Bowden’s Killing Pablo

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw
Mark Bowden

Dad book. Tick tock of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar written by the dude who brought you Black Hawk Down. In hindsight, I don’t know why I even bothered to read this book – I already know more than enough about Escobar and I learned nothing new here except the best way to get sources to talk to you is to make sure they appear like heroes in the book. Basically a very surface look at the drug war and the life of Escobar. Juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze.

Not recommended.

Morrison’s Beloved

Toni Morrison

I always feel absurd writing these little reviews when what I am reviewing is a work of genius, a masterpiece of literature. Like what do I have to add to the conversation around Beloved? Basically, nothing. I’ll say that it’s massive popularity may lead one to think it’s an easy book. It isn’t. Emotionally, and intellectually, the reader has to work here, but my god is it worth it.

Recommended (duh)

Koeppel’s To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession

To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession 

Dan Koeppel

A wonderful little memoir of a father and son relationship where the son is a professional journalist and the dad has seen more birds than almost anyone else on earth. This is partly about coming to adulthood and trying to understand the man who helped raise you and its also about the world of “big listers” i.e. folks who travel the world to see new and rare birds. As a dad, and a bit of a birder myself, I really enjoyed this book. Not high literature, but well worth the budding birders time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Fleming’s Surviving the Future

Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy
David Fleming

Man what an odd little book.

In the Spring of 2020 when the NoVo foundation, led by Peter Buffet (yes, that Buffet) drastically changed much of its programing focus a flurry of articles came out about why. A number of articles discussed Buffet’s interest in hyper local philanthropy and influence this book had on his thinking. So, I picked it up.

In essence this is a book on de-growth, on focusing on developing local cultures where community and group survival are more important than profit. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, which shouldn’t be a surprise to folks who know David Fleming (he’s most famous for his claims about peak oil).

I’m generally sympathetic to de-growth arguments intellectually, though I doubt their real-world applicability. But I’m also often uncomfortable with the focus on shared culture in what is an incredibly diverse world. If you take climate change seriously, and I certainly do, then you can expect millions of climate refugees streaming, basically, north. I fear hyper local movements focused on preserving the “culture” of a place are unlikely to welcome these people, and the cultures they bring. Fleming doesn’t ignore this problem, but nor does he address it to my satisfaction.

Any serious consideration of slowing climate change needs to look head on at capitalistic growth and ask if it can continue. I think it can but arguing it cannot certainly isn’t crazy. If you want to see the de-growth movement’s policies argued well, this is worth you time, but if you’re like me you will leave unconvinced.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison

Of the Morrison novels I’ve read (and I have not read them all, yet!) this is my favorite. It is an absolute work of genius, full stop. Stunning from the first page to the last.

I find it hard to explain Morrison’s genius. Yes, she has incomparable technical skill – her sentences are gorgeous. But more than that she sets a mood, by setting a place, by creating a cast of incredible, surreally lifelike characters. Milkman Dead, the character at the center here, is at once chased and seeking, infinitely related and also inscrutable. This depth of understanding and nuance Morrison fits into a book of such modest length is, I really have no other word for this, magic.


King’s Where Do We Go From Here

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. King’s last book and as relevant now as the day he wrote it. It’s easy to forget how radical King was, especially in his final years. Calling not only for Black liberation, but for an end to the Vietnam war, and demanding economic equality. In turning him into a saint, we have left out the parts of him that don’t fit the narrative we want to place on him. We downplay the incredible, almost unimaginable, courage it took to commit to nonviolence when white supremacists are actively trying to kill you. And we forget his demands for truly just society, one far different from the one we have today. Instead we act as if his dream was realized and the work is done.

It is, to state the obvious, not.

There’s a lot going on in this book. King is laying out a broad agenda for social change, but the thing that stuck with me the most in the early section, where he discusses his difference with Kwame Ture (at the time, Stokely Carmichael). King and Ture were on opposite sides of black power. The differences were real, and serious, but in discussing their disagreement King takes the time to honor Ture’s position, explaining how Ture arrived where he did, how much white violence played a part in that journey, and argues against Ture from a place of love. It’s remarkable and so different from much of our modern discourse. I hope we can get back there.


Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door

The Spook Who Sat By The Door
Sam Greenlee

I think I first heard about The Spook Who Sat By The Door maybe twenty years ago, but this was the year I finally read this incredible book. The storyline is well known to the reader of leftist literature – Dan Freeman, a black man, joins the CIA in order to secretly learn the lessons of counter insurgency so as to build a guerilla army to fight for Black liberation. It’s an incredible, radical book and you can see why it was rejected by mainstream publishers. It is part thriller, part radical political manifesto. The writing is, I think its fair to say, work a day, but who cares.  The plot is propulsive and Freeman is a multileveled, complex “hero”. I can’t think of another work of fiction like it.


Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success
Walter Mischel

You probably know the Marshmallow test. Young children are offered a marshmallow. They can eat it right now. But if they wait, they can get two marshmallows. The children were then tracked through to adulthood and by and large, the children who could wait did better by almost every outcome of success – health, stable relationships, income, etc.

The test is famous, and every yuppie Brooklyn parent I know references it constantly. This is a book written by the dude who designed and implemented the test. You’d think it would be revelatory in its insights into how we can develop the mindset and skills needed to lead a fulfilling life. If you’re a normal person, who doesn’t read self-improvement books all the time or await the new David Epstein or Cal Newport book with bated breath, then their might be a lot here for you. But if you’re me, someone who follows the science of this stuff relatively closely, this is, frankly all old hat. There is interesting anecdotes, for sure. On how they developed the test, more on who the kids were and what became of them, and interesting additional experiments – all of which I’d already heard of. I enjoyed it well enough, but it wasn’t worth my time. Your mileage may vary.

Recommended for the (budding) enthusiast.

Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room
James Baldwin

When I was in my twenties, this was a favorite book of a number of friends. I don’t know why I never read it. This is Baldwin at the height of his powers writing with a kind of restraint that makes the themes of the novel even more explosive. I’m not literary critic, I don’t know why Baldwin set this novel of gay love in Paris. I don’t know why everyone is white. I sympathize with the critique that too much of queer literature is centered in tragedy, but that is the story Baldwin wanted to tell and what a story it is.

This book transported me. It is wonderful.


Review: Morrison’s Sula

Toni Morrison

Morrison’s second novel. Like every one of her works that I have read, it’s a masterpiece. I really have nothing new to say about one of America’s greatest novelists except to say that what stuck me about Sula was how fully formed the characters are, even those whose appearances are brief, and how through the development of these complex characters Morrison not only tells her story, but gives you a deep sense of what the Bottom is like. The entire novel is a study in economy of language – Morrison fits so much into a pretty slim novel – but you’ll notice she spends almost all her time on her characters, and not on the physical description of the Bottom in doing so she shows us that a community is a collection of individuals, complex, fraught, individuals, as much as it is a place.

Recommended (duh)