frustrating (for that, read the Wikipedia page). The book divides into two: pre-gossip, about the lead up to the conference (relatively boring), then conference gossip (totally nuts). One of the main impressions I was left with is how path dependent our global institutions are, with important and lasting details decided on underslept drunken whims over a three week period in 1944. Conversely, it’s amazing how well those decisions seemed to serve the world up until 1971 (though I haven’t read many critiques of the Bretton Woods system, so I’m not sure on that point). The committee structure split into three: Commission 1 covered the IMF, and was chaired by White (i.e. the US); Commission 2 covered the World Bank and was chaired by Keynes (i.e. the UK); Commission 3 was a grab-bag of other topics (e.g. the gold and silver debates) that neither Keynes nor White wanted to deal with so strategically punted. Commission 4 was the nickname for one of the hotel bars. One example of many on decision-making: the formula that determined different countries’ contributions to the IMF, used in part to inform UN voting later, was drafted in four days a year earlier by a random US Treasury researcher tasked with creating something principled-sounding that hit the following constraints: (1) it should add up to roughly $10bn since that’s a round number (by my count of Schedule A it settled at $8.8bn); (2) America should be around $2.9bn of that, which just so happened to be the same size as a Depression era stabilization fund that could be transferred to the IMF without a new authorization from Congress (settled at $2.75bn); (3) the UK had to be next largest, but the British Empire’s combined share had to be less than the US’s; (4) the USSR had to be third and (5) China had to be fourth. You may ask: what about India, with the second largest population in the world? What about France, whose economy was considerably bigger than China’s? Well, the French delegate Pierre Mendès France (real name) did get angry about not ranking above China and threatened to pull out of the conference — initially mistranslated, leading to confusion. He set up a side meeting with the US to complain more and turned up late just before the meeting was dismissed. The US didn’t want to move France up the order, but didn’t care much about whether there were 3 or 5 permanent directors on the IMF Executive Board, so decided go with 5 to give France a slot and allow Mendès France to save face back home.
    1. OK, one more. The US wanted to get rid of the Bank for International Settlements, a central banking consortium that had been set up in 1930 to facilitate First World War reparations paid by Germany but ended up helping the Nazis expand, transferring gold from accounts of countries they invaded and accepting stolen gold from the Reichsbank. The US proposed making IMF membership incompatible with BIS membership, which would do the trick. Keynes was outraged for reasons I can’t quite remember (maybe he was friendly with the central bankers?), and stormed to Morgenthau‘s room to yell about it and threaten UK withdrawal from Bretton Woods. This was such an exertion, he went back to his room and fell sick, and a rumour went around Europe overnight that Keynes had died. The US removed that clause, but left in a recommendation for the “liquidation of the Bank for International Settlements at the earliest possible moment” that everyone signed on to. As it turns out, there hasn’t been a possible moment yet — the BIS still exists 76 years later and is stronger than ever.