Review: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons
Ivan Tugenev

The novel that really introduced the concept of nihilism to the world. In many ways, this is a classic story. Father sends son away to school, son comes back, changed, with new ideas that feel dangerous to the father. They grow apart. But with time, and love, there is a sort of reconciliation.

This is, for a Russian novel of the time, not even particularly dark. Yes there is loss, and sadness, but at least some of our main characters find love and fulfilment, which is more than you can say of most of the works of Dostoyevsky.

I read this book as a young man when I was trying to get a feeling for what nihilism was. I asked all my smarty pants grad school friends and they suggested starting here. It probably isn’t the best place, for though nihilism is a central plot point in the book (its what separates the father and son) it isn’t very well defined. But then again, perhaps it is just not that easy to define nihilism.

This is worth the time if you’re interested in the history of nihilism, or deeply interested in Russian fiction.  Others would be better of looking at Dostoyevsky’s the Devils.

Recommended for the enthusiast.



Review: Tavenner’s Prepared

Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life

Diane Tavenner

A guidebook for a new model of education by one of the founders of Summit Public schools. I picked this up because I have young kids whose education I fuss over and it was on Gates end of the year list of best books.

Lots of good stuff here showing the real-world application of concepts you hear about in the modern schooling environment – whole child, project-based learning, etc. I was most struck by Tavenner’s personal intensity and devotion to the students in her schools. Going to a student’s house prepared to literally take down a door to ensure he got to class is both admirable and hard to replicate on the grand scale. Still lots to learn from here if you’re trying to prepare your child for the contemporary world.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


Dianne Tavenner

Review: Homie by Danez Smith

Home: Poems

Danez Smith

I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I have a couple of favorite contemporary poets.

For most of my life I didn’t pay much attention to this world, but now I follow the work of a couple of poets pretty carefully including Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky and the brilliant Danez Smith. This new book from Smith is perhaps even better then Don’t Call Us Dead. I found myself saying “wow” out loud at the end of one of the poems here.  Gorgeous language, gut-wrenching honesty and style approachable to a non-expert like me. Smith moves from the playful to the heartbreaking, sometimes in a single poem, like this one.

Opening myself up to poetry and getting invested in the careers of a small group of young poets has been a great experience – exposing to ideas and lives often far from my own and I look forward to their books now like I used to look forward to new album releases. Even if contemporary poetry isn’t really your thing, Smith’s is a voice worth hearing.



Danez Smith. (Photograph by David Hong)

Review: Marantz’s Anti-Social

Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians and the Hijacking of the American Conversation

Andrew Marantz

Antisocial is an extension of the reporting Marantz did for the New Yorker, both before and after the election on the rise of clickbait websites and alt-right trolls. Some of this will be familiar ground to those who read the earlier articles, but there is more than enough new material here, and new insights to make this worth your while if you’re interested in how certain less savory corners of the internet work.

Marantz is a great journalist, who doesn’t shy away from the tricky questions that arise when you’re profiling some pretty unappealing people. If you’re humanizing an racist, anti-Semitic asshole like Mike Enoch, who is playing who? Marantz is forthcoming in the complexities of these relationships and if you follow this world at all, perhaps the most interesting insights here are into how figures like Enoch, Cernovich and others interact when an honest to goodness report is on the phone.

Perhaps in a year this will all feel very old, but for now, this is a book worth reading if you care about the conversation in this country and where “the narrative” is going.


2019 My Year In Books

Every year I read 52 books. Some years that’s easy, some years it’s hard. This year, it was hard. Child rearing, work commitments and the siren song of the youtube video all conspired to keep me from my reading goal, but I prevailed. There’s a decent argument that my goal of 52 books a year is obsessive and sub-optimal, but whatever, I’m committed to it.

Here’s a recap of all the books and some quick thoughts on which I thought were the best.

Best Fiction

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison– I’m embarrassed to admit how little of Morrison’s work I’ve read, and unfortunately it took her passing for me to dig into it. The Bluest Eye was gorgeous, heart rending and felt close to perfect. Looking forward to reading everything else this great woman wrote.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison


Best Nonfiction

This one is a tie between two excellent, but very different, books — Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a deep look at the vast expanse of history of human and Say Nothing by Patrick Keefe, a close up examination of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Despite their differences, both books blew me away and I was thinking about them long after I finished them

Book That Surprised The Heck Out Of Me With How Good It Was

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up In Love With the World by Yongey Rinpoche but what I got was a thrilling adventure story,  a primer to many of the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and an incredible mediation on ego and death. This was the book I recommended more than any other this year and everyone who read it, loved it.

Version 2

Yongey Rinpoche

Best Poetry

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky is a slim volume that packs a powerful punch. When people tell me they don’t like poetry I’m going to suggest they check this out.

Ok, so below I’ve listed every book I read in 2019 along with a note of whether I recommend it for general readers, recommend it for enthusiasts in the subject matter or don’t recommend it all. I also have a monthly book review email list I’m trying desperately to maintain, sign up for that at What Are You Reading.

On to the books!


Every Single Book I Read In 2019

1. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson — Recommended

2. Elephant In the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, Tommy Tomlinson — Recommended

3. Sapien: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari — Recommended

4. Becoming Ageless: Four Secrets To Looking and Feeling Younger Than Ever, Strauss Zelnick — Not Recommended

5. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport— Recommended

6. The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy, Paige Williams — Recommended for the enthusiast

7. Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells — Recommended

8. Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari –– Recommended

9. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, Brene Brown — Recommended for the Enthusiast

 10. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari — Recommended

11. On The Move: A Life, Oliver Sachs — Recommended

12. The Mastermind: Drug, Empire Murder Betrayal, Evan Ratliff — Recommended for the enthusiast

13. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James — Not Recommended

14. Death and the Kings Horseman, Wole Soyinka — Recommended

15. American Spy, Lauren Wilinson — Recommended

16 Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe — Recommended

17. The Border, Don Winslow –Recommended

18. Magical Negro: Poems, Morgan Parker — Recommended

19. Norma Jean Baker of Troy, Anne Carson — Recommended

20. Foucault in California: A True Story Wherein the Great Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death, Simeon Wade —  Recommended for the Enthusiast

21. Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein — Recommended

22. in Love With The World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, Yongey Minguy Rinpoche — Recommended

23. Fall or Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson — Recommended for the Enthusiast

24. Midnight in Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham— Recommended

25. Gironimo: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy, Tim Moore — Recommended for the Enthusiast

26. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew B. Crawford — Not Recommended

27. Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed, Matthew Futterman — Recommended for the Enthusiast

28. Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino— Recommended

29. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass — Recommended

30. The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown, Karen Olsson — Recommended for the enthusiast

31. Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison  — Recommended

32. Brief Evidence of Heaven, M. Nazadi Keita — Recommended for the Enthusiast

33. Stillness Is Key, Ryan Holiday— Recommended

34. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963, Susan Sontag— Recommended for the Enthusiast

35. Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem — Recommended

36. Felon: Poems, Reginald Dwayne Butts — Recommended

37. Who Wrote the Bible, Richard Elliott Friedman— Recommended for the Enthusiast

38.  Nada, Jean-Patrick Manchette — Recommended

39. The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band That Burned a Million Pounds, John Higgs— Recommended

40. Life 3.0 Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Max Tegmark — Recommended

41. Deaf Republic: Poems, Ilya Kaminsky— Recommended

42. Be Recorder: Poems, Carmen Gimenez Smith — Recommended for the Enthusiast

43. Three to Kill, Jean-Patrick Manchette — Recommended

44. Fatale, Jean-Patrick Manchette — Recommended

45. Misneh Torah — Talmud Torah, Maimonides — Recommended

46.  The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Steven Greenblatt— Recommended

47. The Mad and the Bad, Jean-Patrick Manchette — Recommended

48. Ivory Pearl, Jean-Patrick Manchette— Recommended

49. Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy — Recommended for the Enthusiast

50. Prone Gunman, Jean-Patrick Manchette — Recommended

51. Arrivals and Departures, Arthur Koestler — Recommended

52. Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal — Recommended for the Enthusiast


So that’s what I read in 2019, now tell me, what are you reading?

Koestler’s Arrival and Departure

Arrival and Departure
Arthur Koestler

A taught little novel about intrigue and politics in a town of transients and refugees. Our protagonist is a leftist hero, who has left the growing dictatorship in his country to either return to fight on the side of justice or flee to an apolitical life across the sea. He meets first a gorgeous woman who takes his heart, then dives into deep analysis with a woman who wants to know what makes him tick, what makes a good boy from a good family become a revolutionary; and why he’s so damaged now. And eventually, he ends up debating with a fascist with whom he shares a social economic class, but nothing more.

I wasn’t sure when I was reading this whether I liked it or not. Some of it is a bit post-war European for me, I thought. But much of the book — the characters, the setting, and the mood, especially, has stayed with me. And that says a lot.


Arthur Koestler

Review: Manchette’s Ivory Pearl

Ivory Pearl

Jean-Patrick Manchette

The master of the noir novels final, unfinished, work Ivory Pearl was supposed to be the start a new, expansive series using the espionage novel as a means to talk about the revolutions and uprisings of the post WWII years. Manchette died before he could finish it, but what he left us with is a very different novel than his earlier works. Yes we have the incredible prose — surgical in its clarity and the propulsive plot, but here the characters are more fleshed out, with more of an inner life, and Ivory Pearl, the protagonist feels like a real hero. Unlike the protagonists in his others novels (killers, generally, sometimes mentally ill) Pearl is… dare I say it? Likeable?
I was so into this novel it was a bit of a gut punch when I got close to one of the main confrontations just as it ended and the notes explaining where the editors thought Manchette would take the plot began.

As an unfinished work, this isn’t as perfect as Manchette’s other novels, but still well worth the time of any fan of the crime genre.



Jean-Patrick Manchette

Review: Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison

I am embarrassed to admit that until this year, the only Toni Morrison book I have read was Beloved. I’m determined to change that. And being me, I started at the beginning with Bluest Eye.

Good lord it is stunning. A clear eyed, visceral, look into a black community in Ohio in the forties, focusing around the story of a traumatized little girl. This is the story of Pecola and all that happens to her, but it is also the story of those around her, told through their voices and gives you a real sense of the struggles and occasional joys of surviving in a poverty stricken African American community.

Morrison didn’t produce all that many novels in her career and you can see why when you read this slim work – it is a perfect jewel box of a novel with care taken in the choice of every word. Reading something this beautiful and clear feels like a gift, and I’m so excited to read the rest of her works.



Toni Morrison

Review: Ratliff’s The Mastermind

The Mastermind: Drugs, Empire, Murder, Betrayal
Evan Ratliff

From crypto computer programmer to mastermind of an international drug and arms smuggling ring, the story of Paul Calder Le Roux is a hell of a ride. We got assassins in the Philippines, online pill mills run out Israel, private armies in Somalia, and more. It’s all almost too much to believe, but Ratliff backs it up with court documents and extensive interviews.

We never really get to the bottom of why Le Roux went from a low level fraudster kind of guy to a private army / having people killed sociopath, but it isn’t for Ratliff’s lack of trying. The reporting here is excellent from Le Roux’s humble beginnings to his final acts of deception and cunning I was captivated.

If the international house of crime sub-genre is your thing, you cannot go wrong with this one.

Recommended for the Enthusiast

Review: Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows
Melanie Joy

I picked up this book because it was billed to me as a book that examined why we in America love certain animals (dogs) and eat others (chickens). As someone who has recently been moving back towards an ethically vegan diet after some years in the meat-eating wilderness, I was interested in this question.

In fact, the book doesn’t answer that question, at least not in a way that satisfied me. Instead, it’s a well reasoned, often deeply disturbing, argument for ethical veganism. Using first hand reports and extensive research, Joy shows how cruel factory farming is, and that should lead anyone to wonder why they eat meat. But it doesn’t really explain why certain animals are brought into the home as pets and others to the table as dinner. This is a good book on the importance of ending factory farming, but not the book I was looking for.

Recommended for the enthusiast.