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: “Heavier Than Heaven” by Charles Cross

2020 has been crazy. Somehow, I just finished my 65th book of the yearHeavier Than Heaven, a biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles Cross.

I vaguely remember how big of a deal Kurt Cobain’s death was when I was in middle school, but I never really thought too much about him as a person, or the deeper meaning behind various Nirvana songs. All this, despite being a huge part of the sound track of my teenage life.

One of my biggest takeaways after reading this book was: how can you help those who don’t want it?

What a tortured, tormented soul who really struggled with life. I honestly felt down and depressed after reading certain parts of this book. I would put it down and mope about the house while I processed what I just read.

That said, another part of the book that I really enjoyed and appreciated was hearing how much joy and life his daughter brought to his life and how much he loved being a dad.

Also, after reading this, I think it’s incredible and seemingly improbable that Nirvana actually happened.

I often found myself flipping between this book and Spotify to listen to various Nirvana songs that were mentioned, trying to appreciate them in a new light and really hear them and looking at various performances on YouTube.

Book Review: “American Oligarchs” by Andrea Bernstein

(I have read a lot of books this year.)

There is a lot inside American Oligarchs that has been mentioned in other places before, but this is a nice compendium documenting the pervasive lies and corruption that exist at every level within the Trump and Kushner companies, organizations, and families (which are all one and the same, really) and a lot irony. Sweet, sweet irony.

The story of the Trump family proves that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. DJT’s grandfather, Frederick, left Germany at an early age and avoiding the mandatory service (!!) with the Bavarian army (this would later cause him to lose his citizenship). He settled down in the Pacific Northwest and owned a number of hotels and restaurants during the Klondike Gold Rush, some of which were allegedly involved of illicit activities of various sorts. He died in 1918 due to complications with the Spanish flu.

The story of the Kushners is interesting and tragic. Jared Kushner’s grandparents and extended family were rounded up by Nazis during World War II. Some members were murdered, and others sent to concentration camps where they eventually made a daring escape. After the war, Jared’s grandparents were displaced people without a home. Few countries wanted to take Jewish refugees, especially those lacking proper documentation.

In more recent times, both families have displayed fairly dubious business skills, while projecting an air of confidence (but come across as desperate for acceptance and recognition). Cross them the wrong way and they will hold grudges for life.

Despite this, they have somehow always managed to fail upward. Sadly, this now has some pretty drastic consequences for our democracy.

If you didn’t want to eat the rich before this book, you’ll feel like you’re ready for a five-course meal of cooked oligarch once you’ve finished. We have some serious issues to fix and we should start by locking all of these fine folks up.

I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.

Book Review: “The Wax Pack” by Brad Balukjian

The premise: a baseball fan fondly recalls his childhood memories of obsessively opening and collecting packs of baseball cards.

While watching an A’s game one afternoon at the Coliseum (which he rightly describes as a “post-apocalyptic crater ringed with hot dog stands”), he wonders what the players featured on the cards he collected as a kid were doing with their lives after their baseball careers had ended.

After purchasing a pack of cards on eBay from 1986, (the first year the author remembers having baseball cards), he sets off on a road trip across America to find and hopefully meet the 14 players featured in this 30-year-old card pack.

High jinks, hilarity and even important life lessons ensue.

This was just a great read and I highly recommend it for any baseball fan. Check it out on Goodreads.

Book Review: “Talking to Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell

Talking to Strangers” examines how our internal and cultural biases affect our interactions and perceptions of the people around us.

Early in the book, Gladwell mentions a study that gets right to the heart of the book and was really eye opening for me.

It’s a study into the “illusion of asymmetric insight” and shows us how we think we’re good an interpreting what a stranger is thinking or their intentions (spoiler: we’re actually really horrible at it).

Participants were required to complete a set of words with missing letters and then asked what the results say about them.

For example, someone was given “TOU _ _”. Some people would fill in the blanks as “TOUGH” and others would put “TOUCH”.

Afterward, the participant was asked if they think these results reflect their beliefs and core values. Nearly every participant said their word choices were random and had no relation on how they view the world.

Then they were given a random set of words from other people and asked the same question: What do you think these word choices say about these strangers?

Everyone had a strong opinion within literally minutes of being asked the same question about themselves! “Whoever wrote these sounds pretty vain“, or “this person sounds very obsessed with money and power.

Crazy, right?

The book is full of studies like this, as well as specific examples from real life interactions like this (some with very tragic consequences) and takes a deeper look into why things might have played out the way they did — from a traffic stop in Texas that went very wrong, broken diplomatic promises before World War II, a high-profile sexual assault that occurred at Stanford, and even looking into the motivations of people who try to commit suicide and our collective misunderstanding as to why and where these things happen.

I went into this book not knowing exactly what it was about. I thought, “Oh! New Malcom Gladwell book and it seems to be getting some good reviews, let’s go for it”. It took around a chapter or two for me to really get into the book and see where it was going, but when things finally clicked for me, this was fascinating and enlightening look at every day interactions.