Category Archives: Books

Christmas 2023 Whalefall

Christmas 2023 Whalefall

Hiking Sole Sisters Spring Lake Christmas 2023

Hiked Spring Lake with the Sole Sisters, see me in the Santa Hat above. Afterwards, when the main hike was over, I led four of the ladies to see the warm sulfur spring that feeds Spring Lake.

Came home and finished Whalefall by Daniel Kraus, a very fast read because it was so absorbing. I hated Finnegan’s Wake because it was word salad, but as the main character, Jay, dissolves into nitrogen narcosis inside the diving whale, the jumbled words make sense. Whether he survives, how he survives is the “McGuffin” that drives the book. On the framework of the McGuffin that keeps us turning the pages, author Daniel Kraus hangs the story of a teen boy bedeviled by his attentive but abusive father and his loving but powerless mother and two older sisters. Jay is flashing back to when he was 15 and the pressure from his father became unbearable in the aftermath of the loss of the boat after poor-maintenance caused two paying passengers to fall overboard. The father’s descent, and his mistreatment of Jay, drive the boy to risky behavior that leads to his becoming entangled in a giant squid which is the prey of a large sperm whale hunting in the Monterey Canyon. As you can see from the Google Earth image below, Monastery Beach features ditches that slide into the depths. My PADI Open Water diving certification took place in the water off Monastery Beach. I had to enter the surf (backwards) in full wetsuit and tank gear, swim out past the surf line, sit on the bottom with my regulator in my mouth, take off my mask and my air tank and put them back on, underwater with my eyes closed. I passed and went on to dive the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

Monterey Canyon and Monastery Beach

I went back to the area to dive several times including Monterey Bay itself, and have paddled the nearby Elkhorn Slough. The writing really captures the thrill and fear of diving and being on the water on that part of the coast. The marine biology in the book was a treat making it a trifecta of science-fiction, skillful writing and engrossing information. A delicious Christmas overall.

Shonda Rhimes “Yes”

Shonda Rhimes “Yes”


Shonda Rhimes was a guest on Andrew Ross Sorkin’s annual DealBook Summit and I was intrigued by her intelligence so I read her 2015 book “Year of Yes” when she forced herself out of her writing shell by accepting speaking and social invitations, learning to stand up for what she really wanted, and how to gracefully accept a compliment.

I knew about “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” and “Scandal” all being in production at the same time but Andrew Ross Sorkin pointed out that she had shed 150 pounds. Knowing, as I do, that the five food groups for writers are caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol and fat, I wanted to learn more. I loved how she captured the nuttiness of TV production but the first three-fourths of the book has almost no self-disclosure. The photos start on page 233 and the good stuff follows.

She was the youngest of six to academic parents with a very strong marriage. Her older siblings are insightful and supportive and Delorse muttered, one Thanksgiving, “You never say yes to anything.” Shonda chewed on that as she realized that, as successful as she was, she wasn’t really happy. It’s nearly at the end of the book when we learn that she was engaged to a wonderful man that she didn’t want to marry and that’s when her weight started to really go up. By saying “yes” to telling the truth, she broke off the engagement and broke her pattern of suppressing her feelings with food.

Over the course of the year she discovered that healthy, kind people find each other and that some of her friends did not like how she was changing and growing. She realized they were not really on her side and she had to let them go. She explained, brilliantly, why it is SUCH a problem when people interrupt a writer who is in flow with dialog and story.

Five Miles

She describes “five miles filled with chocolate cakes, good wine, books I want to read, emails that have to be answered” and she has to get past this five miles every times she sits down to her computer to write. In the beginning it takes a day, or an hour, but it never takes less than 20 minutes to get past the five miles of distractions and get back into the flow. Even if the interruption is a well-intended, “would you like some coffee or water?” breaks the flow and she has start running again to get past the five miles.

You Needed Permission

At the end, Shonda explains to big sister Delorse how much the muttered phrase “you never say yes to anything” changed her life — saved her life. Delorse shrugged.

You did all the work, but it’s like you needed permission. I’m your big sister. I gave you permission and I’m extremely proud of you. You were joyless. All you ever did was sleep. Now you have completely transformed. You’re alive. Some people never do that. You are this happy because you said yes to not getting married.

Shonda explains that having it “all” is no guarantee of happiness, especially if what you want doesn’t conform. We spend our lives punishing ourselves for not living up to some standard we think applies across the board to all of us. The book is a plea to recognize that happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to.

Pathological Overconsumption of Food was Cured by Telling the Truth

Book “How Democracies Die”

Book “How Democracies Die”

by S. Levitsky & D. Ziblatt

David McCuen recommended “How Democracies Die” in the class on Terrorism he taught at Sonoma State University in the Spring of 2023 in the Osher Livelong Learning Program. The book was published in 2018 and details how Donald Trump was preparing, in 2016, to deny the results of the 2018 election if he did not win. On the day that Jack Smith indicted Trump in D.C. Federal Court for Conspiracy and Obstruction of Government Process, I read the authors’ four key indicators of authoritarian behavior.

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. Trump consistently undermined the legitimacy of elections by questioning the validity of machines, of ballots, or counting methodologies, and of who had authority to what the actual count was.
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. Trump’s personal attacks on Hillary, Obama’s citizenship, and Biden’s son.
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. Trump’s encouragement of violence toward hecklers and protestors at his speaking events and his incitement on Jan. 6, 2021
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Trump’s effort to nullify legitimate electors by fraudulently installing his own, which would rob citizens of their right to have their votes count.

In an opinion piece in today’s NYTimes, Randall Eliason says, “The charging decisions in the indictment reflect smart lawyering by the special counsel Jack Smith and his team.” Trump is not charged with sedition or insurrection, which (if convicted) would disqualify him from holding future office. It does not charge the six unnamed co-conspirators. Trump is also facing federal charges before a judge that he appointed in Florida, for document mishandling.

Proceeding against Mr. Trump alone streamlines the case and gives Mr. Smith the best chance for a trial to be held and concluded before the 2024 presidential election.

Authors Levitsky and Ziblatt were alarmed that the primary process had failed in its gatekeeping role to weed out unqualified or dangerous candidates. Trump had never held elective office, was not a lawyer, has no mare than a bachelors degree in business. Only once in the past 100 years did a never-before-elected man reach the presidency — Dwight D. Eisenhower.

When gatekeeping institutions fail, mainstream politicians must do everything possible to keep dangerous figures away from the centers of power.

The indictment, a short 45 pages double-spaced, makes clear that leading Republicans in the targeted states, and the Vice-President himself, stood up to Trump and said No. In this moment, I have hope.

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry
Lesson in Chemistry - a novel

“Know what you need to do, dig in really hard, and do not expect it to be easy.”

As I checked out this book, the librarian said, “Did you wait a long time? People are waiting a long time for ‘Lessons in Chemistry’” so I read it promptly. It took only three days to go the 385 page distance because the book was so thrilling and satisfying. I have reconsidered my recent vow to avoid novels: this one was a delight. For months I have been chewing on Terry Real’s observation: we live in a society that is patriarchal, narcissistic and addicted. Elizabeth, the chemist, is working in the early 1960s, back when I was making plans to become a biologist. The author, Bonnie Garmus, draws a clear picture of the efforts made by men in academia and the in business of science to oppress, repress and dismiss women. Talented women. Hard-working women.

Garmus said, “the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism.”

I love how the book came into being. According to Sadie Stein in her New York Times interview of author Bonnie Garmus, a career copywriter who experiences some “garden variety misogyny” one day at work and takes her anger out on the page.

“I felt like I was writing my own role model, and so she came easily… [the chemist understood that] You can really do what you need to do. You just have to dig in really hard and not expect it to be very easy.”

I learned a lot about rowing, and both the author and the chemist relieve stress by working out on an “erg” a rowing machine. Bonnie Garmus had endured nearly 100 rejections of prior projects during her career as a copywriter, so if you just considered “Lessons in Chemistry,” it might look like an overnight success story: she took her anger out on the page, caught the eye of an agent who offered representation on the strength of three chapters. The book goes to auction; bidding wars ensue; the novel comes out and surpasses expectations.

I am glad that this book is striking a nerve with readers because it shines a light on 1960s behaviors that were so corrosive. By placing the novel in the recent past, it tells the truth about the oppression, mocking and belittling in the hard sciences that continues today in technology companies but is more skillfully denied (gaslighted). At the same time, the book was hilarious and I laughed out loud a lot. Reading this book was like putting healing ointment on a skinned knee.

I have been thinking a lot about the “American Dream” and its abhorrence of failure. Bonnie Garmus makes it very clear that in science, as in life, failure is an important part of the growth process and is to be grasped ferociously and wrestled to the ground. I was gratified to learn:

One high-school teacher, says Garmus, is making her students read “Lessons in Chemistry” for a class on the American dream.

Book: Our Missing Hearts

Book: Our Missing Hearts

Rarely do I see a book review by Stephen King in the New York Times. I never stopped to think that he even reads books, let alone reviews them for the NYTimes! Wow, this guy can write! And here’s a book he loved, written by a woman, Celeste Ng, about a dystopian near-future.
CelesteNg

I am currently taking a class on the “Science in Science Fiction” and Stephen King refers to many of the classics.

Noah Gardner, known as Bird, is a 12 year-old Chinese American living with his father in Cambridge, Mass. His mother is a fugitive, on the run because she wrote a supposedly subversive poem titled “All Our Missing Hearts.” America is living under PACT — the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act — which became law during a confused and economically disastrous period known as the Crisis.

Noah’s father is a librarian and the books are being recycled into toilet paper. There is a lot about books and words, as well government scapegoating of minorities, in this case Asians. This review is so much fun to read, I decided read “Our Missing Hearts“!

I hated it. It took a long time to read and the ending violated Anet Dunne Rule #1: Don’t Get Caught. I made a vow not to waste my time on fiction again. I learned nothing. Grrr. But the Stephen King book review was good!

Celebrating Quiddity

Celebrating Quiddity

The dog in this NYTimes article by Alexandria Horowitz is named Quiddity by his two lexicographer “parents” (they don’t say owner). Quiddity is a “mid-sized mixed-breed dog with a sleek black coat, a scruffy schnauzer-like face and Brezhnev-esque eyebrows that gave her the appearance of a wise old man.”

Bringing Home Some ‘Hairy Joie de Vivre,’ and Taking Notes

Like many, the canine behavioral expert Alexandra Horowitz adopted a dog during the pandemic. She had extra incentive: understanding a puppy’s development. Now, she’s turned her observations into a book.

 

Because Alexandra Horowitz, 53, knew the dog’s mother and saw the puppy on the day she was born, “her early life was not full of trauma, and yet nonetheless she was not the dog I hoped she would be at first. She wasn’t responsive to us in a way that I wanted her to be.” Quid was impulsive, eager to run heedlessly after squirrels and other elusive creatures, inclined to bark more relentlessly and with less apparent purpose than Horowitz’s two older dogs.

“I feel now that I was way too focused on dog behavior,” she said. “In the beginning, nothing would slip by me, and it was too much for a puppy to bear. Over time, as I began to release my vise grip on the idea that she should be someone other than who she was, I began to appreciate her for who she really is.”

Untrammeled Enthusiams

Alex’s lexographer husband said, “I think she’s fascinating and full of excitement and love and she has a hairy joie de vivre. She is untrammeled in her enthusiasms, which is nice. Nobody’s interested in a jaded dog. She is also kind of a pain in the tuchus because of those untrammeled enthusiasms.” I looked it up and enthusiasm can be countable or uncountable. Apparently, he can count her enthusiasms, which include squirrels, tennis balls and untrammeled barking.

Quiddity can be defined as the essence that makes something the kind of thing it is and makes it different from any other. Quid is latin for “what” so if your dog was named Fred you would love his “fredness.”

I think Quiddity is what Dr.Rita Levi-Montalcini had in mind when she urged the Praise of Imperfection.

Levi-Montalcini Praises Imperfection

Levi-Montalcini Praises Imperfection

“In Praise of Imperfection” is the memoir of Rita Levi-Montalcini who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering Nerve Growth Factor in cancer cells. She was the fourth woman to ever receive a Nobel prize. The book details the research, including a 1952 visit to a longtime friend’s cell culture laboratory in Rio de Janeiro. Together, they discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and worked out its biochemistry. Dr. Levi-Montalcini recalls her work in Rio as “one of the most intense periods of my life in which moments of enthusiasm and despair alternated with the regularity of a biological cycle.”

Although she was highly focused and single-minded in her research, she also saw life and research as a series of cycles, not linear events. “It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain, and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological, and intellectual development.”

Although she worked in the U.S. at Washington University in St. Louis for 30 years (from 1947-1977), she returned to Italy in the to continue her research there. She became more outgoing over the years and loved to host dinner parties, even though she was not herself interested in food. Always beautifully coiffed, and designing her own clothes in later years, she lived exuberantly until 103. Here are some quotes and a two-minute video from Nobel.org.

The final chapter in her memoir deals with the death of her brother at the hands of the Nazis.
She laments how people are driven by greed and the desire for power and territory. She observes that the body’s limbic system has remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years while the neocortex has enjoyed explosive growth. Unfortunately, we are mostly blind to the drives from the deepest part of our nervous system. As a biologist, this uneven development of human brainpower has caused much suffering and loss. The limbic system manages functions like breathing as well as instinctive behaviors like survival and mating. I realized that maybe the reason the yogis tell us to “return to the breath” is a way to connect consciously with this important but often forgotten layer of the nervous system.

Federal Reserve: Lords of Easy Money

Federal Reserve: Lords of Easy Money

Book The Lords of Easy MoneyThe New York Times called it “A Fascinating Page-Turner Made From an Unlikely Subject: Federal Reserve Policy” and it was exciting to read as inflation jumped so high that the Federal Reserve had to (1) bump up the interest rate a couple of days ago, (2) announce that there would be further interest rate increases, and (3) that the Fed would start off-loading about a trillion dollars a year from their “quantitative easing” reserves of NINE trillion dollars. If they continue at that rate, the treasury bills they hoovered-up would be cleared from their books by the end of this decade.

Now I know how to read an FOMC statement. Now I understand where the money came from that John Doerr was investing in environmentally-conscious startups. How interesting that his announcement of a One-Billion-Dollar-Plus donation to Stanford University practically coincided with the increase in the Federal Funds Target Rate. Now I understand that inflation is more than the price of bread, that there is also “asset inflation” like the price of houses and Picassos. “Quantitative Easing” pushed so much money into the hands of Venture Capitalists and big banks that they poured it into assets in an effort to create some positive yield, necessary for the pension funds and other investors that had built interest gains into their business models. The pension funds could not just put the money in the bank and earn interest — the interest rate was Zero and pretty much had been starting in 2009. The Feds had tried to raise the interest rate, but Covid put an end to that and we were back at zero. It was crucial, however, to avoid deflation during the two-year Covid shutdown.

Fed Funds Target Rate

The trick is to keep employment high, inflation at about 2%, and Federal interest rates at about 4-5%, but it’s like trying to manage a three-way see-saw. Right now, the economy seems to be strong and almost back to where it was before the pandemic, with robust employment. Jay Powell said, “We have essentially interest rates, the balance sheet and forward guidance, and they’re famously blunt tools. They’re not capable of surgical precision.”

What I really enjoyed about this very-readable book is learning about these three tools, what they do, what their unintended consequences can me, and the politics and drama that went into the policy. The abrasion between the academics like Ben Bernanke and those in the marketplace like Steve Mnuchin and Jay Powell is fascinating. It also made clear that fiscal policy is supposed to be made by Congress, such as allocating money to repair the crumbling infrastructure as a way to inject liquidity into the marketplace. But in the face of congressional gridlock, the Fed has been forced to try to play a symphony with its blunt tools.

The “quantitive easing” really boosted asset values, like houses and stock market portfolios, much of which was purchased with borrowed money. This increased the “wealth gap” between investors in the 1% and the rest of us. When interest rates go up, it is reasonable for investors to unload high-risk investments like start-up companies, so the stock market will go down. As interest rates go up and stock prices come down, highly-leveraged investors will face margin calls that will increase the speed of the market descent. This may lead to a very unhappy outcome in the mid-term elections later this year.

Excellent book. Highly recommended!

Speed and Scale by John Doerr

Speed and Scale by John Doerr

Venture capitalist John Doerr’s book with an action plan for solving our climate crisis. Opened my eyes about how hard it is going to continue to be. Mentioned Elizabeth Kolbert’s hastily-written “Under a White Sky” which described a strategy to cool the earth by dispersing tiny light-reflecting particles like diamonds.

Doerr says, “Be ruthless in identifying the key risk up front — and removing it. Consider:”

  1. Technology Risk – Does it actually work?
  2. Market Risk – Does it stand out?
  3. Consumer Risk – Will customers actually buy?
  4. Regulatory Risk – Will it get approved?
  • You are always raising money. Recruit a range of investors who can write large checks including corporate partners, foundations, and governments.
  • Costs are king; performance matters. Consumers won’t pay more for an inferior product no matter how “green.” It must be superior, or at least equivalent: Tesla, Beyond Meat, Nest.
  • Own the relationship with your customer. Sustain direct relationships with end buyers.
  • Incumbents will fight. The disrupted markets are built on the premise of free-of-charge carbon pollution.

Update May 5, 2022

John Doerr, a venture capitalist, and his wife, Ann Doerr, are making a $1.1 billion donation to Stanford for a new school focusing on sustainability and climate change.

Book: A Gentleman in Moscow

Book: A Gentleman in Moscow


The Metropol Hotel in Moscow (above), scene of Amor Towles “A Gentleman In Moscow” which was recommended by two members of the OLLI Art Club. The gentleman in the title spends most of his life there under house arrest by the Soviets. At more than 460 pages, it took me a month to read but now I understand how it got on the NYTimes reader-generated list of 25 Best Books.

I wrote to my art club friend, saying “I just finished “Book Two” of the books-within-the-book and I see an interesting pattern. “The Bishop,” the waiter who didn’t know much about wine but pompously gave bad advice anyway, just got the central committee to remove all the labels from the wine bottles in the cellar. The Count remembers a time he tried to … I don’t know — motivate? — the Bishop to do better, but apparently the Bishop took offense and spent years plotting his revenge against the Count for making him feel bad.

And the Hussar, who gobbled up all the roast beef and drank too much wine, then gambled with the Count, lost big, and fled from the table to “return his dinner to the field from which it came” spent years plotting his revenge for the Count publicly tearing up the Hussar’s marker. He wooed the Count’s sister, and on her birthday ravaged her maid. He might have ravaged the sister but the Count was there to visit. The Count shot the Hussar but failed to kill him. Apparently the Hussar had taken offense and spent years plotting his revenge for the Count making him feel bad.

Is the writer saying something about the grandiosity of the nobility trying to pass itself off as virtue and the resentment of the proletariat? Is he trying to say something about how to defend oneself from a narcissist? The Count was dignified and civil, but did he treat the Bishop and the Hussar with respect? I wonder what the author is implying. Any thoughts? Is this resolved in Book Three?

My friend replied with this link to a talk Amor Towles gave at the Pequot Library. After watching the author speak about what was going on in Russia at the time the Gentleman was there, I realize how brilliant Amor Towles is. The talk provided no spoilers for those who had not yet read the book, and filled in so much for the people who enjoyed the thick book.