Rust by Jonathan Waldman

When we were standing in line at the bookstore, my wife’s expression made it plain she thought this book was a bizarre choice. As in, why would I read that? Well, the answer is simple. There’s a ton of stuff out there that I know nothing about. Are writers always supposed to preach to the converted? Am I to read only sequels and the works of writers I’m already familiar with?

If you’ve read any of my recent reviews you might get the impression that I hate everything. It ain’t so. I just hate literate idiots (probably far more than I hate your run-of-the-mill idiots). I like good books, I don’t mind taking chances but like any Scot of any century, I hate wasting money. I hate wasting time even more.

As I plunged into the first chapter of Rust, I was immediately rewarded by the solid writing and unique subject matter. The author spent a serious chunk of time researching each chapter. Sometimes, too much time. But I’d far rather have more information than I need than not enough – or any hint that the author doesn’t know his topic well enough to write about it. And Mr. Waldman is certainly thorough.

The single word endorsements on the cover are pure hyperbole though. “Engrossing, brilliant, masterful.” Ugh. No, it is none of those things. My attention flagged only occasionally. And I learned a crap-load about corrosion. And the Statue of Liberty and stainless steel and the Alaska Pipeline. I’d read it again in my dotage, just for the hell of it. Which is a rare thing for me to say about a book.

So, my wifely wife, I was not wrong. Unlike countless other visits to the bookstore, I picked a good one this time.

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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

 

I’m not quite sure how to talk about this book. I read it. But I can’t believe I made it to the end. After reading his first effort, Sapiens, I thought, OK, he’s going to write about the future, which is up front and center in the news and weather these days as being not particularly rosy. It took ten or twenty pages to really wrap my head around the fact that he thinks everything is going to be peachy and the dominant feature of our collective future is going to be AI.

All right, AI. Not the end of oil, not climate change, not economic collapse, not the demise of ocean life and not the threat of billions dying from any of these factors – let alone all of them at the same time. AI. Really?

I could not believe this historian was so utterly blind to what is going on in the world today. Worse, he spends a significant portion of the book elaborating on his dumb idea. How AI will replace religion, liberalism, humanism and possibly even humans. You’d think his publisher or his editor might have pointed out that five minutes after the super-geniuses have invented the ultimate smartypants computer, they might be blown to smithereens by a super-tornado.

Oh, and where does he think the super-brain is going to come from? From Google and Facebook, which even now can predict your behavior better than your friends and family. Really? And what about when the power goes out, fucktard?

I am actually embarrassed to admit I’ve read this thing. Apparently, all we need to do to bring about machines smarter than ourselves is allow Google, Facebook and Amazon complete access to all our files, emails, photos and conversations. Because, you know, humans are not anything more than what we reveal online. The new religion is called dataism, where everything in the universe can be reduced to an algorithm. The guy sounds like a first year philosophy student who hasn’t quite grasped the difference between reality and a model of it.

And just for two seconds, let’s assume AI does come to dominate our lives over the next century. Who the fuck thinks it’s not going to be controlled by those with money and power? How is it in any way something to cheer, to encourage and not sound all the alarms? The guy needs to cancel his subscription to Wired. And wherever his mother is, wow, please give him a slap.

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The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer, MD

I’ve been reading a lot about gut bacteria lately. I’m intrigued by the idea that those little gut bugs are controlling our food cravings and even our moods. So when I saw this book in the bookstore I couldn’t say no to buying it.

Other than brain-manipulation, there are two other diet-related subjects I really want to know more about. The first is, how is our industrialized environment affecting our health, in particular, our microbiome. Our environment is extremely complex and the things going into our bodies (food, air pollutants, herbicides, chemicals we come in contact with every day) all have an effect on us and our little symbiotic travel companions. The second thing that really interests me is the big picture of humanity, how we, our guts and our eating habits evolved over the past million and a half years. If Dr. Mayer could throw a little light on any of these subjects, I was going to be a happy camper.

As it turns out, this is a weird book. It’s obvious from the outset that the author knows a great deal about the current science on the various ways our microbiome talks to our brain. But he glosses over every other important aspect of the subject. For instance, he talks about food, but the main take-away is “don’t eat a fat-rich diet”. In a book about our guts, we are robbed of any cogent discussion of what happens to food after we eat it, the differing effects of good and bad food on our guts or why we like things that are bad for us. The message, “fat is bad” is not only wrong, outdated and possibly dangerous, the author should be embarrassed not to distinguish between good and bad fats. Nowhere in the book will you find the word “polyunsaturated”. Perhaps he thinks that’s too technical for us?

And he lingers on the subject of fat far too long. I kept thinking, what of the traditional Inuit diet which was 50% fat? If all fat causes inflammation, why didn’t the Inuit burst into flames? And why are we genetically programmed to like it so much? But nope, all we get is “fat is bad”. In a more rounded book that spends this much time on the issue of fat, I would expect the author to answer simple questions like, Is all fat bad? Is modern industrial-agriculture fat worse than hunter-gatherer fat? But no. “Fat is bad.”

While I’m bitching, let me mention that the author is in love with wondering. I understand gut science is in its infancy, but the overuse of words like ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘possible’ comes across as speculation that any idiot can do – when what we signed up for was the current state of what is known. Give me a fact. I’m perfectly capable of asking my own dumb questions, thanks.

So I ended up with a few more details on the mechanisms of the gut-brain connection. But I didn’t get either of the items on my wish-list. Nothing about the big picture of our evolution. (Well, except for a bit about how our guts used to be a standalone critter and a section about the Yanomami which went exactly nowhere. His editor needs a Yanomami pool-cue club across the head for that blunder.) And nothing about how our environment affects our guts – unless you count the stress it causes and the one page on pesticides which came off like an essay a ninth grader couldn’t wait to scribble out so he could get back to gaming. Nothing about environmental pollutants, nothing about industrial agriculture. The guy should probably get out of the lab more.

Don’t waste your time on this frustrating book. Surely there are better-written ones on the subject out there.

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A Few Books I’ve Read Lately

Orton, The Complete Plays

I read a line or two somewhere from one of Joe Orton’s plays and thought, wow, this guy can write. So I ordered the book and took my sweet time reading it, entirely because it did not start off as well as I had hoped. The first couple of plays (The Ruffian on the Stair, Entertaining Mr., Sloane) were not of the genius calibre I was expecting. The writing was merely clever and designed to shock. And not clever and shocking in a rich Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton or H.H. Munro sort of way. He was just trying too hard. But by the time I got to the plays for which he was famous (Loot, Funeral Games) I was sold. And I truly began to mourn the loss of this great playwright (his lover murdered him when he was only 34). Now, how I wish there were more Orton plays! I love his sense of humor – dark, twisted and finely crafted. The world is a far richer place for his having walked among us for even so short a time.

How Music Works by David Byrne

I received this as a gift and dutifully read it all the way through, though I have no special liking for David Byrne or his music. I saw him in concert this century, saw Stop Making Sense about ten years after it was made and never bought a Talking Heads album. The title of the book intrigued me and I was encouraged by the words, “Wildly Ambitious” on the back cover, which quoted a review from the Observer. Sadly, I was let down within the first chapter and my disappointment only deepened the further I read. The ‘music’ referred to in the title is the principally the music the author has made himself and experienced in his lifetime. The ‘works’ is actually a pun, referring to how he has ended up ‘working’ for a living as a musician. The book has nothing to do with the physics of music or the mysterious emotional impact that music has on humans. In fact, the man knows next to nothing about music that was made before he was born, nothing at all about what music is, in the audio waveform sense, and he certainly has no clue why humans make music to begin with. The book is pretty much a wank by someone who has no formal education and not the first inkling of a idea of the limits of his knowledge. People who know stuff, they have a handle on what they don’t know. David Byrne does not and will surely have no idea how embarrassed he should be by this book.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

Formula: your typical modern guy let loose upon the clichés of Paris: the food, the wine, the women. A breezy read. A good beach book.

Geek-Art, An Anthology by Thomas Olivri

An art book specializing in pop culture icons appearing in the personal art projects of professional illustrators. If you like graphical minimalism, movie poster remixes, and Star Wars characters embedded in classical art, this book is for you.

Perv, The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering

I found this little gem when I only had about ten minutes to buy a book. Knowing next to nothing about the science of sexuality, I was intrigued by the promise of the title and the blurb on the back cover. Little did I know, the book was going to rock my little world – at least as far as my knowledge of sexual perversions went. For it turned out I knew nothing and in the past few decades, science has come a long way in demystifying sexuality, in drawing much bigger boundaries around what is normal primate behaviour and what the heck causes humans to be turned-on by very, very specific things and not others. Buy this book. You will know yourself a heck of a lot better by the end of it.

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Paul Bogard, The Ground Beneath Us

“It’s hard to believe that American society could possibly collapse because of a lack of soil. And it’s true that we in the States are blessed to live in a country so rich in this life-giving source. But in a small world growing smaller all the time, what happens to the soil in other parts of the world—often much more at risk than our soils—will eventually affect us and our economy, and the stability of the world around us.

“For example, soil scientists fear that we are wasting and damaging our topsoil—the layer in which most of our food grows—at an entirely unsustainable rate.

“How unsustainable? One recent study reported that on average the world has only sixty harvests remaining. “On average” because although in the United Kingdom that number is one hundred harvests and in the United States the number is even higher, for other parts of the world—think Africa, India, China, and parts of South America, where the human population is largest and growing ever larger—the number of remaining harvests is lower, meaning that in fewer than sixty years the topsoil will no longer support the growing and harvesting of food.”

Book Excerpt

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The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond


I bought this book with a gift certificate at a small bookstore where there was little other choice. Actually, now that I think of it, it was at a large franchise bookstore where the corporate office knows they can make more money on Chinese home decor knickknacks than they can on books. I expect in a year or two, such stores will be indistinguishable from airport duty free shops and the only literature available to buy will be ebooks from vending machines.

I’ve been a fan of pop anthropology since the ’70s, when Marvin Harris’s “Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches” came out. I am generally omnivorous when it comes to well-written words between two covers. But I hold a special regard for books on the origin of humans and the understanding of their behaviours. So I was really looking forward to reading this Diamond book, which is subtitled, “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”.

He begins with sections on war and territoriality, how everything in the lives of hunter-gatherers and early farmers was local and foreigners with their own completely distinct language and culture were often only a few miles away. Much of this I found tedious, as it smacked of an introductory anthropology course. Facts were delivered, information conveyed, but there was very little in the way of digestion. What I mean is, he failed to draw any lines between then and now. It wasn’t so much, How Did We Get Here? as Here’s What They Did.

By the time he arrived at the chapters on child-rearing, language, religion and diet, it was clear he had no deep thoughts on the subjects he was presenting. His only leap into the modern world turned out to be mildly prescriptive. Here’s what you can learn, he told us. I don’t care to be lectured on the benefits of eating less sugar and salt when what I got into this hefty tome for was a better understanding of the human animal.

The book began to feel like one of Isaac Asimov’s science primers, which he wrote it to teach himself the subject matter. Granted, there were wonderful tidbits here and there that I had no idea about. But being provided with fresh examples of principles you already understand is no substitute for meaningful engagement with a subject. His theory was absent. He discovered nothing new. He drew no conclusions that a grade six science student couldn’t draw. And in the end, he did nothing more than lull me with his sonorous tone, never once amusing or enlightening.

If you’re looking for ideas, read Arthur Koestler. If you’re looking for entertaining science, read Mary Roach. If you need a good non-fiction yarn, get yourself some Bill Bryson. Diamond’s books are like long, big budget movies where you expect Lawrence of Arabia and you end up with Heaven’s Gate. Save yourself some time and some cash. There are much better books out there.

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The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith


It’s not very often I learn something worth shouting about on every page of a non-fiction book, but it sure felt like that when I was reading this one. I didn’t want it to end. I was planning on starting it again as soon as I finished, just to let it all get fixed permanently in my brain.

If you’d like to read a book that pulls no punches when it comes to knocking out popular diet myths, you must immediately hie yourself to the closest bookstore and nab yourself a copy of this book.

I was a vegetarian for 12 years and I can’t say the diet did me any favors. It was during my teens and early twenties when, as a growing boy, I could have really used a decent diet. And I suffered. Boy, did I suffer.

Aside from the intro and outro, the book has three main sections, Moral Vegetarians, Political Vegetarians and Nutritional Vegetarians. In each she decimates the often preposterous and sometimes seemingly sensible ideas people have for not eating meat.

I’m not going to say much more about it. The book is preaching to the converted as few vegetarians – and even fewer vegans – will ever read it simply because of the title. I know it’s partly a record of the author’s personal journey and yes, dispelling myth is a central part of the book. I just happen to feel that the information in it is too valuable not to know – for everyone, especially vegetarians. So I’m kind of saddened that the title will put them off.

Seriously, ignore the title and buy this book, no matter who you are or what you eat. You’ll thank me – and especially Lierre Keith – later.

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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle


These days, it’s often thought the opposite of cynicism is naivete, the sort of innocence that can easily be poked fun at. If you aren’t snidely self-aware you’re labelled a rube who isn’t in on the game. The truth is, cynicism is the mask that our idiot youth culture puts on to seem grown-up. There are fully-fleshed worlds of story and song out there that can make a grown man cry without a single note of snark. And thankfully, Howard Pyle has drawn us a world like that, where the sheer joy and innocence of it can prompt those happy tears.

Seriously, only Dylan Thomas and Richard Llewellyn have painted bittersweet worlds as rich as this. This is literature’s Eden.

Forget every other Robin Hood book and movie. This is the real deal. And Pyle, as one of the greatest illustrators in the past 500 years, has given us not just words, but pictures as well, and the best that have ever been drawn of the subject. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book. I bought it nearly forty years ago (in a beautiful library binding) and keep picking it up, savoring it, not wanting it to end.

Tired of modern “media” trying to shock you with its cold edginess? These Merry Adventures will show you how the simplest story can get right into your bones and warm you through and through.

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Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici


This is really not my sort of book – a Marxist, feminist analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism – but my wife was so full of praise for it, I couldn’t wait to read it. And it did not disappoint.

First off, the book is written, probably as a thesis, for those who are familiar with the terms of Marxist views of history. Since she’s writing for that in-group, the Preface and the Introduction are almost unreadable for the layman.

The rest of the book though, is a revelation. (Well, except for the rare occasions when she decides to cover the mic and talk directly to the Marxists in the front row to make sure the in-group is still listening.) When my wife was reading it, and exclaiming over certain passages, I thought, okay, I hope I like it as much as she does. And well… I did.

It’s the story of the heretics, the loss of communal land and the witch hunts in Europe as well as North America. These were absolutely eye-popping to read about. (If I wasn’t a feminist before this, I sure am now.) But what really blew me away was the history of manners, of corralling our sexuality and superstitions, funnelling them into the capitalist straitjacket so that the common man’s thoughts and actions could be predictable. Because, hey, not showing up to work because the moon was in a certain phase was not good for profits.

All these years I had thought it was Victorian tastes that had killed Dionysus in our culture. Now I find out that it was capitalists – the church, the state, the wealthy – that basically stomped on women, on reproductive rights and on the average person’s ability to feed themselves without depending on those who could make money from our hunger.

Now I know why my wife is so sensitive to the modern inequalities of women. This crap was deliberately engineered over five hundred years ago. I tell you, after getting a taste of the historical facts, I would pay a lot of money for a book that told this same story from pre-history, from the dawn of cities and agriculture. ‘Cause wow, the stuff I don’t know is still legion.

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Latest Reading


The Diet Myth by Tim Spector

I bought this book after seeing the author interviewed on David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, (which Canadians can watch online). Though I knew a little about gut bacteria and the role it plays in our general health, our immune systems and the effect it has on our diet decision-making, the TV program consolidated a lot of my ideas and the book drilled the truths home.

Though the book wasn’t quite as good as I thought it would be, its central idea is so important, I would go so far as to say that no human should have to go about life ignorant of it. It should be taught in schools from an early age, promoted in government nutritional guidelines and play a part in every person’s food choices.

If you are on a diet of any kind, if you are having any sort of intestinal troubles, if you have trouble sleeping, crapping, staying awake, buy this book. I kind of wish the author had taken on the mantle of guru and made some explicit recommendations at the end of the book. But the gist is this:

1. There is good fat and bad fat. The good is very good, the bad is deadly.

2. Lack of fibre is perhaps worse for us than all the sugar and refined carbs we’re packing away.

3. What you eat creates it’s own feedback loop, making you want to eat more of it.

4. The health of your gut bacteria is the foundation upon which your immune system works.

5. Foods that digest quickly (sugars, highly-refined grain products) can kill your gut bacteria.

6. If the best your doctor can do is recommend dieting and exercise, he has not been reading the latest research.

I will be looking for more books on this subject. Acting on its lessons has completely changed how we eat in our house.

Gestalt Therapy by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman

I first read Gestalt Therapy in the early ‘80s and it made a permanent impression on me and set me on a course that changed my life forever. As such, it’s a difficult book for me to talk about, so I’ll keep it short and try not to go rambling off into Lala Land about it’s implications. The book and it’s ideas date from the great postwar surge in the cognitive and behavioral sciences, the 1950s. This is the decade when some of the greatest minds in 20th Century psychology published their seminal works: Erik Erikson, Rollo May, Alfred Kinsey, Carl Rogers, B.F. Skinner, Harry Stack Sullivan, Abraham Maslow, Viktor Frankl.

The book is written as both a treatise and manual, offering both explanation and exercises in gestalt therapy. In a nutshell, the therapy seeks to help everyone, not just those suffering from mental maladies, by a systematic process of increasing awareness. That may seem like quite a lame goal, but if you think about it, a heightened awareness could easily be the reason some people seem to be smarter or more creative than others. For that matter, it could be the reason some people are more compassionate, better listeners, better friends or lovers.

When I started reading it, I did not realise the book contained a ton of simple practical exercises. I’m not big on that kind of book, so I resisted at first. Then I thought, what the hell, let’s give it a go. The benefits were immediate and wonderful, so I continued. By the end of the book, I can honestly say I was transformed, kitted out with a remarkable toolkit that would help me every day of my life thereafter.

I was watching a video the other day (Judson Brewer’s “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit”) and was reminded that raising awareness is not just some dumb subjective wank. It had real objectively verifiable benefits.

Let me say though, try and avoid the book “Gestalt Therapy Verbatim” by Frederick Perls. I bought it, mistaking the title for my old fav and regretted it. Though Perls is one of the originators of Gestalt Therapy, he often comes off as a bit of a stoner flake. Thankfully, he is only a coauthor of Gestalt Therapy, so his ‘unique style’, to put it kindly, is confined to a brief author’s note at the beginning of the book.

Buy it, do it. You’ll thank me later.

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies

Though the book’s been around since the ‘70s, I found it in a spanky new edition. Being a writer of traditional fairy tales, I guess you could say it was a professional read. Maybe I’ve read too much on the subject since it came out, for I’m sure it was a ground-breaking work 40 years ago, but I have to admit I didn’t learn a ton of new stuff from it. The historical bits (this king this, and this king that) bored me to tears and after a couple chapters of it I feared the whole book was going to be like that. Thankfully, the detail about medieval daily life I was seeking kicked in and I was amused for the rest of the book. If you know nothing about the subject, it’s a good place to start.

Gulp by Mary Roach

If you like non-fiction and have never read Mary Roach, run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore and buy yourself an armload. Glancing through it a few weeks after finishing Gulp, I found myself immediately drawn back into her brilliantly lucid style and tongue-in-cheek humour. Seriously, if she chose to write about poop or corpses or vomit (which she does, a lot), I would still own every book and read them with relish (not that kind of relish).

Gulp is definitely one of her best. It is subtitled, Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. It takes us on a journey through the science of smelling and tasting all the way down to pooping and well, not pooping. The chapter on how Elvis lived and died is by itself worth the price of admission. (Just let me say, that poor friggin guy.)

I will always read Mary Roach’s books. And without question, I will reread them.

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