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Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

June 14, 2018


This is the story, made popular by 2016 film, of the group of African-American computers who helped make the early days of space exploration possible in the 1960s. Back then, a computer was a job, not a machine. Computers were responsible for the complex mathematical calculations required to put a person into space. It was one of the few technical roles open to women at NASA.

As the title suggests, the three main women in the book—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan—were uncelebrated heroes until recently. Not only did they make critical contributions to the space program behind the scenes, they did so in the face of layers of prejudice. Women faced sexism, particularly in a scientific field like aeronautics, and there was blatant institutionalized racism. The women had to walk to another building to use the “colored” restrooms. When they came to the cafeteria, there was a “colored” table (though after they stole the sign for the table enough times, it stopped appearing). Yet they carried on doing their job and doing it well, proving that mathematics doesn’t care about one’s race or gender. Math is about doing the correct calculations, period.

This is an enjoyable read, and these women are indeed heroes who should be celebrated for their contributions to the space program and their steadfastness in the face of racism and sexism. The only thing that bothered me was that it felt a little quaint, like this was a friendly aw-shucks version of casual racism, something deserving of a head shake and a “can you believe it was like that?” rather than vehement rejection. The women were calm and perseverant because it was the only way to keep their jobs, but the injustices deserved a bigger, angrier reaction.


The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

June 2, 2018


The Golden Compass is the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series. Though it’s often compared to Harry Potter, The Golden Compass has more symbolic depth. And though the main characters are children, it’s also pretty dark for young readers.

The story centers around Lyra Belacqua, a cunning orphan girl who is recruited to fight in a war between good and evil. Creatures called “gobblers” have been kidnapping children and taking them north where they are subjects of terrible experiments (in the same way Tolkien pulled much of the Lord of the Rings imagery from his experience in WWI, the forces of evil here seem clearly inspired by Nazi tactics). Lyra and her companions head toward the Arctic to rescue the children, along the way encountering all the things you’d expect from a fantasy novel that follows a fairly typical hero’s journey.

Still, the characters along the way and the mythology of this world are wholly engrossing and entertaining. Lyra’s quick wit (she’s also known as Lyra Silvertongue, as she can talk her way in or out of almost anything) is instantly likable, as are many of the other characters. But the show is stolen by memorable Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørn, which is a species of giant, intelligent, armored polar bear warriors. When we meet Iorek, he is working for people who tricked him, stole his armor and now pay him in alcohol for manual labor. “I mend broken machinery and articles of iron. I lift heavy objects,” Iorek says, a terrible fate for a majestic creature. On top of that, we learn that Iorek is also a king in exile—another familiar fantasy trope.


Despite some of these familiar-feeling constructs, the world of The Golden Compass is enthralling. It has been called a response to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s writing was heavily influenced by Christian theology. In The Golden Compass, the world is run by a theocracy attempting to root out heretics. Scientific inquiry is suppressed, hidden behind a curtain of dogma.

But throughout the novel, we’re introduced to a world that had its own supernatural mythology. All humans have dæmons—animal familiars that exist outside of their bodies and act as a kind of conscience, compulsion, intuition or guardian angel, depending on the circumstance. As a manifestation of the spirit, the dæmon is a vehicle for some poetic, if not subtle, symbolism.  The dæmons of children shape-shift depending on their mood or circumstance. But during adolescence, dæmons “settle” into a consistent animal, a fact that Lyra finds almost offensive. Still, the dæmon always has a mind of its own, and as Lyra experiences, it can be very painful when the dæmon pulls in a direction different from the person’s present course.

The Golden Compass is unique, inventive, fascinating. It’s about growing up, about the loss of innocence, but also about the nature of truth and the politics of power.

I’ve seen it on several “great novels” list, but not being a big fantasy reader was skeptical that I’d enjoy it as much as I did. I read it on the recommendation of David Plotz from the Slate Political Gabfest. Over the years, I’ve followed many of his recommendations and have rarely been led astray. Chalk up another one. I don’t know if I’ll read the whole series (I only read the first Harry Potter as well), but this book was great as a standalone novel.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

May 18, 2018



Westover didn’t know her birthday. Nobody in her family could tell her for sure. There was no birth certificate. Her survivalist family, in rural Idaho, wasn’t much for formalities. They were fundamentalist Mormons with radical spiritual and political beliefs—complete faith in a backward god and irrational suspicion of formal institutions. What started as a run-of-the-mill paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories evolved to extremist positions with Ruby Ridge, the bungled FBI raid of a neighbor’s home (Ruby Ridge would also plant the seed for the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco years later).

For Westover, it meant her already reclusive family would withdraw from society even more. Her father and brother were mentally and physically abusive, sometimes shockingly violent. Her father, who owned a scrap heap, also put the kids in dangerous situations with no seeming regard for their physical safety. They were often severely injured. Her mother, a mid-wife and herbalist, offered only quack medicine when the inevitable accidents did happen.

From the outside, it’s easy to see the madness of this situation and wonder why Westover didn’t just leave. In reality, the abuse, religious fanaticism and isolation compounded to create a family-sized cult. For most of her life, the gravitational pull was too strong. Until, despite her lack of formal education, she managed to get into BYU. There, she had some caring faculty who saw both the damage and the potential in this girl who hadn’t heard of the Holocaust until she stepped into a college classroom. After BYU, she was accepted into a fellowship program at Cambridge, where she eventually earned her PhD. A remarkable testament to her grit and fortitude.

This book has a kind of “The Shocking Story of…” tabloid appeal that made me a little uncomfortable, but Westover is clearly intelligent, so there’s a thoughtfulness as she reflects on her story. She let us in as she confronts a lot of what is still relatively raw.

There is a lesson in here about how much a product of environment we are, no matter how screwy that environment is. For most of her life, Westover was trapped in a bizarre world, but it was the only world she knew. Getting out took incredible courage. That feat alone makes this worth the read. And for others in abusive relationships of any kind, Westover’s story of escape is one that could provide hope.

Related reads: 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief  by Lawrence Wright

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Stoner by John Williams

May 9, 2018


William Stoner, the eponymous protagonist of this novel, is born in 1891, the only child of stoic, hard-working Missouri farmers. Stoner observes his father’s “thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away,” and perhaps sees his own future.

Then a new school of agriculture opens at the University of Missouri, and Stoner heads off to be an educated farmer, the first of his family to attend college. But early on, in an undergraduate survey of literature, he has a transcendental moment during a reading of Shakespeare. It changes the course of his life, and he devotes his studies not to agriculture but literature. At the end of his undergraduate studies, a professor tells Stoner that he thinks Stoner would make an excellent teacher.

Life slides by in the way that life does. Events happen that seem minor at the time but reveal themselves to be a large part of the stories. Decisions made, mistakes, moments of awe. The Great War flares up in Europe and some friends go off to fight, others stay. He meets a woman with whom he has an awkward courtship, followed by marriage that flirts briefly with happiness before descending into bitter tedium. They have a daughter who Stoner adores, but who becomes a pawn in the conflict with his wife.

Stoner draws comparisons to the novels of Richard Yates, with its element of the alienation and loneliness of “normal” American lives, but I was also reminded of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie that elegantly and poetically captures the passage of time.

We are given, in Stoner’s first page, the full arc of his life. We are told that he entered the university in 1910, received a PhD and taught until his death in 1956.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.

So there it is. An undistinguished life. Yet, the beauty of Stoner is that there is beauty. It is full of mundane, everyday happenings. Office politics. A cold marriage. An unsuccessful publication. A few flames of happiness tamped out by those around him. It is story that could be about the dissatisfaction of life. In fact, in another passage, Stoner’s temperament is described perfectly by a college friend, who also makes a kind of prophecy:

Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm—you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own Midwestern Don Quijote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough…but you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.

Yet the story reveals within all this gloom beautiful moments that poke through as if in defiance. Small rebellious acts of happiness. These moments happen between people—I found the most moving the period when Stoner sets up his home office where his young daughter regularly sits with him, the two reading silently—and in the elegance of Williams’ prose: “Even at midmorning the branches of the dogwood trees glistened with hoarfrost, and the black vines that trailed up the great columns before Jesse Hall were rimmed with iridescent crystals that winked against the grayness.”

A New Yorker review articulates it perfectly in this description: “It is so essentially about the dissonance between life as seen—shabby and ignominious, a joke or waste—and life as experienced, shot through with shafts of love and meaning.” It is also about life as told, particularly in literature, and an intentional resistance to that tendency. Stoner is a book that mimics real life consciously and finds grace within it. Both Stoner the man and Stoner the book refuse to go big. There are no grand gestures, yet there is victory to be had.

Stoner’s whole life has been an act of devotion to that which he loves. Stoner’s quiet academic pursuits are perhaps small, perhaps not the most exciting pitch line for a novel, but are representative of what we all seek in life. Not an absolute victory, but a calling to which we can devote ourselves wholeheartedly, with love and immersion.

Stoner has, perhaps without realizing it, escaped his fate. “Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by his forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.”

It’s hard to describe why or how much I love this book, but I would put it on my list of favorites. The writing is fantastic, the insight into human nature so sharp, and Stoner so likable in his yeoman ethic and stoicism. Stoner sat on my shelf for several years and might have continued to do so were it not for my friend Sarah including it on her 2017 book list with high praise. So thank you, Sarah!

I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

April 19, 2018


What happened to Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, is plain to see in the video. The large, 43-year-old African American man is arguing with police officers over allegedly selling cigarettes on a sidewalk in Staten Island. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, puts Garner in a chokehold from behind and wrestles him to the ground. He holds the chokehold for about 15 seconds. On the ground, Garner says, “I can’t breathe” eleven times as four cops work to pin Garner down.

The coroner ruled that Garner, father of six, died from compression of the neck due to a chokehold. Pantaleo said he never put Garner in a chokehold. The video shows Pantaleo putting Garner in a chokehold. Pantaleo was not indicted by a Richmond County jury.

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Taibbi tells the story of everything that contributed to this moment: the real-estate scams that contributed to the poverty of the area and the racist “stop and frisk” police tactics that exacerbated mistrust between the police force and the African American community. He tells the story of Garner, a far-from-perfect cigarette hustler who lived in and out of jail. He tells the story of the characters around the neighborhood, like Ramsey Orta, who filmed the murder and would later be harassed by police as retribution. He tells us about Pantaleo, a cop with a sketchy record, to put it mildly. In short, Taibbi gives us context.

But we also get the aftermath. Taibbi makes the point that when these things happen—whether because of an accident, a lapse in judgment, a racist cop, or just an unfortunate series of events—the reaction of the system is the same:

Police brutality cases always begin with spasms of rage or bad judgment—usually an individual police officer losing it on the streets. But before the body is even cool, the crime moves up the chain…While the cases often begin as unplanned murders and assaults committed in a heat of the moment situations by working-class cops, they end as carefully orchestrated cover ups, committed in cold blood through the more ethereal, polished institutional racism of politicians, judges and attorneys.

The system kicks in to defend the system. It doesn’t matter what the video clearly shows. Imagine if there had been no video.

Taibbi definitely has a point of view, which comes through in some of his editorializing, such as when he describes Patrick Lynch, leader of the police union Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association as a “red-faced loudmouth…who looked like a central casting caricature of a bully cop.”

But he doesn’t pull punches when describing Garner’s flaws either. Or the mismanagement of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a story with complex elements coming to this very simple, tragic moment of a cop killing a man on a sidewalk, then spiraling back out to a complex mess. The protests, the counter-protests. It’s ugly and sad.

This was about a month before police shot Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri erupted. “I can’t breathe” morphed into “black lives matter” and it seemed a story of a police shooting was happening every few weeks, followed by protests, sometimes riots.

There are many infuriating things about this story. The abuse of power and ensuing denial of the police, certainly. But also the ensuing debates, the polarized reactions that break down along expected, tired lines. The slogan of “black lives matter” met with the tone deaf “all lives matter.” Or countered with “blue lives matter,” which just reinforces the feeling that the police are the enemy of the African American community. The tribalism is so engrained, and it has only grown worse since Garner’s murder. Regardless of the details, any time an African American man is killed by a cop, the debate is predictable. But here, with Eric Garner, it’s hard to see how there was anything to debate.

The success of this book is the degree to which Taibbi is able to explore the history and the issues that led to Garner’s death as well as the movement sparked by it. It is both small and big—about a simple, flawed man and a singular moment in time, but also about a major American problem that stretches back decades and, unfortunately, will likely continue for decades more. Well worth the read.


Related read: Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

April 9, 2018


According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, the first machine age—also known as the Industrial Revolution—started with the invention of the steam engine. The ability to reliably generate high levels of power caused rapid growth in efficiency and an explosion in related innovation. In terms of human development, the first machine age supercharged human progress on par with the domestication of animals and the printing press. It sparked revolutions in manufacturing, commerce, infrastructure, geopolitics, the makeup of our communities, our health and our environment. It ushered in new types of jobs and made others obsolete. In short, the first machine age changed pretty much everything.

Now we find ourselves at the front end of the second machine age, where computers and everything they bring—network technology, mobile technology, decentralized media, automation and AI, data collection and analysis—are creating exponential changes that will again revolutionize everything.

Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and McAfee is a research scientist at MIT. Both have written extensively on the impact of rapid technological development on our economy and society. Here, their main thesis is that technological innovation brings both increased bounty and increased spread.

Bounty is the abundance of goods and material wealth generated by innovation. It’s a good thing. Spread, however, is the widening inequality also caused by rapid innovation. Although society tends to benefit as a whole from innovation, that wealth is not evenly distributed. The owners of the innovations can see exponential gains while the actual labor market is disrupted and many workers are displaced. Whether it’s factory workers being replaced by machines or travel agents being replaced by websites, the rich get richer and those doing the work are out of luck.

In a “fair” economy, where innovation benefits everyone, we would expect to see a standard bell curve distribution of wealth, with long tails on both sides. Instead, what we see is a developing power law distribution, where the average income rises more rapidly than the median. In other words, the curve is fat at the low end with a very long tail on the high end. There are more super-wealthy, and the majority of the population sees relatively little lift. Reflected in a recent headline, the wealthiest 1% of Americans now own 40% of the country’s wealth, the largest amount of any time in the past 50 years. This wealth distribution is common in developing nations.

There are moral implications to this. Franklin Roosevelt said, ““The test of our progress is not if we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”

But beyond the moral argument, severe inequality of opportunity has several growth-stunting effects. First, it is destabilizing. It is rare, if nonexistent, that societies of abundance and widespread opportunity find themselves in states of violent political revolution. Extreme economic inequality is politically destabilizing, and we currently see the growing strands of populism on both the political right and left, in the U.S. as well as globally.

But the authors make a more insightful point: maximizing our full potential for innovation requires that opportunity be widespread. If we fail to deliver on our promise of ubiquitous opportunity and quality education for all, we shrink the pool of potential innovators. We need a full spectrum of thinkers, regardless of their backgrounds or economic circumstances. Said another way, the next Einstein may be a kid from the projects in Baltimore, but if that kid can’t get a good education, we lose that mind. Society as a whole loses. “We waste our innovative potential if we do not provide a level playing field for all.”

We see the American education system slipping as we deprioritize it. Our ability to lead the world in technological innovation will follow.

Another obvious impact of innovation is disruption of the job markets. Here again, education will play a major role. We have to educate to the future, accepting that computers will replace many of today’s jobs but create new types of jobs in the process. A “computer” was once a human job description—until we realized that machines could do computations better. Multiples better. And as computers improve by Moore’s Law (which postulates an exponential curve to the speed, capacity and decreasing cost of computers), there’s no chance that people will be able to catch up in tasks for which computers are better suited. Ken Jennings vs IBM Watson on Jeopardy or Gary Kasparov vs Deep Blue at chess are just the modern version of John Henry vs the steam hammer. Humans always lose these contests.

That said, computers are still not suited for many tasks. Pattern recognition, creativity and the most complicated forms of communication are all good bets. As is technological innovation itself. At the end of the book, the authors include a playbook, agreed upon by most economists (left, right and center), for life beyond the second machine age. It includes re-investing in our education system, incentivizing startups, supporting research grants in science and stimulating private sector investment, among others.

This book is about an important topic. It includes some star-gazing at the marvels of our time (e.g. it’s estimated that there are now more photos taken every two minutes than in the whole 19th Century), some predictions about the future á la Ray Kurzweil and Yuval Harari, but it also has a very practical side. Not just the marvels and the implications, but a roadmap for the future. For anyone concerned about technology’s future impact on the economy, this is a great primer.

My Days With Richard by Beverly Allen

March 29, 2018


When Richard Brautigan’s eighth book of poetry, Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt, was published in 1970, the cover was a photo of a young model, Beverly Allen, in Golden Gate park. She’d met Richard in a café in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco not long before. They had a brief relationship, then she moved to Europe. They corresponded by letter for a while, then eventually drifted apart.

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This book is a short recollection of Allen’s time with Richard, followed by transcriptions of their letters. You would probably have to be fairly obsessed with Richard Brautigan to be interested in it (maybe the kind of person who’d read William Hjortsberg’s hefty bio of the author). I found it interesting, a little snapshot of Brautigan from a different angle.