Books

The Arab of the Future – An adorable and adorably hilarious (e.g., one of my favorite details is the floating plastic blag that animates the landscape of the village near Homs where the protagonist’s father grew up and where the family returns during the protagonist’s childhood) graphic novel memoir of an Arab straddling European (Parisian) and Middle Eastern (Libyan and Syrian) cultures. The accessibility and humor help a reader curious understand the history of these war-torn lands with ease and empathy. Quick read, and I look forward to reading future volumes.

The Wealth of Humans – Those interested in the future of work and income inequality should read this book to add more nuance and substance to thinking about how the digital technology revolution impacts our world and lives. Start with this Medium post by Ryan Avent, an Economist editor and the book’s author. If you find the underlying economic argument balancing the cost of labor with the cost of investment in technology compelling, read the book. Avent is at his best discussing the social capital – the values and beliefs we imagine in our minds that motivates us as economic actors and defines our notions of the good life – that binds groups and shapes adoption of new tools. He’s at his weakest adding brief historical anecdotes that fall a bit flat and lack the panache of a more narrative historian. Adam Smith’s ghost guides the book with an invisible hand, ending with an implicit call to tear down national borders and redistribute social wealth in a way that goes beyond free trade and market forces.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – A delight. And I was very touched when the author, the amazingly quick-witted and precisely-minded Robin Sloan, told me I was the book’s “ideal reader.” Sloan deftly uses a mystery novel frame to weave a labyrinth of different styles and historical periods. The result is part contemporary social critique, part excavation of Renaissance mysticism, part fantasy novel, part post-modern möbius strip that use a narrative’s ability to wind in upon itself to as a deus ex machina to solve the mystery. It’s a light, joyful read, and one that shows how powerful it can be when the humanities and technology come together to elevate our aspirations and our hearts.

H is for Hawk – I adore this book. Many critiques classify it as somewhere between memoir, nature book, and literary criticism, which is apt because in it author Helen MacDonald chronicles her period of grieving for her recently deceased father by devoting herself entirely to the impossible task of training a goshawk. It struck very personal chords for me as MacDonald’s lifestyle is also outside the standard parameters of heteronormative society: she is lonely, and recognizes that the amazing kinship she builds with a wild animal, an animal that lacks a limbic system and with which she can never quite relate, can never substitute for the simplicity of human touch. The book is also about reading, about how she learns to read T.H. White’s The Goshawk in a much deeper and more profound way once her own life experiences force her to expose a deeper layer of herself. The prose is breathtaking, its rhythms hitting a perfect cadence. What I love most is MacDonald’s metamorphosis into hawk, and the terror she experiences in recognizing her loss of humanity. Just stunning.

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm – This book strikes a personal chord, given my educational background (as in this post and this post) and current work building a company that uses algorithms to help businesses understand and engage with people. Madsberg’s strongest arguments stem from his training as a philosopher and ethnographer. He studied continental philosophy, and does a deft job making what are often hard-to-penetrate concepts from phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger both easy to understand and applicable for C-level executives. The gist is that we have to appreciate the uniqueness and differences of different social and cultural groups, and that businesses do a hell of a lot better winning new markets if they first take the time to apply ethnographic methods and understand what makes different peoples’ tick. My primary critique of the book is that it underestimates the power of new AI technologies. Madsberg reduces algorithms to strawmen, crass classifiers and metrics built from simple features. I believe we’re hitting a threshold where algorithms may be able to more fully capture the phenomenological mental models of different peoples. This new technological power makes the fusion between the humanities and technology all the more important, but in a way that is different from what Madsberg describes.

Moonglow – The first book I’ve read by Michael Chabon. I enjoyed it. Not the best book I’ve ever read, but certainly worth a read. It’s a biography of his grandfather, a Jewish engineer (enamored of the V-2 rocket until he learns about the atrocities perpetuated by Werner von Braun, all of which are narrated in a much more accessible manner than in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which is one of the few books I started but did not finish) who, like my great grandmother Annette, came from the early twentieth-century immigrant that doesn’t share much about their lives until they are about to die. Chabon uses the tricks of postmodern narrative sparingly, and keeps the reader’s attention with some more classical techniques, as when his grandfather first meets his delightful and ultimately schizophrenic, due to trauma from being a young Jewish girl in WW II, grandmother. Chabon’s sharp, precise prose tempers what would otherwise be the work’s deep emotionality. The reader leaves sharing Chabon’s affection for his grandfather, inspiring desire to dig as deeply into her own family history.

Nutshell – This novel makes me think that Ian McEwan is the best living English novelist. Yes, I’m comfortable with that claim when circumscribed to nationality: McEwan is the best British author writing today, and in the top 5 authors writing prose in English globally (JM Coetzee being up there as well). I loved this book. The prose has a lyricism, rhythm, and cadence fit for Cicero, but with pathos. The structure, a rewriting of Hamlet from the perspective of a still-unborn child witnessing a murder from his mother’s womb, is brilliant. The citations to Hamlet add an incredible layer of joy (e.g., he rewrites Hamlet’s comparison of his dead father to Claudius as Hyperion to a satyr with a meta-literary comparison to Virgil and Montaigne), and circumscribe the unborn narrator as author, narrator par excellence, observer without agency and yet with complete agency. A total triumph, and a relatively quick read.

Au Chateau d’Argol – This reads like a sustained lyrical poem. A deeply sensuous book whose lacy, delicate images and symbols wash over the reader like rosewater. In the preface, author Julien Gracq articulates that this is a self-conscious experiment to play with decadent Victorianism (the book is written in 1938, at the dawning of World War II, where the fall of European civilization is palpable), and write a “demonic version” of Wagner’s Parsifal (which shows up in the work). The structure has the same claustrophobia as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, which was admired by the French symbolist poets. The book exposes the jealous, mimetic desire of René Girard, where the protagonist’s intellectual attachment to his male best friend gets displaced as an erotic attachment to a woman the best friend brings to the foggy, ivy-covered castle in Brittany. I adored this book. It titillated me, made my mind tingle with sensibility. Opened my senses. But it’s not for the faint of heart, and best for those for whom sentimentality enters through the abstractions of the pre-frontal cortex.

The Literary Conference – I’ve been curious to read César Aira for a while, and this book was a total delight. It’s a quick read, but packs together a post-modern critique of classical genres (the mad scientist who takes over the world, the adventure story, the lonely wanderings of the solitary protagonist), an automatic writing sense of surrealism, a wonderfully playful deus ex machina featuring giant silk worms and Carlos Fuentes’s tie, and some poignant, deeply emotional reflections on the miracle of unique, individual existence. I highly recommend this for any reader open to allowing their imagination to flow along a ramshackle, self-deprecatory train of absurd events, but wouldn’t recommend it to readers who stick with standard narratives driven by psychological intrigue.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Noah Yuval Harari writes macrohistory, narrating in very broad strokes. This style would likely irritate the more scholarly among us, but I find his synthetic conclusions about different epochs to be interesting anchors for debate. The book is best in its critique and overview of Humanism, what he considers to be the dominant ideological religion of our time. He helps the reader appreciate that what we take to be given truths are just relative historical concepts, which may soon be replaced by a new religion, Dataism, where individual human life is no longer sacrosanct but just another point to enter into the matrix. As regards AI, Harari is right to decouple intelligence from consciousness. What also intrigues me in this book is an implicit argument in favor of a radically individual spiritual existence, one that stands separate from the communal beliefs that govern the bell curve. As Harari meditates 2 hours per day, I cannot help but see this as the locus of his deepest beliefs. So my question to him is, is this radical individualism compatible with Dataism? Or is it the stance we must take to retain autonomy in our new algorithmic world?

The Gene: An Intimate History – Cancer researcher Siddharta Mukherjee’s latest book is a masterful history of genetics from Aristotle through CRISPR-Cas9 and Trans-humanism. The prose is elegant and accessible: Mukherjee foregrounds each chapter with a literary reference to set the metaphorical tone for the concepts he explores. It’s a long book, and I found myself working to keep my attention focused in the last 100 pages. I most enjoyed the dramatic narrations of the big moments in the history of genetics, as when Watson and Crick first discovered the topography of the double helix, or researchers grappled with the ethical implications of understanding the human genome at Asilomar. The book is not only a scientific history; it is also a cultural and social history. We learn about the Holocaust as “applied biology” and revisit Roe v. Wade from the perspective of eugenics. Reading this is like taking a graduate seminar in genetics.

John Aubrey: My Own Life – A new kind of biography, where historian Ruth Scurr narrates the life of 17th-century collector and surveyor John Aubrey through a fictional first-person journal. The book has received much critical praise for its refreshing style. Having spent five years steeped in early modern history, I found the most pleasing and exciting part of this book to be the vignette encounters with the rock stars of the scientific revolution: we see grumpy Hobbes upset when his mathematical theories are rebuffed by Newton and Wilkins, we see Hooke and Christopher Wren hanging out at bars and dinner parties, and we see the history of ideas filtered through one man’s attempt to understand them and grapple with them. A lovely read for anyone interested in the scientific revolution, but likely boring for anyone not.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space – History of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which dovetails as a history of the 20th-century search to prove the existence of black holes. Janna Levin writes with a clear, accessible style punctuated with lyrical surprises (“In empty darkness, she could hear spacetime ring”) and does a great job showing how individual quirks shaped the development of physics.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds – Michael Lewis’ latest work surveys the friendship, partnership, hardship, and joint work of cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Lewis does a masterful job turning a dry biography into a nearly dramatic narrative. An accessible introduction to Tversky and Kahneman’s central thesis that we are all horrible Bayesian thinkers, and a better entry to these ideas than Thinking Fast and Slow for the many people out there who gave up after chapter two.

My Struggle: Book 4 – Fourth installment on Knaussgaard’s Proustian autobiography. Knaussgaard is not for everyone, but I like his hyperrealism. As with Proust, what’s philosophically interesting about Knaussgaard’s project is the balance between recollection and creativity. In his review of Book 4 for the New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides says that Knaussgaard’s art is one of judgement and selection: “Knausgaard’s life is a grab bag of events and recollections, and he uses whatever is handy. He doesn’t lie or make things up (so far as I know). But the ­selection process he subjects his memories to in order to fulfill the narrative demands of his writing rises to a level of considerable artifice. Other writers invent; Knausgaard remembers.” This volume focuses on the period of late adolescence, the central dramas being the young Knausgaard’s learning what it takes to write and working to overcome premature ejaculation

Swing Time – Zadie Smith’s latest novel tells the story of an antihero female protagonist via her lifelong relationship with her childhood friend Tracey. What struck me about this book were the structural parallels to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Both women authors present first-person women protagonists who understand themselves and their successes and failures in life in constant comparison and contrast to other seemingly more vibrant friends. Contemporary Hamlets juxtaposed to Laertes. But while Ferrante’s duet are shaped by the socialist, Catholic landscape of mid-century Naples, Smith’s duet are shaped by the somewhat liberal, Protestant landscape of late-century London and New York. Race – and the potential to hypocritically exploit race to garner fame through philanthropic causes – shapes Smith’s narrative, her duet both mixed-race women. I found this to be a rigorously honest exposition of identity politics.

Films

The Great Buck Howard – I have no recollection of this coming out in 2008, but actually think it’s quite timely in the age of Trump. It’s a coming-of-age tale of a young man who, after obeying his father’s guidance to become a lawyer, quits law school to pursue a more meaningful life of writing. Along the way, he meets a magician past his prime, The Great Buck Howard, played by the inimitable John Malkovich. Malkovich is perfect for this role precisely because he can take something relatively normal and make it really damn weird: in the film, it’s a performance of Dionne Warwick’s What the World Needs Now is Love. Buck Howard performs for the Trump constituency of our day: it’s the folks in small towns across America who inhabit a temporality different than the futurist pulse of the urban centers. And he loves these people. You sense, as a viewer, he loves them genuinely. The Nick Caraway-like protagonist comes to understand something about spectacle and the illusions people need in their lives in following Buck around. Given the surprising sociological relevance of the film, I find it worth watching.

Hidden Figures – This film stands on the right side of history. I’m a fan of historical non-fiction of technology in the 20th century, so appreciated the depiction of the early Eniac computer and Dorothy Vaughn’s recognizing the need for skills retraining to keep her cohort of “colored female” computers employed (she succeeds, but not without the growing pains of segregation and racism). The heroine is Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician whose work was seminal to the success of the American space program in the 60s. It’s very Hollywood, but a wonderful ode to African American Women heroines neglected alongside the stardom of the white men who dominate history.

Risk – Laura Poitras’s documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is harrowing in its ambiguity. The World Socialist Web Site twice damns the film, calling it a confused, superficial documentary that fails to take a strong stance in support of or against WikiLeaks, and then citing how WikiLeaks’s lawyers believe the film places their clients in legal jeopardy. I disagree, and think the ambiguity is the film’s strength. Poitras is incredibly courageous in her efforts to expose the contradictions underlying Assange and Jacob Applebaum‘s personae: like situationist Guy Debord, both straddle the demagogue and the revolutionary. We cannot shy away from the fact that these figures, driven by absolute commitments to free speech at any cost, these subversive heroes of contemporary digital society, are also fallible, complex individuals. Assange knows that his willingness to allow Poitras to capture his vulnerabilities always also promotes the strength of his seemingly superhuman character. The final scenes about Russian involvement in the US election were harrowing in light of last week’s events (the week when Trump fired Comey). I think this movie is a must see.

Fences – Denzel Washington’s adaptation of an August Wilson play about the struggles of a black garbage collector and former baseball player. The movie preserves the feel of a play: the strict unity of place has an important role in the film (a good two-thirds of the play takes place in the small backyard of a Pittsburgh home) and the play develops through dialogue, not editing or somersaulting time. My favorite moment is a monologue by Viola Davis: having just learned her husband has cheated on her, she (ironically or not?) asserts her strength as a woman via her steadfast commitment to her marriage, via her having sacrificed her self and ambitions to support the dampened dreams of her husband. She cries so hard she has snot running down her face, and it’s so raw and real.

La La Land – I hate musicals (I think I’m the only person in New York who didn’t like Hamilton) and there were certainly a few moments in this film, like the opening number, that were a bit kitschy for my sensibilities. But I thought the movie was great. I loved how they used a split narrative at the end to enable romanticism and reality to coincide. The life not lived by the two lovers kaleidoscoped with the value nostalgia, jazz, and old cinema can play in our lives. I left the film feeling happy and alive.

Art

Syrian Symphony – A temporary exhibition at Toronto’s Aga Khan museum. The centerpiece painting, Ahmed Moualla’s People and Power, is the highlight of the show. It feels like a contemporary reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, with the same expansive scope and opportunity to scan the canvas to notice the detailed hints of pain, suffering, and corruption. I also really loved a triptych of paintings by Kevork Mourad, which used tromp d’oeil techniques where images that from afar seemed like Rorschach ink blogs metamorphosed into architecture and then, upon further inspection, people. A seemingly inhumane landscape was actually human, with people camouflaging themselves as scenery to avoid the dangerous gaze of Assad and his regime.

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers – Where the hell did this guy come from? I’ve been a fan of early modern Dutch art (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Bosch, Hals, Bruegel, Rubens, Ruysdael, etc) for some time, but I was unaware of Segers. His work is amazing. Samuel van Hoogstraten succinctly sums up why: “For he also printed paintings.” Indeed, Segers pushed the boundaries of etching and printmaking techniques, burrowing minute landscapes–which often include a lonely wanderer tucked away into the foreground, melancholic–and using paint to blur the boundaries and show how one ur-image can spawn so many different variations of mood, tone, and style. Something akin to Monet’s paintings of the same church at different times of day a few centuries later. I’ve never read the 20th-century German author Robert Walser, but have heard talks about his micorscripts. Segers called forth this same spirit, an avatar for a later age.

Music

Keyon Harrold & Pharoahe Monch at Blue Note – I used to listen to a lot of jazz, seeking out Dave Holland shows in Paris or taking my dad to see McCoy Tyner at Scullers in the DoubleTree Hotel in Boston (perhaps his favorite Christmas present). I haven’t seen nearly enough live music in the past few years, and it was a treat to hear Keyon Harrold play last Wednesday. What I loved about this show was how they fused so many different musical traditions. Harrold riffed on standard melodies, with some maniac bravado reminiscent of late Coltrane or John Zorn. The pianist, Shedrick Mitchell, played atonal chords above the more lazy and languid background of the guitar and bass. And then Monch’s rap just took it to another level. It helped me appreciate how hip hop grew from improvisational jazz, word poetry the verbal parallel to instrumental improvisation, both taking a white man’s form and twisting it, turning it, rendering it smoother and sexier with a black man’s experience and soul.

Restaurants

Toronto

Canis – Hands down the best restaurant I’ve been to in Toronto. The food is exquisite. 7-course tasting menu that is an ode to minimalism: plating is spare and elegant, ingredients are clean and carefully chosen. The signature dish, duck with cabbage and pearl onion (where the pearls are flaked into delicate, individual leaves), was astoundingly good (I carved away the fat and gristle to my intestine’s content). Also minimal, the ambience could be improved, as there were a few clunky details. We sat at one of the two front tables near the window, for example, where I was seated on the sill and my dining companion started on the chair facing me. There was such a height mismatch I felt like I was looking down from a throne, so he switched seats and joined me on the window ledge. But this place is marvelous.

lbs. – Came on recommendation from a Toronto native. I liked it and would go back. Decor had a southern California under-the-sea vibe, new and shiny and risking the border of kitsch but not offensive. Atmosphere was a bit yuppy: they were hosting a social networking event, and there were 30-40ish business types mingling, with the air and energy of mingling, around the central bar (which is grand and seats people on both sides like a massive family dinner table). Did enjoy the food. Octopus crudo was spectacular, with turmeric-scented oil that glowed yellow, some simple celery leaves and salt. Trout salad was surprisingly smoky and paired well with a bulky grain. Loved the brussel sprouts fried in a sweet, fish sauce-like sauce. Lobster roll didn’t have mayonnaise, so you could taste the fish. Burnt marshmallow ice cream was awesome. The flavors were stark and memorable. Loved it.

Cafe Cancan – Love the atmosphere (hipster, airy pink with hints of Miss Havisham decay) and the food (twist on classic French, with foie gras and tournedos Rossini and steak au poivre and as much meat and fat as you need). Deplorable service. We waited about 2 hours for our main course to arrive. Wine by the glass had maderized. The waiter had a chipper attitude that seemed impervious to his incompetence, which made it all the more irritating. It’s still new, so can be salvaged. Hope that will be the case.

George Restaurant – Did a 7-course tasting menu. Presentation was artful – the type of presentation that requires tweezers to place the flowers in just the right spot and lots of different overlapping colors. Food was of a high caliber but there weren’t really tastes or combinations that blew me away – it was like craft to art, not new inventive creative food, but a solid take on work someone had already done. Wine pairings were nice – like many upscale restaurants, they naturally had to include selections from the Jira. Pure malvasia and mourvedre, taking the accent grapes and foregrounding them. Ambience was also fine, but not out of this world. A bit more rustic than my sleek taste likes. Definitely a date spot, although most of the couples spent more time looking at pictures on their cell phones than into their lovers’ eyes. I liked this, don’t get me wrong, just have extremely high standards for restaurants I’d like to be the best of the best.

Estia – Brand new Mediterranean spot in Yorkville. The food was spectacular: pea tendril, lemon, shaved goat cheese (semi-soft, not soft variety) salad with beautiful purple flowers; short ribs that included the bone, so had all the gristle and fat; really elegant deconstructed baklava like dessert. Service was a bit bombastic, mostly due to a cloying server. Sat outside on the patio, loved every minute of it.

Planta – A vegan spot up in Yorkville. The menu is “inspired by cuisines from all over the world” so we were able to create a Frankenstein combination of za’atar dusted flatbread with baba ganoush (excellent with little pools of olive oil) and lettuce wraps with tofu and kimchi and mushrooms disguised as calamari. Food quality was great – I’d definitely go back. The ambience had the same surgical confusion: it had a zebra-striped copacabana meets Javanese villa feel, the live plants in the wall accented by geometric plant motifs etched into the white finishings. But again, while verging on kitsch, it didn’t offend me. It’s really healthy food and I’ll definitely go back. Best part was the amazing conversation with my former law student Keri Grieman, who has the smartest take on liability in self driving cars out there. A rising star to watch carefully.

Buca Yorkville – The claim to fame here are the sashimi salumi, tiny little fish that look like meat and sometimes are prepared using meat products. I had the bigoli, a duck egg pasta dish, for my main, and found it was just ok. Pizzas are fantastic and I bet the other mains are also great. The ambience is very urban, but the restaurant can be extremely loud (we had to move tables to hear one another). Overall I’m a fan.

The Beast Restaurant – Small plate joint out in King West. The food was decent but very fatty and we ordered WAY too much. I left feeling like a beast and continuing to feel like one for the entirety of the next day. Decor is a bit dingy, but it has charm. I’d go back, but would stick to only 2 small plates per person.

Marben – My first meal as an immigrant to Canada! I found the atmosphere at this restaurant to be bizarre: a generally rustic, flashback to hunting days ambience juxtaposed with some ultra-sleek contemporary accidents that just didn’t work. But the food was good. Best dish was the Burrata with sunchoke, grilled fennel, agrodolce, and sourdough – the combination was divine, and tasted great with the Niagara Cab Franc we drank. The charred octopus and Japanese eggplant was also fantastic.

New York & Brooklyn

Awash Ethiopian on Court Street – This is some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had. The spice profile is extremely complex and the kitfo is spectacular (if you’re into steak tartare and raw meat). Ambience ain’t much but that’s not why you go to an Ethiopian restaurant.

Lilia – Hats off to Sean Feeney for managing this quite excellent restaurant. The late April weather was just warm enough to allow for outdoor dining. Taste profile was delicate and the lamb portion was enormous! We loved the Cacio e Pepe Fritelle, cured Sardine toasts with dill, and sheeps milk agnolotti with saffron. It’s a trendy spot, so the clientele was a bit bombastic, but I’d go again.

Wallflower – I like how this place feels. It’s small, with decor that’s cutesy rustic contemporary. The food has a delicateness that merits attention. They serve their steak tartare on a tiny baguette (making it harder to share than most tartare dishes). They have a pork shoulder dish with speculoos and very densely grained brown mustard that hits the right pitch of sweet and savory. I didn’t care as much for the seabream dish. Wine list also good.

Little Park – The food here is great. I had this salt-baked carrot appetizer with coconut, coffee, cardamon foam that was delicate and refined. The salmon main was cooked perfectly, skin super crispy and the inside still close to rare. Portions were civilized, so I didn’t leave feeling overly full (opposite would hold for heftier eaters who like large portions). There’s a spaciousness to the tables that makes it feel like a restaurant in California or a boxy, oversized tee-shirt.

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