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.


Review Eyal’s Indistractible

Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

Nir Eyal

I’ve lost count of how many books on attention I’ve read over the years, yet still I struggle with putting my phone away.

This one is pretty middle of the road. It still feels a bit padded. There’s lessons here on running good meetings, being smart about group chats, and writing emails, none of which felt all the new to me. There’s also a number of very helpful “hacks”* to limit you phone, which, while helpful, also could have been a magazine article. Perhaps the most important idea in the book is the one Eyal starts with — that when we want to change an unhealthy behavior we need to look at the behaviors root cause. What’s the trigger that’s making you go for you phone? When you can start answering that, you can start solving the problem.

All in all, not the best book in this burgeoning genre, but not terrible either. For that, I’d suggest the works of Cal  Newport, especially his latest, Digital Minimalism. 

Recommended for the enthusiast.

*  Can we please stop using this word for every type of human activity?


Cline’s The Girls

The Girls
Emma Cline

A novel about a cult leader, very much like Manson, and a woman, very much like Susan Atkins, who befriend / seduce a very young teenage girl and bring her into the dark side of the post-summer of love hippie land. Our hero, the very young teenage girl (Evie) is lost, and pissed at her single mom. She falls for the free spirited confidence of Suzanne (clearly modeled on Atkins) and is willing to do anything to gain her attention, whether that’s robbing a store, moving to a commune with manipulative drifter con artist leader, Russell, or sleeping with much older men who might be able to help Russell.

At first it appears that Suzanne is going to lead Evie right into murder, but she doesn’t. She saves her. And the why, and what it means to be left behind, to be complicit but not guilty is what Evie struggles with the rest of her life.

This is a gorgeous, haunting novel about love and solidarity between women, and the cruelty too often heaped upon them by manipulative men. I couldn’t put it down. If you love a compelling story, well told and can stomach some violence and many creepy sex scenes, this is an arrestingly good novel. I’ll read whatever Emma Cline writes next.


Wrights Why Buddhism is True

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Robert Wright
This book is about much, much more than the truth of Buddhism. Yes, it convincingly makes the argument that the central tenet of Buddhism (i.e. there is no “you”) is true but it does so by marshalling the best that cognitive psychology and behavioral science has to offer. It’s as much a tour of how the mind works as it is a book about Buddhism.

Perhaps most interesting for this struggling meditator is Wrights deep look into how the brain betrays us when we try to focus, and why it does so. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that thousands and thousands of years of subsistence farming in small communities hasn’t prepared us for the world of social media, mass interaction with strangers, and, perhaps most disturbingly, the type of “deep work” so often praised these days.

We are hard wired to be easily distracted by the shiny object. That’s how we survived. But we aren’t wired to routinely interact with strangers, that’s why we’re anxious. Addressing, and ameliorating the negative aspects of these facts of modern life is what Buddhism (or, perhaps even just secular mindfulness) can help us with.

Wright tells this story with the light confidence of someone who deeply knows the research, and he weaves in enough personal anecdotes to keep it from seeing dry. Its all in all an excellent book. In terms of my own mental health and well being, this is probably the best book I read this year. I think you’ll enjoy it.


Robert Wright

Review: Mackintosh’s I Let You Go

I Let You Go

Clare Mackintosh

A thriller about a dead child and a battered woman that has a plot twist that’s almost too clever. The writing is excellent, and the pacing in the first two third of the book feels like a perfect mix of long periods of dread and sorrow punctuated by short bits of joy or violence. This isn’t a perfect book, the bad guy, when he arrives is almost too bad, and while the first plot twist is genuinely surprising and well done, future plots twists feel a bit more forced.

Still, if you can handle some of the rougher stuff here (domestic abuse, dead kid) then this is a real top notch thriller. I finished it in a day.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Clare Mackintosh

Clare Mackintosh

Book Review: Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy
Ta-Nehisi Coates

A collection of Coates journalistic pieces and other writings, most of which first appeared in the Atlantic, and many of which I’d read before. The pieces are organized chronologically, and importantly, tied to each year of the Obama presidency. Coates writes a thoughtful introduction to each piece which serves as a reflective (sometimes self critical) look back at who he was as a writer, and who we were as a country, at the time of the writing of the piece.


Coates is a gifted writer and one of the most important intellectuals in modern America. I read everything he writes, and was happy to re-read many of these pieces. But at the center of this book is one of his articles “The Case for Reparations” that I think may be one of the most important pieces published anywhere in the last decade. It cogently and carefully makes the case for reparations to the African American community in America and it lays out its case with a combination of narrative brilliance and airtight logic that is hard to ignore.


If you pick up this book and just read the Case for Reparations, it will be well worth the price of admission, but there’s so much more in here to remember and reflect on. As I often say, well worth the time.



Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates


There Are Scenes He Describes That Still Haunt Me — Coogan’s On the Blanket

On the Blanket: The Story of the IRA’s Dirty Protest

Tim Pat Coogan

If Tim Pat Coogan isn’t the world’s greatest authority on the I.R.A., he’s definitely on the short list. A reporter for years and year with close ties to catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland, he has the sources and knowledge few others can claim. Unfortunately, he isn’t a very compelling writer. His magnum opus history of the IRA is (as the wags would say) exhaustive and exhausting. The better book for the general overview is, I think, Armed Struggle.

But this, Coogan’s books focused on the notorious “dirty protests” of the IRA prisoners is another story. Perhaps because the subject matter is so compelling, or perhaps because it’s a relative tight window of events, the book is captivating.

There are scenes he describes that still haunt me.

The dirty protests, for those not raised amongst the stories of such things, was a protest by imprisoned IRA members. It began with a refusal to wear prison uniforms as a protest against their being considered criminals, and not prisoners of war.  But it soon escalated into a bizarre and grotesque protest movement that found the prisoners wearing nothing but a blanket, and smearing their cells with their own feces and urine. Startling in its visceral-ness, and moving in the dedication these men and women showed, the dirty protest caught the attention of the world and soon, many of those “on the blanket” would take things to the next level – hunger strike giving us the martyred saint Bobby Sands and others.

I was raised in an Irish Catholic home with mixed feelings about the I.R.A. Christmas was a time for uncles talking tough, and others cautioning restraint. When I was a kid, the dirty protests were one of those things the grownups would drop in conversation, with references so vague, I couldn’t really catch them. It wasn’t till I was an adult that I’d understand the hold they had on some people’s emotions. You can see why. These men and women were ready to give their first their dignity, and eventually, their lives, for the cause. That’s a powerful thing.

It’s a fascinating chapter in Irish history and, while I read this book more than a decade ago, I recall Coogan telling it well.  You should read it to see what some are willing to sacrifice, and how they’ll go about doing it.


Two IRA men

Two IRA men “On the Blanket”

Review: Marable’s Malcolm X

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Manny Marable

A deeply researched, clearly written, important work of scholarship on one of the most fascinating figures in modern American history.

Like many, I read Malcolm X’s autobiography in high school and was deeply effected by the story of the hustler turned political activist. I’ve encounter Malcolm’s ideas throughout the rest of my life. At times, I’ve agreed with him, at other times, I haven’t.  But while Malcolm’s ideas have long been a part of my intellectual world, I haven’t thought deeply about the man since I first read the Autobiography all those years ago. Indeed, I figured from reading the autobiography, I knew all I needed to know about the man.


The Malcolm of the Autobiography is a complicated character. A hustler, a religious zealot, a black nationalist. But in fact, when you dig deeper into the facts (and Marable has dug DEEP) Malcolm was much more than even that. He was the child of political activists (Malcolm’s parents were Garveyites), the son of a mentally ill mother, a thug and drug dealer, but more small time that he made it seem. He may likely an occasional sex worker. He was a zealot, first for the Nation of Islam (to which his family had deep ties) and later to orthodox Islam. He was anti-Semitic, and profoundly chauvinistic. He was brilliant, and troubled. A showman, and a gifted orator, willing to say more than he meant to get a rise out of a crowd but also introspective, and thoughtful.

If Malcolm himself wasn’t complicated enough, his life touches on a number of the fascinating social movements starting with the Garvey movement of his childhood, through his long involvement with the bizarre Nation of Islam, and ending with his involvement in the burgeoning pan-African movement.

All kinds of important figures in black history appear here as well. King, of course, but also Robert Williams, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and more.

Oh and for good measure, let’s throw in meetings with the Socialist Workers Party, the American Nazi Party, and the Klan.

The book is incredible and you should read it. If I have a quibble, it’s that it might be a bit too exhaustive. Every meeting with a foreign dignitary is chronicled, every trip detailed. It’s a little bit too much for the casual reader like myself. But it’s hard to fault Marable for being so thorough. He set out to write the definitive biography of Malcolm X, and he did.

At least for now.

Many mysteries still exist, especially around Malcolm’s assassination. Though Marable has strong theories on who the actual killers were, the extent of knowledge of the NOI leadership, the FBI and the NYPD is still unknown. Was a police informant involved in the killing? Did Elijah Mohamed directly order it? Did Farrakhan know? These questions remain unanswered, for now.  When the complete FBI files regarding Malcolm and the National of Islam are released years from now, perhaps we’ll know more.

Until then, if you care about civil rights, American history, or the stories of fascinating, complex men, you really should read this.



Review: Itzler’s Living with a Seal

Living with a Seal: 30 Days of Training with the Toughest Man On The Planet

Jesse Itzler


Rich New Yorker hires famed navy seal and ultra-endurance athlete David Goggins to come live with him for a month and train him. Goggins agrees with the condition that Itzler agrees to follow his every instruction, no questions asked. Hilarity and a lot of very serious work outs ensue.

The book is largely written for laughs, with Itzler trying to keep up with the demands of the world’s hardest drill sergeant, but there are a couple nuggets of wisdom in here. The most quoted is Goggin’s pronouncement that when you think you’re done, you’re only forty percent done. This is surely motivating (if unlikely to be actually true).

For me, the biggest lesson to take out of this arises when Itzler’s wife questions the purpose of some of the more ridiculous workouts and Goggins responds that there is no purpose.  There is no, real, purpose to any of this.

It does nothing and no one cares.

Athletic nihilism. My jam.

Goggins is a fascinating character (and someone I’ve written about before) he’s inspiring, for sure, but there’s also something dark in how driven he is. I enjoyed Itzler’s portrayal of him here (though Itzinger’s stories about himself, I could have done without). Still, I’d be more interested in a more in-depth look into who Goggins is, and how he got that way. Hopefully with all the publicity surrounding this book, someone will write that piece.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.

hey, I also made this quick page of bodyweight workouts inspired by the book. 


A Magical Adventure for Some; a Tale of Return and Venegence for Others: Homer’s The Odyssey

The Odyssey

Homer (trans. Robert Fagles)

The story of the heroes return from the war.  The story of a son in search of his father. The story of a woman using her guile to ward off her suitors and wait for the return of her love. The story of a man through intelligence and strength, defeating his enemies and returning his family to calm.

These plot lines are the true heart of the Odyssey, and to this old man, what gives the poem its power. Odysseus is both honorable and unethical, hell bent on returning home, willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Telemachus is young, impressionable, desperate to make a name of himself. Penelope is incredible, perhaps the only person in the poem about whom one cannot say a bad word. When they finally reunite, vengeance is brought down on those who tried to destroy their family. It isn’t complicated stuff. It is elemental. It still moves.

Of course there is also the cyclops, the sirens, and Gods intervening left and right. A young me was drawn in by these magical elements, but today it’s the through line of the man trying to return to his family, and his family trying to cope with his absence that resonates with me.
Perhaps this is why we’re still reading Homer, still translating him for new audiences, each book contains multiple readings (a magical tale of adventure for some, a dark homecoming tale of revenge for others) looking forward to what will come to the fore when I read it again someday.


Odysseus taking it to the suitors

Quick note: As with my most recent reading of the Iliad, I read this in the Fagel’s translation. I found the language direct, and powerful and would recommend this one over the Lattimore I previously read.