The Complete Maus

Dammit, this book is perfection. I hope I write something this good someday.

It’s the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, and his experiences during the Holocaust. The story is framed by an equally compelling collection of interactions between Spiegelman and his father as the former collects these stories in order to create the comic book. This book is rightfully considered a classic, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. Time to do a Spiegelman dive.

The Complete Maus (Spiegelman)

The Patriarch

A solid and in-depth biography of Joseph P Kennedy, patriarch of the famed Kennedy political family. It’s an interesting angle on an interesting person, and it provides a lot of understanding of the Kennedy brothers, while also dispelling some persistent myths about Joseph P. Highly recommended if you’re curious about him or about his family.

The Patriarch (Nasaw)

Narconomics

Oh man, I enjoyed the crap out of this book. It’s basically a surprisingly brave business/econ reporter discussing the economics of illegal drugs. Like, for instance, he talks about how we keep fighting the supply side of drugs, which just drives up the price. There’s also a really interesting discussion of how law enforcement groups calculate the value of drug busts. In short, they don’t calculate the value to the cartel, but rather the street value. The author notes that this is sort of like calculating the value of a cow by seeing the price of a steak at a Manhattan restaurant.

Anyway, yeah, really interesting. Wainwright, like just about everyone who looks into this topic deeply, comes out in favor of legalization.

Narconomics (Wainwright)

Chaos Monkeys

Read this one. I don’t know if I love it or hate it or both, but Martinez is a delight. By his own admission, he’s somewhat playing a character as he recounts his days in the Silicon Valley startup seen, and later at Facebook. This is a sort of tell-all book of gossip, but it’s made enjoyable by the fact that Martinez is (openly) attempting to be Michael Lewis. The writing is quite good, and Martinez makes a point of showing off his liberal arts education, in a way that almost reminded me of Nabokov.

It’s a strange book, and will leave you feeling a bit slime-coated at times, but I can’t help but think in 50 years, when the Golden Age of Silicon Valley is being recounted in college classrooms, a playful professor will enjoy assigning this book as a more true portrayal than that in history books.

Chaos Monkeys (Martinez)

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Okay, so confession time – I have a soft soft SOFT spot for lost world adventure stories. I’m not sure I’m an objective judge of quality here because of this, but MAN did I enjoy this book. It’s the story of an author who helps find a lost city in Honduras. Amazingly, this was done in 2015, thanks to LIDAR technology able to locate human-made structures in deep jungle. Of course, no modern jungle adventure can match the danger and intrigue of the old 19th century tales, but this is about as good as it gets in modern times.

The Lost City of the Monkey God (Preston)

March, books 1, 2, and 3

I actually read all of these over the course of February, but I think I can cover them in one post.

This series is basically the story of civil rights in the US from the perspective of John Lewis. The story is framed by his interactions with President Obama as Obama is inaugurated.

I’m gonna say something a little heretical about these books. Although they’re excellent, for me they were somewhat victims of their hype. As a graphic way to tell John Lewis’ version of events, they were quite good, but at times, the story felt mildly disjointed. Some of this is, I presume, because the subject matter is just John Lewis recollecting things. But, I would’ve liked to see it organized in a way that carried the emotional arc more. I know this is asking a lot of a memoir, but compare it to, for example, Maus by Spiegelman. The latter is also a true story, and also a memoir of sorts, but every moment seems to be there for a reason.

One way in which the books are similar, yet different, is the use of framing devices. In Maus, it’s the son of the Shoah survivor’s attempt to make sense of himself and his relationship to his parents. I found it very strong, in part because it’s non-obvious – the father and son spend most of their time together fighting. It results in a beautifully nuanced character. The framing device in March is a bit more obvious and sentimental, and it’s not clear to me what it adds artistically.

That said, it’s still a fine series, and a great addition to your graphic novel collection. For me, it was kind of like Persepolis – great stuff, but it was missing that deeper note that the author seemed capable of.

March, books 1, 2, and 3 (Lewis)

Standard Deviations

Gary Smith is my kind of curmudgeon. This book is basically a long set of essays on how people screw up their stats. Sometimes this is particular complaints about particular (often famous) scholars. Sometimes it’s discussion of common conceptual errors. I especially enjoy how pretty much nobody is spared, from politicians to famous scholars, to beloved intellectuals like Steve Levitt of “Freakonomics” fame.

If you’re into turning a skeptical eye on everything, or if you want to learn how to think more clearly about science, the news, politics, economics, and anywhere else people are likely to abuse stats, this is a a great book for you.

Standard Deviations (Smith)

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

What a delightful history of the Nazi relation (and Hitler’s relation in particular) to drugs, particularly methamphetamine. The author makes a compelling that the role of these drugs (which were used en masse during the Battle of France) has been underestimated. Similarly, the fact that Hitler had a personal physician who prescribed him all manner of drugs, up to and including speedballs, may have also been overlooked as an explanation of erratic behavior.

It’s a book full of stories I hadn’t heard elsewhere, and the perspective of history as viewed through pharmacology was new to me.

Blitzed (Ohler)

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Okay, it’s an inflammatory title, but I really enjoyed the book! In some ways it reminds me “In Defense of Flogging” by Moskos, in the sense that the author isn’t exactly in favor the what the title claims, but nevertheless argues that our current alternative is even worse.

The basic idea here is that empathy is overvalued is a criterion for judgment, in that empathy (in the specific sense of “walking in someone else’s shoes” mentally) is very prone to cognitive bias. For example, you may be more likely to give to a charity that tugs at your heartstrings than one that accomplishes the goals you logically desire. More ominously, the part of your brain that engages in empathy is probably at least a bit racist and xenophobic.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s kind of a mix between behavioral economics and utilitarian ethics, but it’s still a quick fun read.

Against Empathy (Bloom)