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: 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

Review: Olsson’s The Weil Conjectures

The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown

Karen Olsson

An odd but enjoyable little book about math and the deeply odd and brilliant Weil siblings (Simone, the writer mystic and activist and Andre Weil the mathematician).  Simone Weil was a troubled, brilliant, writer deeply affected by the suffering of others who may have died of starvation in an attempted solidarity with victims of World War II. Andrew was a gifted and also troubled mathematician who made serious contributions but perhaps never lived up to his early brilliance.

At its heart, this book is about how two brilliant siblings interacted, but it also gives us glimpses of the development of modern mathematics and meditations on Olsson’s own love affair with abstract math. I found this curious little book a joy to read, full of unexpected insights, but you need a some tolerance for abstract math and inter-war European leftist politics to enjoy it.

Recommended for the enthusiast.