Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
Stephen Kinzer

Undoubtably the strangest, most disturbing, book I read this year.

The story of Sydney Gottlieb and the early years of the CIA is almost too cruel, to horrible to really comprehend. Yes, I knew about MK Ultra (where the CIA drugged unsuspecting people with LSD) and I knew about the CIAs involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and the attempted assassination of Fidel Castro. Sure I’d heard stories of the CIA using a fake hippie crash pad to drug unsuspecting people and monitor their reactions, but I didn’t know it was all traceable back to the same guy. Nor did I know this dude when not ruining the minds of other people, was interested in meditation, made his own yogurt and was a serious student of folk dances around the world.

It’s a surreal read, but also a chilling one. When the crimes fo the early CIA are laid out, one after the other, it shocking, even when none of it is new.


von Straten’s In Search of Lost Books

In Search of Lost Books: The forgotten stories of eight mythical volumes
Giorgio von Straten, Simon Carnell (Translator)

A wonderful little book chronicling the stories of books lost to time. By “lost books” von Straten isn’t referring to rare books, or even books we know were published, but no longer have. Here’s he’s talking about the even more mysterious, the books written, but never published, and in many cases, never read. He’s talking about Byron’s memoirs, destroyed to protect a reputation, or Benjamin’s possible final work, dragged with him across Europe only to disappear at his death. An engrossing look into the missing corners of literature and total fun for the bibliomaniac such as myself.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

Maria Konnikova

Perhaps the most fun I had reading a book this year.

Here’s he premise: Konnikova, a New Yorker writer with a phd in psychology hires one of the world’s greatest poker player to teach her the game with the intent to eventually compete in pokers marquee event, the World Series of Poker. Standard fare in the participatory journalism narrative.

Except it turns out Konnikova is good. Very good. And she uses her understand of psychology, probability, and, sexism is do very well. You have the great writing you’d expect from a New Yorker writer with a great narrative and bouts of true surprise all of which add up to a enjoyable, informative read.

This one is just lots of fun.


Nestor’s Breath

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
James Nestor

A clear example of book that should have been an article. There’s some good stuff in here on breath work and its (arguable) importance to health as well as heaping helpings of the kind of anecdotal bro science I tend to enjoy, but don’t take too seriously. All in all, the chaff outweighs the wheat, in my opinion. Still of interest to those intrigued by breath work with excellent easy to follow instructions on various kinds of breath work.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years

A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe

Defoe’s book, a fictional recounting of one man’s reflections during the plague of London, 1665. It begins with the plague beginning to ravage London and the protagonist weighing whether he should flee to the country as so many people of means are doing or stay and stick it out in London.

Sound familiar?

It doesn’t stop there. Soon folks are holed up in their homes, fearful of letting anyone in, then the mechanisms for dealing with the sick and dead are overwhelmed and society is reduced to the barest minimum of food shelter and survival until the whole thing passes.

Defoe wrote this 350 years ago and his language can be a bit difficult for the modern reader, but it was oddly comforting to me to see that London went through this, and so much more, and survived.


O’Neill’s Chaos

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties
Tom O’Neill and Dan Piepenbring

A reporter is assigned to write an article on the Manson murders and Hollywood for a movie magazine. He somewhat reluctantly begins to dig into the story and finds that things don’t exactly add up. He gets interested, he blows the magazine deadline, he gets a book deal, and becomes obsessed. He blows that deadline as well and keeps digging. He follows threads through the drug trade in 1960s Hollywood, the MK Ultra experiences, various criminal networks, scores of shady characters and more. All in all, he spends more than twenty years investigating who exactly Manson was and why exactly the murders were committed.

But after all that, he’s never sure. Yes, he has theories, but he is too much of a principled journalist to treat them as fact if he can’t prove them. So, he writes a book about it all. About the theories he can prove, those he can’t, and about his own personal journey as a reporter getting deeper and deeper into some weird shit — biker gangs, pedophiles, the CIA.

Its an odd ride, rabbit hole after rabbit hole, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Erik Larson

Dad book all the way dealing with that most dad book of dad book times, World War II, specifically Hitler’s rise to power as seen through the eyes of the American diplomat William Dodd and his family. This is an enjoyable, engrossing book on the rising power of the Hitler told in the anecdote heavy journalistic style that has made Larson very very rich. It’s also the story of how our own blinders, and belief in institutions and norms can lead us to doubt what is right in front of our eyes.

As Dodd and his family socialize with Nazi’s the situation in the streets gets darker and darker and at first they don’t see it. Dodd’s daughter, Martha, even dates the head of Gestapo for a time. Eventually, they come to their senses, and rebuke the Nazis, but it is, of course, already too late. Lessons worth remembering.

Recommended for the enthusiast

Review: Kristof and WuDunn’s Tightrope

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Maybe you knew that Nicolas Kristof grew up on semi-rural Oregon, and that the vast majority of those he went to high school with are now either dead or in jail, but I didn’t. This book, where Kristof and Wu Dunn use the stories of the community Kristof came from to lay out the decimation of the white working class, and the tragic rise of so-called “deaths of despair” is heartbreaking.

I knew much of what was in here before I read it. My own family has been hit pretty hard by these issues. Indeed, I’ve lost quite a few family members to alcohol and suicide. Seeing it laid out here in the crisp storytelling and statistic put this crisis into sharp relief for me. While the rise of Trump is deeply tied to racism, that racism is deeply tied to this kind of poverty.  Well worth the read, especially if you haven’t thought much about this.


Corona Diaries Day 7 — My Dark Moments, My Better Moments

This is part of a series of posts chronicling the Coronavirus / Covid19 outbreak in New York City as seen by me, a father husband and lawyer living in Brooklyn. See them all on the main Corona Diaries page.

March 20, 2020

No school today, the teachers were taking a minute to regroup, so we were largely on our own.

Honestly, it was easier. I’ve noticed  that  the most stressful part is getting the kids to focus / deal with the tech issues of getting them through the day. Without those, it was actually easiert.

Got in a very short run (1 mile). It still feels like there are too many people out there. One of the joys of NYC is that  it is an uncontrollable mess, but in times like these it becomes clear that it is really fundamentally is nothing more then an uncontrollable mess.

In my dark moments  I think there’s no way out but through — we are going to loose lots and lots of people and what I need to do is keep my kids safe. Nothing more is possiible.

In my better moments  I think we’re learning many lessons from other places (Italy, Spain) and we’ll actually come out better.

I don’t know which is correct. I do know we need to keep it small, whether it is for our healthy or all of society, we need to continue like this, however hard it is, to remain physically distant while close socially.

Not an easy task.

Corona Diaries Day 6 — 2 Kids, 2 Careers

This is part of a series of posts chronicling the Coronavirus / Covid19 outbreak in New York City as seen by me, a father husband and lawyer living in Brooklyn. See them all on the main Corona Diaries page.

March 19, 2020

Tough one to get through today. Spent basically all day alone with the kids, the mornings aren’t  bad, it’s basically managing logistics, but the afternoons are tough. Just too much free time in a (suddenly very small) apartment. Its easy to loose your temper on your kids in this environment and I did today. Not proud of it, but here we are.

Meditation helps. And I’ve found time for that the last two days. Need to do it much much more. Tune out the crazy, get more in touch with what I can control.

It’s a crazy moment in world history to live through, massive events are happening, everyday, and yet it is also all so completely mundane for people like me. Long, long hours stuck inside with your kids while the world falls apart outside.

I may be completely wrong, but I think we’ll on the other side of this in about 18 months  to two years. That’s a long time, for sure, but not the end of the world.

The next bit will be the hardest — we will see awful things — but I feel pretty confident that not only will my family survive, we will thrive. We’re reasonably anti-fragile, but need to become more so. More debt free, better able to relocate quickly, better prepared.