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kottke.org posts about books

The Cephalopoda, a Hand-Drawn Atlas of Octopus and Squid (1910)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2020

Cephalopoda

Cephalopoda

Cephalopoda

The Valdivia Expedition, led by German marine biologist Carl Chun in 1898-1899, was the first time humans had explored the ocean depths below 500 fathoms. What they found changed our conception of the oceans. The results, in the form of 24 volumes of text and illustrations, took decades to be published. Among the volumes was The Cephalopoda, published in 1910 and filled with colorful hand-illustrated drawings of octopuses and squid, courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

I found this on Brain Pickings, which identifies the illustrator as Friedrich Wilhelm Winter, a credit I couldn’t find in the actual book itself. They’re also selling some of the illustrations as prints, like this one of the octopus featured above.

Why Do Poor People Make Bad Decisions?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2020

From The Correspondent, this is an article by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman about why poor people make low-quality decisions. In a nutshell, it’s because living in poverty overwhelms your brain, decreasing cognitive ability by a significant amount. The piece cites a number of supporting studies, but this one is perhaps the most relevant to separating cause from effect:

Shafir found what he was looking for some 8,000 miles away in the districts of Vilupuram and Tiruvannamalai in rural India. The conditions were perfect. As it happened, the area’s sugarcane farmers collect 60% of their annual income all at once right after the harvest. This means they are flush one part of the year and poor the other.

So how did they do in the experiment?

At the time when they were comparatively poor, they scored substantially worse on the cognitive tests. Not because they had become less intelligent people somehow — they were still the same Indian sugarcane farmers, after all — but purely and simply because their mental bandwidth was compromised.

Another study, of Cherokee families whose income increased dramatically due to casino revenues, shows just how beneficial more money is to poor communities:

Soon after the casino opened, Costello was already noting huge improvements for her subjects. Behavioural problems among children who had been lifted out of poverty went down 40%, putting them in the same range as their peers who had never known hardship. Juvenile crime rates among the Cherokee also declined, along with drug and alcohol use, while their school scores improved markedly. At school, the Cherokee kids were now on a par with the study’s non-tribal participants.

On seeing the data, Costello’s first reaction was disbelief. “The expectation is that social interventions have relatively small effects,” she later said. “This one had quite large effects.”

Costello calculated that the extra $4,000 per annum resulted in an additional year of educational attainment by age 21 and reduced the chance of a criminal record at age 16 by 22%.

This article was adapted from Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, in which he advocates for three main changes to make our global society more equitable: a universal basic income, a 15-hour work-week, and open borders. The UBI issue is what he’s most known for — check out his 2013 article, Why we should give free money to everyone, and his two TED Talks on the topic. BTW, did you know that Nixon almost implemented a UBI in the US in the late 60s?

The New York Public Library’s List of “125 Books We Love”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 19, 2020

NYPL 125 Books

To celebrate their 125th anniversary, the New York Public Library has created a list of 125 Books We Love, books published in the past 125 years “that made us fall in love with reading”. First on the list (alphabetically) is 1984, which was the first adult book I fell in love with. Other personal favorites on the list include The Warmth of Other Suns, The Devil in the White City, Cleopatra: A Life, Wolf Hall, My Brilliant Friend, and The Remains of the Day.

You can check out the entire list or read about how the books were selected. (via open culture)

An Online Collection of Mexican Cookbooks (1789-Present)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2020

Mexican Cookbooks

The University of Texas at San Antonio maintains a collection of over 2000 Mexican cookbooks dating from as far back as 1789 and a selection of those is available online.

UTSA’s Mexican Cookbook Collection is comprised of more than 2,000 cookbooks, from 1789 to the present, with most books dating from 1940-2000. In addition to broad general coverage, the collection includes concentrations in the areas of regional cooking, healthy and vegetarian recipes, corporate advertising cookbooks, and manuscript recipe books.

A guide to the entire collection is available or you can just dive in to the digitized content. (thx, megan)

The Process Genre

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2020

From Duke University Press and author Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky comes what looks like an intriguing book on the beloved phenomenon of “how things are made” media — you know, things like “how to” cooking videos and IKEA instructions — The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor (at Amazon). From the book’s introduction:

Chapter 3, “Aestheticizing Labor,” argues that the category of labor is central to the process genre. In my account, the process genre is, in effect, always symptomatically reflecting on the interactions of human labor, technology (i.e., tools, instruments, machines), and nature. The chapter first examines the genre’s relation to technique. Then it surveys the political implications of the ways in which labor is poeticized in the genre. In its most exalted examples, the process genre presents a striking paradox. On the one hand, it is the most instrumentalist of genres. After all, it is a genre constituted by the presentation of a sequential series of steps, all aiming at a useful result; it is a genre that is usually associated with what scholars call “useful cinema.” On the other hand, it is a genre that has produced some of the most romantic, utopian depictions of labor in which labor figures not as that from which human beings seek relief in the form of listless leisure, but as the activity that gives human life meaning. The philosophical basis for the centrality of labor to life — what has been called the “metaphysics of labor” — finds expression in the process genre; thus, the genre stands in opposition to the politics of antiwork.

The photos on the cover of the book are stills from the Mister Rogers video on how crayons are made:

As you’ve probably observed, I am an unabashed fan of the process genre, with dozens of videos & tutorials in kottke.org’s how to tag alone. Some of my particular favorites are the crayon video above (along with a similar one from Sesame Street), an Oscar-winning short from 1958 about glassmaking, the Primitive Technology videos, how marbled paper is made, how candy is made at the Teddy Grays factory, and the National Film Board of Canada’s video about how to make an igloo. (thx, jason! (no relation))

Database of old book illustrations

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Feb 07, 2020

Matterhorn from near the Submit of Theodul Pass

Here’s an enormous library of thousands of old book illustrations, with searchable name, artist, source, date, which book it was in, etc. There are also a number of collections to browse through, and each are tagged with multiple keywords so you can also get lost in there in that manner.

Though the team behind the site doesn’t specifically list the whole site as public domain, chances are a lot of the illustrations you’ll find are way out of copyright in most jurisdictions.

Setting up the watches

South-Australian cobbler

Flore pittoresque--Plate 8

Archbishops' Palace, Narbonne

The Booksellers

posted by Patrick Tanguay   Feb 05, 2020

I’m very much here for this! “A behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world.” Includes interviews with Fran Lebowitz, Susan Orlean, Kevin Young and Gay Talese.

Antiquarian booksellers are part scholar, part detective and part businessperson, and their personalities and knowledge are as broad as the material they handle. They also play an underappreciated yet essential role in preserving history. THE BOOKSELLERS takes viewers inside their small but fascinating world, populated by an assortment of obsessives, intellects, eccentrics and dreamers.

From the trailer:

The people that I see reading actual books in the subway are mostly in their twenties, it’s one of the few encouraging things you will ever see int he subway.

Story Time from Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2020

The Story Time from Space program aims to promote language and STEM literacy by having astronauts read educational bedtime books from low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station to kids on Earth. Here’s astronaut Kate Rubins reading Rosie Revere, Engineer:

And Ada Twist, Scientist read by Serena Auñón-Chancellor:

What a cool idea. Check out the rest of the available videos in their library.

Enemy of All Mankind, Steven Johnson

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2020

Enemy of All Mankind

Steven Johnson (Ghost Map, How We Got to Now) is out with a new book in May called Enemy Of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt. The book combines the story of a pirate with the beginnings of global capitalism and the end of an empire in Johnson’s polymathic fashion.

At its simplest, Enemy Of All Mankind is the story of a rogue pirate and his sensational crime. While piracy is an ancient profession, the most famous pirates of history would not take the stage until two decades or so after the voyage of the Fancy. But that “golden age” generation — Blackbeard, Samuel Bellamy, Calico Jack — was very much inspired by Henry Every’s crimes and the legends that spun up around them. While Every is not as famous today as those iconic figures from the golden age, he had a more significant impact on the course of world events than Blackbeard and his peers. Enemy Of All Mankind is an attempt to measure that impact, to chart its boundaries. It tells the story of the individual lives caught up in the crisis that erupted after the mutiny of 1694, but also the stories of a different kind of character, one step up the chain: forms of social organization, institutions, new media platforms. One of those institutions was as ancient as piracy itself: the autocratic theocracy of the Mughal dynasty. The others were just coming into being: the multinational corporation, the popular press, the administrative empire that would come to dominate India starting in the middle of the next century.

Normal People TV Series

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2020

The BBC and Hulu are producing a 12-part TV series based on Sally Rooney’s book Normal People (which I excerpted here). The first trailer is above and I have to say, color me intrigued. (via the recently relaunched recs)

The Story of Two Monks and a Woman

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2020

Something shitty just happened to me. (Don’t worry, I’m alright!) But after it happened, I was pretty preoccupied by the whole thing: feeling victimized, rehashing the stupid mistake I’d made in my mind, wondering what I should have done differently, feeling shame about it all. This incident was on its way to ruining my day and perhaps even my next few days. Then I remembered one of the stories from the lovely Zen Shorts, a book I used to read with the kids.

The tale of two monks and a woman is a well-known Buddhist parable. The story goes that two monks were traveling together, a senior and a junior. They came to a river with a strong current where a young woman was waiting, unable to cross alone. She asks the monks if they would help her across the river. Without a word and in spite of the sacred vow he’d taken not to touch women, the older monk picks her up, crosses, and sets her down on the other side.

The younger monk joins them across the river and is aghast that the older monk has broken his vow but doesn’t say anything. An hour passes as they travel on. Then two hours. Then three. Finally, the now quite agitated younger monk can stand it no longer: “Why did you carry that women when we took a vow as monks not to touch women?”

The older monk replies, “I set her down hours ago by the side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

The story is a reminder to not dwell on the past in a way that interferes with living in the present moment. I’m glad to have remembered it today — I’m feeling much better now.

“World Travel: An Irreverent Guide”, an Upcoming Travel Guidebook by Anthony Bourdain

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 16, 2020

World Travel Guide Bourdain

Just before be died, Anthony Bourdain began work on a travel guide with his long-time assistant and coauthor Laurie Woolever. The book was to distill the lessons learned from his life of travel as a TV personality and celebrity food enthusiast. Based on their conversations, Woolever is completing work on World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, which will be out in October.

In World Travel, a life of experience is collected into an entertaining, practical, fun and frank travel guide that gives readers an introduction to some of his favorite places-in his own words. Featuring essential advice on how to get there, what to eat, where to stay and, in some cases, what to avoid, World Travel provides essential context that will help readers further appreciate the reasons why Bourdain found a place enchanting and memorable.

Supplementing Bourdain’s words are a handful of essays by friends, colleagues, and family that tell even deeper stories about a place.

Here’s a brief taste of the kind of advice you’ll find in the book:

Skip the touristy spots, he said: “If you spend all that time waiting to get into the Eiffel Tower, you’ve completely wasted a day”; and forget the concierge: “They’re going to send you to the place with the clean bathroom. Some of the best meals I’ve had, you need a hazmat suit to go to the bathroom.”

You can preorder the book on Amazon.

Steven Soderbergh’s Media Diet for 2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2020

Every year, director Steven Soderbergh publishes a list of the movies, books, TV series, short films, and short stories he’s watched and read over the course of the year (one of the inspirations for my media diet posts). For many creators, the key to making good work is to read and watch widely with an emphasis on quality — it’s difficult make great work if your ingredients are poor — so Soderbergh’s 2019 list is a fascinating look at the director’s inputs for the next year’s creative endeavors.

Some observations:

Winners Take All

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2020

Winners Take All is Anand Giridharadas’ 2018 book about how “the global elite’s efforts to ‘change the world’ preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve”. For instance, Giridharadas would argue that Jeff Bezos donating a billion dollars to charter schools while Amazon pays no federal income tax is a problem.

Why, for example, should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions it erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes? His groundbreaking investigation has already forced a great, sorely needed reckoning among the world’s wealthiest and those they hover above, and it points toward an answer: Rather than rely on scraps from the winners, we must take on the grueling democratic work of building more robust, egalitarian institutions and truly changing the world — a call to action for elites and everyday citizens alike.

The RSA made an animated video of a talk by Giridharadas that distills his central message into about five minutes — it’s a good watch/listen. The full talk is available here. (via aeon)

Slaughterhouse-Five Graphic Novel

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jan 09, 2020

Later this year, Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth novel Slaughterhouse-Five will be reimagined as a graphic novel by writer Ryan North, artist Albert Monteys, and colorist Ricard Zaplana. Vonnegut’s descriptive stories lend themselves well to the format of graphic novels with pithy dialogue, fantastical plots, and non-linear narratives. This project is being released with the blessing of the Vonnegut family, so if it’s successful, hopefully other Vonnegut novels will be released as graphic novels as well.

slaughterhouse-five.JPG

Ryan North is the writer of How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler. Kottke readers will presumably appreciate a guide for building a recognizable society if you’re stuck in the past after a catastrophic time machine breakdown.

There hasn’t been a film made of Slaughterhouse-Five since 1972 (a film, by the way, which Vonnegut loved), but imagine what someone like Taika Waititi could do with this story.

So it goes.

The Full Legacy of Isaac Asimov

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2020

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Isaac Asimov’s birth, Alec Nevala-Lee writes about the sci-fi author’s dual legacies: his prodigious literary output and his decades-long practice of groping women, hundreds of them.

Isaac Asimov loved large numbers. He was born a century ago this month, and when he died, in 1992, he was both the most famous science fiction writer in the world and perhaps the most prolific author in American history. He kept close track of his publications, most of which were nonfiction, and confessed that he was generous when it came to including borderline cases, such as anthologies, in his total of nearly five hundred books: “We all want to be known for something, and I was beginning to see that there would be a good chance that if for nothing else, I would be known for the vast number of books I would publish.”

In the end, however, another number might turn out to be equally meaningful. Over the course of many decades, Asimov groped or engaged in other forms of unwanted touching with countless women, often at conventions, but also privately and in the workplace. Within the science fiction community, this is common knowledge, and whenever I bring it up in a room of older fans, the response is usually a series of nods. The number of such incidents is unknown, but it can be plausibly estimated in the hundreds, and thus may match or exceed the long list of books that Asimov wrote.

See also How Picasso Bled the Women in His Life for Art. (via @john_overholt)

The 100 Best Books Written By African American Women

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2020

The editors of ZORA, a publication for women of color, have published a list of the 100 greatest books written by African American women: The ZORA Canon.

To our knowledge, however, no one has ever compiled a comprehensive list specifically featuring the finest literary works produced by African American women authors. We decided to undertake that effort both to honor that still underappreciated group of writers and to provide ZORA readers — you — with a handy reference guide to their work.

Here are a sampling of the books on the list — click through to peruse them all.

Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson. “The first novel written by an African American woman, Our Nig focuses on the fictional character Frado and her servant-girl life in New England during antebellum slavery.”

The Red Record by Ida B. Wells. “This tome by the groundbreaking writer, Mathis says, is ‘an exhaustively researched publication about lynchings in the U.S. after the abolition of slavery.’”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. “This groundbreaking novel by the Harlem Renaissance novelist and anthropologist focuses on the emerging autonomy and maturation of Janie Crawford as she endures multiple marriages, poverty, and various other associative trials to reach a state of clarity.”

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. “The first of a multivolume series, this much-loved autobiographical tale recounts Maya Angelou’s early life…”

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. “As he grows up, Milkman Dead strives to take flight as he sets out on a pilgrimage to reclaim his family history…”

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. “The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist traces the lives of three people — a sharecropper’s wife, an agricultural worker, and a doctor — who embark upon one of the greatest movements of African Americans within American history: the Great Migration.”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. “This series of poems chronicles Woodson’s experiences in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and ’70s under Jim Crow and with the civil rights movement.”

I have read several of the more recent books on this list but not enough.

My Recent Media Diet, The Late 2010s Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 30, 2019

Every month or two for the past couple of years, I’ve shared the movies, books, music, TV, and podcasts I’ve enjoyed (or not) recently. Here’s everything I’ve “consumed” since late October.

Uncut Gems. Watching this movie replicates very closely what it feels like to live in NYC (and not in a good way). This movie contains one of my favorite scenes of the year and Sandler is a genius. (A)

Seduce And Destroy with Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie & Paul Thomas Anderson (A24 Podcast). The best bits of this were fascinating but some of it was too inside baseball. Listen to this after seeing Uncut Gems. (B+)

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The Iliad as a romance novel (of sorts). Loved it. (A)

Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez did not require fancy cameras or the de-aging CGI of The Irishman to make her look 20 years younger. (B+)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Such a great alchemy of subjects — kind of a miracle how it all works together. (A-)

Jesus Is King. Boring. Christian hip hop isn’t any better than Christian rock. Born again Kanye? I miss the old Kanye… (C-)

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Wonderfully creative. A couple of really disturbing parts though for kids. (A-)

The Dark Crystal. Watched this after Age of Resistance and it holds up really well. (B+)

Tunes 2011-2019. Gets better with every listen. (A-)

The Laundromat. Soderbergh and Streep? This should have been better. (B)

The Fifth Season by N.K Jemison. Liked this but it didn’t make me want to immediately start the next book in the series. (B+)

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Lots to chew on in this one but I ultimately didn’t finish it. But that’s more on me than Harari. (B+)

David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality (On Being). “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” Whyte sounds like a fascinating person. (A-)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Re-watched the entire series over the past several months. Strong in the middle seasons but not a great ending. (B+)

The OJ Simpson Trial (You’re Wrong About…). Excellent multi-part reexamination of the OJ trial centered on the women, principally Nicole Brown Simpson but also Marcia Clark and Paula Barbieri. It took me awhile to get used to the sometimes-too-casual banter about distressing subject matter, but their knowledge and discussion of the subject matter won me over. (A-)

Ad Astra. The filmmakers couldn’t find a way to do this movie without the voiceover? Just let Pitt act…everything he says is obvious from his face. Beautiful though. (B+)

Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Engaging account of the sinking of the Lusitania, which eventually & circuitously led to the entry of the United States into World War I. (A-)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This wasn’t my favorite book I’ve read with my kids. (B-)

The Devil Next Door. Interesting story but I wanted more from this re: the nature of truth & evil. (B)

The Lighthouse. Sunshine x Fight Club. (A-)

Ford v Ferrari. Driving home from the theater, it took every ounce of self-control not to put the pedal on the floor and see if my car can do 120 on a Vermont county road. (A-)

The Crown (season 3). I didn’t like this quite much as the first two seasons, but I did like the overt and not-so-overt references to Brexit. There was a low-stakes-ness to this season which fits with other exported British media (Downton, British Baking Show) and the country’s rapidly dwindling status as a world power. (B+)

Menu Mind Control (Gastropod). Really interesting discussion of how menus are constructed to balance the needs of the restaurant and the desires of the diner. Buckle up though…Gastropod is one of the densest podcasts out there. (A-)

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A surprisingly trippy adaptation of one of my favorite magazine articles on Fred Rogers. Hanks is great as usual. (B+)

Coco. Another Pixar gem. (A-)

A Table for Two, Please? (Talk Money). From a new podcast by my pal Mesh — the first episode is about the business side of opening and running restaurants. (B+)

Knives Out. From the hype this got, I was expecting a bit more than a good murder mystery but it was just a good murder mystery. (B+)

Marriage Story. Great performances all around, but Jesus why did I watch this? It captures very well the feeling and experience of divorce. Total PTSD trigger though. (D/A-)

Galatea. Engaging short story by Madeline Miller. (B+)

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. Impossible at this point for anyone to objectively review the ninth movie in a series which in some ways has defined culture of the last 40 years. I loved it, even the hokey parts. (A)

High Life. Not even sure what to say about this one. (B-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 29, 2019

As he does every year, President Obama has shared his favorite books of the year for 2019. His picks include Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, and The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. I wonder what he reads that he doesn’t like.

He also did a list of his favorite movies (Parasite, Booksmart, Little Women) and “TV shows that I considered as powerful as movies” (Fleabag!).

Fleabag: The Scriptures

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 26, 2019

I am sorry this is too late to make my holiday gift guide, but I just found out it existed: Fleabag: The Scriptures consists of the scripts for both seasons of Fleabag, the original stage directions for the play, and commentary from Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Fleabag Scriptures

Her coat falls open. She only has her bra on underneath. She pulls out the little sculpture of the woman with no arms. It sits on her lap. Two women. One real. One not. Both with their innate femininity out.

The book has been out since November. How am I just finding out about this now?!

My Strategic Book Reserve - Banking Unread Books from Favorite Authors

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2019

When I wrote this post last week about Erik Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile, I said I was going to buy and read it the second it comes out. But then I realized that Larson has written several books that I am fully aware of but have not read, including 2015’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. What gives? Why am I not rushing out for that one?

I do this with other favorite authors and books series as well. I’ve read some deep cuts from the archives of David Foster Wallace — stuff he wrote in college & grad school — and Infinite Jest twice but I haven’t read a couple of his collections or his posthumous The Pale King. Books 1 & 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle deeply resonated with me but I can’t quite bring myself to start on the third volume. I burned through stuff from Hilary Mantel and Elena Ferrante, yet I didn’t immediately seek out other books that they’d written. Richard Rhodes too…there are many examples.

Part of it is that I’m a restless and then forgetful reader. Even after finishing an amazing book, I often want to switch gears to something different and then I fail to return to something else by the amazing book’s author. But mainly I do this on purpose. I like the feeling of looking forward to a sure thing, the comfort of a story I haven’t heard but I know will be good. We’re awash in highly acclaimed stories these days — there are hundreds of books published this year alone worth reading — but writers whose stories are particularly resonant to me are still a precious resource, worth saving for when I need a sure-thing read.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2019

Splendid Vile

For me, Erik Larson is one of the best nonfiction storytellers around. I loved both The Devil in the White City (about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893) and In the Garden of Beasts. So when his new book, The Splendid and the Vile, comes out in February, I’m gonna hop on it right away. As the subtitle says, the book is about Winston Churchill and Britain during the the Blitz.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London.

Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports — some released only recently — Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

(via Maria Konnikova, who is doing an event w/ Larson in February at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn)

Reader’s Block

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2019

I stumbled across this comic by Grant Snider this morning and realized that I am often afflicted by reader’s block but have never quite thought about it in that way, somehow.

Readers Block

Some of Snider’s reasons affect my reading more than others: too little time, too much TV, not enough sleep, crippling ennui, low curiosity. I’ve recently started to use an app to help me form some good habits and break bad ones, and one of my daily tasks is “read a book for 15 minutes”. I hit that target almost every day and when I do, I usually get in the groove and go for longer, sometimes an hour or more. This has revealed “too little time” and “too much TV” to be falsehoods that I no longer believe — “too much phone” I am still working on.

I’ve also stopped reading books that don’t grab me, as interesting as they may seem and as acclaimed as their recommenders insist. If I’m reading something and I find myself daydreaming or wanting to check my phone or switching to an episode of something on Netflix, that’s a sign that I should put it down and find another book. The only problem with this is that some of my favorite books (Infinite Jest for one) did not grab me in the beginning but picked up in a major way later, sometimes hundreds of pages in. Great books sometimes do not hand everything to the reader on a silver platter and the hard work they demand becomes part of their reward.

But my main two reader’s block problems persist. The first is represented by “low curiosity” in Snider’s comic — I read all day long for my work here on kottke.org and when it comes time in the evening to wind down, more reading is often not something I can manage, especially with nonfiction (brain sometimes function at night not good). Reading right after I wake up has helped somewhat, but I typically have a logjam of tasks vying for my attention in the high-energy early morning and reading only occasionally wins.

The second thing is that I often get stuck between books. Part of it is the “overwhelmed by infinite possibility” factor — soooo much good stuff to read, how can you possibly choose what’s next? Succumbing to the temptation of other possible diversions or wavering in my disbelief of “too little time” becomes much easier when I’m not currently caught up in a story or someone else’s world view. Lining up your next read before finishing your current book is a possible solution, but that can be tough when you’re fully engaged in what awaits you in the closing chapters of your present literary love.

You can read more thoughts on reader’s block and how to tackle it from Stuart Jeffries, Emily Petsko, and Hugh McGuire. And if you and your preschooler are stuck looking for something new to read together, Snider has a new picture book out called What Color Is Night?

Primitive Technology, the Book!

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2019

We haven’t checked in on the Primitive Technology guy in awhile and — whoa, he has umasked himself! After more than four years of anonymity, the man building all of the tools, huts, weapons, and other Stone Age technologies in the wilds of Australia has revealed himself as John Plant. And in this video compilation from October, he announces that he has a book out: Primitive Technology: A Survivalist’s Guide to Building Tools, Shelters, and More in the Wild. Looks like a step-by-step guide to building all the things in his videos, accompanied by illustrations and photos:

Primitive Technology Book

Primitive Technology Book

This is an instant purchase for me, if only to support what he’s been doing for the past 4+ years. Plant says:

This video compilation, as well as the book, outlines all the skills and achievements I’ve attained in this time period using research, hard work and trial and error. Writing this book is something I wanted to do even before making videos and launching this channel. I wanted to offer something tangible that benefited those who had the same keen interest in primitive technology as I do. With that, I thank each and every one of you for your continued support throughout the years, and I really hope you enjoy the book.

And for good measure, here’s his latest video from a few days ago, which shows him building a kiln for firing bricks:

(via the kid should see this)

The Best Books of 2019

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2019

Best Books 2019

I made an effort to read more books in 2019 and mostly succeeded (I think). But there are so many good books out there I couldn’t get to, which is at once both panic-inducing (OMG, the endless bedside stack of books) and exciting (so much to look forward to reading). It’s in this spirit that I went through a bunch of end-of-the-year books lists to pull out some of our collective favorite books of the year for 2019.

The NY Times has published two lists so far: The 10 Best Books of 2019 and 100 Notable Books of 2019 (I think their critics’ picks are forthcoming). Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School, is on both lists and almost all of the others linked here as well. I read Lerner’s 10:04 a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist made the longer list and is on my to-read-soon list as well.

As many others did, The Times Literary Supplement recommended The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong made the Washington Post’s Best Books of 2019. I pick up Vuong’s book every time I see it on a bookstore shelf…one of these days I’m going to actually buy & read it.

Book Riot’s list of the Best Books of 2019 includes Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski. Their talk at XOXO 2019 about the stress cycle was my favorite — it seemed at times they were talking directly at me.

In their Best Books of 2019 list, Kirkus Reviews highlighted Exhalation by Ted Chiang and Internment by Samira Ahmed.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk is on Time magazine’s 10 Best Fiction Books of 2019 list.

Library Journal has a number of lists in many categories — Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk appear on their graphic novels list.

The lists from Goodreads always present a broader view of what’s being enjoyed by readers. See for instance: Most Popular Books Published In 2019 and Best Books of 2019. On the list of books for kids are Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Taffy Brodessner-Aker’s Fleishman Is in Trouble both made the New York Public Library’s list of Best Books of 2019.

Two lists from Five Books: Best Science Books of 2019 and Best Math Books of 2019. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez topped the first list and Infinite Powers: The Story of Calculus by Steven Strogatz made both lists. I wrote about Perez’s book back in February.

The Guardian selected the best science, nature and ideas books of 2019. Among those mentioned are Greta Thunberg’s No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (which oddly didn’t make many other lists) and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff.

The Guardian also asked a number of writers and celebs for their 2019 favorites. Hilary Mantel highlighted Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, comparing the author favorably with Jane Austen. Anand Giridharadas picked Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, the only book on any of these lists in which I am quoted (as far as I know). Yotam Ottolenghi liked The Whole Fish Cookbook by Josh Niland.

Speaking of cooking, I couldn’t find a good list of the year’s best cookbooks, but I’ll update this if Eater or someone else publishes one. (see update below)

The top two books on Amazon’s Best Books of 2019 list are The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I haven’t gotten around to Whitehead’s latest (The Underground Railroad was great) but I did read The Testaments and loved it.

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen weighs in with two lists: favorite fiction of 2019 and best non-fiction books of 2019. He mentions Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I really enjoyed, and Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen.

Update: Alright, we’ve got a couple of lists of the year’s best cookbooks, In her list of the best baking cookbooks of 2019, Melissa Clark highlights Tartine: A Classic Revisited by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson. On the SF Chronicle’s best cookbooks of 2019 is Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s I Can Cook Vegan and Alison Roman’s Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over. And Samin Nosrat (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) recently published a selection of her favorite fall cookbooks as a gift guide, including Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico by Bricia Lopez and Javier Cabral. (thx merrill & connor)

Update: NPR has updated their Book Concierge for 2019, adding 369 books spread out over a variety of categories from “Love Stories” to “The Dark Side”. I jumped right to the “Staff Picks” (the best section of any bookstore for people who like reading blogs) and found Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, a finalist for the National Book Award this year. I also spotted Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record.

The NY Times Critics picked their Top Books of 2019, including Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (the winner of the National Book Award).

Not all of the books on Boing Boing’s 28 favorite books in 2019 were actually published in 2019, but Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy: A Comic Collection was. So was Arcade Game Typography by Toshi Omigari.

Update: Along with Oprah and President Obama, Bill Gates has somehow become known for his reading. He periodically publishes lists of what he’s been reading on his website, and to his credit, he seems to be reading a bit more widely than he used to. Compare 2019’s list with this one from five years ago. The 2014 list (and the 2013 list) is mostly business & economics, almost all nonfiction, and all written by white men. This year is still mostly non-fiction but the majority of the books are by women (like These Truths by Jill Lepore), mostly not about business, and includes An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Perhaps it’s a low bar to clear, but it’s definitely progress for the world’s ur-nerd.

The 50 Best Nonfiction Books from the Past 25 Years

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2019

Slate recently compiled a list of the 50 best nonfiction books published in the past 25 years and it could not possibly be more up my alley. Let’s take a look at some of the books on the list:

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. “Through his reporting of McCandless’ passionate and foolhardy journey into transcendence — and writing about his own, similar youthful experiences — Krakauer explores our modern relationship to the wilderness and the deep desire many young people feel to seek out unthinkable danger.”

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. “His editors at Harper’s sent him to a state fair and on a holiday cruise, pastimes whose reputations for carefree, middle American fun seemed hopelessly alien to Wallace himself, a hyperactive observational machine desperate to shed his own self-consciousness but incapable of doing so.” A personal favorite of mine, my book-length introduction to Wallace.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I loved this when it came out. I wonder how it holds up…

The Night of the Gun by David Carr. “In 2008, David Carr had been a respected New York Timesman for years, the paper’s media reporter and a beloved mentor of countless young journalists. But two decades before that, Carr was a junkie — a crack addict who washed out of journalism jobs, who was rung up by the Minneapolis cops nine times, and whose twin daughters were born 2 1/2 months premature to a mother who’d smoked crack the night before their delivery.”

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A wonderful masterful book, one of my all-time favorites.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. “Barbarian Days is a masterpiece of sports writing, focusing its lens on the smallest unit of both athletic and artistic achievement: the single human body, attempting to do something difficult and beautiful.”

I’ve read fewer of the listed books than I would have thought. Time to remedy that.

Going to the Movies with Jackie Kennedy

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2019

Carly Simon’s recent piece in the New Yorker about going to the movies with Jackie Kennedy (an excerpt of her book Touched by the Sun: My Friendship with Jackie) was unexpectedly moving. And funny. And thoughtful. Trying to avoid seeing anything related to Oliver Stone’s JFK — “scarier, even, would be a two-minute trailer for ‘JFK’ inserted before the feature-length film we’d gone to see” — the two opted instead for Warren Beatty’s mobster flick, Bugsy.

Every time a shot sounded on the screen — and the film was plenty violent — she reacted physically, dramatically, her body mimicking the victim’s.

How do you deal with trauma like that when society keeps reminding you of it, not only generally (with gunshots in movies) but specifically, with blockbuster conspiracy movies that depict in detail the exact moment when your life was torn apart? And how can you be a good friend to someone who suffered from PTSD (and perhaps never recovered)? How do you assure her that you’re a safe harbor for her thoughts and feelings, that you’ll help insulate her without isolating her?

P.S. Somehow, in everything I’ve read/seen about the Kennedys over the years, I’d never heard that Jackie had given birth to a premature baby boy named Patrick in August of 1963. The baby died 39 hours after his birth. Her husband was assassinated just 105 days later. I… Jesus.

Rebel Girls Chapter Books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

Rebel Girls Lovelace Walker

The makers of the hugely popular (at least in our household) Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series are branching out into chapter books. Their first two are available now: Ada Lovelace Cracks the Code and Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business. Lovelace is, of course, the pioneering computer programmer while Walker a cosmetics industry pioneer and America’s first female self-made millionaire.

You can also listen to the Rebel Girls podcast episodes featuring Lovelace and Walker.

Spinning Tethers for Space Propulsion

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2019

I love rocket launches. They are loud, carry cool things into space, and last a surprisingly long time considering how fast the rocket is already traveling when it clears the tower. But I think we’re going to look back on this era of space travel and marvel that launches & rockets were our only means of getting things into and around space (planetary gravity assists notwithstanding). We’re already moving in that direction; the initial tests of a space sail inspired by Carl Sagan have been promising. Another space propulsion idea is to use spinning space tethers to whip smaller, slower space vehicles from relatively low altitudes to higher orbits or even to the Moon, Mars, or beyond. This video from Kurzgesagt explains how these tethers work and what we could do with them.

I believe Neal Stephenson wrote about space tethers (or something very similar) in Seveneves.

Highlights from Circe by Madeline Miller

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2019

I’ve been enjoying sharing the highlighted passages from the Kindle books I’ve read lately. Going over your notes is a good way to solidify a book’s themes, ideas, and plot threads in your mind, especially for someone like me who tends to forget a lot of the earlier bits of what I’m reading. So I thought I’d go back through some previous reads in the same fashion, sharing some of the best bits of favorite books and refreshing my memory.

First up is Madeline Miller’s Circe, which was recommended to me by my friend Alaina. In the NY Times, Alexandra Alter called Circe “a bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story that manages to be both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right”.

I’m starting here because I recently finished her debut novel, The Song of Achilles (the highlights from which I will share soon). I loved both books — Miller’s prose is somehow both spare and chock full of lyrical analogies and clever turns of phrase. Many of passages below highlight those qualities in her writing.

Page 3:

My mother did not argue further. Like everyone, she knew the stories of Helios’ temper when he was crossed. However gold he shines, do not forget his fire.

Page 14:

You cannot know how frightened gods are of pain. There is nothing more foreign to them, and so nothing they ache more deeply to see.

Page 37 (I am already bracing myself for the “you don’t understand…” of my kids’ teen years):

That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.

Page 48:

All I knew was that I hated her. For I was like any dull ass who has ever loved someone who loved another. I thought: if only she were gone, it would change everything.

Page 66 (on useful fictions):

“Yes,” he said. “That is how it works, Circe. I tell Father that my sorcery was an accident, he pretends to believe me, and Zeus pretends to believe him, and so the world is balanced. It is your own fault for confessing. Why you did that, I will never understand.”

Page 67:

All those years I had spent with them were like a stone tossed in a pool. Already, the ripples were gone.

Page 85:

You can teach a viper to eat from your hands, but you cannot take away how much it likes to bite.

Page 90:

He stood up — I will not say gracefully, for he was too solidly built for that — but easily, like a door swinging on a well-fitted hinge.

Page 129:

I had not thought him so bold. But of course he was. Artist, creator, inventor, the greatest the world had known. Timidity creates nothing.

Page 129 (Reminds me of the quote “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”):

I yearned for his hands, for all of him, mortal though he was, distant and dying though he would always be.

Page 132:

In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

Page 138 (a metaphor for inequality in America):

Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect, and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

Page 186:

And Odysseus, I thought. The spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight.

Page 186:

But there is a hand that must gather all those pieces and make them whole. A mind to guide the purpose, and not flinch from war’s necessities.”

“And that is your part,” I said. “Which means you are like Daedalus after all. Only instead of wood, you work in men.”

The look he gave me. Like purest, unmixed wine. “After Achilles died, Agamemnon named me Best of the Greeks. Other men fought bravely, but they flinched from war’s true nature. Only I had the stomach to see what must be done.”

His chest was bare and hatched with scars. I tapped it lightly, as if sounding what lay within. “Such as?”

“You promise mercy to spies so they will spill their story, then you kill them after. You beat men who mutiny. You coax heroes from their sulks. You keep spirits high at any cost. When the great hero Philoctetes was crippled with a festering wound, the men lost their courage over it. So I left him behind on an island and claimed he had asked to be left. Ajax and Agamemnon would have battered at Troy’s locked gates until they died, but it was I who thought of the trick of the giant horse, and I spun the story that convinced the Trojans to pull it inside. I crouched in the wooden belly with my picked men, and if any shook with terror and strain, I put my knife to his throat. When the Trojans finally slept, we tore through them like foxes among soft-feathered chicks.”

Page 190:

It was a trick of his, to set a sentence out like a plate on a table and see what you would put on it.

Page 191:

Sometimes, I would see him watching me. An intentness would come over his face, and he would begin to ask me his casual, sideways questions. About the island, about my father, the loom, my history, witchcraft. I had come to know that look well: it was the same he wore when he spotted a crab with a triple claw, or wondered over the trick tides of Aiaia’s east bay. The world was made of mysteries, and I was only another riddle among the millions. I did not answer him, and though he pretended frustration, I began to see that it pleased him in some strange way. A door that did not open at his knock was a novelty in its own right, and a kind of relief as well. All the world confessed to him. He confessed to me.

Page 194:

I held off as long as I could, but in the end she was the scab that I must pick.

Page 208:

Odysseus, son of Laertes, the great traveler, prince of wiles and tricks and a thousand ways. He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.

Page 214 (there’s a relief in knowing, no matter how dire the details):

My madness in those days rose from a new certainty: that at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.

Page 217:

Do not listen to your enemy, Odysseus had once told me. Look at them. It will tell you everything.

Page 220 (reason != wisdom):

I looked into that shining gray gaze, her eyes like two hanging jewels, twisting to catch the light. She was smiling, her hand open towards me, as if ready to receive mine. When she had spoken of children, she had nearly crooned, as if to lull her own babe. But Athena had no babe, and she never would. Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.

Page 243 (endurance is also a virtue of mine…and a detriment):

But endurance had always been my virtue and I kept on.

Page 271 (I still remember reading this passage for the first time. It devastated me and I had to put the book down for awhile. Like much else in life, parenting is a struggle with yourself.):

Two children he had had, and he had not seen either clearly. But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.

Page 274:

I looked at her, as vivid in my doorway as the moon in the autumn sky. Her eyes held mine, gray and steady. It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.

Page 279:

Once we were his again, he wanted something else. What is that if not a bad life? Luring others to you, then turning from them?

Page 286 (on the responsibility of perfection):

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

Page 294 (Telemachus is the main speaker here):

“That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.”

“You have a patient temper.”

“My father called it dullness. Shearing, cleaning out the hearths, pitting olives. He wanted to know how to do such things for curiosity’s sake, but he did not want to actually have to do them.”

It was true. Odysseus’ favorite task was the sort that only had to be performed once: raiding a town, defeating a monster, finding a way inside an impenetrable city.

Page 313:

But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.