June 2018 books read

  • Vacationland – John Hodgman, 2017 – Funny, touching, local relevance
  • Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things – Amy Dickinson, 2017 – I met Dickinson at a Susquehanna County Library author’s luncheon for Mighty Queens of Freeville. She’s charming and I enjoyed this one too, but it’s a little choppy structurally.
  • The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu, 2007 – Weird but interesting.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon, 2003 – quotes pulled, review tdb
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer – Siddhartha Mukherjee, 2010
  • GerminalÉmile Zola, 1885
  • Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery, 1908 – re-read for the umpteenth time after watching episode 1 of the “Anne with an E” reboot (which is very good).
  • Ask a Manager – Alison Green, 2018 – I’m a huge fan of the blog and this captures its fundamental messages–concise and useful but not as entertaining, although some AAM classic letters are excerpted.
  • How to be an Adult:  A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration – David Richo, 1991
  • The Best of Jack Vance – Jack Vance, 1976 – Re-read; I love Vance’s style, although he’s maybe fading a little on my palate with time. I used to think “The Moon Moth” was one of the most satisfying stories ever; still pretty darn good!
  • 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – Dan Harris, 2014 – I’d been meaning to read this for several years and finally got around to it. A little more memoirish than I expected and much more focused on meditation (I think I had it confused with Dan Gilbert type books), but it helped me finally get serious about a meditation practice myself, just in time to make it my “re-wirement challenge” for the Yale Science of Well-Being class (highly recommend!)

Germinal – Émile Zola, 1885

I think I read this as a teen, but I didn’t remember any specifics – just that it was grim/grimy/bleak, and that’s still accurate! I read it in French, but the quotes are from the translation by Roger Pearson.

In this book I learned

  • A recession in the US led to coal mine layoffs in France
  • When coal is the economic incentive, you get conflicts over timbering – of course, but that had never occurred to me
  • A songbird competition where some sing so hard they die – sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s still bad
  • Could this be the origin of the movie trope where someone throws a match or grenade over their shoulder as they walk away? Souvarine has destroyed the mine Le Voreux, which is collapsing and filling with water. “He threw away his last cigarette and, without a backward glance, walked off into the darkness which had now fallen. In the distance his shadowy figure faded from view and melted into the blackness of the night. He was headed somewhere, anywhere, off into the unknown. In his usual calm way he was bound upon extermination, bound for wherever there was dynamite to blow cities and people to smithereens. And in all probability, when the bourgeoisie’s final hour arrives and every cobble is exploding in the road beneath its feet, there he will be.”

Short quotes

  • Battle, the white horse who lives in the mine, who dimly remembers his past above ground: “There had been something else, too, something burning away up in the air, some huge lamp or other, but his animal memory could not quite recall its exact nature. And he would stand there unsteadily on his old legs, vainly trying to remember the sun.”
  • Souvarine and the rabbit Poland: “As she snuggled down in his lap with her ears flattened along her back, she would close her eyes; and he would stroke her automatically, tirelessly running his hand through the grey silk of her fur and evidently soothed by this warm, living softness.”
  • La Maheude: “The worst of it, you know, is when you start telling yourself that things can never change… When you’re young, you think happiness is just around the corner, you hope for things; but then the poverty grinds on and on, and you find you can never escape it… “
  • “[Etienne] treated himself to a fine pair of boots, and at once he was a leader; the village began to rally to him.”
  • “…[R]ecently he had been coming round to collectivism, which called for the means of production to be returned into the ownership of the collective. But this was all still somewhat vague, and he couldn’t quite see how to acheive this new goal, prevented as he was by scruples of humanity and common sense from enjoying the fanatic’s ability to advance ideas with uncompromising conviction.”
  • Madame Hennebeau when the house is being attacked by the striking workers: “On top of everything these beastly workers have chosen the very day that I am entertaining guests. Really! And then they expect to be treated better!”
  • “Etienne saw only too well how one man’s misfortune became another man’s gain, and once more it discouraged him deeply  to think of the invincible power wielded by the sheer weight of capital, so strong in adversity that it grew fat on the defeat of others, gobbling up the small fry who fell by the wayside.”
  • La Maheude’s reaction to the priest assuring the workers “Within a week they would cleanse the world of the evildoers, they would dispatch the unworthy masters, and the true kingdom of God would be at hand, where each man would be rewarded according to his just desserts and the laws of the workplace would ensure the happiness of all.” – “‘That’s all very fine, Father,’ she said. ‘But you’re only saying that because you’ve fallen out with the bourgeois… All our other priests used to dine with the manager, and then they’d threaten us with hell-fire the moment we asked for bread.’”

Longer quotes

The Grégoires now believed steadfastly in their mine. The value would rise again; why, God Himself was not more reliable! At the same time, mixed with this religious faith in the mine, they felt a profound sense of gratitude towards a stock which had now fed and supported an entire family for over a century. It was like a private god whom they worshipped in their egotism, a fairy godmother who rocked them to sleep in their large bed of idleness and fattened them at their groaning table. And so it would continue, from father to son: why tempt fate by doubting it? And deep within their constancy lay a superstitious terror, the fear that the million francs would suddenly have melted away if they had realized their assets and placed the proceeds in a drawer. To their mind it was safer left in the ground, from whence a race of miners, generation after generation of starving people, would extract it for them, a little each day, sufficient unto their needs.

Etienne after the workers turn on him:

These madmen were lying when they accused him of having promised them a life of leisure and plenty to eat. Yet behind his attempts at self-justification, behind all the arguments with which he tried to combat his remorse, lay the unspoken fear that he had not been equal to his task and the niggling doubt of the semi-educated man who realizes that he doesn’t know the half of it. But he had run out of courage, and he no longer felt the same bond with the comrades, indeed he was afraid of them, of the huge, blind, irresistible mass that is the people, passing like a force of nature and sweeping away everything in its path, beyond the compass of rule or theory. He had begun to view them with distaste and had gradually grown apart from them, as his more refined tastes made him feel ill at ease in their company, and as his whole nature slowly began to aspire towards membership of a higher class.

Etienne argues with Souvarine:

Say the old society no longer existed and that every last trace of it had been swept away. Wasn’t there a risk that the new order which grew up in its place would slowly be corrupted by the same injustices, that there would again be the weak and the strong, that some people would be more skilful or intelligent than others and live off the fat of the land, while the stupid or the lazy once more became their slaves? At this prospect of everlasting poverty Souvarine exclaimed fiercely that if justice could not be achieved with man, it would have to be acheived without him. For as long as there were rotten societies, there would have to be wholesale slaughters, until the last human being had been exterminated.

How to Be an Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration – David Richo, 1991

This was mentioned in a comment at the great Ask a Manager, and the title grabbed me.

  • “There are ghosts asleep inside every one of us: arcane issues never addressed, ancient griefs never laid to rest, suspicions, self-doubts, banished longings, secret meanings. Something in this book may call one of these ghosts by name. It will then arise from its slumber and begin speaking. … You are hearing the vote of a part of yourself long ago disenfranchised. When this happens, put the book aside and listen in rapture to the irrepressible ‘Yea.'”
  • Quoting from Anais Nin’s diary: “every day the real caress replaces the ghostly lover”
  • “…neediness itself tells us nothing about how much we need from others; it tells us how much we need to grieve the irrevocably barren past and evoke our own inner sources of nurturance.”
  • “The fear of revealing the True Self is disguised in these words: ‘If people really knew me, they would not like me.’ We can change that sentence to read: ‘I am free enough to want everything I say and do to reveal me as I am. I love being seen as I am.'”
  • affirmation: “I grant myself a margin of error in my work and relationships. I release myself from the pain of having to be right or competent all the time.”
  • “Allow every feeling and thought to pass through you as good hikers through the woods: taking nothing away, leaving nothing behind. Make no attempt to think them away, to interpret, or to interrupt them no matter how irrational or inconvenient they may seem.”
  • “Recurrent dreams are not so much to be interpreted as to be exhausted. They are played repeatedly like dramas, until integration and closure happen naturally.”
  • There was an interesting active imagination technique that I would like to go back to someday…

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer – Siddhartha Mukherjee, 2010

I was looking forward to reading this for the Nature and Environment group—I’d heard good things about it and I love this kind of book—but although it was good in many ways, it was a bit of a dense slog and also hard going emotionally (early cancer treatments, OMG). The hubris and ego of early surgeons resulted in a lot of excessive suffering, needlessly for those patients, but some of it resulted in actual advances. It’s morally painful and ambiguous.

[Advocates of radical surgery] genuinely believed that they could relieve the dreaded symptoms of cancer. But they lacked formal proof, and as they went further up the isolated promontories of their own beliefs, proof became irrelevant and trials impossible to run. The more fervently surgeons believed in the inherent good of their operations, the more untenable it became to put these to a formal scientific trial. Radical surgery thus drew the blinds of circular logic around itself for nearly a century.

It was fascinating and disheartening also to see how the mistaken mental frames around cancer (one disease, on which a coordinated “war” can be waged) delayed understanding and treatment. That’s one of the simplistic ideas that have been a problem for medicine: the body is so so so much more complicated that the imagery of pumps/fluid mechanics/contamination allows for. And it makes sense that patients are quick to demand treatments that haven’t been fully tested, resenting what can seem like (and maybe it) foot-dragging, but then the opportunity to really test is lost.

It’s well written but sometimes a little purple. Mukherjee for example describes a person as “brackish”—I kind of like it but it’s on the edge of too showy. There’s a plates section which feels a bit arbitrary. Also, the framing autobiographical bit (his treatment of one particular patient) is very small in comparison with the dense mass of the rest.

  • The modern-sounding clinical descriptions of Imhotep (2625 BC), under the description of breast cancer: treatment “There is none”
  • Autopsy literally means “to see for oneself;” Vesalius vainly looking for Galen’s “black bile”
  • Music and surgery: “The professions still often go hand in hand. Both push manual skill to its limit; both mature with practice and age; both depend on immediacy, precision, and opposable thumbs.”
  • “Dogs, humans, and lions are the only animals known to develop prostate cancer”
  • “Hefty Brunsviga calculators, the precursors of modern computers, clacked and chimed … ringing like clocks each time a long division was performed.”
  • “The iconic Marlboro man, with his hypermasculine getup of lassos and tattoos, was an elaborate decoy set up to prove that there was nothing effeminate or sissy about smoking filter-tipped cigarettes.”
  • “Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.”

He’s widely read and has a great ear for quotes; a surprising number of the passages I flagged are from other writers:

  • Howard Skipper: “A model is a lie that helps you see the truth.”
  • Mukherjee names Bernard Fisher as the source for the fantastic “In God we trust. All others [must] have data;” the great Quote Investigator says it can’t be attributed to him, but I’m thrilled to have been introduced to it.
  • Paul Brodeur: “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off”
  • Richard Avedon: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
  • David Rieff in his memoir of his mother Susan Sontag’s illness: “Like so many doctors, he spoke to us as if we were children but without the care that a sensible adult takes in choosing what words to use with a child.”
  • Alfred Knudson saying he inferred the existence of anti-oncogenes “as one might infer the wind from the movement of the trees.”

The Laskers were professional socialites, in the same way that one can be a professional scientist or a professional athlete; they were extraordinary networkers, lobbyists, minglers, conversers, persuaders, letter writers, cocktail party–throwers, negotiators, name-droppers, deal makers. Fund-raising—and, more important, friend-raising—was instilled in their blood, and the depth and breadth of their social connections allowed them to reach deeply into the minds—and pockets—of private donors and of the government.

We are chemical apes: having discovered the capacity to extract, purify, and react molecules to produce new and wondrous molecules, we have begun to spin a new chemical universe around ourselves. Our bodies, our cells, our genes are thus being immersed and reimmersed in a changing flux of molecules—pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, plastics, cosmetics, estrogens, food products, hormones, even novel forms of physical impulses, such as radiation and magnetism.