Said and read – December 2020

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Oddly I didn’t read a single book in November and only read a few in October. But I ‘recovered‘ in December by reading an insane amount. As always, it’s not the amount that counts. Just read. Especially during these times. There is something for everyone in the written word and world.

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.”” Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

Previous book reports: 2020 – October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

I liked a lot of the things I read in December, even if I would not recommend the majority of them. I include several here that struck me for personal reasons and not so much because I think they’d be universally appreciated.

Highly recommended

*Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

I had read Man’s Search for Meaning about three years ago at the suggestion of a friend. She sent me the book this year for Christmas, not knowing I’d read the book when she recommended it years earlier. But it’s the kind of slim volume that can and should be re-read.

It probably diminishes the value of the book to say that it could be an especially insightful thing to read in these soul-ravaging times, but I can think of very few books that can offer a guide for these fraught times. What other book teaches about human freedom and choice – our ability to choose to endure or even rise above suffering by choosing our own response to it?

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”

I have had many conversations of late with people who are each enduring their own forms of suffering, and it reminds me constantly that suffering is relative. It is, as Frankl writes, omnipresent in life, but we cannot know the size of another’s suffering. But in our own suffering or in helping to shepherd others through their suffering, we may identify the source of the suffering. When we name it, we can endure it because we can strive for something else when we give the source or form of our suffering a name.

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

In choosing our path, we also find meaning. Frankl, in very few words, shows how meaning can encompass so many different aspects of human existence.

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

*And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS EpidemicRandy Shilts

“How very American, he thought, to look at a disease as homosexual or heterosexual, as if viruses had the intelligence to choose between different inclinations of human behavior.”

I watch and read almost everything that chronicles the history of the AIDS epidemic, and strangely had never read this lengthy and detailed (not to mention gripping) account of the appearance of this mysterious and devastating disease. I had seen the film version, which now strikes me as inadequate.

Sound reporting for the most part, aside from its turning flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas into a villain by falsely identifying him as “patient zero”. At the time of the book’s publication, the best science available would have traced many AIDS patients back to Dugas, but later epidemiological digging would discover earlier antecedents to Dugas.

Notably thorough, particularly for a time when virtually no one was writing about AIDS with the kind of attention Shilts paid, it’s an incredible history from which we continue to learn. It covers the inattention, indifference and lethal lack of care of the public and political spheres (Conant recalled, however, that this was the dean who also once observed, “At least with AIDS, a lot of undesirable people will be eliminated.”), how frightening and befuddling the disease itself was, the incredible toll the disease took on the first group it mortally wounded, the gay community, and introduced a cast of unforgettable characters, including public health officials, AIDS activists and writer Larry Kramer (who recently died).

I can’t capture 800 pages worth of in-depth reporting in a couple of sentences, but this is one of the most comprehensive and important books of the early AIDS crisis, and time has done nothing to dim its vitality in retelling the story we seem to be, as a society, forgetting.

*The Right StuffTom Wolfe

“The military did not have very merciful instincts. Rather than packing up these poor souls and sending them home, the Navy, like the Air Force and the Marines, would try to make use of them in some other role, such as flight controller. So the washout was to keep taking classes with the rest of his group, even though he can no longer touch an airplane. He sits thee in the classes staring at sheets of paper with cataracts of sheer human mortification over his eyes while the rest steal looks at him… this man reduced to an ant, this untouchable, this poor sonofabitch. And in what test had he been found wanting? Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself.”

Having joked for years that my dad is Ed Harris (they sort of look alike), it’s hard not to then extend that to one of Ed Harris’s iconic roles, astronaut and US senator, John Glenn. I received a copy of The Right Stuff as a gift, an in-joke nod to this connection, the giver claiming I could finally get to know my dad better through his biography.

“…men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life, who maintained a sense of discipline while civilians abandoned themselves to hedonism, who maintained a sense of honor while civilians lived by opportunism and greed. Opportunism and greed: there you had your much-vaunted corporate business world. Khrushchev was right about one thing: when it came time to hang the capitalist West, an American businessman would sell him the rope. When the showdown came – and the showdowns always came – not all the wealth in the world or all the sophisticated nuclear weapons and radar and missile systems it could buy would take the place of those who had the uncritical willingness to face danger, those who, in short, had the right stuff.”

I started reading the book (having seen the film about a million times, which is of course how Ed Harris is so inextricably tied to John Glenn) the day before Chuck Yeager, who was arguably the hero of this book, died.

The book was beautifully written and captured the embryonic moments of the US space program and the competition with the Soviets but almost as a backdrop to the incipient and groundbreaking (or maybe “sound breaking” would be a more apt description) work Yeager did as a test pilot. A great deal of descriptive nuance is lost in the film (although I’d argue the film is also a classic, for different reasons. I liked having the visual image of the actors from the film in mind when I read the book).

And, in the shadow of Yeager’s death, a fitting tribute to Yeager and his apparently infectious, folksy, Appalachian drawl and how pilots ever since have sought to imitate it:

“’Pygmalion in reverse’: “It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

*The NightfieldsJoanna Klink

Poetry as always.

*I’ll Fly AwayRudy Francisco

Another collection of poetry from one of my recent favorites.

Useful, interesting and otherwise positive

*Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven WorldCarl T. Bergstrom

I’d have loved to read this when I was studying full-time – it is a great book to read any time to begin to unravel the skewed way we interpret data and statistics, eating them up as prepared. And the truth is they are prepared and fed to the tastes of the person feeding them to us.

It called to mind a book I read back in July, Rigor Mortis, about how bad/sloppy science is not only contributing to the replicability/reproducibility crisis but also wastes money, time and leads to bad conclusions that end up interpreted or used in media or other research that leads nowhere. Sharpening the BS radar, as Calling Bullshit calls for, and changing some of the particularities of academic and scientific journal publishing practice, could help alleviate this problem.

Whether you just want to understand a bit better how to critically interrogate the provenance or veracity of something you’ve read in a news article or need to think more deeply about scientific claims made in research, this is a great book to revisit often for practical how-to tactics to debunk junk claims, misleading “facts” and interpretations, and general BS. We need this kind of thing more than ever. While everyone can use it, it would be a heck of a lot more powerful if the people who need it most would read it.

*All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern ParenthoodJennifer Senior

Not much to say about this book except that it won’t surprise anyone that rearing children is difficult, expensive, and has become, if we follow Senior’s logic, asymmetrical.

“Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”

Mostly we see how children went from being useful to almost like being an all-consuming project. Senior touches on some of the important stuff about how rearing children outside the US, in European countries for example, is a very different enterprise, as governments usually guarantee protection for employees who take time off to have children, subsidize childcare and healthcare is universal, erasing some of the biggest worries atop parents’ minds. Having a child in Scandinavia, for example, is a good deal less… stressful than in America. Sure, it’s still hard, but all those external stresses are alleviated so parents can focus on being parents and people (individuals outside of parenthood).

*The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and HubrisMark Honigsbaum

“Unless and until we take account of the ecological, immunological, and behavioural factors that govern the emergence and spread of novel pathogens, our knowledge of such microbes and their connection to disease is bound to be partial and incomplete.”

I am on board with reading as many books like this as I can. I don’t know why I devour them. You’d think they would seem scarier under the thumb of Covid. But I feel like trying to get a better understanding of the history of identifying disease is comforting.

“Indeed, by the 1940s Burnet was worrying that these spillover events were becoming more common and that overpopulation, coupled with international trade and jet travel, was disrupting natural ecologies in new and unpredictable ways, leading to virulent outbreaks of vector-borne diseases such as yellow fever. While a world in which everyone and everything was more closely linked in a biological sense should favour a ‘virtual equilibrium’ between humans and microbial parasites, Burnet warned that “man… lives in an environment constantly being changed by his own activities, and few of his diseases have attained such equilibrium.”

*A Promised LandBarack Obama

Obama is a good writer, and it was comforting in some way to go back to this more innocent time. It feels like a million years ago. And it wasn’t innocent. It was just filled with complete sentences.

Even good writers, though, benefit from good editors, a point Obama himself concedes early on in this overly long book. But who is going to tell Barack Obama that he needs to shave off a couple hundred pages? Especially when he recounts with precise detail how offended he felt when others were cutting lines from a speech long ago, before he was the US president.

If you’re someone who has read his other books and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, much of this will also feel like you’re treading old ground that he didn’t need to include here. But plenty of people will appreciate the level of detail about the past he introduces.

*Death is Hard WorkKhaled Khalifa

“Surrendering to one’s memories is the best way of escaping the wounds they preserve; constant repetition robs them of their brilliance and sanctity.”

Khalifa is a Syrian writer whose work brings the day-to-day struggles and tragedy in Syria into stark view. In this brief novel, an old man dies in Damascus and has tasked his son with completing his last wish: to be buried in the family plot in Anabiya.

Yet with war raging all around, roadblocks impeding the supposedly two-hour drive between Damascus and Anabiya, the son enlists his siblings to help him achieve his father’s final wish. This book tells the tale of that harrowing and perilous journey.

““Tend to the living—the dead are already gone.” He didn’t like it, however, because of how often the line was quoted by cowards justifying retreat. And in any case, today it might be a different matter—better to tend to the dead; after all, they now outnumbered the living. He went on to muse that they would all surely be dead in the not-too-distant future. This thought had given him exceptional courage over the previous four years. Not only had it served to increase his stoicism day by day, but he was far better able to withstand the many insults he received from checkpoint soldiers and Mukhabarat in the course of his work if he bore this thought in mind, since it allowed him to subscribe to the view that anyone who gave him a hard time would probably be dead today or tomorrow, or by next month at the latest. Not that this was a particularly pleasant notion, but it was an accurate one, and each citizen had to live under the shadow of this understanding. The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much “alive” as “pre-dead.” It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.”

*Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

*GulagAnne Applebaum

I’ve only recently discovered Applebaum, which is odd considering my long ‘relationship’ with studying eastern Europe and Russia. Still, I’ve stumbled onto her work as a result of her recent book, Twilight of Democracy, which completes a journey through (relatively) newly authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary, the inward-looking, xenophobic English (and mercifully Applebaum makes the critical distinction that it is an English obsession, not a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish one) drive toward the disaster that is Brexit, and finally the Trump-in-America phenomenon.

I enjoyed Twilight of Democracy, but not quite as much as I had expected. Perhaps because I’d read Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy first. Even though Applebaum has different expertise and her own voice, I was put off by her tendency to write exceptionally long and not particularly succinct sentences. I have always been (rightly) criticized for my own long sentences, and I have yet to read another writer in modern literature who gets away with it. And, even though Applebaum’s long sentences made it through editing, I wouldn’t say she “gets away with it” because greater concision would have made Twilight of Democracy a better book. This is, though, a minor complaint because it is a good book. Just not as good as it might have been.

Her other works, especially Gulag, are better. The diligence of her research is clear – and she exposes a great deal of hitherto unavailable information about the history of the Gulag system. When I told someone I was reading a book about the Gulag system, he asked incredulously, “System?!” Which makes Applebaum’s point:

“Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.”

*Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally IllRobert Whitaker

“I soon stumbled upon two research findings that didn’t fit with what I knew. First, in a 1994 article, Harvard Medical School researchers had reported that outcomes for schizophrenia patients had worsened during the past twenty years. Schizophrenia patients were now faring no better than they had in 1900, when various water therapies—needle showers and prolonged baths—were the preferred treatments of the day. Second, the World Health Organization had twice found that schizophrenia outcomes in the United States and other developed countries were much worse than those in the poor countries of the world. Suffer a psychotic break in a poor country like India or Nigeria, and chances were that in a couple of years you would be doing fairly well. But suffer a similar break in the United States or another developed country, and it was likely that you would become chronically ill.”

A damning exploration of the treatment of schizophrenia in America, and society’s inability first to see patients as people and second to appropriately understand the damage done by the litany of dangerous treatments lauded as “cures”. Whether blunt surgical butchery, electroshock therapy or highly toxic medication, the efficacy of most of the treatments administered in the United States was never established, and in most cases, patients ended up much worse off.

*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American FreedomH.W. Brands

“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”

This was one of those times I had to “nerd out” and email the author to say thanks because this book breathed fresh life into historical figures and events, which is something that always causes my heart to flutter a bit. This volume comes around at a time that lets it coincide with the raucous, much-lauded limited series, The Good Lord Bird, which certainly will act as a springboard for deeper investigation of the real people and stories that make up the actual historical record.

“The hanging was not the end of John Brown but a new beginning. Brown’s parting testament shortly surfaced, scribbled on a scrap of paper passed to a sympathetic guard before he left the jail. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” he declared. The dreadful forecast made the martyr into a prophet as well.”

“Lincoln himself had raised the issue of blood atonement in his second inaugural address. Now his own blood was part of the reckoning, and his link to John Brown more compelling. Brown had foretold blood atonement while becoming one of the first sacrifices; Lincoln at the time had resisted the concept for his country and scarcely imagined it for himself. But he made decisions whose consequences included a bloodletting far greater than anything Brown had envisioned, and finally his own death. Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last.”

I’m partial to anything that leads people to investigate further. In this case, the book also raises points that are as relevant today as when Brown and Lincoln lived.

“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”

*His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a LifeJonathan Alter

A misunderstood US president who has long been dogged by labels that he was one of America’s worst presidents. His long post-presidential life has enabled a reassessment of sorts, particularly as the man has devoted his life to doing good in the world.

Was Carter’s presidency as “bad” as it is often remembered? The book makes a compelling case that it certainly wasn’t – but Carter was a bit thin-skinned, a bit too honest and forthright, a true non-politician in the sense that he had neither the dishonesty or charisma to propel him to the inspirational heights that wholly unqualified individuals like Ronald Reagan reached.

*This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended ConsequencesSarah E. Hill

I am not sure how to characterize why this book was a disappointment to me. It’s not that it was bad or unreadable. It’s not that the subject matter isn’t fascinating in its own way. It’s just… I don’t know what. Still there are useful questions posed.

“Treating the pill as the big deal that it is will require a major course adjustment for all of us. We’ve all been far too cavalier about making changes to women’s sex hormones. And if you need evidence of this, consider for a moment the differences in the way we treat birth control pills and anabolic steroids, those drugs favored by athletes who don’t mind cheating to win. The primary ingredient in steroids is a synthetic version of the primary male sex hormone, testosterone. These synthetics work by stimulating testosterone receptors and getting cells to run their testosterone program. This causes the body to experience changes like increased muscle mass, skin breakouts, and the magnification of certain male-like behavioral traits (like bar fighting and wall punching). Now, as you are probably well aware, anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription. They are classified as a Schedule III controlled substance and—if you’re caught with them—you’re looking at a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Steroids, because they stimulate hormone receptors, have a wide range of effects on men’s bodies and brains. When taken over long periods of time, these changes can be bad for men’s health. Given that men might want to take them anyway, steroids are illegal without a prescription, in an attempt to discourage steroid use in the service of public health. Are you starting to sense the irony? We worry about men using artificial sex hormones because of all the effects they have on the body. At the same time, women are routinely prescribed female sex hormones and kept on them for years at a time despite all the effects that they have on the body. We are willing to turn a blind eye to all the ways the pill can change women because we simply can’t entertain going back to living in a world where women don’t have control over their fertility. And we shouldn’t have to.”

Disappointing reads

*Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the WorldTom Burgis

“Compliance officers had been around for a while but following a procession of corporate scandals – Enron, WorldCom and the rest – they became ubiquitous, the designated conscience of big business. In practice, what compliance officers at banks usually did was attempt to swathe the organisation in a veil of rectitude without restricting bankers’ moneymaking in any meaningful way.”

I thought this was going to be an exciting book, and whether I was just not in the mood for it, or it was just that boring, I could barely get through it. I may revisit it later.

“For an oligarch seeking safety there was one option so bold that you might have thought it would be difficult. First, turn yourself into a corporation: one of the most powerful fictions in which Westerners chose to believe, endowed with privileges and protections, and yet blissfully easy to create. Second, add to that corporation the assets Nazarbayev had allowed you to acquire – mines, banks, whatever. Then sell a share of your corporation for Western money.”

Probably the best part of the book was the strategic deployment of quotes from other people:

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

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