Recommended

Nine books that moved me

When I was a music critic, the end of the year was a banner time. I spent Decembers making lists of favorite albums and mixes of favorite songs. It got so deep I even made a top ten list about top ten lists.

So what’s meaningful to “list” at this moment in life? For me, ideas and books. Here are nine that impacted me this year. 

1. Sapiens by Yoval Harari
2. The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs

Sapiens is a mind-expanding history of the human race. Harari is our species' Tocqueville, writing with a startling distance about the history of humans. It’s like reading Mars’ greatest historian analyze our planet. It’s no exaggeration to say it changes how you see the world. 

John Higgs’ kinda-bio of the ‘90s electronic group The KLF creates a similar eureka about ideas and art. A good friend gifted it to me, describing it conspiratorially as “the little yellow book.” He was right. Alan Moore’s concept of the Ideaspace, which I learned about here, is something I became an instant believer in.

Sapiens and The KLF establish that ideas are more powerful than anything. Ideas uniquely change how we relate to one another, how we craft our physical environment, pretty much everything. These books helped me better understand their power. They filled me with optimism — even in 2017.

3. Generation X by Douglas Coupland

I knew the name (which this book introduced) but until this year I never read this 1991 novel. It’s a series of conversations between three formerly status-oriented people who dropped out and moved to Palm Springs to work in jobs “beneath” them. The writing is crisp and the ideas challenge three decades later. Short, funny, and very alive.

4. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
5. The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

I’m two books into the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a series by Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin. The story is unlike anything I’ve read. If you have interest in sci-fi, read these. So far the series has changed the way I think about contacting non-Earth life, the potential of indirect forms of communication, and the living soul at the heart of true fiction. These books visited me in my dreams and still do.

6. Beatles 1966 by Steve Turner

A monthly diary of the year the Beatles released Rubber Soul; wrote, recorded, and released Revolver; and wrote and recorded a chunk of Sgt Pepper’s. The greatest single-year artistic leap in modern times. 

How did it happen? Read this and you get a feel. The anecdotes are tremendous. John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for Dylan and the Stones in a hotel suite shortly after recording it. When it ends, Dylan says to them with a sneer, “Oh I get it — you don’t want to be cute anymore.” 

Paul’s first vacation as a Beatle is another. Paul changed his appearance before driving across Spain and parts of Africa to be incognito. Upon returning, he told the other Beatles they needed to change their identities before getting back into the studio. Making another Beatles record would be too hard. They needed the freedom of being someone else. This is where Sgt Pepper's came from.

It will inspire you to open your antennae up wide.

7. Age of Fracture by Daniel T. Rogers
8. Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs

Age of Fracture recounts the academic and social battles that drove the rise of feminism, individualism, racial identity, and other seismic social changes. The POV is unique: both broadly historical and a closely tracked blow-by-blow of ideas and counter-ideas. No book created a bigger or more meaningful reading list.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is the second John Higgs entry on this list (he also wrote the KLF book). It details the emergent ideas of the 20th century that transformed the Victorian world into the industrialized, democratized, and way more confusing universe we live in now. Everything from physics to the avant-garde to sex.

Both titles come to a similar conclusion: the theme of the 20th century is relativity. A growing realization that the values and ideas many assumed were universally “true” were anything but. Some may say these are aberrations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These books counter that the universality of certain beliefs in the past was the aberration, and that we should expect more of this in the years to come. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. 

9. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Jack Reis and Al Trout

A wise and useful book from the ‘90s about putting things into the world. Each “law” is a short chapter in clipped, seasoned prose. You can smell the chainsmoke through the page.

Three laws that stayed with me: The law of line extension (when launching a new product don’t reuse your existing brand). The law of sacrifice (if you’re asking people to do something new, you must first make a sacrifice of your own). And the law of fads and trends (a trend is a fad with unsatisfied demand; when experiencing success keep them wanting more).

I’d love to hear what you read and learned this year. What books moved you?

Habits and gear

Until recently I felt too busy to think about how I was getting things done. It was all about crossing off the next thing on the to-do list.

This is one of the first things I wanted to adjust after my job change. Here are eight shifts I've made to better direct my time and energy.

Wifi Off

When I’m writing I keep Wifi turned off. This creates enough friction to keep easy temptations at bay. It’s like I’m buying my brain flowers to apologize for all the times I mistreat it with schizophrenic multi-tasking. My brain is grateful. Yours will be too.

No pinned Chrome tabs

Chrome used to be my mind map. Pinned tabs for various email accounts, calendars, Google Docs, articles I intended to read, etc. This resulted in me working almost solely inside Chrome, which made the distracting between-tabs-clicks way too easy. 

I approached breaking free of Chrome in a few ways: 

1) Separate email and writing from Chrome.

2) Use bookmarks to design my browsing habits rather than mindless surfing.

3) Bookmark articles I’m interested in but don’t immediately read (to date I’ve gone back to read exactly zero of them, which says it all).

4) Keep open tabs to a minimum (no more than three or four, ideally).

After these changes my Chrome usage has plummeted. It’s no longer a default state. Now I look at the web when I have a reason to.

Airmail

To separate email from Chrome I shopped around for an email app. I picked Airmail because of its basic UI and how it handles multiple accounts. Parts of Gmail I miss, but overall the ability to be focused about correspondence has made a noticeable difference. Apple Mail can also do the trick, it’s just buggy for me.

Outlook for iPhone

I started using Outlook at the recommendation of Craig Mod. The design is soothing and non-attention getting. Calendar and contacts are effortlessly folded inside the app. Top notch.

Bear Writer

For writing I moved from IA Writer (which I like) and Google Docs to Bear Writer. I like Bear because of how easy it is to access my directory of writing, how quickly I can start a new note/doc, and syncing between the desktop and phone apps. 

One thing Bear has not helped as much with is recording spontaneous notes and ideas. I spend a lot of time walking around NYC finding inspiration. I’ve tried using Siri, notes to self, and other ways to take down a quick thought. None have worked the way I want. I’m considering going back to keeping a notebook in my pocket. Other ideas?

"The portable whiteboard"

I spend my working time with three things in front of me: my laptop, a stack of books I’m reading, and a 8.5" by 10” sketchpad and set of colored Sharpies. I call the sketch pad and markers my portable whiteboard. 

Whenever I need to outline an idea or think through something deeply, I turn to the portable whiteboard. The ability to think in a flexible, physical space is liberating. I have more breakthroughs using the portable whiteboard than my laptop or any other tool. Highly recommended.

Unfollow everyone on Twitter

It took me several tries to defeat my Twitter addiction. The first move — made a few years ago — was to remove Twitter and all social media from my phone. This ended my mobile usage, but increased how often I used Twitter on the desktop.

I would get trapped in Chrome loops: check Gmail, check Slack, check Twitter, check Gmail, etc. I could (and did) spend hours this way achieving absolutely nothing. It’s the productivity version of "playing" an arcade game without putting in a quarter.

Eventually I came up with a more drastic solution: unfollow everyone. This has been the best answer. Now Twitter is such an unsatisfying experience I rarely go there. I’ll continue to keep my account for self-promotion, but it’s no longer a source of information. To date I have experienced literally zero ill effects and many positive effects from not reading Twitter.

Squarespace

I’m a longtime Tumblr fan but the writing tools just aren’t great. I’ve used Medium but I don’t want to be associated with the startup/life hacker zeitgeist. The only way I could think to have a truly neutral space was to create my own. I tried Wordpress but the setup process was too involved (maybe the tenth time this has deterred me from WP). While not cheap, Squarespace is great. I'll keep using them. 

Any habits or gear recommendations to share? I’d love to hear them!

Reading list

Here are the books I read during the month of August. 

NONFICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH
Beatles '66
by Steve Turner

The first book I read after my departure from Kickstarter was decided. I went to McNally Jackson, a bookstore in Soho, thinking I would buy a self-help book about transitions. Instead I came across this: a monthly diary of everything the Beatles did, listened to, or smoked/took in 1966, the year they released Rubber Soul, recorded and released Revolver, and recorded half of Sgt Pepper’s — aka the single greatest one-year artistic evolution the world has seen.

This very satisfying book gives a strong feeling for what it was to be a Beatle. My respect for Paul and George (already my favorites) went through the roof. Both are diligent, curious learners who used their time to seek new ideas and had the talent and humility to filter them through their own work. Paul’s interest in the avant-garde was early and knowing. The tape loops that back John on “Tomorrow Never Knows” were actually home recordings made by Paul. (Also surprising: "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the first song recorded for Revolver.) George’s interest in Indian music was sincere and devoted — it took a while for Indian musicians to take him seriously.

The book is full of amazing anecdotes, including John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the Stones and Dylan before it was released and the pair hearing Pet Sounds for the first time. The book notes how the Beatles had the privilege of seeing the future in art, fashion, food, and ideas before anyone else. The culture that came to be in the ‘60s owed much to their incredible vision. For any fan of the Beatles or cultural production, this is a must-read.

Grade: A

FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH
Before the Fall
by Noah Hawley

The story of a private plane crashing on its way from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC with a dozen wealthy passengers on board. Two survive. From there the book leaps into a Lost-like array of timelines and backstories with a very satisfying denouement (Lost-unlike). 

The book was written by Noah Hawley, head of the TV adaptation of Fargo. The feel for cinema and tension is exquisite. Just as impressive is the writing, which possesses a Delillo-worthy emotional elegance. As good a thriller as I’ve read.

Grade: A

NONFICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH RUNNER-UP
The Fifties
by David Halberstam

Wow. This is an enormous book with each chapter devoted to a deep overview of a key aspect of America in the ‘50s — civil rights, McCarthey-ism, Elvis, the bomb, Eisenhower, and other iconic developments. They're written with a perspective that is fresh, surprising, and all-knowing. Most enjoyable were the chapters on things I hadn't thought about: the washing machine, the suburbs, I Love Lucy. The way that every corner of culture informs and provokes the rest. This book makes me wish Halberstam had the time to do this for every decade. Tremendous.  

Grade: A+

FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH RUNNER-UP
You Should Have Left
by Daniel Kehlmann

A novella about a writer and his family going to a house in the country. Surprising, well written, satisfying. Imagine Karl Ove writing The Shining except you'll finish it in two hours, not two months.

Grade: B+

The Invisibility Cloak
by Ge Fei

This was my first time reading contemporary Chinese fiction and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It tells the story of a high-end stereo expert in a fantastical contemporary Beijing whose poverty traps him in a series of confusing experiences. It kept my attention, though the ending was so abrupt I tried re-downloading the book to make sure there wasn’t some kind of technical issue (there wasn't).

Grade: C

Barbarians at the Gate
by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

My second time reading this business classic, the story of the sale of RJR Nabisco in the late ‘80s — at the time the biggest and most high profile leveraged buyout in history.

The book is an incredibly reported sprint of ego and competition. Every one of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe pop up, all of them looking worse for the experience.

The book unintentionally and unknowingly reveals the shallowness of capitalistic competition, media hype, and the destructiveness of ego. For all of the time, money, and brain power used to complete this “deal of the century,” the epilogue reveals that the whole event was almost meaningless. Nothing came to pass the way any of the players expected, and for most of them their careers were effectively over once it was done.

Grade: A+

Anything You Want
by Derek Sivers

A series of business and personal vignettes from the founder of CD Baby. There’s a humbleness and clarity of vision that’s appealing.

Grade: B-

A People’s History of the United States
by Howard Zinn

History is written by the victors. Here’s the other side. I'm halfway through this classic of American history told from the side of the marginalized, the discriminated against, and the defeated. The net takeaway: the challenges many see and feel with America now have always been there, many by design. These things aren’t accidents. Americans are really good at telling ourselves myths.

Grade: Incomplete (still need to finish)

"The Curfew," Jesse Ball

curfew.jpeg

Today I read a book by someone I know. To call him a friend would overstate it, but we’ve spent time together. He’s always intimidated me but not in an unpleasant way, and not through any conscious effort on his part. He is simply apart – naturally so.

The main way we would spend time together was playing poker. It was a small group of us – five or six guys, all around 24. This was almost a decade ago. We would play for small stakes: $10 to play, $5 a big pot. But at the time – first jobs, new to the city – it was just enough to be meaningful. A $10 or $20 loss would sit in your stomach until morning. It was a thing that we could do that made us feel like grown-ups, some agency in our lives.

Jesse was a fantastic player. He was unpredictable. When he would enter a hand you could feel it, but still you felt like this time you might outsmart him. It would rarely happen. Always he would walk away the big winner. But no one begrudged this. He liked us fine and clearly enjoyed the company, but his mind was simply somewhere else.

For a few months he moved to New Mexico or Arizona and was a blackjack dealer. I wasn’t aware that he was doing this, that this was happening. But one day he reappeared and said that he had been dealing blackjack in New Mexico. This made plenty of sense. Our lives felt smaller.

He married an Icelandic woman. There is some relation to Bjork in some way, a fairly direct one but I’ve forgotten the particulars and it would make this to be something that it is not. I have never met this person but I imagine her to be steadfast, reserved. Very intelligent. Big, specific thoughts spoken late into the dark. A woman like that.

I say all of these things about Jesse, talk about him in this way, but know that it is not particularly my place to do so. These are simply the things I remember and I want to record them here. This small backstory.

Jesse has written three books. The second was called Samedi the Deafness, and it was a strange, fragmented novel about a stranger in a strange land. But the story was different from that. The way the story was told was lightly sketched and highly explained. Emotions and moments are detailed very plainly and with effort, and in their directness there was epiphany, but all else was void.

It’s been a while since I read it but I remember being moved by it very much. Afterwards I sent Jesse an email telling him how much I loved it, and he responded kindly. I sent another message, this time offering a theory about what he was trying to say. I don’t think he ever responded. Despite my disappointment I liked that.

This new book, The Curfew, the one I read tonight, is similar only it aches. There are a few pieces of art that actively make me want to be in a very deep love, an infinite horizon. “Ache,” “actively” – these are specifically chosen words. This book is one of them.

It’s a lonely book. A very lonely book. It is parsed, with spaces poetry-like. It overflows with sadness and love that is protective of others but most of all itself. The point of the love is the love and that is a very fragile thing in a dangerous world and that very much includes this one.

These are words that get used so often when people mean heartache and desire. Yearning, wanting, that aching thing again. All of these are right, except imagine that they are being defined for the very first time to mean precisely this thing. They mean all around you is a world that you are of and you have feelings about not particularly one way or another. But inside of that world is this other world, this other thing that does not make you special because many people have this feeling, but one that is special anyway precisely because it is yours. That kind of love.

This feeling makes the world smaller. We pair up, find happiness, look inward, both inside our own minds and hearts and then into our partner’s and then, finally, into that space that is created together. That space.

There’s beauty in this. I am particularly attuned to this love, I feel. But at the same time I fear its reductiveness. It makes the world special and mine but the world should not be mine. It just simply isn’t true, and the attractiveness of that falsehood brings anxiousness.

I’m sitting on an airplane having just finished it and I am overwhelmed with this understanding. I’ve had these feelings before. Most have been during autumn, a walk at night and the wind picks up through the trees and there’s that extrasensory thing that awakens and you travel through yourself and see the dim outline of truths that one day you will discover.

That’s what this book is. It’s called The Curfew. It’s written by Jesse Ball. Read it. Find love.

The Staircase

staircase.jpg

The last half hour of The Staircase, an eight-hour Sundance documentary about the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson by filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is almost entirely without dialogue. After the court reporter reads the verdict — which sends Peterson to prison for life — she polls each juror in open court, asking if they believe the defendant to be guilty. As each of them answers in the affirmative, Lestrade cuts between the faces in the courtroom: Peterson stunned but still calculating, his daughters Margaret and Martha frozen in grief, his lawyer David Rudolf genuinely shocked by the verdict and prosecutors Jim Hardin and Freda Black no less surprised.

The camera follows Peterson as he is handcuffed and swallowed into the courthouse's belly, trailing him and five deputies through a maze of barred doors and fluorescent lights until he reaches a police cruiser, whereupon he collapses in a mix of grief and relief, his head hanging in shame for the first time in years. Michael Peterson does not cry, but his children — back in the house where their adopted father supposedly killed their stepmother — do. Young Martha, the only child to really truly believe her father's innocence, is inconsolable, while her older siblings silently take inventory of their lives, and realize that they are left with nothing but each other and a sadness that will not wane.

Over eight episodes, The Staircase chronicled the prosecution and defense of Michael Peterson. He was accused by North Carolina law enforcement of murdering his wife Kathleen on December 9, 2001. He claimed that she simply fell down the stairs. As a novelist specializing in Vietnam fiction, Peterson's coffers are full, and so he hires a dozen or so lawyers and experts to defend his life. It doesn't take long for them to realize that he is, most likely, guilty. 

A narcissist, Peterson at times seems to delight in his prosecution, in the attention that he is getting. And it's plainly obvious throughout that he believes he will get away with it. But in the privacy of his home, we see Peterson interact with his children, and his belabored responses and actions toward them reveal a tremendous amount of guilt.

When Peterson's extramarital dalliances with male escorts are revealed, the case takes a turn toward the sordid, and immediately Court TV and the like begin following it closely. Peterson's explanation is painfully extracted, as he portends that his and Kathleen's marriage was an ideal one, just that she couldn't satisfy his urges the way a hilariously frank man from a military-themed gay escort service could. But as he rationalizes his affairs, Peterson reveals too much, calling Kathleen "demanding" and "a part of every aspect of my life" in a tone that implies a venom that the defense team would rather do without.

The lawyers know that the case they have been presented is an odd one. While Peterson's explanation of a fall can't explain the amount of lacerations on his dead wife's head or the incredible amount of blood at the scene without a magic bullet-type theory, the prosecution doesn’t have much to go on to explain how else it occurred either. The case then comes down to the prosecution making the fall theory seem implausible and the defense the opposite. The inept prosecution fails spectacularly, proclaiming the murder weapon to be a mysteriously absent blowpoke. The item is found by the defense toward the end of the trial in Peterson's garage, and an examination of the metal rod proves that it was not used to kill Kathleen Peterson.

Even though Michael Peterson seems guilty, the prosecution never proves it. Instead, prosecutor Freda Black — whose sack-like dresses and obnoxious demeanor suggest a level of prissiness heretofore undiscovered — simply says the phrases "homosexual," "bisexual" and "anal sex" as often and as angrily as she possibly can, hoping to play on an uneducated jury's prejudices against carnal malfeasance. And, as the verdict suggests, it works: there is little evidence offered that damns Peterson, aside the coincidental fact that a woman he knew in Germany died by falling down the stairs 20 years prior, yet he is found guilty anyway.

Lestrade tells this story carefully, relishing in the minutiae of forensics and Peterson's bottomless well of self-congratulation. There are no epiphanies, just slow unravelings. Most fascinating is watching Peterson's high-priced defense team construct scenarios around their client's thin lies: even though everyone in the room knows that they are building a house on sand, they have makeshift props and buttresses at the ready for every situation. But they can not account for an awful judge, a man named Orlando Hudson whose cases, as a postscript says, are regularly overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and a jury that seems to have little respect for the burden of proof. And so for now, Michael Peterson sits in a jail cell awaiting his appeal, dreaming of Saigon and convinced that the perfect murder is only a competent judge away.

"Don't Cha," Tori Alamaze

Thanks to my friend Rich Juzwiak — who really, really needs to start a blog — I've now come across my first listened-to-20-times-a-day single of 2005: Tori Alamaze's "Don't Cha." Google trawls bring up little, aside from this being Tori's first single, and it's released by Universal and produced by Cee-Lo. "Don't Cha" sounds like Mary J. in her hours of darkness — insecure, legs shaky, her feet nervously crossing each other, a quivering sip from a glass of wine, eyelids fluttering as she tries to maintain eye contact. Like 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," "Don't Cha" is about a narrator talking herself into a decision she doesn't want to make. After spending the majority of the track laying down her case for why she's worth catching, Tori wraps up "Don't Cha" with resignation, singing: "I know she loves you/ So I understand/ I probably be just as crazy about you/ If you where my man." It's a personal ad in song: SBW seeks MBM to leave SO for true love. Only no one responds and she's left alone in her too-big apartment and sings her troubles into his answering machine with only pitying handclaps and a keyboard drone as accompaniment. Halfway through she starts feeling strong, the rush of laying her story bare convincing her that she's doing the right thing, that she's too good for this asshole, too pretty to waste her time on some loser who doesn't even know how good she would be to him. But then comes another burst of organ, a little louder and harsher this time, and again she's frightened into a corner, suddenly talking about "maybe next lifetime" and wishing she was already there.

"Predator," Ice Cube

In early December the only thing I was listening to was hip-hop, thanks to an amazing amazing amazing (one more) amazing social history of the genre coming out in February that I was reviewing. Each chapter sent me in search of some long-forgotten single or album, and the music never failed to disappoint. While The Predator isn't mentioned in the book (Amerikkka's Most Wanted gets the ink), it's always been one of my favorite hip-hop albums, and recently I've returned to it. Though "It Was a Good Day" is heavily lit perfection, "When Will They Shoot?" is the track that wows me: that orbiting guitar loop, the Cap'n Crunch snare cracks and Cube's furious barking, as if they parked the studio in the middle of Grape Street and hit record. A+