Portraits of a Marriage – My favorite courses in graduate school were seminars devoted to reading the oeuvre of a single author. I took courses on Isaac Newton, Guy Debord, and Thomas Mann (I swore there were more…); decided to read through all of Leibniz while I was a fellow at an institute in Leipzig. I’m currently reading the novels of the 20th-century Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai. He authored 46 books, so I won’t read all of them, but will make a sizable dent in those translated to English. While critics celebrate Embers as his masterpiece, I found Portraits of a Marriage to be much more engrossing and expressive in its detail. Like Rashomon and Diary of a Bad Year, the book features different characters’ kaleidoscopic perspectives on a series of overlapping events, where the crux of the action is on the dissolution of the marriage of an upper-class Hungarian couple, Peter and Ilonka. Each of the characters–Ilonka, Peter, Judit, and Ede–give long (like 80-150 pages) soliloquies recounting their story to a friend, pausing here and there throughout to make sure the friend is still listening. Each conversation is embedded in a particular context, from a café in Budapest, where Ilonka tells her story to her friend after seeing her ex-husband walk in to buy candied oranges–to a bar in mid-town New York City, where the “stinking prole” Ede, a former drummer, serves a whiskey to an older Peter, stripped of wealth but never of manners, culture, and dignity, after moving to the US after WW II. The book uses the event of a husband leaving his bourgeois wife to marry a poor servant as a prism to discuss the cultural upheaval of the fallen Austro-Hungarian empire during the war and the rise of communism. It’s a book about class, about the illusions a rich man has to escape the rituals of the rich by adoring a poor servant and the disgust and scorn this servant mimicking and mocking the habits of the rich has towards a man who loves not her, not her inside, but the image he’s created of her in his imagination. There are stunning passages in Peter’s monologue, who, with exquisitely delicate sensibilities, comes to value our birth rite to die alone. There are riveting details, like Judit signaling how her tastes have grown decadent when she seeks for nail polish remover to remove the crimson polish from her fingers when Budapest is bombed. There is also a symbolic figure, like Kent in King Lear, named Lázár, a writer who gives up writing when the communists take over for fear that it will end up in the wrong hands, do work opposite to that which he intends. He plays a role in each character’s life, a convex mirror helping each discover their path to truth. He dies in Rome, alone, reading Hungarian dictionaries to savor the sound and smell of words as simple as “butterfly,” words bereft of sense in the wake of violence and disruption.
Technics and Civilization – I first discovered Lewis Mumford in graduate school in a seminar on the situationist philosopher Guy Debord. He’s the kind of polymath literary critic/cultural historian that existed back in the first half of the twentieth century, the kind of human encyclopedia I aspire to live, think, and write like. I picked up Technics because to read his take on how the mechanical clock–the kind of clock that is so commonplace today–changed culture in medieval monasteries. His account of seconds and minutes as the artificial products of the machine that is a clock is marvelous; the implications that this controlled divisibility are even better. Writing in 1934, on the heels of the industrial revolution, Mumford criticizes that period’s inhumanity, what with child labor, repetitive and mechanical tasks reducing human dignity to the point of totally alienated labor, and the horrendous impact big industry had on the late 19th- and early 20th-century environments. His book includes subtle pleas to readers to take technology into our own hands, to shape a future that promotes human values rather than adapting man to be more like a machine. The book reads fast and still has many thought-provoking lessons for our own age. I was also quite taken by his interpretation that the scientific method is itself a mechanical technology that saves our time by clipping the field of observation down to that which two independent observers can equally measure. Attention, or better, forms of acceptable attention, directed only where our machines can master and manipulate it. I do believe machine learning systems permit a slightly wider scope of observation and attention as the navigate the search space of possible models to fit a problem, but, as “totally obedient morons” (David Deutsch), they are far from having the disobedient wandering gaze that breaks the rules just because it’s fun, or is open to exploring a new move, not because it could reveal a here-to-fore overlooked optimum, but because it may be more beautiful.
Embers – I’d not heard of Sándor Márai until a few weeks ago, when my soon-to-be mother-in-law gave me two of his books as a birthday present. This book is exquisite, delicate like a Cellini statue. It has the understated temperament of the passing Austro-Hungarian empire its protagonist embodies, the clinging to the heart of the matter, where life is lived in quiet loneliness, yet pulsing through pressed manners to reveal the sadness that accompanies mobility. The book is a monologue the of 75-year-old general, exposing a long-known fact about an event that transpired 41 years ago to his closest friend. The friend says close to nothing throughout, but his presence is felt through the cloistered entanglement. The emotions are poignant and masterful, drawn from details but relevant for us all. The pace is quick but measured, just like the atmosphere of the world the protagonist represents. It felt so different from the way life is depicted today, brimming with nostalgia and the knowledge of loneliness.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction – Enthused by J.D. Salinger’s uncanny ability to construct a world within the brief confines of a mother and son having a dialogue in the bathroom, I continued my journey through the Glass Family Novels (Novellas), which Salinger published in the New Yorker in the 1950s. I liked these two less than Franny and Zooey (which are masterpieces), but still devoured and enjoyed them. As Buddy Glass, the narrator of the novel series (himself a literature teacher and writer in a liberal arts college in upstate New York), states in the beginning of Zooey, the ghost of the eldest brother Seymour, who committed suicide at the age of 31, is present in all the books like a figure in Macbeth. That comes to the forefront of both these novels, the first of which (Raise High…) takes place the day of Seymour’s wedding (although Seymour himself is never present, except in traces left in his diaries, as Salinger does a fabulous job with embedded narratives and textuality in all four novels, where we read what characters read), where the groom is conspicuously absent because he was too happy to attend his own wedding. This one feels the most like urban satire, with all the unity of place, time, and action you’d find in Aristotelian satire. Seymour: An Introduction is the most post-modern of the four novels. Salinger hints at metatextuality throughout, but makes it the main character and formal composition in this final novel, which, reminiscent of Tristam Shandy, features a narrator who can never quite get to even giving a physical description of his late brother given all the potential conceptual meanderings that, at any moment, can pull an author off course. All the books, nonetheless, make the reader simply fall in love with Seymour, the poet, the childlike adult, who bids his brother to “write his heart out”: “Give me a story that just makes me unreasonably vigilant. Keep me up till five only because all your stars are out, and for no other reason.” Seymour is a celebration of the ease and purity of meaning, of the effortless ability to “go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next” that is at once so ubiquitous and so easily overlooked.
Franny and Zooey – This book is remarkably good. What struck me most was Salinger’s mastery in setting the scenes around the conversations that voice the book’s ideas. So, for example, when Zooey leaves the living room after giving Franny a spiel about what it would really mean to lose one’s mind for Jesus, and leaves an “indecisive, almost dazed” imprint “of his rubber heel on a sports-section photograph of Stan Musial holding up a fourteen-inch brook trout” before running into his mother Bessie (in a kimono whose pockets are filled with nails and all sorts of odd-ends stuff) next to a Philadelphia highboy temporarily displaced in the hall as the family repaints every room in the upper East Side Manhattan apartment. The details aren’t symbolic. Stan Musial’s brook trout doesn’t add any transcendental meaning to the story. Their just vivid, like watching a movie. They are delightful in the true sense of the world, not in the wishy-washy marketing sense of creating a good experience for a customer. They make reading about kids who grew up on Buddhist philosophy like watching a Woody Allen movie. I can’t believe I never read this and can’t wait to devour everything Salinger wrote.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – My dad introduced me to this book when I was in high school. A colleague had introduced it to him. I can’t remember if the colleague gifted it to him or recommended it to him. I always saw it as a book that represented my dad’s mind, his taste for Bach’s fugues, his predilection for articulating formal systems as a math-major-turned-computer-scientist, not so much his fixation on self-reflexive systems, but certainly his humility before what appear like logical paradoxes. Given my admiration for my dad, I imbued GEB (as author Douglas Hofstadter refers to his magnum opus) with mystical properties, turned it into the kind of book someone like the person I wanted to be would read. But I never did. Instead I studied math in college. I learned how to build formal systems from the ground up without reading Hofstadter, learned about Gödel’s paradox even though I would have been hard pressed to articulate it precisely. And then, during my junior year abroad in Paris, a U Chicago classmate, whom I happened to have an enormous crush on and whose taste in Henry Miller temporarily shaped my own taste to favor the kind of literature cynical and striving young men tend to like, for I too wanted to write, for I too spent my year in Paris experimenting with poetry and prose, stretching my legs into form, leaving behind the formal trappings of complex analysis to explore film noir and pompous belfries and desiring glances from Maghreb immigrants as I hid my eyes in a book while taking le metro to my Mexican piano teacher’s apartment in the 18th arrondissement, turned me off from reading the book for years, claiming GEB was a plebeian NY Times bestseller whose style was for the birds, or worse, the merely human. I learned more about Hofstadter’s work in translation in graduate school, heard stories about Hofstadter the man from friends like George Smith and Dan Dennett. And then, so many years later, I finally read the book. Mihnea says it contains much more than just an attempt to get at consciousness as a strange loop that contains but can never be formally articulated by the system that generates it. Rather, it shows the freedom of a mind unfurling, the quest of a younger scholar to go deep and understand something as well as he could. Mihnea also recommended I read it now given the lessons it could impart for my own book project, which, also, winds back and forth between fiction and exposition to make abstract mathematical ideas more intuitive and accessible to a reader. In GEB, the fiction comes in the form of a ludic dialogue between naïve Achilles and curmudgeonly tortoise (“in the spirit of Lewis Carroll”): the style isn’t wonderful, but I was quite impressed by how the dialogues spurred the imagination to ground the formal points made in surrounding chapters. I’m glad I finally read it. It feels like a right of passage of sorts, even though I’m unsure what tribe I’ve joined by having read it. In a recent conversation, my dad told me he never made it past halfway.
The Manhattan Project – The book, “a literary diary presented as twelve chance encounters or coincidences alongside a PHOTOGRAPHIC ESSAY by Ornan Rotem,” is physically beautiful: as Hofstadter’s dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise, Rotem’s photos are in dialogue with Krasznahorkai’s prose, each photo reshaping, tilting, inflecting the vector representation the reader makes of the words that compose each unit of thought, units that are bundled into short, diary-like entries dated to moments in Krasznahorkai’s stay in NYC, before she moves on to the next. The mood is of the book is one of longing and the distance between expectation and experience. Krasznahorkai goes to New York expecting that the city will generate an energy, will catalyze a certain kind of creativity. Instead he meets a Stasi-like, suffocating bureaucracy in the public library, is confronted by the ignorance of a culture that doesn’t think Bartók’s presence is anything significant. But within the space of longing and disappointment, Krasznahorkai creates a new kind of beauty, one of a journey to see what Melville saw, as refracted through how Malcolm Lowry also sought to see what Melville saw. And of course he never sees it; Melville’s world is no more. But it’s precisely in the space of recognition that the quest is impossible, but nonetheless girding the reader in the elegance of the quest, that he comes to see details he wouldn’t have looked for otherwise. Details of the bare landscape and surroundings.
The Active Side of Infinity – My first time reading Carlos Casteñeda. The book resonated with me. I felt that Casteñeda is after the same thing I am. The writing style isn’t lyrical or beautiful, but there’s a rugged nudity to the prose that makes the reading experience joyful. Not dissimilar from reading someone like Kerouac, but not nearly as smug or messianic or arrogant. Formally, the books reminded me of my own Facebook portrait project, with interstitial material that grafted each micro-narrative and portrait as part of the book’s larger goal to narrate Casteñeda’s journey of becoming a warrior-traveller like his sorcerer-mentor don Juan Matsus. Indeed, early in the book, Matus bids Casteñeda to overcome the “predatory” temptation of unifying experiences in a self by remembering, reliving, recapitulating situations with people who have graced his existence in detail. But the recapitulation serves as a means of shifting perspective, a means to reveal how interpersonal encounters can be viewed as an opening to lessons from the universe rather than arrows in the quiver of the self. I found don Juan’s philosophy welcoming, beautiful: the way I want to live. It is a way of being that attends, always, to death, a way of being that imbues each action with the commitment of mattering, if only because our time is so short and precious. A way that enables us to go beyond the petty pains of hierarchies and dominance and whatever the mind is agonizing over to instead look like straight in the eyes with fair-minded equanimity, and to cherish its terrific fragility. The end of the book is marvelous. Without ruining it for a curious reader, suffice it to say it makes a stranger looking at the protagonist and running away screaming an entirely joyful experience.
Master Passions: Emotion, Narrative, and the Development of Culture – As everything Mihnea Moldoveanu writes, this book is hard to categorize. We might, for example, situate it in the tradition of La Rocehfoucauld and Rousseau as a work of moral philosophy that disabuses us of our comfortable reliance on virtue and reason as the tissues that keep society intact by revealing how anxiety, envy, jealous, and ambition are the passions shaping how we think and what we see (the master passions that give the book its title). But the work’s belies a deeper enterprise. Moldoveanu and Nohria populate the book with vignettes — narratives and thought experiments — that help us get close to the phenomenon of a mind (or I) engrossed by a given passion (an envious I, an ambitious I), forcing us to grapple with the status of evidence and theory in social as in natural science. As opposed to siphoning off the complexity of internal experience as qualia we’ll never describe objectively (and therefore outside the domain of science), the authors embrace the project head on, leading the reader to grapple deeply with the questions that matter most for living well: how does a mind grapple with uncertainty? how might we escape from the master passions and make space to create instead of relying upon the extra-temporal (be it static, past or future) narratives of identity and self?
Happiness: A History – I started this book to prepare for a lecture by author Darrin McMahon, who was visiting Toronto. The style and approach immediately struck me as familiar: like me, McMahon grew up in the Great Books tradition, tracing how one idea evolves through 2500 years, as seminal authors engage with predecessors and shape an idea anew. The book surveys how Western philosophers think about happiness, tracing how it evolved from the mystical perception of truth in forms in Plato (a state only achievable by a few) to a natural right in the Enlightenment (tied up with the political transition to democracy and the state’s role in providing the conditions to enable individuals to maximize the pleasure:pain ration) to a tyrannical expectation in late capitalism (where, lacking a larger narrative and purpose, we default to anti-depressants and SSRIs to erase any negative feelings that hint at our abnormality or fallenness). The book is grand in scope, and therefore doesn’t expose the nuances of each philosopher in detail. But it’s much more grounded and well-researched than the other big picture histories peddled by public intellectuals these days.
The Effective Executive – This book is empowering to aspiring executives because it dismisses the idea that leadership is an innate quality or character trait and vehemently affirms effectiveness is a set of behaviors and practices that can be learned and that come naturally to no one. Drucker defines effectiveness as the ability to “get the right things done.” There’s a lot in that small phrase: how do you identify the right things for an organization? How do you extend making a decision to include carrying out the actions to bring this decision to life? A large portion of the book is about managing time. Saying no. Focusing. Providing space to think. Drucker hints throughout the book that the management style he proposes is fit for services/information organizations of the mid 20th century. It appears that many of the behaviors he recommends still hold today, but I wonder how being effective could or should change as the 21st-century evolves.
The Nonexistent Knight – This one spurred an experiment to go beyond the cursory reviews I provide in this section and engage more deeply with the text. It’s not incidental that it invited reflection on the relationship between reading, recollection, and identity: I classify the book alongside Borges’s Pierre Menard: Autor del Quijote, just-about-post-modern inversions of classics in the European literary canon that pose writing as reading, at once commenting, from a distance, on the ethical systems of the past and using that commentary to say something reflexive about the present and the act of writing. Book as lacuna, as performance of recursion that we nonetheless read and feel and enjoy. It’s a fast read. You’ll get something out of it even if you aren’t steeped in the Carolingian romance tradition to which it refers.
Inside Man: The Discipline of Modeling Human Ways of Being – The author (who is also the love of my life) says that this is his attempt to respond to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and bring the two into conversation with one another. Readers for whom that project means something will find a rigorous treatment of questions from analytic philosophy, philosophy of language, game theory, and probability theory. For others, it is an excellent handbook for representing various problems, actions, concepts, and decisions algorithmically. You will leave having sharper intuitions for what artificial intelligence is and is not than you would have reading most other literature. The book is exhaustive, demanding, airtight. Not a word is spared and the logic linking sentences and chapters feels ineluctable. Some readers consider it a “cruel science” because of the alienation and distancing it invites between people, for, as the title suggests, the ways of being being modeled are human ways of being. It’s applied psychology. But the last page shows that this same science can be applied to the self as subject and object, calling for a standard of communicative ethics and fair-minded honesty in one’s own dialogue with one’s self that is at once an ideal to work towards and an invitation for deep, compassionate empathy.
When Things Fall Apart – The manifesto of the Shambhala tradition (which underwent its own abuse scandal this summer). I love this book. Formally, it is a collection of sprints about how to shift our perception on pain, anxiety, suffering, all the bad things, to come to view them as life opening up a space for us to expand our minds and amplify our experience as humans. It’s a handbook to go beyond samsara–the state characterized by suffering, where we think that if only we were thinner, if only we were married, if only we achieve our goal, if only something that is not this thing now would happen, then we would be happy–to realize that enlightenment is there available to all of us if we do the work to come into it. I read this stuff and it feels so fulfilling and safe and true I just love it. It’s a total inspiration. A book I will keep beside me like a talisman as I do the hard work of bringing the cushion every more deeply into the mind-space of my daily life. Also, this is one of the few books I’ve read a second time. I know I will read it again. You can turn to it when you are in pain and need wisdom and guidance.
Everybody Lies – It was ok. I may have trouble judging this one because I am so immersed in the field and it had to peel back and clarify many assumptions about data science and social science for a more general reader. I do think it achieved its goal to reveal how “big data” like Google and our ability to mine new data sources like text and images are changing social science. I loved some of the examples, in particular the one about a scientist who collected data about horse heart size (which he learns was the feature most tightly correlated with performance). Very quick read. The writing is journalist and the conclusion was self-reflective in a way that, for me, lacked literary maturity. As a first book, this wasn’t bad; feels like something written by a peer (he is my age exactly). It just hasn’t changed how I think.
Satantango – Great literature leaves a different footprint than decent literature. It pulverizes. It engages multiple mind channels at once to rise to an apotheotic (I guess not a word) catharsis. This book is great literature. I struggled to get engaged at the beginning, as I haven’t read something that demanded so much from my attention in a while, but once I was in, I was totally in. Here’s why I recommend this as required reading. It is relevant for our contemporary political situation, as it narrates how hopelessness and lack of economic opportunity breeds demagoguery, zeal, and chaos. It is an allegory for Trumpism. It seamlessly shifts from one character’s internal consciousness to the next, challenging the reader to pay attention to whose mind we’re living in, having desire for a woman the central object around which men’s minds unfold. It is a formal castle, a Möbius strip, exhibiting the mathematical rigor of Borges or Musil or Joyce or Foster Wallace or Cervantes, it uses form to provide the sublime (in the Lucretian sense), ironic distance between reader and text, to pull the letters and words away from their content and encourage the reader to know they are just words, and yet by doing so, to increase the emotional pathos rather than dampen it. The form is the emotional experience. And fuck this book is bleak. When you don’t think it could get any worse it does. Pushes the misery to its logical extreme, like Tarantino would do with gore. It’s a tour de force. Makes me thirst for more great literature.
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko – What I like most about this short manga business book (besides the fact that it’s a manga business book…) is that it uses form to subvert the common business book trap of taking 300 pages to communicate what could be said in a few pithy maxims on a power point slide. I’m likely falling prey to the intentional fallacy, but I can almost imagine the Edgar Allen Poe philosophy of composition-like process Dan Pink used to write the book (he describes his actual writing process, including reference to this book, on a Tim Ferriss podcast): I have 6 lessons, they can be written on a power point slide, ok let’s turn that into a chalk board to add some nostalgia, as opposed to using real anecdotes à la Malcolm Gladwell, what if I make up a fictional character to ground the lessons in narrative, cool – what will that character do?, and then Manga steps in to fill in the gaps so the narrative can stay crisp and precise and provide the pure, minimal, Japanese minimum context to impart the lessons effectively. It’s quite brilliant, and the lessons are, at least in my meager experience, true. An hour’s worth of reading very well spent.
The Three-Body Problem – I thought this was decent. I suppose I’m merely a lukewarm fan of science fiction, even though I’d really like to be a science fiction super fan because so many people I love are. My qualm lie in the fact that the characters are sketches that lack robust interiority: Liu does capture a few moments of existential questioning as his physicist heroes feel their fragility in the face of the cold infinite glare of the universe. But it’s not real interiority–the thoughts pop up out of nowhere, lacking embodiment. The best parts of the book, for me, were the quite imaginative visualizations of certain scientific and engineering concepts: the human motherboard teaching non-technical readers about von Neumann logical gates while critiquing the masses in the Cultural Revolution; the 9-dimensional photon spanning many Earths’ waistlines when unfolded to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions. I’ll plan to read the others in the series, as I liked it, but it wasn’t life changing.
The Order of Time – Love. Love. Love. Love. I wrote to the author, Carlo Rovelli, to thank him for making physics not just accessible, but lyrical. This small book explains how physics, from relativity to quantum theory, crumbles our common perceptions of time and presents a quite beautiful alternative based on Rovelli’s theories of loop quantum gravity and entropy. I cherished it because it’s the closest parallel I’ve found to my own writing: Rovelli explains abstract, technical concepts not just with metaphors, but by tying things back to life’s most meaningful experiences. For it’s love and death and the miraculous contingency of our tiny perspective in the world that makes us beings in time. I cannot wait to dig into Boltzmann and think further about our horizons of perceptions as approximations of approximations, and possibly to get a tattoo of ΔS ≥ 0 (seems less popular than Euler’s identity).
The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google – Galloway’s maverick critique of the consumer internet/product giants is worth reading for those not steeped in the industry. I liked how he reduced their success down to basic human drives for things (consumerism so easy it’s passive on Amazon), sex (Apple is actually a luxury brand), love (Facebook addicts us–and profits from that–given our Smithian need to love and be loved) and god (Google is new the oracle). I liked his advice to young people entering into a job market defined by these four powers and his lament that so much awesome brain power and talent is basically being wasted. I found the style a bit too jostling and the analysis ultimately too high-level for someone deeply engaged in this world. But that wasn’t really the point of the book, so best to judge it for what it explicitly purports to be: an introduction to people outside trying to understand the inside.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Simply stunning. I loved the characters. I loved the lyricism of the prose. I loved the narrative structure and how Marra weaves back and forth between a ten-year period in the devastation of Chechnya to make the reader care deeply about what happens to the characters. It’s an astoundingly good first book that inspired me to give more to my own writing.
On Tyranny – First heard about this on the Sam Harris podcast (which I listen to more or less devotedly, although my fanaticism has waned from its original fervor). Very fast read. Style is didactic and imperative with the urgency of a mid-twentieth century manifesto. Worthwhile read to keep us vigilant in the age of Trump. As Hemingway said of finances, so Tim Snyder warns of tyranny: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness – Loved it. Peter Godfrey-Smith presents quite complex and stimulating ideas (how do cephalopods see through their arms? what is octopus consciousness like given their distributed versus centralized nervous system? what are evolutionary arguments for senescence and why are cephalopod lifespans so short?) in accessible prose. Reading about species so different from our own–Godfrey-Smith says octopuses are the closest things to aliens we know on earth–takes us out of our day-to-day assumptions of how the world works or could works and opens new possibilities for creativity and wonder. In searching for a personal experience that felt closest to being an octopus, for example, I came up with the experience of leading a team: it’s an activity where I both exert some framework of centralized influence of the actions of others, but fundamentally observe independent action of my many arms. I love the idea of adopting an octopus leadership style: for octopuses are creative, whimsical creatures who shift shapes to become their environment and emote through the prism of the sea.
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology – Speechless. Like, I can’t compose my review without tears welling in my eyes. Ellen Ullman, a computer programmer and humanist — where humanist means not paleographer but grounded in the rich, subjective, creative experience of the human, which Harari claims is losing its place as reigning ideology to data (see my review of Homo Deus below) — presents a series of essays composing different moments in her life and career. Each essay inlays multiple levels of meaning, a programming phenomenon indexing an epistemological search indexing the catharsis of loss indexing social observation and critique. The cadence of the prose intermixes long sentences with short, punctuating the heart and mind with their stature. I feel grateful to have read this book. I will share it with everyone I know. It grounds our technical Zeitgeist as only a personal history can do, and reminds us that the issues we think are new to 2017 have been brewing for more than 20 years, if not longer.
Seveneves – First time reading Stephenson. This is an epic science fiction book in which the moon explodes and fragmented particles collide into the atmosphere, destroying life on earth. A Noah’s ark of humanity survives to create a space civilization. The book is divided into three parts and I personally found the third part the most interesting: Stephenson turns his characters into allegories via the device of seven separate races stemming from the seven extant female survivors of the human race. He includes thinking on the status of what my friend Stephanie Schmidt would call “foundational narratives” in our collective notion of culture, dovetailing ideology with genetic and epigenetic determination. I didn’t love this book, but don’t mind having read it.
Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy – Delightful. Tim Harford provides fifty vignette histories of inventions that have had significant social and economic impact. This impact is arises from unintuitive places: sometimes it’s how the inventions came to be (e.g., the iPhone as a combination of multiple technologies funded by the US government); sometimes it’s what the inventions enable in combination with one another (e.g., air conditioning + elevator + concrete = high-rise living and modern urban cities); sometimes it’s the social changes the inventions unlocked (e.g., the pill and infant formula, and greater gender equality in the 20th century). I do agree with critics that each vignette must be taken for what it is: a vignette. These are not exhaustive histories. But Harford does manage to use his 50 examples to illustrate general abstract points about how inventions come to be, how they are adopted, and how they change how we engage with one another. And the book is a treasure trove of great examples for talks!
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – Reading this book is more about the context than the content. As my dear friend Tisse Takagi texted the other day, it’s become the book elite liberals read to empathize with the rust belt poor, an anecdotal window into the culture that led to Trump’s becoming president. In my own personal life, it helped me understand why my ex boyfriend, whose childhood was similar to that of author J.D. Vance, behaved the way he did: And I can tell you I wish I were able to apply to the same neutral compassion to him as I did to Vance. For this is the test. Not just reading about this world I barely know. Not just shedding tears from afar, in an act of self-admiring compassion. But more. Engaging, patiently absorbing the shock of violence, violence inherited from the trauma of a childhood where mothers skirt from one man to the next, drugged up and passed out, letting garbage collect, feeding their kids junk, all these chaos causing men, including the one I loved, to build armor around their souls because there is just too much instability to do anything else. It is our fucking duty to find a way to give every fucking kid on this planet an opportunity to become great. It starts way before college, way before social aid. It is indeed about the solid tissue of family, stability early in life that provides a platform for a healthy mind, not one broken like the minds and hearts of many of the men I have loved. Class is taboo. We skirt it like the plague. We have to face up, look the inequalities in the eye, and fucking do something about it.
How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life – Massimo Pigliucci provides a kind overview of Stoic philosophy via the literary device of a “conversation” with Epitectus, an ancient Stoic philosopher. While inspired by Dante’s conversation with Virgil in the Divine Comedy, the conversation doesn’t quite meet that level of literary sophistication. Indeed, it defaults more to a series of personal (and sometimes impersonal) anecdotes that serves as examples of what it might look like to be a contemporary stoic. As with many trade books of ancient philosophy (like The Path on classical Chinese philosophy), How to be a Stoic only touches the surfaces of the ethical precepts found in the ancient texts. But it is a good introduction to Stoicism, an honest exposition from a man trying to live well in the world, and a handy guidebook for various mantras and practices to live with the goal of optimizing virtue, not happiness, wealth, or pleasure.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds – As author Dan Dennett states a few times in this book (as in this Google talk), this is one of many attempts he’s made to convince readers of his Darwinian take on consciousness and minds. What interests Dennett is Darwin’s strange inversion of reason: that wonderfully designed products can result from random stuff happening in the universe, that competence without comprehension has created many marvels, but that this feels strange for us to accept because we design wonders from a top-down position of intentional design. But, as Dennett suggests, the age of machine learning may usher a new era of post intelligent design, where deep learning systems that exhibit competence without comprehension tip the scales back towards a sped up Darwinian paradigm. This book is wonderful. It gave me many thinking tools, to borrow Dennett’s phrase, to shape my own thinking on AI. And the beauty of Dan’s personality illuminates every sentence, his graceful, kind, and funny style making this a book very much worth reading.
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.
Intelligence without representation – Rodney Brooks’ “manifesto” on model-free learning and robotics based on interconnected subprocesses and routines. The most impactful insights for me from the article are: 1) when we attempt to replicate abstract representations in an artificially intelligent system, we work from abstraction of our own abstraction capabilities, as we can’t observe what our brains actually do. That’s doomed to make systems brittle. 2) subparts of an interconnected system designed in isolation will each have their own separate design presuppositions and will likely not work that well together. I see this in applied machine learning all the time. We can’t build a model in a vacuum isolated from the process into which we will integrate the model. Success criteria depend on the total integration. 3) we can combine together multiple finite state machines and run different subroutines, each reacting to the environment, or “world”, as their model, to generate insect-like intelligent behavior and 4) this work is not intended to be the realization of Heideggerian theories of being in time (that shows up in the paper).
The Wife – Mihnea summed this up well: it’s a bad movie, but he’s glad it was made. The themes are promising. The movie puts a spotlight on the spectacle of reverence, how conventions indexing excellence blind us from digging deeper to see the truth for ourselves, to form our own judgments. It shows how we pardon promiscuity from male creators. How women have been put to the sideline as the wives that are there, as faithful companions to support their brilliant husbands’ careers, but who would have been the creators if the circumstances were otherwise. How selfhood can become an ossified performance and what it takes to resist it. The execution is a little painful. There were moments where I felt the wince of kitsch, vicariously embarrassed as if I’d made the film myself. Glenn Close’s acting, however, was quite good. Her face expressed complex layers of emotion throughout the film.
The Party – Like Fences (see below), this movie makes the difference between a play and a film clear. It’s absurdly claustrophobic. Kirsten Scott Thomas plays a newly-elected government official in London. She and her husband (Timothy Spall) throw a party with their closest friends to celebrate. While she steals sweet nothing texts from her lover, her husband performs a non-verbal monologue on his way to nearly dying, blasting jazz song after jazz song as a caricatural German Buddhist (Bruno Ganz) waxes poetic about impermanence. The movie certainly hits upon many social tropes of our age. I didn’t dislike it, but again, it was so so evidently a play. Aristotelian straightjacket of the unity of time, place, and action exploded to its logical conclusion, gun appearing in act 3 and all. It was a searing critique of contemporary mores, and I film worth watching, but lacked subtlety. Felt like it was trying too hard to squeeze Woody Allen dialogue into a classical play.
42 Grams – I watched this movie on a flight from NYC to SF. It’s about a Chicago chef who builds a pretty incredible underground restaurant in his home with his wife, Alexa, and then opens a restaurant that reaches 2 Michelin star status basically overnight. It’s a hero movie, focusing on the dedication and narcissism required to achieve excellence. We see glimpses of the chef’s temper in a few scenes, but ultimately leave wanting to go and try it, leave galvanized to push ourselves to that same level, leave wanting to use tweezers to lace our food with microflowers. Upon landing, I looked up the restaurant to send the link to my boyfriend, Will. We love good food and spend more money than is reasonable on it. And I learned that Jake Bickelhaupt’s restaurant was shut down after a case of domestic violence. The restaurant was called 42 grams to signify the unity of Jake and Alexa’s partnership, each soul weighing 21 grams. She supported him in his relentless desire to achieve. And he beat her. And if we lack this context we idolize him as a hero. Like Musk. Like Jobs. We overlook the cruelty for the sake of inhuman sacrifice, for the sake of what’s created. We don’t forgive it. It’s just unknown, forgotten, unobserved as we narrow our focus on the stuff we crave to see. It hurts.
Ramen Heads – Oh how the Japanese love to devote their entire life obsessively to mastering one thing. Jiro and sushi. That guy from Woman in the Dunes and water, water, water. This time it’s about ramen. Tomita, the chef around which most of the film centers, makes ramen with a ridiculously think broth and focuses on the noodles–they look perfect, studded with black, served on the side, the flour mix changing year after year. The broth of all the other chefs is so thin in comparison.
The Shape of Water – I saw this shortly after having seen The Phantom Thread and was struck by the very different type of love it depicts (see my post on different types of love). This film has all the trappings of great Latin American magic realism, from early scenes where Sally Hawkins masturbates every morning in the bath tub to late scenes where she effectively ascends to heaven under water with her sea monster lover. It’s a film about finding love where you least expect it, where love is accepting and cherishing the other for exactly who they are, not wishing them to be any different, loving them so fully they become shapeless, like water around us. The final poem is radically beautiful: Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.
The Phantom Thread – This one really affected me. It captures the viciousness of narcissistic love quite well and triggered an outpouring of emotion related to some of the deep, visceral patterns that have driven some of the worst choices I’ve made in my love life. It’s visually beautiful and has the majestic feel all Anderson films have, which shimmer in a way that elevates them to the status of myth as opposed to conjuring realism.
The Square – Meh. Swedish thought piece about the tenuous fragility of social order. More a series of vignettes than an Aristotelian narrative. As the film’s director explains in a prefatory clip, the film was inspired by an artwork just outside a contemporary art museum in a Swedish city whose name is escaping me but that is not Stockholm. The square is a symbolic space within which equality, compassion, and justice reign, which have fallen away from contemporary society. The events in the film push the limits of such basic moral tenets through the actions of its anti-hero, the (quite handsome) curator of the museum. The film asks good questions, but lack subtlety.
The Other Side of Hope – I’m a big fan of Kaurismäki’s films. I love the stark drabness of his cinematography, how the bareness of the scenes draws my attention to each sound, each gesture. I love the music (I think each film has some reference to Olavi Virta), how, in this film, what we expect to be soundtrack is consistently revealed as live music acts on the street or in working-class bars. Kaurismäki treats the European refugee crisis here with subtle pathos, his protagonist, Khaled from Syria, an assuming hero, but a hero nonetheless. He is unquestionably ethical. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film are the shots of bureaucratic institutions, the strange shapes of police stations and immigration centers. Most interestingly, the film changed my perception of my environment for the next couple of hours. Sounds were more vibrant, but I felt a distance between myself and my surroundings, as if all were abstracted away to the screen.
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.
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.
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.
Actinolite – Loved it and will go back. Because it felt so personal! Head chef Justin Cournoyer lives right above the restaurant and was in and out during our 7-course meal. I spoke with him for about 15 minutes afterwards, explaining what I experienced during each course. The food largely featured vegetables (which I personally love) with acute attention paid to seasonality: the snacks course, for example, featured an oyster with fermented kelp accompanied by fresh turnips with their bitter, lightly salted leaves. We noticed that the wine pairing was tightly integrated to create balance with the dishes, as the food notes were generally more basic and warm, and the wines were largely funky and pungent, ranging from notes of Amontillado (paired with the rutabaga and walnut milk course) to barnyard white Jura (with the golden beet and chamomile broth course). My only complaint was the restaurant’s smell: I have an extremely sensitive nose, and when I walked in I was hit with wafts of a slightly grungy bar. To be a truly excellent experience, I’d want the place to smell as clean and fresh as the food.
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.