Book Reviews


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2022


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I listened to this on audiobook, and it took me almost 2 years. It's 800 pages long. The infinite jest of presidential autobiographies. Barack Obama is a good writer: I've read Dreams from My Father and part of The Audacity of Hope. He also has a "rich inner life", he's deeply introspective about who he his, his flaws, his mistakes, the nature and limits of power, etc. He seems himself inhabiting a role as much as he seems himself as an agent of power and history. Some key insights: when Obama is deciding to run for president, Michelle is strongly against it, and the only reason he ends up deciding is because he thinks it would be important to be the first black president, that this would have a symbolic significance that would change America for the better. Crucially: not for any specific policy reason, but because he views inhabiting the office would be a substantial act. And by his metric, his presidency was a success: he was the first black president, and basically, he was "fine". He didn't make any substantial policy changes, he just sort of did what most any Democrat would have done in the same situation.


However, this mindset causes him to view himself as overly constrained. Is it true that the first black president has more scrutiny because America is a racist country? Absolutely. But on some level, Obama doesn't view himself as an agent capable of exercising power. He views himself as limited and constrained: capable of action only within a very narrow set of possibilities. He doesn't think that he can change the underlying forces themselves. Of course, the question is, does he want to? I would argue, to some degree, yes. I think Obama views the "unchained" version of himself as Elizabeth Warren (who allegedly he secretly endorsed): a liberal reformer, but one who still acts within limits, albeit wider ones. But in terms of what he actually believes, he is still, of course, a liberal, not a socialist.


This 800 page book only covers the first half of his presidency. I think Obama's obsession with writing about himself (which, again, he is very good at) tells you a lot about his character: his need to justify himself, to explain how and why he made decisions, and how politics is a lot more complicated and difficult than you may think. How he really does sympathize with whatever the left wants, but that it simply wasn't possible within the constraints he was under. And beyond that, he is a great "experiencer" of the presidency: he can tell you exactly what it is like to be the president.


I constrast this book to Bernie Sanders' books. Sanders is a shockingly bad writer, and has almost no introspection. He only thinks in terms of action, organizing, and power, and a book about the Sanders presidency would not contain any passages thinking about how he felt looking out at the white house south lawn, or how tortured he was making x, y, z decisions. I doubt Sanders would even be interested in writing about his presidency, certainly not in the same way. His books are polemics, and the brief autobiographical notes read like they were forced in their by his editor. I don't think he has even the slightest interest in writing about "what it is like to be the president".


I think Obama looms largely over American politics in ways that I didn't realize before finishing this book. As much as he views himself as constrained, his pragmatic attitude also constrained what was possible within American politics. And oddly, someone who is to his right ideologically and far less intelligent or competent (Biden) facing a far less amenable congress is somehow able to accomplish more. Maybe, in this sense, it makes sense to consider his presidency a failure. Regardless, I think Obama is an ambiguous and interesting figure whose mistakes and successes we can learn from, and I wonder how history will judge him in the long run (a question which he himself is obsessed with). He is a man defined by great intelligence, competence, thoughtfulness, and poise, but also a timidness and a misreading of the American political environment.


Internet For the People by Ben Tarnoff

I basically agreed with everything in this book, but also left feeling, so what? It isn't really analysis, but a polemic: the internet is bad, and it's bad because it's privatized, because of capitalism. The solution is more publicly-funded, worker/community cooperative networks and infrastructure. I do agree, basically, of course. But there isn't really sophisticated analysis of how to build that world, or how to overcome the forces in the way. I don't know why I felt annoyed reading a book I basically agree with. I'll have to think about it more. But maybe I don't agree with it on some level, that I think the internet and technology is more fundamentally rotten, and needs much deeper re-evaluation. ie, I'm more interested in more experimentation and basic research at this point, rather than leveraging the infrastructure as it exists into something new. And Tarnoff sort of acknowledges this point, but I don't think he goes far enough. Like, I can tell that the author (a software engineer) probably is pretty conservative as a technologist, whereas I'm more radical as a technologist. I think that in order to imagine and construct another world, we need to try and build the technology of that world. That's what flounder is as a project, basically, as is other stuff I'm interested in.


He also believes that tech workers somehow have the capability to organize around their shared class interests, but I do not. Had a conversation with Dori about these ideas, where she challenged some of them, and I may well be wrong in my analysis.


Nevada

I got this book at the Strand bookstore in New York. I wasn't aware of this at the time, but the main character works at The Strand. Very funny. I got it because I read a really compelling Atlantic review of it. The girl (who I thought was very attractive) who helped me find it told me she read it and really liked it, and recommended detransition baby. Both are about trans characters, and neither her (I assume) nor me are trans. The book says bad things about Strand, which I found funny because she worked at Strand. She had recently graduated college and was a writer. This was an incredibly good interaction, and I felt sad, because I knew I would never see this person again.


Next, the theme. Obviously, this is "trans literature". Being trans is a huge part of the book. The book is popular, largely, because it is about being trans. It is about being trans in 2008 (ish?), an odd time to be trans, before it was part of the public consciousness, for better (2013-2018ish?) or worse (2019-now, e.g. rise of TERFS, trans as a culture war issue). I am not transgender, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I think is what makes it good.


The narrator is 29, I am 29. The narrator's life represents, perhaps, some version of an alternative path my life would take -- not trans, but still "punk". When I was younger, I had a bone to pick with the world, I thought of myself as an artist, I was very chaotic, I was alienated, I thought I was bi (I'm probably not), etc. What happened was I got a real job and turned that into a career, which is where I am now. The narrator did not do this, and instead languished in dead-end jobs and relationships forever. So part of this is exciting: what if I could have lived like I was 23 for 6 years after? Despite the fact that her life is a total, fucked-up mess.


I read this book in new york a bit but mostly on the plane to sf, and then in various parks in san francisco. Carried it around for a long time while walking around the city aimlessly.


I loved the ending. There is an afterword where she explains herself a bit more, but I didn't read it. I don't think this book needs any explaining. She says at the beginning of the afterwords, "I know it's bad for an author to try and explain things..." but I agree, it's bad, so I didn't read it.


edited out like 90% of my review here, which I wrote while tipsy.


The novelist -- Jordan Castro

(united, unfiltered)

I have been seeing this book in many different independent bookstores, and I picked it up at one in Williamsburg and flipped through it and read the blurbs. I was put off from it before, as I don't really have any knowledge about Jordan Castro except he was peripherally involved with "alt lit" like 10 years ago, and figured that he probably didn't have much interesting to say. I impulse bought it and read it in Domino Park, then the circuitous subway from domino park back to park slope (M to B), then at a coffee shop that I stayed at until close to its close (I was the last person there), then Prospect park, then back at my apartment, where I finished it.


The premise of the novel is almost embarrassingly self-indulgent: it is about a novelist, styled after the author, who is working o a novel, alone, in his thoughts. He wakes up, makes tea, looks at Twitter, looks at instagram, uses the bathroom, makes coffee, looks at instagram, gets mad about his friend and decides to start a self-indulgent "novel" about how much he sucks, walks his dog. The whole novel takes place over about 3 hours. The author, Jordan Castro, is referred to by the narrator has a handsome, talented writer who the narrator looks up to but is afraid of imitating. There is an insane reference to Tao Lin's novels -- the main character's friend has the same name as Tao Lin's self-insert character in Leave Society, and in the narrator's novel (based on the narrator's life), his character has the same name as the character based on Jordan Castro in Tao Lin's Taipei, and is friends with the character based on Tao Lin in Taipei.


All this sounds, of course, awful, and I'm sure that Jordan Castro is aware of how absurdly meta and self-indulgent he is being: it's obvious (the narrator calling "Jordan Castro" handsome). The novel itself is self-referential and meta to an absurd degree.


And yet, this was an incredibly well-written novel with a surprising amount of heart. I was hooked by how similar my consciousness is to the consciousness of the narrator. The scenes about social media are especially poigniant, and one reason that I could read this all straight start to finish is that seeing distraction and social media and the internet being portrayed in the way that it was made me disgusted and repulsed by it -- I have related to the internet in the same way that the narrator has, but to see it put on page makes it seem so pathetic and repulsive that it makes me want to delete social media and get off the internet more than most anything I've read.


Jordan Castro manages to capture a consciousness that seems, to me, so peculiar and specifically my own, but the fact that he wrote this, and it is a relatively popular and successful book, indicates that he is describing a way of being that is far more common than I may think. To give an example: walking through the woods thinking "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death", then commenting about how the narrator knows that song from the Coolio song, which he was only made aware of through the weird al parody. This is an extremely specific experience that I also have had. Going through life thinking of a combination of snippets from pop culture, deep philosophical wanderings, reflexive self-consciousness, bizarre personal "memes" (like ditties that one made up and sings to oneself in specific circumstances) all felt very personal to me, but probably describe experiences that are far more common, or at least not just singular to me specifically. It also made me want to change: the narrator is constantly thrown around by impulses and little addictions, and only has time for reflection in small, fleeting chunks. It makes me want to really try and develop a different sort of consciousness: meditate (another interest the narrator has, but fails to commit to), spend a long time alone in a space, spend time in deep, personal reflection and awareness, and spending long periods of time away from phones and computers.


I find it interesting that the narrator is, ultimately, just a regular guy. While he had insane drug issues in the past, and this novel talks about them (mostly through a description of the narrator's novel), the narrator's life is relatively banal, and he seems like a well-adjusted, normal adult, who is doing work. He has a dog, and a girlfriend. He self-consciously dreams of all these really high-minded ideas, but he isn't particularly exceptional. What makes him exceptional is, like anyone else, the things that make him an individual, and the every day banalities and thoughts of life. The novel is structured such that we see how fucked up and insane the narrator's past has been, but he's out of it, he's relatively healthy, and this is what a healthy normal like looks like: one full of little drama, just an endless stream of small decisions and anxieties (which the narrator is also self-consciously anxious about: that this is the entire constitution of his life). I find this ultimately hopeful: the things that conscitute who we are, and our impact on the world, are broadly not defined by large, dramatic events, but an accumulation of millions of small, fluttering thoughts and decisions that consist a life. I loved this novel.


This book is Disulfiram for using the internet


what i talk about when I talk about running -- haruki murakami

I have been meaning to read this for a while. i recently decided to 'take running more seriously' and this book helped solidify that decision and develop my mindset around running. I liked how murakami said that people like his books in times of crisis. there is something soothing about his style. maybe it's the sort of matter-of-factness. he makes dramatic change and struggle seem relatively straightforward somehow. like how he casually mentions that he was smoking 60 cigarettes a day and then stopped. He writes almost the opposite of david foster wallace, who, in himself and his characters, have an overwhelming neurosis and compulsion to analyze every single tiny aspect of their lives. I relate more to the way DFW perceives the world, which is why it is very relaxing to read murakami. I think I am going to read another murakami book.


something to do with paying attention -- david foster wallace

An excerpt from the unfinished The Pale King, which I've read about 100 pages of, republished as a novella. Riveting and incredible. How can we live in the world in which we find ourselves? DFW seems to have gotten much farther on this question than most. Reading this cemented the idea in me that I made the write decision to pursue software engineering and not writing, first because I fully believe myself incapable of writing anything even remotely this good, and second because this book itself finds a sort of honor and reverence in a career that is so mind-numbingly boring and full of bureaucracy (IRS accounting) to the point of absurdity. I found the 'climax' about the death of the narrator's father so moving that I was moved to tears in Propsect park. What struck me was how (mild spoilers) his father is killed by a combination of highly improbably banal events, four of which I will list: 1. The narrator sleeping in that morning 2. The narrator "sulking" behind his father as he rushed ahead of him (described in incredible detail) 3. poorly-conceived state-level tax policy that year 4. overlooked engineering faults on the CTA. The story elevates the daily, mind-numbing toil and "tedium" (used often) of daily life into a single event which dramatically and improbably kills the narrator's father. And then, over the next few years, another series of incredibly improbably events leads the narrator to become one of the "1 in 10,000" people who, somehow, consider a career at the IRS to be their personal calling. Just read this it's so good


tomorrow sex will be good again — katherine angel

Picked this up after flipping through it at a bookstore and mostly read it on the train. Extremely good.


I thought the part about how viagra was marketed and used not for male pleasure but male “performance” was interesting


Dune

I read this, but I have so much to say about it that I don't think I can put it all here. Maybe I'll write something at the end of the series


Starting forth

Forth is a great programming language



The Utopia of Rules

Very meandering book, not entirely sure what the main "thesis" was. An analysis of bureaucracy and how it is pervasive in not just public but private life. Got me thinking about the stultifying aspects of bureaucracy in my daily life, and how bureaucracy exists to dominate and control. Graeber makes the good point that our political imagination since the 70s has been almost nonexistent, and that computing / technology doesn't really serve the imagination, but is primarily used and designed for filling out forms.


fungirl by elizabeth pich

This was a graphic novel released by a local publisher. It was very funny and well done.


Atomic Habits

I read this based on a recommendation from my work's internal slack's "career club" channel. I rarely read this kind of self help book. I thought it was OK but a lot of the observations were a bit cliche, like things borrowed from other books in this genre. I'm not entirely sure why it is as popular as it is. I also don't really feel like it has much of a coherent "system" as much as books like e.g. "getting things done" (which I also read). Maybe that's good. Inspired me to start to develop some positive habits though, which I am working on, and maybe will track on flounder


Nietzsche -- The Anti-Christ

This was mostly kind of boring relative to the other Nietzsche I've read. Mostly about 19th century Christianity. I thought the insights on Buddhism were good.


2021


The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-first Century by Amia Srinivasan


A collection of essays exploring difficult contemporary questions regarding sex and feminism, named after its titular essay, which originally asked the question, regarding incels, does anyone have a right to sex? Her answer is, of course, no, but along the way, she asks pointed questions about the politics around who and what we desire.


Jaron Lanier "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now"


A bit kooky, but I agree with the arguments. Reads kind of like RMS's blog. In some ways, he feels like an "insider's outsider", like Thomas Piketty or (that guy who writes for newsweek)


Nadia Eghbal "Working in Public"


An insightful and thorough investigation into open source. I don't agree with all her conclusions: she seems bound within the existing structural framework of Big Tech -- as one would expect from a member of the Ford Foundation. But overall it was a good read, and inspired me to think about my relationship with open source.



alex.flounder.online/