1. Also a Poet, Ada Calhoun (a). An unusual combination of autobiography and biography, where the three main characters are Calhoun, her father Peter Schjeldahl, and the poet Frank O’Hara. O’Hara seems mostly a stand-in for artists in the East Village in New York in the ’60s, so I suppose that’s the real third character. E.g. Ada got her name when Ada Katz, (apocryphally?) the most painted woman of the 20th century, suggested it at a dinner party. (Ah, as I type this I realise I liked that form of biography in The Bully Pulpit too (#16), where the three characters were Taft, Roosevelt, and early 1900s muckraker journalism.) Calhoun’s father had tried to write a biography of Frank O’Hara 50 years ago, and recorded interviews for it, but failed to complete it. Long after, he gave Calhoun the tapes, and that led to this book. I recommend listening to the audiobook version, since those original recordings are interspersed and made me feel a little more Village.
  2. A History of Disappearance, Sarah Lubala (p). My favourite poems were ‘Honeymoon’, ‘New Braamfontein’, and ‘Elegy for Girlhood’.
  3. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson (p). Someone recommended Denis Johnson when I told them I liked Raymond Carver (#36 in 2016), but the despair in these short stories was too sudden/vicious for me. I guess I need to be handheld into despair to feel it. That said, I can see why people really like Johnson, which is more than I can say of some other 20th century American greats I’ve tried (#22). This is a nice reading/discussion of one of the best (though, warning, horrible) stories in the collection, ‘Emergency’.
  4. War with the Newts, Karel Čapek (author), dramatised by George Poles (a). I listened to the 2005 BBC radio adaptation, so arguably this is neither a book nor audiobook and doesn’t deserve an entry? Ah well, I liked it, so it’s making the list. Satirical science fiction from 1936 about the discovery of intelligent newts who get exploited for labour by various world powers to increase civilian and military production. Relevant to anxieties of the day, and to some anxieties of 2023.
  5. The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman and several artists (p). Graphic novel that follows the Sandman series I haven’t read. Mixed feelings. I later watched an episode of the Netflix adaptation, and didn’t like it.
  6. Genentech, Sally Smith Hughes (a). I’ve wanted to read this for a while, since Genentech is a (the?) standout biotech company from the last 50 years. Finally someone recorded an audiobook version – thank you, whoever is responsible! Tidbits from the story: the co-founders were 1 unemployed VC really into recombinant DNA and 1 lead scientist with an itch for commercialisation (who was able to recruit more scientists). Seed round from Kleiner Perkins, who took board seats and helped Genentech fundraise for the next decade (careful what you sign up for). The big product goal was to make human insulin, and one co-founder wanted to go straight for it, but the rest of the team convinced him they should go for somatostatin first as a proof of concept for the technology, despite the smaller market; they spent $515,000 across mostly academic settings, and it worked. The mayor of South San Francisco encouraged them to open lab space in SSF, and they went for SSF over Berkeley partly because they thought Berkeley might have local ordinances against recombinant research (similar-ish to Stripe moving from SF to SSF after Prop C in 2018/19?). Indeed an “unfair” advantage they had as a privately funded company is that academics at UCSF and Harvard working on recombinant DNA were funded by the NIH, and NIH guidelines said you had to use the highest biosafety level lab in case recombinant DNA escaped – which UCSF/Harvard didn’t have access to, so one of them went to France where the regulations were less(!) restrictive. Apparently since gene synthesis machines didn’t exist yet, scientists had to create the strings molecule by molecule?(!) Genentech signed a deal with Lilly, the largest provider of insulin at the time, structured as $3M in milestone payments with 6% of future royalties on sales going to Genentech and 2% to City of Hope. They only had 5 scientists on staff at the time.
  7. The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories, Leo Szilard (p). Short stories written by one of the creators of the atomic bomb. I found the middle four more provocative than the title story, though thought they were all wonderful/jarring. (Given my job, I of course enjoyed ‘The Mark Gable Foundation’, as well as the philanthropy digs in the first story: “He regarded the bylaws of the foundations, which provided that grants for research projects be allocated by a simple majority vote of the trustees, as an ingeniously contrived device to make certain that no imaginative project was ever approved.”) One difference vs today that comes through is how seriously people took game theory in the early nuclear age. Szilard also makes some implicit incorrect predictions of what Germany will be like decades after the war, and of the power of the Church. Otherwise, there’s much eerie continuity with today. Some quotes from the introduction: “He believed that such a process [nuclear fission], if properly harnessed, could produce cheap power and thus advance human welfare–but it might also lead to a terribly powerful weapon. Initially stressing the peaceful prospects, Szilard even planned how most of the profits could be used to fund science.” “Szilard resented that the A-bomb project, initially conceived by working scientists … was being controlled by the military … It was not that he objected to power residing in an elite, but in his mind it was decidedly the wrong elite.” “His concerns did not stop him from joining in the rush to develop the bomb.” “Because of government-enforced secrecy, there could be no open dialogue with the public, no education of the general citizenry, and thus scientists on the project had even a greater moral responsibility than usual.” “Nine days after Hiroshima, Szilard finished an elaborate proposal for saving the world. His plan looked forward to world government.”
  8. The Houseguest and Other Stories, Amparo Dávila (author), Matthew Gleeson & Audrey Harris (translators) (p). Recently translated short stories from Dávila, a Mexican author who I’d never heard of until happenstance book store browsing. I’d classify all the stories as domestic horror, dominant emotions fear and paranoia, recurring theme of familial duties destroying you. E.g. inheriting from a brother two dogs who trash your house, force you to end your relationships, move out of town… Taking care of a son/brother who’s so demanding that your parents die of heart attacks and fatigue, then he burns the house down. Several scenes reminded me of the claustrophobic middle section of The Days of Abandonment (#29), where the main character is locked in her apartment with her children.
  9. Life Ascending, Nick Lane (a). A sweep over billions of years, covering “the ten great inventions of evolution”: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, eukaryotes, sex, movement, eyes, hot blood, consciousness, and death. It reads like narrative textbook that applies a particular lens (evolutionary theory) to discuss broad biological phenomena. I imagine it gets plenty wrong along the way (the consciousness and death chapters raised some suspicions), but what a ride. It’s the kind of book that makes me feel grateful to be alive today. How could people make sense of the biological world before DNA, transcription, and translation were discovered? That was pretty recently! Indeed, how before the theory of evolution itself? I wonder what concepts future people will pity us for not having.
  10. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan (p). I’ve wanted to read this book for a while without having any clue what it’s about. Probably in part due to the great name, but also a sense that Egan is on a short list of living authors people talk about in serious tones. Great from the first page. One nicely worded phrase: “a faint appreciation for the beauty and inelegance of a man undressing.” Plus some San Francisco, including a scene at the since-closed Mabuhay Gardens, and a sentence that made me feel at home: “Where we live, in the Sunset, the ocean is always just over your shoulder and the houses have Easter-egg colors.”
  11. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (p). Incredible. Slower reading than a normal novel, but so worth it (and faster for me than Mrs. Dalloway (#17), which I also loved). Woolf describes things so exhaustively that I realised after finishing the book I had crisp visual images of every scene. Poignant throughout. “What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.” The daily illuminations that give ordinary life the possibility of transcendence; hearing Woolf describe them is special. (I’m reminded as I type of this scene in Soul.) Plus, the mercurial oscillations from the heights of ecstasy to depths of despair makes the poignancy hilarious. I want to quote the whole book, so instead I’ll limit myself to quotations of things I laughed at in the first 30 pages: “that wretched atheist who had chased them–or, speaking accurately, been invited to stay with them–in the Isles of Skye.” / “she made him feel better pleased with himself than he had done yet, and he would have liked, had they taken a cab, for example, to have paid for it.” / “Her shoes were excellent, he observed. They allowed the toes their natural expansion.” / [For context on this one, the father is a philosophy professor:] “The Ramsays were not rich, and it was a wonder how they managed to contrive it all. Eight children! To feed eight children on philosophy!” / “I respect you (she addressed silently him in person) in every atom; … you live for science (involuntarily, sections of potatoes rose before her eyes)” / “‘Nature has but little clay,’ said Mr. Bankes once, much moved by her voice on the telephone, though she was only telling him a fact about a train, “like that of which she moulded you.”‘ / “She stroked James’s head; … what a delight it would be to her should he turn out a great artist; and why should he not? He had a splendid forehead.”
  12. A Coastline is an Immeasurable Thing, Mary-Alice Daniel (a). Memoir of growing up in Nigeria, England, and the US, finding sense across many identities (Fulani, Hausa, non-believer, Californian…).