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 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?

 

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.

Review Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad


The Mad and the Bad
Jean-Patrick Manchette

A woman with mental problems is sprung from a hospital to watch a child heir. A tortured assassin with a bad ulcer is hire to make a murder like look a kidnapping. Nobody gets what they’re expecting.

Welcome to another crime novel by the mad genius Jean-Patrick Manchette where the writing is clean and spare and the plot twists come at you fast. Most of Manchette’s novels are full of unlikable people, and this one is no different, though, perhaps there is a hero within this one, and perhaps she’s a disturbed young woman who just wants to do what’s right.

All Manchette’s novels are brilliant, but this one is among the best.

Recommended.

Review: Greenblatt’s Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve


The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
Steven Greenblatt

A clever and engrossing account of the story of Adam and Eve from its origins in early Judaism (and perhaps other long gone near east traditions) through its codification in the Torah, to its centrality in the thinking of Augustine and John Milton through to the modern developments of evolution and prehistoric paleontology.

This was a fun read with scores of digressions into Babylonian mythology, early church theocratic disputes, the English civil war and more. Greenblatt does a great job of popularizing some heady material while not dumbing it down too far.  Really fascinating and fun from page one to the finish.

 

Recommended

 

Some Quick Thoughts on the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, and Chavrusa Learning

Mishneh Torah – Talmud Torah
Maimonides

In March, my friend Noah asked me if I’d like to learn some Torah with him. Of course I said yet. By Torah here Noah meant the expansive sense of the word, covering texts of religious importance to Jews. After some back and forth, we settled on learning Maimonides (aka the Rambam) laws for the Study of Torah or Hilchot Talmud Torah from the Rambam’s massive Mishneh Torah. We did this in the tradition way of Chavrusa, working together line by line, to analyze the Rambam’s distillation of the laws governing the study of Torah in great, great detail. Noah read the text in Hebrew, I in English and we discussed and debated both the large themes the Rambam was presenting and the smallest apparent logical inconsistency in the text. We did this, just about every shabbat morning, for the last nine months.

Finally, just recently, we finished. It was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences I’ve had in years. Noah is deeply knowledgeable about the Rambam. Me, not so much. Noah brought a lifetime of deep Torah study and a brilliant intellect. I think I brought some fresh perspectives and a willingness to ask stupid questions to the conversation.

Seeing very up close the care with which the Rambam codified these rules for study was a revelation and while I still don’t always agree with the great man, I’m more impressed than ever with the clarity and care that went into creating this massive, yet minutely constructed work.

As for the form of reading this – hyper closely, debating every line, while our children played in the background — it was a joy. There were many mornings when I didn’t want to get up and get over to Noah’s place, but after every session, I felt invigorated. Its an incredible way to start the day.

Recommended (the text for Jews and others interested in a detailed articulation of the rules governing Torah study) and the practice of Chavrusa for everyone.

Maimonides-2

Maimonides (aka the Rambam)

Review: Manchette’s Fatale

Fatale
Jean-Patrick Manchette

I think this is generally thought of as Manchette’s most fully realized work and the culmination of his deeply nihilistic noir novels. The Fatale is a young woman who, we soon discovers, kills lecherous men for revenge, and money. She is literally a serial killer, yet still we cheer for her, especially as she seems so close to ruining the lives of scores of awful bourgeoisie dilettantes in a small French town. Except, then, as always happens in a Manchette novel, things get even more chaotic and violent.

Like every Manchette novel this is a brilliant piece of economic writing, propulsive plot, and compelling (if hardly likeable) characters. That he does so much with so few words can feel like magic.

Recommended.