The Last Interview and Other Conversations - David Foster Wallace
The Last Interview and Other Conversations is technically not a book written by DFW but rather a collection of his interviews gathered into a book posthumously. The 4, 5 interviews in the book cover a variety of topics, including conversations about his writing style & process, his attitude towards his fiction/non fiction, how he feels about being famous, his experiences teaching, his time at Amherst, and his fights with magazines about cutting the length of his articles.
I think the book is probably best enjoyed after you read a few of his works, and especially after you read Infinite Jest, because it helps answers some questions on what he intended to do when he started writing the book. At this point I adore anything with DFW's voice and writing and thinking, so I immensely enjoyed reading his interviews, although I do feel some reservations about buying a book of his interviews that are available for free online and think he would find the consumerism and opportunism funny. My other problem with The Last Interview was I enjoyed the book because of DFW's wit and charm, not because the interviewers were particularly astute with their questions. I found many of the interview questions were frustratingly shallow and didn't give good insight into how he thinks. One particularly infuriating question asked him about the lengths of Infinite Jest (1000+) and McCain's Promise (124) and why he "decided to drop a few weight classes," which I found a really stupid question because anyone who's done the tiniest amount of research will know that McCain's Promise was originally a Rolling Stone's article, re-released in longer form in Consider the Lobster, and reissued in stand alone book form for the 2008 cycle. I mean, you get time with DFW, and you ask him a question like that?
My favorite interview in the book was the Salon interview with Laura Miller after Infinite Jest was published. The interview wonderfully describes what he wanted to accomplish with fiction and shows how compassionate of an author he is. Some of my favorite bits in the interview:
- On what it's like to be American around the millenium:
"There's something particularly sad about it, something that doesn't have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It's more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it's unique to our generation I really don't know."
- On the toxicity of the intellectualization and aestheticization of principles in America and the importance of being earnest:
"It seems to me that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that's gutted our generation... The idea that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting -- which for me meant you pass over it for the interesting, complex stuff -- can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo stuff can't, that seems to me to be important. That seems to me like something our generation needs to feel."
- On the unique magic of fiction:
"There's a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn't happen all the time. It's these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don't with other art."
How Money Got Free: Bitcoin and the Fight for the Future of Finance - Brian Patrick Eha
How Money Got Free chronicles Bitcoin's early history, told from the perspective of its early adopters, innovators, and evangelists. The story starts from Cypherpunks, cryptocurrency predecessors, and Satoshi, the unknown creator of Bitcoin, and leads to a lot of the influential people & major projects involved, like Nic Cary, Charlie Shrem, BitInstant, Coinbase, Mt. Gox, Roger Ver, Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, the Winklevoss twins, and Barry Silbert + DCG.
Eha sets up the ideological tension between the original Bitcoin purists + libertarian anarchists and the later Bitcoin pragmatists very well, and I found his account of Bitcoin's history really interesting. The book helped me understand a little of cryptocurrency's value & purpose, but I wouldn't recommend reading the book to understanding cryptocurrencies, because the book's primary emphasis is on the people and events leading from 10,000 BTC for two Papa John's pizzas to 1 BTC at 17k.
One of my major complaints about the book is while he contextualizes the debates about cryptocurrencies and the different positions well, I thought he was way too opinionated, and brought in a lot of personal bias without convincing arguments or evidence. This was most egregious in the portions of the book about legislation & regulation of cryptocurrencies in his very obvious disdain for government. He also introduces a lot of characters through his very libertarian lens, and has a tendency for saying very debatable things in the book in a very objective way, like
HSBC executives thus benefited from something like the transformative formula of modern art. A bag of rubbish is a bag of rubbish, but if one builds a Tate Britain around the rubbish it becomes art.
Wtf is that supposed to mean...?
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
I read Slaughterhouse Five in my junior year of high school in IBHL year 1 English, and did my IB oral presentation on the book. I dogeared and highlighted the shit out of my book- Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first books I remember spending a lot of time analyzing, and one of the first books that showed me that a close read of literature can be very rewarding and deep.
Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who fought in WW2 and survived the Dresden bombings. Billy, a fatalistic, poorly trained soldier with no survival instinct, stumbles through the war and through a series of accidents gets captured by the Germans and sent to Luxembourg. During his transport, Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and begins to experience flashbacks from his past. A few years after he returns from war, Billy is abducted by Tramalfadorians, aliens who see all time simultaneously rather than continuously, and lives in a glass dome in a zoo, but continues to experience moments in his past and future after he is sent back to Earth in a time warp.
If the book seems confusing or weird, it's even worse in the book itself because all of this is told out of sequence. Slaughterhouse Five is the quintessential Kurt Vonnegut book, and many stylistic elements are repeated in his other books, including the nonlinear narrative (fits well here because like Billy, the narrative is unstuck in time). Others include:
- Unreliable narrator:
The narrator is a part of the book as an author, and Billy Pilgrim is the main character in a story that the narrator is writing about war. Kurt Vonnegut also experienced the Dresden bombings, and often in the book it is hard to separate fiction from reality and figure out what parts of the story are actually experienced rather than imagined.
- Short sections:
The book is split into really small pieces. Kurt Vonnegut described his books as "essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips...and each chip is a joke." This is especially cool for this book because these small pieces align nicely with Billy's abrupt jumps in time, and help create the jarring feeling of disorder.
- Heavy dependence on black humor and irony:
Basically every other part of the book, if not more.
- Lots of repetition:
"So it goes" follows every death in the book, "If you're ever in Cody, Wyoming, ask for Wild Bob" is repeated by Billy a lot, the serenity prayer is repeated a lot, "Listen" prepends a lot of passages, "Everything beautiful and nothing hurt"... This is another cool stylistic element because the repetition connects disjointed, nonlinear narrative pieces, and becomes itself a joke when used heavily like in this book.
- Simple syntax & sentence structure:
I think this has a similar effect to the short sections. Terrible things stated simply and abruptly are more powerful, and are worse when delivered toneless and matter of fact.
This is also in Breakfast of Champions. I like his drawings; they're very simple but expressive line drawings.
There are also lots of common themes:
- Anti-war (the topic of my IB presentation!)
The style serves the theme well here, and how starkly everything is laid out really highlights the absurdities of war, like the Children's Crusade, Roland Weary's bravado & the Three Musketeers, Billy Pilgrim stumbling into Luxembourg with a blue toga and silver shoes, and one of my favorite passages from SH Five:
“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”
Fatalism, and the lack of free will:
The Tramalfadorians see all time as a hill, and so simultaneously see the past, present, and future. We are described as being "trapped in the amber of the now," and so everything, already predestined and predetermined, will always stay the same and can never be changed. In the Tramalfadorian philosophy, our actions mean nothing, and so death means nothing besides a "so it goes." Our individuality and notions of free will also don't exist, because the answer to "Why anything?" is "Because the moment simply is."
The Giggler Treatment - Roger Doyle
I know I read a lot of kid's books, but I really enjoy them because I think writing good ones is tremendously difficult and so many of them are done so well. Because children's books are constrained by length, the author has to set up and wrap up a complete story with very few words, forcing them to be very deliberate and intentional with what they say.
The Giggler Treatment is about a dad who works as a biscuit taste tester. The eponymous "gigglers" punish adults who are mean to kids and they overhear him scolding his kids for breaking stuff and misbehaving the night before, so they conspire to put some dog poop on his way to work the next day as a punishment. The story of the book is not that special (although it's a lot of fun)- what's really interesting about the book is its narrative structure and literary techniques. When he recommended me The Giggler Treatment, my friend Andy said it was the first book that showed him how creative and different books could be and the possibilities they afforded. The Giggler Treatment does a lot of interesting different stuff that I really enjoyed, like adding a bunch of self-referential stuff, playing with the length, naming, and meaning of chapters, breaking the fourth wall, and even changing the story in the story itself. I usually hate stuff like that in books, but The Giggler Treatment was so fun I enjoyed it anyways, and I'm sure as a kid it would've been revelatory.
Personally, the book that made me think- "wow, I didn't know books could do that" was The Phantom Tollbooth, and it's still one of my favorite books today.
Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut
Cat's Cradle was the other Vonnegut book I read in IB English (year 2...?) in high school; it is one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books. Cat's Cradle is about a writer (John/ Jonah) who is writing a book about famous people's reactions to the dropping of the atomic bomb. In his research, he goes to Ilium to interview the colleagues and the children of the father of the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker, and finds out about a substance called "ice-nine" created by Felix, an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. When it comes in contact with water, ice-nine will seed it to make all the molecules of liquid water rearrange themselves into solid ice-nine. After Felix's death, his three children, Angela, Frank, and Newt Hoenikker receive small chips of ice-nine, and the Hoenikker children meet Jonah on the small island country San Lorenzo, one of the poorest countries in the world. Ruled by dictator Papa Monzano, San Lorenzo has an unusual culture & history and its own religion, Bokononism.
There are a lot of quintessentially Vonnegut stylistic elements in Cat's Cradle like black humor, irony, small disparate pieces (Cat's Cradle is 304 pages with 127 chapters), parody, straight-faced emotionless delivery, etc. Unlike Slaughterhouse Five though, Cat's Cradle is not nonlinear, which I honestly prefer because I think it's easier to follow and I find nonlinear narratives really annoyingly distracting.
Thematically, I think there are two separate but closely related threads running through the book, two big ideas he is tackling. The first is the danger of blind faith in technology, and the immensity of human stupidity, and the second is, in the face of all this shit, does this all matter? How do we handle it? Ice-nine was conceived with indifference by a scientist who cared only for the truth, who had no real human connections and did not give a shit about anything else, a man who didn't know God, or Love, or Sin, and he passed his last creation to his children, who selfishly exploited it for their own temporary happiness. Ice-nine is just science fiction, but it has parallels in the nuclear arms race, and is a warning story for the stupidity and selfishness of people. As written in the Books of Bokonon,
Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing
and this filth is paired by an innate drive for meaning.
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
But if capital-T Truth is not the answer, how do we live as meaningless mud? Vonnegut's answer is in Bokononism, the religion of San Lorenzo, an elaborate farce constructed to give them some kind of meaning in their life. All of it is fake and none of it is any more real or meaningful than science or technology or any other religion, but that's OK. The Truth is terrible, so all we can hope for and rely on are better and better lies. This is neatly summed up in the epigraph of the book:
Nothing in this book is true.
Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.
The Book of Bokonon 1:5
Cat's Cradle also has one of the greatest book endings I've ever read (also good: A Tale of Two Cities):
(obvious, if mild, spoilers)
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino
If on a winter's night a traveler is about a guy reading the eponymous book. He reads only the first chapter, realizes the book is published with only first chapters, and tries to find and finish the rest of the book, but every chapter he reads is the first chapter of another, different book. Each chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler is divided into two parts: the first half the story of the reader trying to find the book, and the latter half the first chapter of a book he finds during his search. The first chapters of all these books are very different in content and style, and their background & story drive the plot of their succeeding narrative sections.
This was definitely a unique reading experience, but I didn't finish the book because I tend to dislike books that use weird narrative techniques and structure for the purpose of just pushing the envelope of literary technique, rather than for some explicit external purpose (I also really really don't like when authors break the fourth wall). If playful postmodern puzzles are more up your alley than mine though, you will probably enjoy this book.
Farewell Waltz - Milan Kundera
Farewell Waltz happens over 5 days in a small spa town in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, and follows 8 characters: Ruzena, the young and pretty nurse, supposedly pregnant from Klima; Frantisek, her boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her; Klima, a famous trumpeter who has a one night stand with Ruzena and is frequently unfaithful despite his devotion to his wife; Kamila, his wife, jealous & always suspicious of Klima having an affair; Skreta, the gynecologist working in the spa who wants to be adopted by Bertlef; Bertlef, the rich, sick American staying at the spa town; Jakub, an ex political prisoner leaving the country, and Olga, Jakub's ward, whose father betrayed him and eventually dies as a political prisoner.
Farewell Waltz has really similar elements to many of his previous books that I've read.
- All the characters suck. They all have super shitty character traits and all of them say, do, or believe in some really shitty, slimy stuff.
- But despite that, the book is still fantastic, still really engaging, and despite yourself you still get drawn into the story and the characters even thought they're all terrible people. It is the mark of a great author that you can still feel sympathetic and still understand and empathize with characters that on a fundamental level you disagree with and dislike.
- Farewell Waltz engages with some serious topics like love, patriotism, hate, and accidents, but examines all this really dark stuff with a very light touch. On the surface the book is a comedy, and certainly there are some funny and absurd bits, but some terrible shit happens in the story and some heavy, dark elements lie very close beneath the surface. This is juxtaposed, as in all of his books, by how lightly he tells his stories, drawing you in more and making it even more abhorrent with the sharp contrast.
I think Kundera is a fantastic author, and I've very much enjoyed all four of his books I've read.
Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut
Breakfast of Champions follows the story of two characters, "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." The first is Kilgore Trout, a minor recurring character in his other novels, and an unsuccessful science fiction writer. Kilgore Trout gets a rich fan, Mr. Rosewater (also another recurring character in other books) and is invited to a convention in a small town, where the second character, Dwayne Hoover, is a successful and rich white Pontiac dealer. Dwayne Hoover is deeply mentally unstable, and because of "bad chemicals" in his brain, acts out in ways he cannot control. Eventually, Trout meets Dwayne unwittingly, and after reading one of Kilgore Trout's books, Dwayne erroneously believes that he is the only person in a universe and everyone else is a machine.
Stylistically, Breakfast of Champions is quite similar to Slaughterhouse Five (I believe BoC was written after SH5). An interesting difference is while both have pen drawings from Vonnegut, BoC has even more, some illustrating parts of the story and some tangentially related. My favorite of these drawings is:
The presence of a narrator is also much stronger in this book than in any of his other books. Instead of the main character being a character in a story written or told by the narrator, Kurt Vonnegut is directly involved and a part of the story, and there are times when he directly influences or even changes the story. Kurt Vonnegut also has a knack for beautiful endings, this one not even textual- the last page is just a full page drawing of Kurt Vonnegut crying.
Breakfast of Champions is critical of American society and the way it treats its citizens, focusing largely on race and socioeconomic status, and points out the hypocrisy of a country founded on the principles of freedom exploiting its own people.
They used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines.
This is starkest in the parallels between Dwayne Hoover, a rich and powerful but terrible white man, and Wayne Hoobler, a black ex-convict who has never been free and dreams childishly of a place called Fairyland. Like many of his other books, BoC also calls into question the nature of free will, this time through the presence of an omnipotent and omniscient narrator and through the "bad chemicals" in Dwayne's brain that prompt him to act so violently and uncontrollably.
As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions - Brian Christian
Algorithms to Live By, written by two computer scientists, discusses how insights from CS, math, and statistics can be applied to everyday common situations. The book is based on the idea that we all face problems in our everyday lives that either relate to or can be directly reduced to common CS problems, examining a different problem/algorithm in each chapter.
The book does a few things well:
- The book discusses interesting, relevant problems. I found many of them personally useful, like the explore/exploit problem (finding new friends), optimal stopping (parking and apartment hunting), sorting (my books), and caching (organizing my notes at work).
- The authors break down tricky concepts in CS (Bayes, game theory, concept of intractable (NP) problems, etc.) and explains CS problems very clearly (multi-arm bandit, traveling salesman, caches).
What the book does really well:
The premise of the book is really great- that problems in real life often map, if not perfectly, to problems that serious research has been devoted to, and in really useful and interesting ways the search for optimal solutions for very well defined problems can be applied to real and much fuzzier problems in our lives. The big problem with that is most people feel like algorithms is the realm of computers and nerds and not applicable to most people, but that's treated admirably in the book as well. The authors acknowledge pretty frequently that problems in CS are more rigorous and can't be strictly applied, and approach every problem by looking at the naive case with lots of assumptions then takes away certain assumptions and discuss the more relevant (but harder to solve) problem. I like this approach a lot because it helps the reader understand algorithms as fundamentally just a way to solve a problem, and this helps in thinking about problems by defining the problem, clarifying assumptions and understanding inputs/ outputs. A good real life example of this is sorting/ organizing stuff. Most people just do insertion sort when they're sorting a deck of cards or organize by putting like with like, but both problems are pretty straightforward CS problems with provably better solutions (any n log n sort, LRU caches).
What the book is bad at:
I didn't really like their style that much. They suffer from the overuse of "quirky but not really relevant and honestly kind of annoying" quips that are so endemic in these types of books (e.g. "It turns out there’s no Godfather quite like God the Father"). My second complaint is less a general complaint and more a personal one: I wish he went more in depth on some algorithms instead of just presenting the answer, but I understand that the book is intended for more general audiences.
Player Piano - Kurt Vonnegut
Player Piano takes place in an almost totally mechanized world where the need for most workers has been eliminated, and the pervasive mechanization of work causes a chasm between the educated engineers & managers who run the factories and the lower class whose livelihood and purpose have been largely replaced by machines. This massive division is decided entirely by test results and fed into unchanging and unsympathetic machines, who determine what kind of jobs and what kind of lives they have. The story follows two separate characters: Dr. Paul Proteus, a factory manager in Ilium, New York, and the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million people in a distant, underdeveloped nation on a tour of America. Dr. Proteus, who goes from an unthinking but skilled cog in the machine to one of society's biggest and most outspoken critics and the Shah present two different perspectives of the system: the insider representative of the system and the outsider looking in.
Of all the dystopias described in Vonnegut's books, this one seems the most plausible (I would argue we have moved even closer to that world since the publication of this book). The crux of the problem is blind faith in technology without recognition of its repercussions, i.e. what it means for people to lose their place in the world and become subordinate to machines, yet still live in a world where the comforts afforded by technology seem indispensable. While the technology may be new, these ideas are not particularly modern. Many seem to come directly from Marxism, like:
- Alienated labor
Workers in Player Piano are mostly unthinking assembly line workers
- Labor as commodity
Workers are valuable only until they can be replaced by machines
- People lose ability to determine their life and destiny and cannot define themselves or their relationships to others and society
People's lives are decided by a test and machines, with the results determining where they live, how much they make, what job they have, what kind of people they spend time with, and what kind of people they become.
- Workers cannot own stuff produced by their own labor
This is true of upper class engineers & managers as well as lower class workers. Dr. Proteus cannot run a farm and live alone; Rudy Hertz the master machinist is replaced by a machine built from a recording of his hands.
My favorite part of Player Piano is (-- spoilers --) the courtroom scene where Dr. Proteus defends himself as leader of the Ghost Shirt Society (-- end spoilers --). I'm not really sure why but courtroom scenes fucking hype me up (see: Portia in Merchant of Venice, Mersault in The Stranger, John in The Crucible, Lisbeth in The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornet's Nest...). I find the buildup plus the opportunity in the court for stirring speeches so exciting & satisfying, and in Player Piano Dr. Proteus gives some bomb ass speeches.
What distinguishes man from the rest of the animals is his ability to do artificial things,” said Paul. “To his greater glory, I say. And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.
"The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back, if they so wish. The machines,” said Paul, “have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people for good government. Machines and organization and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
“The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.”
Stylistically Player Piano is very similar to his other works (black humor, irony, biting social commentary) and address familiar themes, with one noteworthy exception: Vonnegut's use of metafiction & self-contained, well divided chapters was not yet developed when he wrote Player Piano, his first book. The book is still a very good book, but it feels a lot less weird, for lack of a better word, and a lot less Vonnegut.
The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
The Sirens of Titan is probably my favorite book by Vonnegut out of the couple I've read. It tells the story of Malachi Constant, a rich billionaire playboy, and Winston Niles Rumfoord, a rich space traveler who enters a phenomenon known as the chrono-synclastic infundibulum and becomes a wave phenomenon. Existing on a spiral between the Betelgeuse and the sun, Rumfoord and his dog materialize only temporarily on planets when his wave intersects with the planet, but lives on Titan, the only place where he materializes permanently. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, Rumfoord becomes aware of the past, present, and future, and under his machinations sets Malachi on a journey where he plays a key role in the purpose of human history, taking him to Mars, Mercury, Earth, and then finally Titan, one of the moons of Jupiter.
Sirens of Titans, Vonnegut's second novel, is when I think Vonnegut becomes Vonnegut, and when all the things I think of as Vonnegut begin to come together. It is in this book that he develops and engages with what becomes one of the hallmark themes of his books, the question of fate versus fate will. Multiple characters lack control or even understanding of the powerful forces that drive and direct them, and it is revealed later in the book (-- spoilers --) that all of humanity has been secretly manipulated by an alien race (the Tramalfadorians, also present in Slaughterhouse Five) to deliver a broken space ship part. Salo, a Tramalfadorian, is an explorer delivering a message to a galaxy far away, stranded on Titan when small component on his spaceship breaks. Salo sends a distress signal to Tramalfadore, and they use a force called the UWTB (Universal Will to Become) to manipulate humanity to deliver the part to Salo (Kremlin, Stonehenge, the Great Wall, etc. are all messages informing Salo of their progress). All of human civilization and history, the Martian invasion, the establishment of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, everything that happens is for the purpose of Salo's message, and the message turns out to be a single dot, which means fucking "greetings" in Tramalfadore. (-- end spoilers --)
None of Vonnegut's other stuff has had the same gut-punching strength as when Salo opens the sealed message he's been carrying for 200,000+ years. What you feel is the weight of the worthlessness and senselessness of everything we've built and everything we are. Everything, like monuments, history, government, and religion, but also personal, like friendships, love, family, everything we think gives us meaning- all of it is shit, and no one is free from it. No one can overcome or even comprehend it- the humans are controlled by Rumfoord, Rumfoord is controlled by Salo & the Tramalfadorians, and the Tramalfadorians are all unthinking, programmed machines, and in the end of all of this, after a lifetime of exploitation and a race of exploitation, Malachi Constant still manages to say this:
It took us that long to realize that a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.
And that is fucking nice.
What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine - Danielle Ofri
What Doctors Feel discusses the powerful impact emotions have on the practice of medicine and how often they are neglected. We generally think of emotions in medicine as a negative thing, and in our TV shows and movies we respect cool, logical doctors like Dr. Cox or Dr. House, doctors that are ideals of the idea that medicine should be practiced with as less emotion as possible. But acknowledged or ignored, emotions affect medicine, and Dr. Ofri argues that they are ignored to the detriment to both the doctor and the quality of care the patient receives, ultimately coming back to harm both patient and doctor.
In the anecdotes, research, and personal stories and experiences she shares, Dr. Ofri touches on both positive and negative emotions but focuses mostly on negative emotions like grief, shame, burnout, and fear because of how badly they're often addressed. These emotions are definitely not unique to medicine, but the scale is very different for doctors. Doctors experience huge extremes in joy and grief and endure lots of crushing responsibilities, and many of them are directly responsible for other people's lives. That's fucking nuts- in comparison, when I fuck up a deploy, it sucks but no one ever dies.
What Doctors Feel is a very raw, very honest look at what doctors feel in the everyday practice of medicine, and provides very good insight into how tough it is to be a doctor. A lot of what she says is definitely not very new, but she tells it in a very real way that I really admire, sharing tough, honest stories about the mistakes she's made and the patients she's cared deeply for but ultimately lost.
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give is a YA novel about a young black high school student Starr, who witnesses a white policeman shoot and kill her unarmed childhood friend Khalil. Stuck between the poor black neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban school she attends, Starr is the only witness besides the policeman to the event, and wrestles with her fear of danger and her desire to speak out for justice.
The Hate U Give is important, topical, and necessary, because it is impossible for me, someone not in the same situation, to truly understand the lived experiences of people who feel the same anger, fear, and frustration Starr and her community feel. The best and really the only substitute is listening, trying to be open to learn and to acknowledge the realities of the situation and how they feel. Angie Thomas says
I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times they'll show us a side of the world we may not have known about.
and she does such a fantastic job with The Hate U Give, tackling a bunch of tough subjects in a very real and honest way. The book never feels preachy or moralistic; instead she uses characters and dialogue to make complicated ideas and topics accessible. I particularly like the conversations Starr has with her dad about T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody), and what form the hate given to the oppressed takes. On top of all that, The Hate U Give is just a good book. It deftly balances its political and social commentary with humor, fun characters, and a really beautiful family dynamic, thoughtfully addressing the heavy shit while remaining a very accessible & realistic read. The characters are varied and human, the corny bits in the story fit well and are very satisfying, and the book has a distinctive and natural voice.
At times it was frustrating and painful to read the book, and I was reading it at home or in a coffee shop. This is not my life, so I am grateful to any book that can expand my horizons and help me understand.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking - Samin Nosrat
Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is a cookbook split roughly into two parts: the latter a more traditional cookbook with recipes, and the former lessons on how to cook. These lessons are organized into roughly four sections, each addressing an element of good cooking: Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat.
I don't really cook, so it's kind of weird that I read a cookbook, but I really enjoyed Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat because Samin has such a strong model for good cooking. She explains the science and the why's behind the techniques, and emphasizes understanding these elements to allow freedom and flexibility in the kitchen. In Samin's model there are four main elements of good cooking: salt enhances flavor, fat carries flavor, acid balances flavor, and heat is applied at the right level and right rate so that the surface of the food and its interior finish cooking at the same time. Once you understand these concepts, build a strong model, and know what results you want, you can use ingredients and apply techniques to achieve them. You keep pies cold to create flaky pastry, you cook water out to make food crisp, you eat cranberry sauce to counter rich Thanksgiving meals, and you salt cookies to bring out the sweetness; behind all of these techniques is salt, fat, acid, and heat.
I found her approach especially cool because a lot of these ideas apply to good programming. There's a course online called The Programmer's Stone that discusses what distinguishes effective engineers, and in the first lesson, focuses on the idea of "mapping" vs "packing." Packing is collecting information as a storehouse, contrasted by mapping, which refers to storing, analyzing, and breaking down information in order to build a map of the world. What Samin does so effectively and clearly in Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is distill 15 years of cooking experience into a very strong and generalized map, and by sharing that, helps elevate how I appreciate and create food.
The design of the book is lovely- instead of using pictures, Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat is filled with illustrations of food, serving as both a reference and a reminder to not try to follow the cookbook too strictly. Samin is also a good writer. She explains the techniques and defines the terms clearly, and paints a vivid picture of her experiences traveling, eating food, and working in the kitchen. She very obviously loves cooking and it makes reading the book a lot more exciting and fun.
Also if you just wanted to read a helpful cookbook the book is very educational, and I learned a bunch of random cooking facts & cooking techniques, like the difference between table salt, kosher salt, and fleur de sel, what "browning" is and how to achieve it, and how to "sweat" vegetables. The recipes in the second half also look pretty good and there are a lot of different ones that are supposed to complement the earlier lessons, although I haven't tried any of them yet.
Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut
Mother Night is the fictional memoirs of Howard Campbell Jr., an American playwright who moves to Germany and becomes a Nazi propagandist during WWII. Now in prison in Israel to be tried for war crimes where he is writing his memoirs, Campbell is actually secretly (not a spoiler, revealed really early on) an American spy recruited by the U.S. War Department, and his speeches/ radio broadcast all contained secret information sent to the US.
This book is interesting because I think it extends one of the key themes in Vonnegut's works. We all have to tell lies to accept and tolerate being human, but Mother Night is centered on the importance of the lies that you choose. Campbell pretends to be a Nazi and does his job so convincingly well that not only does no one believe he is actually an American spy, his work inspires thousands of racists and Nazis and convinces them of the righteousness of their beliefs. (-- spoilers --) Kraft is a communist Soviet Union sleeper agent, sent to undermine the US, but likes to paint and genuinely cares for and loves his friend. Resi is complicit in Kraft's plot and pretends to be Helga (his wife)'s sister, but she genuinely loves Campbell, so much so that she dies for love. (-- end spoilers --)
All of these people are defined by their actions and what they pretend to be. We all cling to something, and it turns out that the lies you believe in define not just what you do but who you are. To pretend to be what you are not is not the sin, because everyone participates in some farce to get by- the real crime against yourself is picking the wrong thing to pretend to be.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is the last Vonnegut of the month! It is the story of Eliot Rosewater, a millionaire & the legal steward of the Rosewater fortune who develops a social conscience, leaves his glamorous city life, and establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater Indiana where he goes to "love these discarded Americans, even though they're useless and unattractive." Eliot's drunkenness, his poor relationship with his wife and his father Senator Rosewater, and his unbridled generosity for the poor make him appear mentally ill, to the joy of Mushari, a lawyer who wants to prove Eliot insane and give ownership of the foundation to his poor cousins, taking a big cut in the process.
Eliot Rosewater is unlike any other Vonnegut character because he is good. All other Vonnegut characters are flawed in some ways- even the good guys & the titular heroes are sometimes selfish, indifferent, stupid, and powerless. On the other hand, Eliot's only flaw is being sane in an insane world, being the only one to truly care about the discarded and the downtrodden of America. He is amazing because he gives up "everything a man is supposed to want, just to help the little people," shedding his big fancy family, his beautiful wife, his bright future, and his money to give love freely to those who can receive it from no where else and from no one else.
"A Sum of Money is the leading character in this tale about people," and the book is about how we are as a society dominated by money, and how as we grow more and more industrial and capitalist, we continue to "hate all those who will not or cannot work." What Eliot does, "to give that kind of love over a long period of time", is extraordinary but not impossible, and it is a personal choice we all have to make. Especially in the current political climate where many political issues are fundamentally moral issues, we each must decide "love people who have no use," and if we can "find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings." We must decide if we can give uncritical love, and if we can "learn to love and help whomever we see."
Here is this idea, summed up beautifully in a baptism speech:
’Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—: " ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ "
The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor - Howard Marks
Chairman and cofounder of Oaktree Capital Management, Howard Marks is known for his Oaktree memos to clients where he details his investment strategy and thoughts on the market. In The Most Important Thing, he distills his investment philosophy built from years of investment experience and study into 20 chapters (really 19, the last is a summary), each titled "The Most Important Thing is..." and explains one important idea in investing.
The Most Important Thing has very few specific, actionable tips, focusing mainly on sharing his investment mindset and model and reinforcing the important concepts in investing. This is particularly useful because Marks breaks down his thoughts and opinions very well, expressing complex things in a very clear and witty way. His writing style is good and the basics merit emphasis, but the book is way too repetitive- he says it, then quotes it in a past memo, then says it again, then again, and then again in another chapter. It's good if these concepts are new or unfamiliar, but I think the book could be 40% its length without losing any of its message.
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's only book, is about a beautiful young man in Victorian era England and the full body painting his friend Basil Hallward does of him. Beautiful and pure, the eponymous Dorian Grey is struck by the youth and beauty of the painting, and laments that his beauty is fleeting while the painting will endure, wishing that they could switch places. His prayer comes true, and as Dorian explores even more vices and indulgences, Dorian in the painting becomes older and uglier, absorbing and reflecting his age and sin while Dorian himself maintains his youthful energy and charm.
The premise of the book is really cool and the story has a really cool ending, but man the rest of the book was hard to read. I think it may be because I just spent a big chunk of my month reading Vonnegut, but The Picture of Dorian Gray felt so stuffy and boring. The book gets bogged down by a lot of unnecessary detail and really long dialogue, and it takes almost 100 pages in a 184 page book literally named after the painting for the painting to start changing. The characters were also terrible in character and as characters. Lord Henry and Dorian Grey, two of the three major characters, are both fucking terrible and terribly boring people, and more than half of the book is just Lord Henry jacking himself off and talking about how witty he is or dropping cynicisms or Dorian alternatively obsessing over himself or justifying the latest fucked up thing he did- all of it in what felt like excessively flowery language. It is basically just two pompous and vain assholes talking.
Again, this might be all the Vonnegut I read this month, but I think The Picture of Dorian Gray would've been better as a short summary of one of Kilgore Trout's science fiction books.