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: Friedman’s Who Wrote The Bible

Who Wrote the Bible

Richard Elliott Friedman

In the last couple of years, I’ve been making a real effort to engage more deeply with Torah study, and particularly with the weekly parshas.* This year, after coming across what seemed like a contradiction in Genesis, I asked a rabbi friend what to make of it. “Do you want the historical answer or the Talmudic answer?” he responded. “Both” I said.  We dug into how to square the apparent contradiction bases on the guidance of the ancient scholars, but he also told me to read this book if I wanted to understand more about the how historically the five books of Moses were constructed.

In a nut shell Who Wrote the Bible makes the argument that Five Books of Moses were written by four different authors – J (for Jehovah), E (for Elohim) P (for Priest) D (for writer of Deuteronomy) and then constructed by another compiler. The various authors had differing perspectives and political goals in their drafting hence the contradictions and repetitions.

Friedman asserts that these authors were all individual people and my understanding is that now many scholars take issue with that and other conclusions Friedman draws here. But the general outline still holds. I’m relatively new to this subject myself, and found this to be a fascinating, if flawed, read. I’d be curious to hear from others out there who’ve read in this area about better works.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

*For non-Jewish readers, the “Torah” can be defined broadly as Jewish religious texts or my accurately as the five books of Moses. Jews read the five books of Moses on a set schedule ever year, breaking the books down into weekly sections called parshas.

Review: Smith’s Be Recorder

Be Recorder

Carmen Gimenez Smith

Contemporary poetry can be very hit or miss for me. If the writers voice connects with me, it can resonate in ways literature doesn’t (see Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky) but if it doesn’t connect in the first few poems, generally I’m lost.

Smith is clearly a talented writer and others may love this complex little work, but it never caught fire for me. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I wasn’t reading close enough, perhaps the subtlety of the structure was lost on me. Smith is widely considered an important voice in poetry, so I must be missing something, perhaps you’ll find it?

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Sontag’s Reborn

Reborn:Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963

Susan Sontag

The first in the collected journals of Susan Sontag edited by her son.

I’ve long been fascinated by Sontag, the person, even if much of her work hasn’t resonated with me. Her endless curiosity, her almost obsessive need to read more, see more, hear more, is an inspiration to an information omnivore like myself. These journals reflect that endless curiosity. They’re full of short thoughts on books, lists of movies to see, recaps of talks and concerts. There’s also the other side of Sontag on display here, the gossip, the neurotic, the person who, many report, it could be difficult to be around. All in all a fascinating glimpse into one of the last great New York intellectuals.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Keita’s Brief Evidence of Heaven

Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the Life of Anna Douglas

M. Nazadi Keita

This is a book of poetry written in the voice of Anna Douglass, the wife of Frederick Douglas.  Its an interesting idea, Anna was Douglas’s life from the time he was a fugitive slave until her death when Douglass was the most famous and powerful black man in America. Yet we know very little about her inner life. She left no writing, and what we know of her we know only from Douglass and Attilie Assing, a German woman who was for many years Frederick Douglass’s confidant (and perhaps more?)

I came across this book in Blight’s incredible biography of Douglass and I wanted to like it. However, it just didn’t resonate. I think at times Keita is trying to emulate what she thinks Anna Douglass would have sounded like, but it didn’t always ring true to me. Still an interesting exercise to try to unearth the thoughts and feelings of this important but largely unknown woman. If you’re as interested in Frederick Douglass as I am, this could be a place to start in trying to imagine the inner life of the most important person in his life.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


Anna Douglas, wife of Frederick Douglas