Book Review: Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

What a fantastic book about a horrible family.

The first half of the book is a true rags-to-riches story, following the life and rise of Arthur Sackler and his brothers. The son of an immigrant, he came of age during the Great Depression. This man could hustle and there was nothing that could stop him.

The second half is about the pharmaceutical company they purchased and ran. In the 90’s, they created a ridiculously powerful pain killer (OxyContin). In an effort to maximize profit, they pushed the drug onto unsuspecting patients and physicians despite knowing (and hiding) how addictive and dangerous it was.

The damage is jaw dropping. And like most crimes involving the ultra rich, the family members who ran the company (and used it as their personal piggy bank) got away with it.

Book Review: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

At first glance, this book seems to be a biography of Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist and one of the pioneers of CRISPR research.

While there is some focus on her upbringing and the things that may have driven her to become a fantastic scientist, the book is really about the wide range of characters who helped discover CRISPR DNA sequences and their potential applications in modern medicine.

I’ve heard CRISPR and CRISPR-based technology mentioned in various things I’ve read and how it is something that could potentially revolutionize medicine. But that’s really all I know about it.

This book digs into how Jennifer and her team of researchers discovered the CRISPR process — essentially duplicating the way that bacteria has fought off viruses for eons — and how it could ultimately be used for various therapies, treatments and even diagnoses.

The book briefly mentions its use in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19 as well as some of the more controversial and ethically questionable uses — editing the genes of a fetus, for example, to choose certain traits (which will then be passed down to its own children).

This was an enjoyable and informative read and it covered all sorts of things from the science of CRISPR, legal issues related to patents, and the use cases for CRISPR based technologies today.

Book Review: The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Quick summary: Washed up author (Jake) teaching a writing workshop finds out a former student of his (Evan) — who had an amazing idea for a story that was guaranteed to be a best seller — suddenly died without publishing or apparently sharing his story with anyone.

Jake helps himself to the idea and ends up publishing a best selling book. Only… some Internet troll knows the truth and is sending him some anonymous, threatening letters. And so begins a wild goose chase.

I definitely enjoyed this. It starts off a bit slow, but as the story goes on the pace picks up and I couldn’t put it down

I’ll be honest: I *knew* there was going to be a plot twist around a certain character the moment we met them. I just knew it. But the deviousness of it still surprised me and I really wasn’t prepared for how things went down.

That said, some of the threats the anonymous person was making toward Jake felt a bit hollow. Knowing what we knew this person probably did, they couldn’t really threaten Jake without exposing their own crimes. So, that whole thing was kind of strange…

But we find out that it actually doesn’t matter, because there is a longer game at play and Jake is merely a pawn.

It’s crazy.

Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

A few years ago, I read Conn Iggulden’s Conquerer series, a fictional account about the rise of Genghis Khan (née Temujin) and his exploits across Eurasia. It was a fascinating book and made me curious to learn more.

I picked this one up recently. While I enjoyed it, I often found myself thinking about how hard it must be to write a book about someone who lived amongst a nomadic tribe about 800 years ago.

The source material for this book is based upon notes found within a tome of (sometimes mythical) knowledge that was written shortly after Genghis Khan died — simply called The Secret History of the Mongols. It was written by an anonymous author and then passed down through the ages where the only remaining copy is a translation created some 200 years after his death.

The book is rarely critical of Genghis Khan, his followers (this is more of an “ends justify the means), and the sometimes ruthless actions they took to subdue a population.

That said, some of the most fascinating aspects of this story were how progressive the Mongols were when it came to improving the lives of the people they ruled: public schooling, accounting, trade, and communication. The book contains a fascinating comparison that puts his accomplishments in perspective:

“In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.”

Overall, this was an interesting (if skewed) story about an infamous character in history that many of us might have just misunderstood.

Book Review: The Burning by Tim Madigan

★★★★☆

This book is about the horrific, yet little known 1921 Tulsa race riot. The 100th anniversary of this tragedy and reflections on it reminded me about a book that I’ve had on my to-read list.

I first heard about this incident while reading Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, about the founding and growth of Oklahoma City. It briefly mentioned the Tulsa riot and how a white mob had destroyed an entire African American neighborhood.

Eager to learn more, I searched for a book about these riots… but then never followed up reading about them.

Set against a tapestry of racism, violence and resentment, this was a tinderbox waiting to explode (and these sorts of race riots had broken out in other parts of the country around this time as well).

I couldn’t believe the violence that was carried out, simply to put “black people in their place.” Looking at photos of the aftermath, the level of destruction is akin to photos of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Nothing is left standing. Thousands of houses destroyed, hundreds (!) of people dead.

Part of Greenwood District burned in Race Riots, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA ,American National Red Cross Photograph Collection, June 1921.

And yet, the story was swept under the rug. It literally took decades before people started talking about it and publicly acknowledging that it happened.

My biggest takeaway was how easy it was for us human to become straight up barbaric animals when blinded by hatred.

Toward the later half of the book, the story recounts a young journalist who visited an internment center where people fleeing the violence (or were captured) were sent.

She found an older black woman crying, because she lost everything and had no idea where her family was. Eventually, the reporter asked, “how could this happen?”

“How could this not happen?” replied the old black woman.

The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan

Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

★★★★☆

Andy Weir has clearly found a formula that works. A brilliant lone scientist stuck in space, who must overcome calamity after calamity in order to survive and hopefully get home.

This time, the story involves space fungi that are eating our sun (technically, it’s more like a space algae, but whatever). The nations of Earth band together and launch a mission to the stars in order to turn the tide on this interstellar parasite.

Our narrator wakes from a coma and doesn’t remember a thing. Where is he? How did he get there? What is his name?

Like Mark Watney before him in the Martian, our narrator is going to have to “science the shit” out of his situation in order to answer all the questions above, and also hopefully, maybe save Earth, too.

Oh, and sprinkle in a bit of first contact as well. Mark Watney never found himself a sidekick while he was on Mars.

Some parts were overly verbose, other parts were cringe-worthy and corny, but this was still an entertaining story I tore through in about 3 days.

If you liked The Martian, you’re going to like this book. If you didn’t, well, sorry. This book is more of that and then some.

Book Review: Do What You Want by Jim Ruland

Do What You Want

★★★☆☆

Bad Religion was probably one of my top 3 favorite bands while growing up as an angsty teenager. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost some of my punk rock sensibilities and the desire to keep up with the bands that I used to love so much.

But I have so many pleasant and vivid memories of listening to various albums on full blast in my room or car, while driving around during the sweltering Southern California summers. I remember wearing my cross buster t-shirt and feeling so smug when a fellow student (who went to one of these crazy mega churches) in a high school class asked “why on Earth would you wear something like that?” I remember keeping a dictionary nearby to look up every third word of a song because their wordy lyrics were so ridiculously complex.

And although some of their albums came out half a decade or more before I started listening to them, “Suffer”, “No Control”, “Against the Grain”, and “Generator” were critical components in the sound track of my teenage life.

I think one of the reasons I liked them so much was because their lyrics were a bit more highbrow than the average punk band of the day. It was less “fuck yeah anarchy, smash shit up” and more thought provoking stuff that pondered our existence and place in the universe — for example, these lyrics from “No Control”:

There’s no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end
When we all disintegrate it will all happen again, yeah
If you came to conquer, you’ll be king for a day
But you too will deteriorate and quickly fade away

Hopeless? Sure! But also a thought provoking message about how the universe and existence is about so much more than just us and what we do? Sure! Excuse me while I go listen to this song real quick.

Anyway, it’s been awhile since I’ve given them a serious listen, so, imagine my surprise when I see a friend add “Do What You Want”, a biography about Bad Religion, to their reading list. A book?! About Bad Religion?!

The book spans 40 years of the band’s history, from their first practice sessions inside a hot garage in the valley, to their most recent album (Age of Unreason). (Have they really been at it for forty years and have something like 17 albums!? It’s really unbelievable to me that these guys are pushing 60 and still at it and enjoying it.)

Despite being fairly emotionless and dry (imagine reading about a history of a band in a newspaper article), this book was a really easy read. There’s nothing scandalous or exceptionally profound within, but it does share interesting anecdotes from tours and recording sessions of every album they’ve put out. And hey, I definitely learned some interesting things about the band!

I also found myself flipping back and forth between this book and then loading up Spotify in order to listen to various songs and albums that were mentioned. I forgot how good some of these early albums are. And I’ve really missed out on some of the more recent stuff. There are some good tunes there.

All in all, the book provided a nice sense of nostalgia and even helped me rediscover some more recent tunes from one of my all-time favorites.

Do What You Want by Jim Ruland and Bad Religion

Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Racing in the Rain2

★★★★☆

This is one of those books that’s been on the “to-read” list for a long time. Highly rated amongst friends, with many saying some variation of “I loved this book, but it just destroyed me. And now I want to hug my dog.”

Alright. So, I finally decided to pick it up. My verdict: I loved this book, but it just destroyed me. And I want to hug my dog.

This book struck a chord with me on a few different levels. First, and most obviously, as a dog owner. I kept glancing over at Benson as I read it and would involuntarily start scratching his head and wondering what he’s thinking about.

I felt that the asides about racing (like, straight up, actual car racing) were a little long and drawn out, but I get it and understand how it ultimately connects with the story. And it’s especially amusing the think of a dog who watches TV all day and really, truly understands what he’s seeing.

Secondly, the book resonated with me as a father. We ourselves had Benson with us long before we ever had kids, and they’ve since grown up around him and he’s always been patient and shown them love as well.

There were other parts that really affected me as well, that were downright shocking. I don’t want to spoil them. I would mope around the house with tears in my eyes after reading parts of the book and my wife (and Benson) would wonder what was wrong with me.

I think some of the emotional impact of this book has to do with confronting our own dog’s mortality. He’s a big dog, though not super old (as far as dogs go), but he’s starting to get mysterious lumps under his skin and having more difficulty walking up steps.

Anyway.

Let’s not forget that ending, oh man, I was just a weepy pile of tears by the time this thing was done.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Book Review: The Silence by Don DeLillo

The silence

★☆☆☆☆

Maybe I’m still in a bad mood from a recent book I read, which I also one-stared, but this one was terrible.

I think it’s supposed to be a message about how scrambled our brains are due to our fixation on technology, but I really don’t even know. It was weird. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t interesting, even though the premise seems interesting.

To quote from the description: “…something happens and the digital connections that have transformed our lives are severed.”

A bunch of people get together at a Super Bowl party and essentially have conversations with themselves that make no sense and have no relation to each other after all the power goes out and every screen is blank.

Let’s straight up take a passage that appears in the later half of the book as people are talking “with” each other:

Martin resumes speaking for a time, back to English, unaccented.
Internet arms race, wireless signals, countersurveillance.
“Data breaches,” he says. “Cryptocurrencies.”
He speaks this last term looking directly at Diane.
Cryptocurrencies.
She builds the word in her mind, unhyphenated.
They are looking at each other now.
She says, “Cryptocurrencies.”
She doesn’t have to ask him what this means.
He says, “Money running wild. Not a new development. No government standard. Financial mayhem.”
“And it is happening when?”
“Now,” he says. “Has been happening. Will continue to happen.”
“Cryptocurrencies.”
“Now.”
“Crypto,” she says, pausing, keeping her eyes on Martin. “Currencies.”
Somewhere within all those syllables, something secret, covert, intimate.

I mean, I was actually laughing because this whole thing is ridiculous. “Crypto,” she says, pausing, keeping her eyes on Martin. “Currencies.”

I think I needed to be high as a kite to appreciate this book.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Book Review: How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Antiracist

★★★★☆

This has been on the “to-read” list for awhile and I finally decided to check it out after Dr. Kendi did a (virtual) speaking event / QA session at our company.

We’re the same age and graduated high school the same year, so for me, this was an interesting contrast between my privileged white life and his life and the struggles that he and his family had to continuously faced because the deck is so continuously stacked against people of color.

I feel that this book is at its best when he shares vulnerable and deeply personal stories on his growth and evolving ideas of race, gender, and sexual preference.

This definitely provided a new perspective (for me) to consider when thinking about how lucky and privileged I’ve been and how much I’ve taken it for granted while others have struggled and sacrificed so much (up to and including their own lives).

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi