January and February Books

I keep making earnest plans about taking notes about books I read, and like my other earnest plans, I keep failing in executing them.

I made an effort this week, and managed to write things about books I have read over the last two months.

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan.

Plants domesticated humans, just as much as humans domesticated plants. Botany of Desire explores the story of how plants conditioned us to do their bidding, through the history of our relationships with a representative sample of four plants: apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato.

What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Marshall Goldsmith.

Professional competency may help climb up the organizational hierarchy, but that alone will not make you successful once you reach the higher positions.

There will be negative habits you will need to unlearn (goal obsession, passing judgment, making destructive comments, making negatively framed comments, speaking when angry, explaining why things won't work, withholding information, failing to recognize the right people, claiming undeserved credit, making excuses, obsession with the past, favoritism, failure to express regret, punishing the messenger, passing blame…), and there will be positive habits you will need to learn (apologize, listen, show gratitude, express your willingness to change, follow up with people whom you have wronged…).

Basically: be a decent human person (failing which, pretend to be one?), and other people are far more likely to accept you in leadership positions.

Making Sense of the Alt-Right, George Hawley.

The thing that bothered me most about this book is that Hawley could define alt-right only in broad and vague: they are neither "alt" nor "right" in traditional senses of those words; they are some disparate, leaderless bands of Bad People who really do not have a grand unified agenda.

He set out to make sense of it anyway (which would have been fine, had the stated goal been met), so like any Good Twenty-First Century Journalist, he investigated the shit out of it: he read a lot of the nasty stuff on Twitter other various alt-right stomping grounds in the Internet, talked to some prominent talking heads of the alt-right, and reported back with what he found: yeah, there are some nasty people Out There.

In the end, neither Hawley nor the reader emerges particularly wiser from the experience. Are you surprised, dear reader?

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society, Thomas Frank.

I have read What's the Matter with Kansas and Listen, Liberal previously, and quite liked them. Count on Thomas Frank to shine a light on what is really going on with America, in a manner none of the Journalists Who Tweet The Latest Matter of Outrage have managed to do, and with insight none of them have managed to earn.

Rendezvous.. is a collection of essays, many of published at The Guardian, The Baffler, and elsewhere. The book has been read and returned to the library, so I will keep some links around:

All The Answers, Michael Kupperman.

Graphic novel. Michael's father, Joel Kupperman, appeared in mid-20th century radio and television shows as child prodigy – a Quiz Kid, along with other Quiz Kids. Joel rose to fame, but eventually became an object of public derision, and left the scene, never to return.

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki Myron.

On one wintry night in Iowa, someone dropped a tiny kitten in to Spencer Public Library's book return box. Vicky Myron, who happened to be the librarian at the time, adopted the kitten, nursed him back to health, named him Dewey Read More Books, and acted as his Public Relations Liaison.

Except for a small handful of haters and doubters, Dewey was adored by the majority of library patrons. In his time, Dewey constantly drew some press attention to himself and thus to the town of Spencer, in both local and national media. Occasionally some international media outlets made the trip to rural Iowa to meet the famous library cat.

I like cats and libraries, but this book was a disappointment. A good editor would have ruthlessly trimmed the uninteresting parts that involved the author's family drama.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed.

After cancer killed Cheryl's mother at an early age, her family began to fall apart. Cheryl herself began to fall apart. She hoped that hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, on her own, would somehow fix her. She was an inexperienced hiker when she started, made the inevitable mistakes, made some friends along the way, and encountered danger. And she finished what she started.

I watched the movie in a flight, and then read the book. I liked them both.

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, Nassir Ghaemi.

The idea is that, in times of crises, mentally "normal" (as fraught with peril as the word may be) people do not make the best leaders. In those times we are perhaps better served by "abnormal" leaders, those with a history of mental illness.

Because of proximity bias (and other biases), we are not in a good place to judge the mental capacity of recent world leaders, whose lives happen to be best documented. We can however reasonably study the lives and times of some of the past leaders, from available historical and medical records. Subjects of this study include: General Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Robert Kennedy, among others.

Churchill, for example, could see the evil of Nazi Germany, precisely because of his depression and bipolar disease, whereas his more "normal" colleagues failed to grasp the extent of it, and so he was the best person to lead wartime Britain.

The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, Adam Nayman.

Photographs and art are great. Writing is annoyingly art-critic like and pompous. Perhaps that is intentional, considering this is essentially a coffee-table book, and thus a conversation starter for Coen Brothers movie enthusiasts.

It did help start a conversation with another Coen Brothers movie enthusiast, and it does manage to tie the movies together, so the book has served its stated purpose.

I have since returned it to the library, so no further anecdata collection is possible.

America: The Farewell Tour, Chris Hedges.

Another book in the "America's doom and gloom" genre: like the Thomas Frank book (even color schemes of both book covers are eerily similar), only darker and depressing. The most disturbing parts in this book are about porn industry, especially abuses actors endure behind the scenes, aspiring ones and successful alike. It does serve a purpose, so I do not think those could have been removed.

Hedges is a left-winger and a socialist (I personally disagree with much of it), but his reporting and sense of what ails American society is usually on the mark. I have read another one of Chris Hedge's books, The Death of the Liberal Class, which explained why much of what is marketed as "liberalism" in America is really fraudulent counterfeits, and what happened to the real liberals of the past. I look forward to reading more of his writing, even if I happen to disagree with him.