The Fever, Sonia Shah (a). A tour of how malaria has changed geopolitics for the last few thousand years. I enjoyed the book, but I’ve decided to breach inter-temporal etiquette to edit my review from the future (hello from April 2022). I’d now recommend listening to this episode of This Podcast Will Kill You instead, which covers the best parts of the book. Back over to you, 2020 Jacob.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Normal People, Sally Rooney (p). Yes, yes, yes, I read Normal People, OK.
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.
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.
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 had 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.
Where Should We Begin?, Esther Perel (a)
White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo (a)
Gilgamesh, translated by Stephen Mitchell (p)
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (p)
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (p)
All About Love, bell hooks (p)
Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (p). The first 1/3 is fantastic, if hard-going. The second 1/3 is stressful and made me laugh out loud at least once; the final 1/3 turned me off. On the first 1/3: I viewed it as a thorough critique of my job, which is partly premised on the ability to quantify/measure human values and increase well-being across the board in a “rational” way. Dostoevsky was ripping in to the humanitarian socialists of the 1840s and the utilitarians of the 1860s, but much applies today. “And why are you so firmly, so solemnly convinced … that only well-being, is profitable for man? … As for my personal opinion, to love just well-being alone is even somehow indecent.” “man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can want even against one’s own profit, and one sometimes even positively must … all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.” “wanting is very often, and even for the most part, completely and stubbornly at odds with reason, and… and… and, do you know, this, too, is usual and sometimes even quite praiseworthy?” “‘And why not? There is also pleasure in a toothache,’ … I had a toothache for a whole month; I know there is.” I resonate with this: “I, for example, quite naturally want to live so as to satisfy my whole capacity for living, and not so as to satisfy just my reasoning capacity alone, which is some twentieth part of my whole capacity for living.” Finally, in the following metaphor the “palace” refers to (something like) Chernyshevky’s Crystal Palace, an ideal living space in a future utopia. I choose to interpret it as representing perfect knowledge and understanding of what is good and how to bring it about, and the chicken coop as our at-best-crappy attempts to quantify/approximate: “Now look: if instead of a palace there is a chicken coop, and it starts to rain, I will perhaps get into the chicken coop to avoid a wetting, but all the same I will not take the chicken coop for a palace out of gratitude for its having kept me from the rain.”
The Geography of Insight: The Sciences, The Humanities, How They Differ, Why They Matter, Richard Foley (p). What a great topic. I couldn’t help bolding.
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith (p). More poems!
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (p). I need to spend time with a Pynchon-obsessive at some point, I don’t get it yet. (Though you helped, Saarthak, thanks.)
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee (a)
Exhalation, Ted Chiang (p). Much hyped short stories, so I went in expecting to be disappointed. Not so! The stories are clean, each exploring a core idea that’s often to do with free will/determinism and technology. I think of myself as someone who likes language and characters in fiction; these stories were relatively light on character development but I mostly didn’t care since the philosophy/ideas were so crisp. My favourites were ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction’, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, ‘Exhalation’, and ‘Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ is too long and annoyed me in two other ways, but it’s probably the most important of the stories, so I’d recommend reading it.
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (p). So, so good. It’s best going into it cold, so I won’t say more. Recommended!
The Alignment Problem, Brian Christian (a)
Averno, Louise Glück (p). I need to read these poems a few more times before I know what I think. The title poem is my favourite so far. The way Glück revisits themes across the collection of 18 poems makes the collection feel like one long poem that must be read in order. In the title poem, she revisits previous parts of the poem in latter parts, and covers densely lots of the ground of the rest of the collection (death, the soul, Earth, winter, motherhood, Persephone). To me, that makes it feel like a self-contained version of the collection. /// In ‘Persephone the Wanderer’ Glück speculates about what Persephone’s experience of her life/myth was like from the inside, then harshly undercuts its importance: “in the tale of Persephone/ which should be read/ As an argument between the mother and the lover—/ the daughter is just meat.” In ‘Averno’, Glück says we need to believe the story of a girl who lit a match and burned down a field is true: ‘So we have to believe in the girl,/ in what she did. Otherwise/ it’s just forces we don’t understand/ ruling the earth.’
Ten Drugs, Thomas Hager (a). Short histories of the discoveries of different blockbuster drugs, from opium to statins. Similar to Laughing Gas, Viagra, and Lipitor, which annoyingly isn’t available as an audiobook. I liked this one and picked up several fun anecdotes, but didn’t feel safe in the author’s hands on some of the details.
Experiment Eleven, Peter Pringle (a). The first quarter is an account of the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin at Rutgers University in the 1940s, a cure for tuberculosis. (Sadly the bacterium that causes TB keeps evolving around our antibiotics, so nowadays streptomycin is one of four drugs given in a combo punch, and even that combo doesn’t work for some drug-resistant TB.) The final three quarters recounts the disputes between Selman Waksman, who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery, and his PhD student Albert Schatz, about who deserves credit for it. That story is so human-level and graspable that I listened to all of it in a day while pottering around, but it misses the bigger story entirely, which is much too big to make as compelling. Streptomycin has saved millions of lives. Incredible! Think of the stories of each of those people who recovered, forgot all about TB, and got into complicated disputes of their own… all the unlitigated injustices, all the unwritten books of our world.
Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction, Robert Allen (p). This condenses 500 years of economic history across 200 countries into 150 pages, with conclusions and opinions stated firmly. That’s impossible to do without ideological assumptions and overstepping, so my bolding is not intended as an endorsement of the worldview. I underlined things on perhaps 140 of the 150 pages, with exclamation marks all over the place. That counts as a great book to me – much thought provoked! A few things of the 140 that stood out: The case seems convincing that European (and particularly British) colonisation led not only to inhibition of the growth of industry elsewhere but deindustrialisation of India and China – newly global markets and relatively freer trade meant e.g. Indian textiles couldn’t compete on price with the British, and comparative advantage dictated a shift “back” into agriculture. Second, given rich countries continue to grow at (say) 2%, if you start with 10 times less income per person and want to “catch up” in 2 generations (say 60 years), you have to grow extremely fast. Few countries have sustained those growth rates for decades before. Third, Allen sees a lot of self-fulfilling spirals in history. He leans heavily into the theory that higher income countries industrialised because labour was more expensive, creating a larger incentive to invent labour-saving technologies, leading to higher productivity -> higher income, and so on. It’s not cost-effective/profitable to use capital-intensive technologies (e.g. machines to press fruit into palm oil) in countries where wages are low and more people could work to solve the same problem (pounding and treading on the fruit). Another one: “Poverty itself is a cause of warfare since it makes recruiting troops very cheap. Low wages causing war, which, in turn, restrains the economy, leading to low wages – another poverty trap.” Another one: “Another reason for low productivity is the absence of other complementary firms. … Africa is caught in a vicious circle – a network of firms will never be established since no firm finds it profitable to set up business in the absence of the network! In the 19th century Africa may have had the beginnings of these networks … but globalization, supported by colonialism, drove them out of business.”