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October 8, 2013

Cancer under the microscope, a story already told better

1A review of The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery, by George Johnson

@@ (2 out of 5)

If you’re looking for an introduction to the painful subject of cancer — its history, its origins, and the efforts of science to combat it — I suggest you read the authoritative and compelling book, The Emperor of All Maladies, by the oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee. The Cancer Chronicles treats the same subject in a similar way but with far less success. George Johnson’s unrestrained use of medical and scientific jargon left me reeling, page after page, and I suspect that any other nonscientist will have a similar experience.

Undoubtedly, Johnson’s book — published in 2013, two years after The Emperor of All Maladies — includes information about numerous advances in cancer research and treatment that wasn’t available in 2011. Research in the field is accelerating that quickly! But Johnson shrouds his story with so many polysyllabic descriptors that I finished the book and couldn’t remember a single outstanding new development. There’s something to be said for the English language, unsullied by specialists’ cant. I wish technical writers would learn the lesson.

George Johnson is an accomplished science writer whose credits include extensive work on television as well as writing for The New York Times. I would hope that his other work is better than what’s on offer in The Cancer Chronicles.

My three favorite books about science

favorite booksNow, for starters, please note that these favorite science books of mine are only those I’ve read and reviewed during the past three-and-one-half years since I started this blog. So, you won’t find The Origin of Species or any of the other classics here. With that understood, my three favorites, in no special order, are:

The top three

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is extraordinary on several levels: as a beautifully researched work of medical and scientific history, as a portrait of the profound impact of racism in America, and as a brutally honest first-person account of a writer’s challenging, decade-long struggle to write a serious book . . . Read on. 

The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Are you wondering why cancer occurs more frequently with age? Dr. Mukherjee’s lucid prose, and his masterful command of the field of oncology, make it a snap to understand. Cancer is a genetic disease, and every gene among the 25,000 or so in the human genome is vulnerable to mutation in the course of time . . . Read more.

1The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, by Thomas Blass

You may never have heard Milgram’s name, but you’ve surely heard about at least two of his most famous experiments. One was the fiendishly clever experiment he devised to study the small-world phenomenon, more popularly known as “Six Degrees of Separation.” His experiments yielded empirical evidence for the validity of that theory. However, the other, best known as Milgram’s “obedience experiments,” gets the lion’s share of the attention in this biography. It was these experiments that were the primary sources of Milgram’s fame — and his notoriety . . .

Read more.

 Other science books I’ve enjoyed

These titles are listed in no particular order. Each is linked to the review I wrote.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, by Peter H. Gleick

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach

Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, by Tiffany Shlain

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Whelan

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach


September 16, 2013

From the Summer of Love to the Jonestown massacre


jonestown massacreSeason of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love, by David Talbot

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

It’s difficult to imagine any city in North America that has experienced such a short and intense period of tumult and terror as did San Francisco from the mid-60s to the early 1980s.

The Summer of Love. The racist Zebra killings. The People’s Temple mass suicide. The assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. The onset of the AIDS epidemic. And the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Janis — oh, the music!

You can’t make this stuff up.

For those of us who lived through this era in and near San Francisco and even knew some of the players, David Talbot’s masterful portrait of that time and place, Season of the Witch, reawakens memories, some of them long suppressed. To recall that we lived our lives punctuated by such rapidly alternating bouts of exhilaration and despair!

Talbot tells the tale of this time through a series of interconnected biographical sketches, bringing the bold-faced names of the 1960s and 1970s back to life in vivid detail: Scott Newhall, Herb Caen, Joe Alioto, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Harvey Milk, Janis Joplin, Dianne Feinstein, and dozens of others. This is a story not of saints and sinners but of flesh-and-blood human beings with their own faults and failings no matter how society may have lionized them.

Season of the Witch opens and closes with vignettes from the colorful lives of Vincent and Vivian Hallinan who, with their six pugilistic sons and the other lawyers the old man trained, set the combative tone for progressive politics in the city for decades to come.

Talbot makes clear that San Francisco was always a world apart from the nation, with its origins rooted in the frenzy of the Gold Rush (the pro football team isn’t called the 49ers without reason!). “By 1866,” he writes, “there were thirty-one saloons for every place of worship.” Six decades later, “[d]uring the Prohibition era, the local board of supervisors passed legislation forbidding San Francisco police from enforcing the dry law.” It could have been no surprise, then, how young Vincent Hallinan responded in an early court appearance when asked by a judge whether he wished to show contempt for the court: “‘No, Your Honor, I’m trying to conceal it.'”

To Talbot, the story of San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s is one of a “new city growing within the old” — the flower children, anti-war protestors, weed smokers and acidheads, the gays, and more gays: these were the newcomers who grafted themselves on to a tradition-bound, Catholic, pro-labor town run by Irish and Italians who were never prone to go down without a fight.

David Talbot was the founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Salon in 1995 after serving as an editor for both newspapers and magazines. He has written for many other publications and has authored several other books.

September 9, 2013

The five best history books I’ve read recently

1Of the several hundred books I’ve read and reviewed since I launched this blog in January 2010, many were works of history, my undergraduate major and a field that has continued to fascinate and engage me through the years. It seemed time to take stock of this reading and point to the five books I’ve found to be most outstanding.

Although I’ve taken into account both writing style and mastery of scholarship in selecting these few standouts, the most important criterion in my mind was the extent to which these books contributed something substantially new and surprising to my understanding of history.

BTW, just in case there’s any confusion, all the following are nonfiction books. I’ve omitted any of the excellent historical novels I’ve also read and reviewed.

Books are arranged in no particular order below.

The top five

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

A powerful and compelling study of the roles of J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan in stirring up violence among student demonstrators and others who opposed their autocratic behavior, the racism endemic among law enforcement officers, and the interventionist military policies of the national administration.


Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris

An archeologist and historian explores the broad patterns of development over the past 15,000 years of humanity’s presence on Earth, upending much of the conventional wisdom among historians and noting that the West’s ascendancy since the advent of the Industrial Revolution is the exception, not the rule, in the historical balance of power between East and West.

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Shocking revelations of the role of top CIA officials in the assassination of John F. Kennedy — and the impact of his death had on the US pursuit of war in Vietnam. The author, son of a senior CIA officer who knew many of the key figures in this drama as a child, drew on newly available material to explain how Kennedy’s mistress, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was murdered under orders from the CIA, ostensibly to prevent her from revealing the conspiracy behind the President’s murder.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann

The second of two books by Charles C. Mann that explore the world of the late 15th Century. 1491 revealed the surprising reality of the Americas before Columbus — teeming with population far greater than Europe’s, and far more sophisticated than previously believed. 1493 deals with the Columbian Exchange, historians’ term for the massive shift of flora, fauna, technology, and disease between the Old World and the New, with profound effects for both.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt


A brilliant study of the influence of a hitherto obscure ancient poet whose shockingly prescient understanding of the natural world influenced the explorations of numerous Renaissance scholars — and whose impact is felt to this day.

Other excellent works of history

Zealot, by Reza Aslan

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Geffen

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben McIntyre

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse

Narrowing global inequities: a reading list

Narrowing global inequitiesAs I’ve dug more deeply into the subject of global poverty in the course of writing The Business Solution to Poverty with Paul Polak, it has become increasingly clear to me that truly understanding how today’s glaring inequities have come about requires extensive knowledge in a wide array of topics, from Third World history to social psychology, development economics to the history of business and international trade.

Well, I confess I’m no expert in any of those fields. I’ve read widely in some, superficially in others, and I’m learning a lot.

My reading has emphasized economic history, the economics of poverty, colonialism, Third World development, social enterprise, and the ongoing debate about the impact of “foreign aid” (more properly, overseas development assistance). Along the way, I’ve reviewed in my blog many of the books I’ve read.

In previous posts, I’ve offered up reading lists on some of these subjects individually. Here, I’m sharing a compiled list. I’ve read all these books — some before I began my blog, so that I haven’t reviewed them. Where I’ve reviewed a book, you’ll find boldfacing and underlining that signifies a link to my review. The books are listed alphabetically by the author’s last name.

Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. PublicAffairs, 2011. 

Bing, Eric C., and Marc J. Epstein, Pharmacy on a Bicycle: Innovative Solutions for Global Health and Poverty. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013. 

Bornstein, David, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Oxford University Press, 2007.

——, The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank. Oxford University Press, 2005.

——, and Susan Davis, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Cohen, Ben, and Mal Warwick, Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.

Collier, Paul, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Collins, Daryl, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven, Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Crutchfield, Leslie R., and Heather McLeod Grant, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, 2nd Edition. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2012.

Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Press, 2005.

Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Penguin Press, 2006.

Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World.Harvard Business Review Press, 2008.

Govindarajan, Vijay, and Chris Trimble, Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

Guha, Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Kamkwamba, William, and Bryan Mealer, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

Kidder, Tracy, Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Random House,2003.

Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Knopf, 2009.

Light, Paul Charles, The Search for Social Entrepreneurship. Brookings Institution Press2008.

Lynch, Kevin, and Julius Walls, Jr., Mission, Inc.: The Practitioner’s Guide to Social Enterprise. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

Mehta, Pavithra, and Suchitra Shenoy, Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011.  

Moyo, Dambisa, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Newitz, Annalee, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Doubleday, 2013. 

Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006.

Prahalad, C. K., The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

Rifkin, Jeremy, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 

Sachs, Jeffrey D., The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. Penguin Press, 2005.

Schwartz, BeverlyRippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World. Jossey-Bass Publishers,2012.

Sinclair, Hugh, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012. 

Sullivan, Nicholas P., You Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones Are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2007.

Wrong, Michaela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

A searing inquiry into life during the Chechnyan War

Chechnyan WarA Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

In his young life, the promising American writer Anthony Marra has already won awards, but he deserves another one simply for having the chutzpah to write A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It’s set in Chechnya, no less, and during the worst of Russia’s endlessly brutal war against the Chechen people. It seems exceedingly unlikely that Marra has any experience of war or has ever lived in Chechnya. His credentials (apart from those literary awards) seem limited to an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a fellowship at Stanford, where he’s hanging out now.

Despite these limitations, which would likely strike the average National Book Award-winner as insurmountable, Marra does a convincing job of portraying the interior dialogue of his characters, marooned in the scorched earth of their ancestral homeland. By immersing the reader in the telling details of everyday life in this hellhole of unending terror, he manages to transcend the particulars of his story and conjure up the universal feelings that roil around in us all: love, envy, fear, betrayal, loneliness, hope.

The principal characters of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are Akhmed, “the worst doctor in Chechnya,” who cut medical school classes to study art; Sonja Rabina, a brilliant ethnic Russian surgeon who left a prestigious residency in London to return home when war broke out; an eight-year-old girl named Havaa who became an orphan when “the Feds” burned down her house and dragged away her father (as we learn in the opening lines of the novel); and Khassan, an aging history scholar whose faith in Marxism was shattered, and his life’s work rendered pointless, by the revelations following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

These characters, and others, form an accidental community, crowded together by the tragic events around them. “As a web is no more than holes woven together,” writes Marra, “they were bonded by what was no longer there.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is structured as a tale of five days’ events, but it doesn’t read that way. In fact, during each “day,” we’re rocketed back and forth across a stretch of more than a decade, from the early 90s to 2004, with vivid flashbacks that loom larger than contemporary events–and flashes of the characters’ future that obviate an epilogue. Marra explains: “time didn’t march forward; instead it turned from day to night, from hospital to flat, from cries to silence, from claustrophobia to loneliness and back again, like a coin flipping from side to side.”

The precocious and wise young child, Havaa, is unhappy with the unfairness of it all: “It’s stupid. There are maps to show you how to get to the place where you want to be but no maps that show you how to get to the time when you want to be.” As a reader, you may feel a little bit like Havaa. However, if you manage to navigate through the years and still follow the arc of the story, you’ll find A Constellation of Vital Phenomena highly rewarding by the end.

Oh, and by the way, the title is taken from a Russian medical dictionary. It’s the lead definition for the word life.

Will solar energy replace fossil fuels? An expert seems to think so


A review of Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy — and our Planet — from Dirty Energy, by Danny Kennedy

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The basic facts are clear. The US must move to solar and other forms of renewable energy to slow down global warming; lower the environmental costs of extracting coal, oil, and natural gas; reduce the adverse public health impact of fossil fuel emissions; and end our dependency on overseas sources of petroleum.

But did you know that the move to solar energy is inevitable? That, sooner or later, the economic advantages of solar will be so compelling that the relatively few people today who still believe the coal and oil industries’ propaganda will eventually be forced to decide to install photovoltaic panels on their rooftops and commercial buildings?

That’s the message that emerges from reading between the lines of Rooftop Revolution, the paean to solar energy by Danny Kennedy, one of the avatars of the rising solar industry. Kennedy demonstrates with a wealth of statistics and a captivating narrative that the price of solar electricity from rooftop installations is on such a steep downward track, the pace of technological innovation in the industry is so swift, and the price of oil is on such an inevitable long-term rising trend, that within a very few years it will become impossible to ignore the widening gap in cost between electricity from solar and that from fossil-fuel generating plants — a gap in favor of solar.

Not so incidentally, Kennedy reports, “the tide turned in 2010 when fully half of new electric generation coming online globally was renewable. In the United States, renewables were 25 percent of new electric generation.” And “going solar by 2015 will be economically rational for two-thirds of the households in the United States.”

However, Kennedy makes it clear that he isn’t satisfied to let history run its course. The urgent need to lower global warming, and the potential of solar energy to create millions of desperately needed new jobs, together force him to advocate for public support to urge changes in state and federal energy policy.

In Rooftop Revolution, Kennedy makes a powerful case for the adoption of solar on the basis of its job-creating power alone: the solar energy industry hires roughly twice as many people as the fossil fuel business per dollar invested. And the total number of jobs in the solar industry is growing at a ferocious pace while employment in the fossil fuel sector is shrinking.

As the author makes clear, a sensible federal policy of incentives to promote solar and not to encourage the use of fossil fuels could greatly speed up the move to solar energy. However, the powers that be in Washington DC have decided otherwise. Despite all the cries of foul from the US Chamber of Commerce and the oil industry that the government is giving away the store to the solar industry — they point to Solyndra as “proof” — the facts tell us a much different story. In fact, the oil, coal, and natural gas industry has received federal subsidies in the last decade that are more than an order of magnitude greater than those granted to renewables (about 10 times for nuclear, 11 times for natural gas and petroleum, and 22 times for coal!).

About that Solyndra case, by the way: the company was the only one of more than 40 firms that received loans under the same program and proceeded to fail, and the loan program had already set aside more than five times the loss from Solyndra as a reserve against bad loans.

Kennedy quotes Jeremy Rifkin’s assertion that “The great economic revolutions in history occur when new communications technologies converge with new energy systems.” This statement, which encapsulates the thesis of Rifkin’s 2011 book, The Third Industrial Revolution (reviewed here), meshes with Kennedy’s thinking in his description of the changing character of the electricity market. As the number of solar-equipped buildings on the grid increases, the role of the power companies will start to shift, employing them as brokers of a sort, managing the flow of the surplus electricity to fill in gaps elsewhere on the grid. However, Rifkin envisions this becoming the predominant or sole role of the power companies by mid-century; if Kennedy believes that, he doesn’t indicate so in Rooftop Revolution. Instead, he dwells on the technical challenges facing the industry to incorporate surplus solar energy amounting to even less than half the total power in the system. The technology to accomplish that is almost market-ready, Kennedy points out, but it’s not there yet.

Rooftop Revolution offers an appealing overview of the present and prospects for solar energy, written in an engaging conversational style and brought to life by the author’s autobiographical asides and his brief profiles of a number of the leading lights in bringing the power of the sun to life on Earth.

Danny Kennedy is a co-founder and Executive Vice President of Sungevity, a fast-growing firm in Oakland, California, that installs custom-fitted residential solar systems around the US and now in The Netherlands as well. Kennedy was a campaign manager for Greenpeace for many years before launching Sungevity and is widely considered a leading authority on global energy issues.

Where it all began for Harry Hole: the Norwegian master-cop Down Under

down underThe Bat (Harry Hole #1), by Jo Nesbo

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s pronounced “HOO-leh.” Not “Whole” or “Hole” or “HO-lee” or any other Americanized bastardization of the Norwegian “Hole.” And that’s just one of the many many fascinating things you’ll learn from reading The Bat, Jo Nesbo’s first novel in the celebrated Harry Hole series of detective novels!

In The Bat, the then 32-year-old detective is in Sydney to lend assistance to the Australian police following the murder of a young Norwegian woman there. Harry is paired with an older detective, an Aboriginal man named Andrew Kensington, who seems bent on introducing him to the history, culture, and language of those he still sometimes thinks of as “his people.” But it’s not long before Harry finds himself immersed with Andrew in the search for a serial rapist and murderer — and, to no reader’s surprise, he quickly demonstrates that he can turn up leads and spin theories far faster than any of his hosts.

The Bat displays some of the signs of the many outstanding Harry Hole novels to follow: thoughtful and intelligent characters who wear their weaknesses on their sleeves, extremely complex plotting, and enough blood and guts to satisfy a depraved Hollywood producer. However, this first book in the series shows a young writer just warming up to his craft. There are long, beautifully constructed speeches where disjointed dialogue would have been more likely, and the story is slow on the uptake, in contrast to Nesbo’s later efforts that invariably start off in mid-story.

Throughout The Bat you’ll find Nesbo musing much as he does in the later books:

  • “You’re a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel another murder case. Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie.”
  • “In traditional crime fiction every detective with any self-respect has an unfailing nose for when people are lying. It’s bullshit! Human nature is a vast impenetrable forest which no one can know in its entirety. Not even a mother knows her child’s deepest secrets!”
  • “Everything you do leaves traces, doesn’t it. The life you’ve lived is written all over you, for those who can read.”

The title of this novel, we learn, represents the term for Death in one of the more than 100 Aboriginal languages still spoken in Australia. And death there is aplenty in The Bat. It’s a nicely crafted book despite its flaws, and the suspense will likely hold you until the very end.

July 23, 2013

Visit the writers’ rooms at The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men

1A review of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution—From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Chances are, if you have any tolerance at all for television, you’ve watched at least one of the signature dramatic shows that have cropped up on cable during the past decade. I certainly have. I’m a sucker for this stuff, and I didn’t fully understand why until I read Brett Martin’s Difficult Men, a superbly constructed tribute to these programs and their creators.

Martin argues that The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and a few other high-quality TV shows are “the signature American art form of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth, and Mailer to the 1960s.” His thesis is hard to argue with, and I say that having devoured much of the output of those filmmakers and writers.

Difficult Men dwells largely on the creators of those four celebrated dramas—David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad)—plus a few others, especially Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and David Milch (Deadwood). If you’ve watched any of these programs, you will easily agree with Martin’s assertion that their protagonists “belonged to a species you might call Man Beset or Man Harried—badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world.” As Tony Soprano said, encapsulating the meaning of life for all these men, “’Every day is a gift. It’s just . . . does it have to be a pair of socks?’”

The conceit in Martin’s title derives from the indisputable fact that Chase, Simon, Weiner, Gilligan, Ball, and Milch collectively possessed enough neuroses, inner conflicts, self-doubts, disappointments, psychological wounds, and personality quirks to match the six leading men of the dramas they brought to the screen. In short, Tony Soprano and Don Draper have nothing on these guys—and Martin amply demonstrates that by recounting the sometimes colorful but excruciatingly frustrating paths most of them followed to sell their shows to HBO, FX, and AMC.

At least one of the six, David Milch, would qualify for the Neurotics’ Hall of Fame. Martin describes the time when a writer on one of his shows arrived for his first day of work “to see a man in the second-floor window peeing on the flowers below. ‘Oh, must be Milch,’ the receptionist told him.” Milch had (and presumably still has) a reputation as a genius, but he tended to drive everyone working with him around the bend. “At some point,” Martin reports, “Milch stopped committing scripts to paper at all, preferring to come to set and extemporaneously dictate lines to the actors.” Can you imagine being one of those actors?

Martin draws an interesting parallel between these contemporary serialized television dramas and the work of the Victorian writers—Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and others—who gained the 19th century equivalent of superstardom on the strength of their serialized novels. In both cases, format enabled artistry, allowing the creators to develop complex, fully fleshed characters and story arcs that weren’t limited by the 42-minute stricture of today’s network-TV “one-hour” dramas.

To my mind, the most fascinating chapter in Difficult Men is the last one before the epilogue. Martin describes sitting for days on end in the writers’ room for the show Breaking Bad along with creator (called “showrunner”) Vince Gilligan and his crew of very gifted and extravagantly paid screenwriters. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book. You’ll never look at TV drama again the same way if you read it.

Difficult Men is a well organized, skillfully crafted, and insightful look at one of the most-watched cultural phenomena of our time.

According to his website, Brett Martin is a correspondent for GQ. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, and many others, as well as on public radio’s This American Life.

Afraid the end of the world is nigh? Here’s a hopeful message, and it’s brilliant


Review of The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, by Jeremy Rifkin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

More than half the children born today in the United States or Europe will live to see the 22nd Century. In theory.

However, if you’re unreservedly optimistic about the future of today’s young children, chances are you haven’t been paying attention. In the face of global warming, overpopulation, resource limits, and the growing number of species going extinct, it’s difficult to look far ahead without wondering whether the human race can truly meet the existential challenges we face.

Jeremy Rifkin thinks we can. He is both a realist, and, if at least one of his many books can be believed, an optimist. In The Third Industrial Revolution, he lays out a comprehensive platform on which the human race can build a sustainable future. His vision of the future is nothing less than brilliant.

To be sure, Rifkin isn’t predicting that his vision will take hold. He’s hoping it will. The Third Industrial Revolution is, above all, hopeful.

Rifkin’s vision is complex and wide-ranging. Within the 300 pages of The Third Industrial Revolution, he delves into energy, communications, transportation, history, economics, thermodynamics, paleontology, philosophy, psychology, education, and numerous other subjects. It’s a dazzling display of erudition.

The author notes that the Second Industrial Revolution from which we’re now emerging was dominated by the telephone, the automobile, and fossil fuels. That’s hard to dispute. The Third Industrial Revolution is being built on the foundation of the Internet and renewable energy, leading humanity forward into a post-carbon era – and that’s the part that requires the reader to “suspend disbelief,” as the writers of science fiction ask us to do.

In this new era, Rifkin writes, “the conventional, centralized business operations of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions will increasingly be subsumed by the distributed business practices of the Third Industrial Revolution; and the traditional, hierarchical organization of economic and political power will give way to lateral power organized nodally across society.” For example, in place of most large electric generating facilities, every building will generate its own energy. Any surplus will be sold to others through trading networks managed by the successors to today’s electric utilities. Rifkin estimates that the process of building out this Third Industrial Revolution will take 40-50 years, roughly the same amount of time that previous economic upheavals required. This assumes, of course, that global warming and other threatening trends will allow us that much time. Rifkin believes they will, and I’m hoping he’s right.

“As we approach the middle of the century,” he writes, “more and more commerce will be overseen by intelligent technological surrogates, freeing up much of the human race to create social capital in the not-for-profit civil society, making it the dominant sector in the second half of the century.” This assertion derives from an earlier book Rifkin wrote, The End of Work.

It’s easy to dismiss this vision as utopian and unattainable, as all utopian visions are. However, Jeremy Rifkin is no idle dreamer. As he explains at great length in The Third Industrial Revolution, this vision has been bought whole by the European Union, the Utrecht region of the Netherlands, and the cities of Rome and San Antonio, among many others. Rifkin, his staff, and a growing number of highly placed collaborators in both industry and government offices have been at work since the publication of the book in 2011 helping to develop custom-tailored regional plans consistent with this vision. Rifkin’s successful ongoing engagement with the European Union is especially impressive – and, he reminds us, “the European Union, not the United States or China, is the biggest economy in the world.”

European officialdom, specifically including such luminaries as Angela Merkel, are now in the process of shifting their economies to incorporate what the author calls “the five pillars” of the Third Industrial Revolution:

(1)   shifting to renewable energy;

(2)  transforming the building stock of every continent into micro-power plants to collect renewable energies on site;

(3)  deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies;

(4)  using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy-sharing intergrid that acts just like the Internet . . .; and

(5)  transitioning the transport fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart, continental, interactive power grid.

This economic transformation will bring profound changes to our lives and our surroundings. “Vertical economies of scale became the defining feature of the incipient industrial age and gigantic business operations became the norm . . . The distributed nature of renewable energies necessitates collaborative rather than hierarchical command and control mechanisms.” And all this change is consistent with the new pedagogy beginning to take hold in many schools around the globe, which emphasizes collaboration rather than competition, problem solving rather than rote learning, and what Rifkin calls “biosphere thinking,” which places humanity within the context of the web of life on Earth. (Perhaps you’ve even noticed that people under the age of 18 tend not to think the way we older adults do?)

“If it is difficult to imagine a change of this kind, think of how preposterous it must have been to a feudal lord, his knights in arms, and his indentured serfs to conjure the possibility of free wage earners selling their labor power in national markets, each a sovereign in his own right in the political sphere, all bound together by a set of agreed-upon rights and freedoms and a sense of national loyalty.”

It’s hard to disagree with that!

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