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News of the World by Paulette Jiles

February 10, 2018


This is a western about Captain Jefferson Kyle, an old war vet in the post-Civil War American west, who makes a living traveling town to town, reading from various newspapers to the locals. On his travels, he comes across a young girl, Johanna, who has recently been rescued by the U.S. Army from the Kiowa. She has been living with the tribe for four years, ever since they massacred her family and kidnapped her. Captain Kyle is paid $50 for the service of returning her to her relatives in San Antonio. She speaks no English and knows nothing about how to navigate the “civilized” world.

The Captain’s occupation and the subject of a white child kidnapped and raised by natives—apparently more common than one would think—are both interesting elements. But overall this is a pretty straightforward western, with solid writing, but clear good guys and bad guys and a predictable plot.


Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

February 1, 2018


There are animals that sit near humans on the evolutionary tree—apes and such—that are also relatively smart. The octopus, on the other hand, sits on a very distant branch of the evolutionary tree. That’s obvious from a quick glance. You have to go way back to find a common ancestor. Yet the octopus has a mind that, like ours, is incredibly well developed. In a way, the octopus is the closest thing we have to a sentient alien creature. And studying their minds gives us insight into how all minds developed, including ours.

Consciousness is the awareness of one’s own existence. Fish in a tank do not realize they’re in a tank. Octopuses, on the other hand, understand this and more. They understand their relationship to other creatures and can study and learn through observation. Octopuses can recognize individual humans. They will wait until the lab technician has her back turned before trying to escape. They have been known to turn off lightbulbs, to intentionally plug pump intakes to flood the lab and other fun pranks.

This book is fascinating. Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science and scuba diver, covers the octopus and other cephalopods (squid and cuddlefish), both in lab settings and in natural, first-person observation of a rare octopus colony in Australia. But he then expands to larger topics of evolution and the nature of consciousness. The book is loaded with interesting trivia about other smart animals, like certain jays that hide food in dozens of locations and remember not only where they hid the food, but what they hid where. It covers many of the mysteries of the animal kingdom (like how does an octopus that changes its color for camouflage “see” behind itself to so perfectly match its background?).

I really enjoyed this book—much more so than I’d originally expected (despite the good reviews). It reminded me of Alison Gopnick’s The Scientist in the Crib, which examines the mind by studying babies. But I have to say, octopuses are way more interesting than babies.

The Stranger In the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

January 28, 2018



In 1986, at age 20, Christopher Knight parked his car at the side of the road in rural Maine and walked off into the woods. He lived there alone for 27 years. In that time, he spoke one word—“hi”— to another human, a passing hiker.

In 2013, Knight was arrested while breaking into a kitchen at a camp for boys. He was returned to civilization. “Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid,” Finkel muses. As far as we know, Knight spent more time alone than anyone else in the history of the world.

After his arrest, Knight’s story caught Finkel’s eye and he reached out to Knight with letters, eventually interviews. Here, he attempts to illuminate Knight’s mysterious character. He examines the history of hermits and the notion of solitude. In a world where few people go more than a few hours without interacting with others, what would make one want to be alone for so long, and what does it take to bear that kind of loneliness? What does it do to a person?

Knight had a camp, tucked in a dense stand of trees behind some large glacial boulders. Amazingly, he was within walking distance of cabins and vacation homes around North Pond in central Maine. But his camp was so well hidden that other than the hiker, he only had one other encounter, this one with a fisherman to whom he said nothing.

During his time in the woods, he committed over 1000 burglaries of nearby homes, pilfering them for food and supplies. Although nobody knew who was doing it, people began to refer to him as the “North Pond Hermit.” Some of the residents left food out for him (though he never took any). Others, not surprisingly, found the notion of a strange man living in the woods and randomly breaking into homes to be terrifying. Knight was upset when he found out that his crimes caused people fear, though it should have been obvious. Still, he meant no harm to anyone.

When I was young, I was enchanted by The Boxcar Children. Like most boys, I built forts in the woods, had fantasies of living a self-reliant life. Maybe we all have a little of that in us—a romantic notion of escaping the hustle of everyday life and living off the grid. Of course, very few of us actually do it. Certainly not for a quarter century.

“The act had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself,” Finkel says. Knight’s vocal chords atrophied from lack of use. He had trouble speaking, but in slow, stunted sentences he describes how the dividing line between himself and the forest dissolved, how he fell into a kind of communion with nature. He decries elements of society, finds it ironic that spending your life working in a cubicle, trading your time and stress for money is considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods, observing the trees is considered disturbed. That said, to the key question of why he did what he did, Knight seemed to find it as puzzling as everyone else. He’d obviously given it much thought but all he could say about it was, “It’s a mystery.”

What I loved about this book were the angles Finkel came at it, trying to solve that basic riddle of why. He looked at the great writers on solitude—writers like Annie Dillard, Michael de Montaigne, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton (who beautifully wrote, “Nothing can be expressed about solitude that has not been better expressed by sound of the wind in the pine trees.”). He looks at other similar cases, such as Christopher McCandless, who disappeared into the Alaskan bush as told in Jon Krakauer’s excellent Into the Wild.

Finkel examines the neuroscience of silence, of what it does to the mind, to the senses. He looks at Knight’s family and considers Asperger Syndrome and other medical conditions as possible explanations. And he considers the history of solitude, from its religious significance—Jesus in the wilderness, Buddha under the tree—to the more trivial. (In 18th Century England, it became fashionable for wealthy land owners to have a hermit on their estate. Ornamental hermits, they were called. Wanted ads appeared everywhere. The contracts were typically for seven years, the pay was good and included a meal a day. Hundreds of hermits were hired.)

But what I found most interesting was Knight’s complicated character. It’s hard to say what he meant by his act of departure. Was it an act of protest? A mental glitch? A moment of enlightenment? He criticizes society’s need for stuff, the need to mesmerize ourselves with our screens. Yet he lived off society. He wasn’t living off the land unless you count vacation homes as part of the land. He stole food, radios, batteries and other supplies, so it’s difficult to concede him any moral high ground or hold him up as some example of a principled life. He just was. Alone. Without need for justification. How many of us do the things we do because of the pressures and expectations of society? Cut the connection to those pressures and what happens? Does one lose purpose? Find nirvana? It’s an important question, and though Knight shows no investment in the answer, he is a fascinating human experiment. And it makes for a fantastic book.


Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 26, 2018


In July, Mark Bowden published a terrifying article in The Atlantic about our options with North Korea (none of them are good). This was long before our President started tweeting like an insecure tenth-grader about the size of his button, and before senators started rattling their sabers, some of them genuinely seeming to delight in the thought of incinerating North Korea in a war, despite the fact that a best-case scenario involves the deaths of millions of North and South Koreans.

I thought maybe I should learn something about the people we may very soon be lobbing missiles at. I heard Barbara Demick when she was a guest on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, and although this book is from 2009, it is still relevant as a look at the hermit kingdom and its citizens.

Most of what we see of North Korea in the media is footage of its chubby leader or the pageantry of its military parades. It’s a country that has increasingly walled itself off from the outside world since its creation after WWII. The three successive members of the Kim family have become increasingly paranoid of outside influence. Their blend of totalitarianism, pseudo-religion and cult of personality, mixed with the country’s isolationism has turned North Korea into a cult.

Demick gives us a look inside the cult, and the picture is bleak. Under Kim Jong Il in the ’90s and 2000s, the country collapsed into poverty and famine. The country was depleted of resources. It’s estimated that as many as three million starved to death, and the stories Demick tells are heartbreaking. The agriculture, already on the decline, was decimated by mismanagement. The power grid went down. People stole food to survive. They stripped the useless copper wires from the walls to sell for food. They killed animals for food. There were rumors of cannibalism, of adults who kidnapped children to butcher for food.

North Korea has always been cloaked in misinformation—the only permitted TV’s and radios were preset to receive only official government channels. Many North Koreans believe there is a better life outside of the country, though many still believe the official propaganda, which blames the outside world, particularly the U.S., for the miserable conditions. Some attempt to escape. Some do. But it is a great risk to do so—many who make it out are never able to contact their families. Some who do escape to South Korea or China and are captured or returned to the North. It is not a good fate that awaits them in the prisons.

The hope for average North Koreans is not war. The long but best shot may be that technology will eventually help information overwhelm the walls. That North Koreans will see the outside world, the possibilities, and somehow in their weakened state, will revolt and topple the communist government. It’s nearly impossible to imagine, but until then North Korea is a country frozen in time, a suspended state of hell, and its people are its prisoners.


Not Oprah For President

January 13, 2018

8f918e72-f441-11e7-8693-80d4e18fb3a2_1280x720_105436.jpgI sometimes think about which Presidents I’d like to have to my house for dinner. Who would I welcome in to spend time with my family? Who would it to be an honor to meet and have a real conversation with. I think most of them. Reagan, Bush 41 and 43, Obama. Even some of the candidates—Romney, McCain, Sanders. They all seem like good, decent people, and despite our political disagreements I’m sure we’d find other things to talk about. Oprah Winfrey would definitely be in that category. I’m sure I’d find her as warm and thoughtful, full of energy and kindness as all of her fans do. If someone asked if I’d want to meet Oprah, of course I would.

But Oprah should not be our President.

There’s been a lot of chatter about it since her Golden Globes speech, a rousing take on feminism and the state of the world. She’s a great role model for everyone (men and women). I think Oprah is smart and thoughtful and has amazing ambition, not to mention the kind of charisma that would make her an ideal candidate.

But that is the problem. What makes people ideal candidates these days is not what makes them ideal presidents. Trump was a great candidate. He sucked all the oxygen out of the room, pulled the spotlight to him and bullied seasoned politicians in front of everyone. He said outrageous, outlandish things over and over—things that by the laws of common sense and common decency revealed him to be completely inept, immoral and a straight-up asshole. We got a very clear picture from Trump the candidate of how Trump the President would behave. Because that’s Trump, the man.

Given the opportunity, I would not want to meet him. I would not shake his hand. I would not want him near my home or near my family, President or no. And yet, millions of people voted for him, either because they were suckered by his empty pandering, because they ignored the personality in favor of policies that seemed to align to their own, or because he was the better of two evils. Let’s leave that at that.

In many ways, Oprah is the polar opposite of Trump. Her message is that everyone is good, everyone deserves compassion, the world is better with all of us. Her political beliefs probably align very well with mine. But it’s her other beliefs that are a huge problem.

Like Trump, Oprah is a magical thinker.

Yes, it’s a different brand of magical thinking. Trump’s world conforms to his own ego and his own opinions, and he will say—if not actually believe—things that are patently, demonstrably false, even at the time he says them. The debate about Trump is not whether he is a purveyor of convenient falsehoods, it’s whether or not he actually believes them (i.e. the Trump is mentally insane argument) or just a bald-faced liar.

Oprah, on the other hand, has a long history of promoting quack beliefs of her own. Homeopathic remedies, mystical energies, the rampancy of satanic cults, anti-vaccers, The Secret, the dangerous Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Eckhart Tolle—a long, long list of quacks and quack ideas. Because until now, Oprah has not been held to a standard of objective reality. She has a legion of dedicated followers who believe whatever malarkey she peddles. Because she’s Oprah.

And that is a problem.

It’s fine if belief in some dubious mystical or spiritual energy gives you confidence and inner strength. If you want to believe you can change the world with your thoughts, or that your prayers will lead to financial success or that some magic diet will give you superpowers, you’re free to do so.

But I don’t want you making policy. I don’t want your magical thinking taught in science class, your magical supplements in my food or your magical God-is-on-America’s-side delusion guiding our foreign policy.

Oprah built her empire on ratings. She’s magnetic. She’s an entertainer and a very good one. And shows about the latest magical thinking or magical cure are apparently entertaining, very good for ratings.

But we need someone who believes in the real form of reality. Who, when it comes to science looks to, oh I don’t know, the scientists maybe. Who believes in doctors with actual medical degrees. We do not need another entertainer. We do not need another quack. We do not need another magical thinker.




My 2017 Book List

January 1, 2018

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 9.05.51 PM.pngThis is my 18th year doing this list. Thanks to all my friends and family who continue to encourage this obsession, who read my reviews and offer responses (or editing suggestions) and who share their own recommendations. Greg, Tim, Mom, Jon, Sarah, Brian, others.

I put myself in a pickle this year—I hit December and had about 12 books I had finished reading but hadn’t yet written reviews for. It was a busy year, and that’s my excuse if these feel uneven.

This has been for many years my favorite annual tradition. I find in books a means of escape, a way to grow my own writing craft by appreciating those better at it than I, and a way to figure out what to think of the world. Writing the review helps me remember the book better and make it my own. These reviews are less traditional reviews and more my very personal experiences with the books.

This year, I read or listened to thirty-five books. Here’s the list by the numbers:

17 were nonfiction, 18 fiction
17 had horses
7 were by or related to Cormac McCarthy
9 were wholly or partially about war
6 were by women
5 were classics (I’m counting Blood Meridian and you can’t stop me)
4 were re-reads

Here’s a link to the full list.

I publish reviews on this blog throughout the year as I read each book.

Here’s the short version of just my favorites:

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
American War by Omar El Akkad
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

M Train by Patti Smith
Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen
Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
Theft By Finding by David Sedaris
Vacationland by John Hodgman

What did you read in 2017? What did you love? 



Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

January 1, 2018


Kurt Anderson’s timely new book is about the propensity of Americans to believe crazy stuff. I just finished this book and my head is still spinning from it, so I might revisit later for a more thought-through post later, but his point is essentially this: we are prone to flights of fancy. Belief in religions, spin-offs of religions, the supernatural, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.” Magical thinking, magical cures, secret societies, ghosts and UFOs, secret government programs. We’re suckers for hoaxes and scams and stupid bets. We love our holy-rollers, our charlatans, our magicians, our seers and sooth-sayers. We want to be like our pro wrestlers, our tv spokespeople, our reality stars, our cover girls, our centerfolds. We eat up those fake facts supporting our hare-brained theories. And we’re not normal in the global picture—this tendency, or the degree to which we exhibit it, is a particularly American phenomenon.

It’s baked into our DNA as a country. America was founded on the promise of gold, independence, freedom. We revolted from England, started our own country, started our own religions. We believed that anything was possible. We spread the belief that anybody can be anything. We sold our own myths to ourselves—gold rushes, Hollywood, the simulacra of Vegas and Disney World. Television. The lottery. Plastic surgery. Reality TV.

In the 60s, any truth was as good as any other truth. The counter-culture believed that reality itself should be questioned. It wasn’t just the social order that was upturned, but the agreed-upon truths that make up our world. Religion, already mid-revival, got a boost along with the crystals and mysticism and New Age spiritual mumbo jumbo. It’s the vibes, man. Was it a coincidence that reports of UFO sightings shot up? In our entertainment, we saw a bend toward the fantastical—the success of Star Wars owes as much to its timing as to its quality.

We like everything to be entertainment—our religion and our news included. The more dramatic, the better. I learned in an otherwise mediocre college journalism course that the news bias one needs to be wary of is not left-right, it’s sensationalism. When we went to 24-hour news programming, there was a need to fill all that time. When the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, there was no longer a requirement to be balanced, despite what the slogans claim. It was all about the ratings, about the news stories that get the eyeballs, i.e. the controversial blood-boiling news stories. The louder, the more agro, the more inflammatory, the more stoked with moral outrage, the better. Rush Limbaugh pioneered this and everyone followed. News competed with entertainment. It became more and more sensational, more and more tribal. And here we are.

And we like our religions to be entertainment too—more dramatic. Lights, cameras, big audiences, speaking in tongues. A belief in the impending apocalypse. Churches spun off of churches spun off of churches, and the zealots are the ones drawing the crowds. The “traditional” churches that started before 1900 have been on the decline for quite some time. But those started since the 1970s are growing. The more fanatical the beliefs, the faster the growth. Speaking in tongues has made a comeback. A belief in a literal reading of the Bible is on the rise. “Creation science,” that ignorant scourge, keeps being pushed into our classrooms by crusading zealots intent on turning our children into morons. But, hey, it’s just their version of the truth, as right as real science, right?

Climate change is just an opinion. GMOs are bad for you, despite all evidence otherwise. Birtherism. Anti-vaccines. These are stupid, ill-informed positions, yet we spend so much of our oxygen arguing about them because we’re American and it’s what we do. We give the idiots an equal voice in the argument, even if it’s one idiot for every hundred people, because, who knows, they could be right.

The final thing that came into play—along with the fundamental “anything is possible” DNA of America and the moral relativism of the 60s—was technology. The Internet. Now not only could you believe something idiotic, you could find a whole community of thousands, millions who legitimized your belief. The President was born somewhere else and is a secret Muslim? Here are some people who can get on that bandwagon. Want to bring back the Nazi movement? Here’s a bunch of other bald dipshits who will meet up and light tiki torches with you. You can find a community for almost anything, and because of social media you can now build a community. You didn’t need the mass media—everyone can be their own bullhorn.

Andersen walks through most of this chronologically, but a structure that I drew up (again, based on probably not enough time thinking about this), is that we use our fantasies for three main reasons: entertainment, identity and explanation.

He talks about things like Disney and Vegas and Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing and and video games as ways we create more and more realistic fantasies. Simulacra—experiences that mimic other experiences, like our casinos looking like Paris or our malls looking like the town square or our seafood restaurants looking like the inside of a pirate ship. But I lump those into just immersive entertainment. We’re pretending we’re somewhere else for a bit of escapism.

Then we create fantasies to help create an identity. We wear makeup or certain clothes, get fake boobs or wear a Steph Curry jersey (even though we can’t dribble) because it identifies us a certain way. Social media may give us the greatest ability to do this, where we can craft whatever image, whatever reality we want to portray—photos of our awesome food and our awesome kids and our awesome vacation to show how awesome our lives are, even though just off camera most of it is shit like everyone else’s.

Finally, we create fantasies as a way of explaining our world. This is where religion comes in. How did we get here? What’s our purpose? What happens after we die? Or conspiracies—the government is conspiring to keep us down. The election was rigged. They’re putting chemicals in our water to make us dumber.

It’s when these fantasies compound that things get problematic. When we choose our sources of reality because they’re more entertaining, or more in line with who we identify. When we create fantasies to bolster our beliefs. When we pick a truth based on which side we want to win (our side). Skepticism is hard. While we should be more skeptical of anything that supports our existing point-of-view, be it a news story or a political candidate or a preacher or a tweet or some cockamamie theory by some guy at the bar, we typically accept those “facts” at face value. We don’t question what supports our existing beliefs, or supports our side of the political spectrum, or comes from the “news” anchor we know wears our color uniform. It’s much easier to just say, “Hell yeah! That’s what I been sayin’!” We like it simple. We like to be right. We like to win. We like stories where good guys fight bad guys and good guys (our guys) win. We like to know that if we do this thing, that thing happens. Take this pill, grow hair back. Just follow these seven steps, fame and fortune. Pray every day, heaven. This is America. Who’s going to tell us it can’t be? Or, to quote one of the my favorites, Andersen’s epigraph to Part V, “Yeah, well, that’s just, you know, like, your opinion, man.” –The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Is it any wonder we’re susceptible to fantasy?