Obedience to Authority

A nice companion piece to Eichmann in Jerusalem, this is the complete report of the Milgram experiments that I’ve long heard of. The Yale experiments took place in the 1950s as Milgram tried to understand how ordinary Germans could have let the Holocaust happen. In the experiment, the victim is asked to zap an actor with (fake) electric current when they get a word pair answer wrong, increasing the voltage each time and continuing despite the yelps of pain from the actor. Not surprisingly, blind obedience went up as soon as the person receiving the “shocks” was placed farther away; distance creating the necessary space for ignoring the humanity of the actor. Some people refused to continue but they were a sad tiny minority. Most blasted all the way to 450+ volts under the command of the experimenter. There are a lot of factors at play, and they addressed them in subsequent versions of the experiment. Most interesting was taking it out of the formal Yale lab and into a somewhat scuzzy storefront in downtown, removing all affiliation with the university. People were much less likely to blindly follow instructions. Also played with factors like: whether the person getting zapped looked like he deserved it, the personality of the research instructor, one group deigned to test women (they’re just as blindly obedient as men), whether having just a normal guy take over when the researcher stepped out for a phone call had any effect (people less likely to obey just a man on the street).

Seven Years in Tibet

I’m a sucker for these types of books about arduous journeys to strange lands, but like most books of the kind written by men this one has serious problems. Harrer was a German citizen taken into a prisoner of war camp in India at the outbreak of WWII. He escapes twice, the last journey takes him into the wild windswept heights of Tibet where he and companions sneak or haggle or somehow make their way into the interior where they are forbidden from venturing. This is the part that’s most interesting, the battle against the elements, describing the various nomads met along the way, the endless cups of butter tea. Nearly frozen, it is a cup of this butter tea that restores him to his senses enough to see what a beauty his hostess is. He’s delighted later to find that women are frequently offered for the “use” of their guests.

They eventually sneak and stagger into Lhasa, the city where the Dali Lama lives, and the descriptions of life are engaging for a while before petering off into pure tedium of fawning over the Living Buddha once they gain access to him. We learn from Harrer that “women know nothing about equal rights and are quite happy as they are. They spend hours making up their faces, restringing their pearl necklaces, choosing new material for dresses, and thinking how to outshine Mrs. So-and-so at the next party.” Yawn, these patriarchal accounts are so predictably boring.

Laura & Emma

When I went to grab the image of this book for the review, I discovered a blurb for the book from Jonathan Franzen that makes me question whether he read the book, since he called it “a moving and intricately braided story of two mothers.” Mostly it’s a story about Laura, a WASPy New Yorker (7th generation) coasting through life on her family’s money who decides to keep the pregnancy she has with a one-night stand (the burglar who pretended to be her brother Nicholas’s friend from boarding school), and Emma, the daughter. Enjoyed the complex portrait of a woman who doesn’t need the same kind of relationships that everyone else seems to have (husband, or boyfriend, or even girlfriend). The other mother that Franzen references is Laura’s childhood friend Margaret, who can’t get pregnant and thus adopts, but at the end has a surprise mid-40s pregnancy. Margaret and Charlotte (her daughter) are fringe elements to Laura’s story, not substantial parts of a braided story. I appreciated the ending, Laura locked out on her snowy penthouse balcony spreading her mother’s ashes after many years, deciding to finally raise her voice and get her downstairs neighbor to let her in (after he kept the chairs he borrowed from her for many months).

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, its Chaotic Founding, its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis

Who would want to read a book about Oklahoma City? Turns out, when well-written, a lot of people. Thoroughly enjoyed this work of Sam Anderson weaving the improbable tale of their NBA team (the Thunder) in amidst historical facts that blow your mind. The city itself was formed on a single day, in the Land Run, where people just grabbed a plot of land and claimed it. The bugles were sounded at noon on April 23, 1889 and a free for all began. Other colorful characters emerge in the story, like following Wayne from The Flaming Lips around (painting rainbows in the street), remembering civil rights legend Clara Luper who staged sit-ins months before the famous ones to claim the right to be served at the same establishments as whites, tracking tornadoes and other major storms with Gary England (famed meteorologist). Great interesting stuff here.

The Last Black Unicorn

Tiffany Haddish is a delight, and this memoir layers on more details about her upbringing—foster care due to her mother’s mental instability caused by her stepfather cutting the brakes in the car (he bought life insurance policies on all the family and planned to cash out), working Bar Mitzvahs as a teenager to pump up the crowd, living out of her car until Kevin Hart loaned her enough money for a hotel room and then helped her find an apartment, her crazy marriage/divorce/remarriage/redivorce to the same abusive man, working for an airline and dating her coworker who lived in a group home for handicapped, using a Groupon to take Will Smith and Jada on a swamp tour. Great stories, helped into book form by Tucker Max by way of his company, Book in a Box?

Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie’s best known book is a bit of a yawn, actually. Hercule Poirot accidentally stumbles onto a murder orchestrated by twelve people who all had connections to a family that was killed/devastated by a murderer who was set free. The twelve of them conspired to each stab the victim so they wouldn’t know who produced the vital blow.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

Really enjoyed this well-written book from the perspective of a therapist dealing with her own issues plus a look into her practice with three sample clients—the jerk who pushes everyone away, the dying woman, and the 69 year old depressed woman who vows to turn her life around by age 70 or kill herself (spoiler: she lives!). Gottlieb’s first career was in writing for movies and television, but she got interested in medicine working on the show ER. She eventually goes to med school but supports herself with journalism. Finally, she becomes a psychologist and starts helping people WHILE enjoying their stories, a perfect blend of creativity and health. Along the way her soon-to-be-husband dumps her because she has a young son and he doesn’t want to live with kids again (his own are finally leaving the nest, he wants to enjoy his freedom). This sends her scurrying for a therapist of her own to deal with the breakup, and we dip into the inner workings of therapy along the way. Highly readable and chock full of discreet bits that might help you wrangle your thoughts.

Still Life

One of the best things in life is traveling to a family member’s home, where they know you well and where they have your book waiting for you in the guest room, saving you one additional title in your luggage. Devoured this one over a few days in NJ where I kept barking suspects at my sister (“I think Ruth did it.” “No, I know now, Peter’s the one!”). Rainy weekend helped my cause. Entertainment at the lightest.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

We’re not meant to feel sorry for Eichmann in Arendt’s writeup of the 1960 show trial that followed after Israel kidnapped Eichmann hiding in a nest of Nazis in Argentina. And yet, he is pathetic. The trial and Arendt’s book expose him as the worst kind of following-orders-without-thinking cog in the Nazi wheel that obliterated millions of Jews in the Holocaust. He was a simpleton who couldn’t think beyond catch-phrases, perfect for manipulation by grander, eviler minds. Himmler coined slogans that stuck into Eichmann’s brain, being told that he was involved in something grand, historic, instead of focusing on the actual murdering that was going on. He’s not a monster, but a dimwitted clown.

Arendt calls out contemporary (1960s) Germany for its self-deception and believing in the lies that spewed forth from the regime. She also pinpoints another group for guilt: those Jewish leaders who assiduously took notes of names and property to ensure the smoothest of handovers to the Nazis, leading their lambs to slaughter.

One of the “few great [moments] in the whole trial,” according to Arendt, is when Eichmann’s defense lawyer declared the accused innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for “the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters,” being interrupted by one of the judges to ask if a slip of the tongue was made when describing these killings as medical matters. Nope, Servatius says, “It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter.” Jaw on floor, this will serve me well when evaluating whether the current state of the U.S. has reached the depths of depravity (not yet).

Strange attitudes of countries willing to exterminate other country’s Jews but not their own—Arendt provides examples of this in Germany and France. Eichmann himself feels he was a friend to the Jew, attempting to find refuge for them in the first years before buckling down to provide the final solution.

The actual phrase “banality of evil” is used only once, as the last words of the book before the epilogue, describing Eichmann’s last acts before he was executed when he contradicted himself and used clichés, Arendt calls it “the grotesque silliness of his last words.” It’s an instructive read for any student of history, as well as any person aware of current events in the U.S.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

If you’re looking for a cheerful read to buoy your spirits as late capitalism rages all around you, this is not the book. Instead, it’s an important aggregation of all the mind-numbing stats about ongoing catastrophic climate change presented in a lyrical way. This is no rubber mallet hammering stats into your brain, but poetic writing that makes you look again at those topics you most want to avoid in an effort of self preservation.

Works of other writers are cited alongside scientist quotes, which partially explains its appeal to me. Robertson Jeffers, Sheila Heti, Yeats, H. G. Wells, Joan Didion, Dickens, Steinbeck, Rachel Carson, etc.

William Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies is referenced after Wallace-Wells notes a state of “half-ignorance and half-indifference is a much more pervasive climate sickness than true denial or true fatalism.” Vollman writes from a devastated future: “Of course we did it to ourselves; we had always been intellectually lazy, and the less asked of us, the less we had to say… We all lived for money, and that is what we died for.”

Even before I got to his section about our cognitive biases I appreciated the way he was giving us the worst case scenario first, as a way of anchoring our perspective. In the Crisis Capitalism chapter, he lays out the many ways we’re hindered from mentally grappling with this issue: anchoring, the ambiguity effect, anthropocentric thinking, automation bias, bystander effect, confirmation bias, default effect, status quo bias, endowment effect, overconfidence, optimism bias, AND pessimism bias.

 

How It All Began

This puts the “light” in “delightful”—just a soapy, wafty, story-laden beach read of a book to pull one into the life of a handful of various characters all changed by a single event, when an older woman gets mugged and breaks her hip. This event ripples into the lives of her daughter and son-in-law, her daughter’s employer (Lord P, the elderly academician) and his niece Marion (who has to accompany him to a luncheon where she meets a businessman who scams her), Marion’s married lover whose wife discovers the text that Marion sends begging off an engagement because she must accompany her uncle to that luncheon, and Anton, the Eastern European seeking help with his reading skills from Charlotte (the older women who was mugged), who Rose (the daughter) falls in love with. It’s a well-paced stream of plot, little bits parceled out to keep you hungrily paging for more.

Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley

In his effort to create a fair and balanced telling of the city, McClelland serves up a tepid book of mediocre interest. Written in the style of Studs Terkel’s Working, McClelland interviews a handful of SFers for their stories, letting Matt Gonzalez rub shoulders against Ron Conway who buts up against the Google Bus protest organizer. Best interview was with one of the first Uber drivers who talks about how he drove all the tech gurus around in the early days (Travis, Jack Dorsey, Elon, the Airbnb guy) and there wasn’t anything inspiring about them which gave him hope that it was easier to succeed in this city than it seems. Another great interview mentions the young kids with strollers in Hayes Valley who think the city is getting better (she calls them libertarian dicks). Blander than it had to be, unfortunately.

Afloat

Beautiful nonfiction travel diary by Guy de Maupassant first pub’d in 1888 (Sur l’eau). This is the book that Virginia Woolf has a character in The Years pluck from the shelves to read at random “The mediocrity of the universe astonishes and repels me…” so of course I needed to go straight to the (translated) source. Maupassant sets out on his yacht Bel-Ami with a two man crew to do the heavy lifting and sails around the coast of France for a nine day tour, spending lots of time ashore, ending up on a train to meet a friend at a casino in Monte Carlo.

As he heads out, he appreciates his solitude, although technically he’s also with his two sailors:

I can enjoy the thrill of being alone, the quiet thrill of being able to rest and never be disturbed by a letter or telegram, the sound of a doorbell… Nobody can call on me, invite me out, depress me with smiles, harass me with flattery. I’m alone, really alone, and I’m free.

Generally he doesn’t like the people he comes across:

Is there anything more sinister than that “table chat” in hotels? I’ve lived in such places, I’ve had to suffer all the platitudes that the human race can produce on such occasions. You have to bite the bullet really hard in order not to weep with grief, disgust, and shame when you listen to people talking… It seems to me that I’m looking into their ghastly souls and discovering a monstrous fetus preserved in alcohol. And I’m watching them slowly give birth to commonplaces that they’ll go on producing again and again, I can feel them dropping out of their mouths from their inexhaustible fund of idiotic ideas and carried into my ears by the lifeless air.

In later pages he expands (this is the surrounding text for the quote VW uses):

It’s true that sometimes I feel such a horror of living that I long to die, so intensely do I suffer from the relentless monotony of every landscape, of people’s faces and their thoughts. I find the mediocrity of the universe appalling, revolting, I’m disgusted by the paltriness of everything, overwhelmed by the utter worthlessness of the human race.

This captures my own feeling of insatiable curiosity that goes nowhere:

I’ve lusted after everything and enjoyed nothing. I would have needed the vitality of a whole race of men, the intelligence scattered among all living creatures, every conceivable faculty of mind and body, in addition to a thousand more lives in reserve, because I have inside me every sort of appetite and curiosity—and I’ve been reduced to observing everything and grasping nothing.

Against crowds:

I always experience an odd, unbearable feeling of discomfort, a terrible nervous irritation as if I was struggling with all my might against a mysterious, irresistible force… How often have I come to realize that my intelligence expands and soars as soon as it’s alone and falls into pieces as soon as I’m in a crowd… The qualities of intellectual initiative, of free will, of individual wisdom, and even of perception of a man left to himself will generally dissipate as soon as he mingles with any large number of other men.

It’s eerie to read his description of late 19th century city planning along the coast of South France, how there’s “not one single house, nothing but the layout of future streets running through the trees. There are crossroads, boulevards, squares. They’ve even put up metal plates marking their names: boulevard Ruysdael, boulevard Rubens, boulevard Van Dyck, boulevard Claude-Lorrain. You may be wondering: why all these painters? It’s because the Company, like God himself before lighting the sun, said: ‘This is going to be a resort for artists!’ ”

His great tirade on the working stiffs that he sees headed off for lunch “like two old workhorses who’d been unbridled for a brief moment to snatch a mouthful of oats at the bottom of a canvas bag…”

Translated from the French by Douglas Parmee

Dear Mrs. Bird

A light palate cleanser to burn through quickly, story of wartime London complete with air raids, bombings, soldiers running off with nurses, men in uniform making ladies swoon. A bit on the sentimental side but not too maudlin. The narrator, Emmy, takes a job answering correspondence for an advice column but doesn’t like Mrs. Bird’s strict rules around what’s acceptable or not to answer. Emmy takes it upon herself to answer several letters, doling out comfort and advice to those who would be otherwise rejected by Mrs. Bird. She meets the half-brother of her boss, a soldier on leave named Charles, and has a night of dancing with him before starting correspondence. She lives with her pal Bunty, who becomes engaged to William, but tragedy strikes at their engagement party when bombers hit and Bill dies. This is where it goes off the rails, Bunty decides it’s Emmy’s fault that Bill dies, refuses to speak to her, ends up writing a letter to the magazine that Emmy responds to behind Bird’s back which of course draws significant support from the audience, resulting in a dramatic Hollywood moment of the mailboy bringing up the bag of letters from people, skyrocketing subscription numbers, and Bunty showing up to plead for Emmy’s job.

Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions

Briallen Hopper’s collection of musings was a bit disappointing. I appreciated the well-reasoned takedown of Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and of course the amazing essay about Grace Metalious, Pandora in Blue. But the rest bored me into skimming, and then I tripped over her Moby-Dick essay which was more about the game DICK (apparently a Cards-Against-Humanity-esque game where every answer is from Moby-Dick) and her quest for a sperm donor.