The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

Characters: 4.5/5 Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

A dramatic and fiercely feminist bit of historical fiction. Sue Monk Kidd inserts a remarkable character into the life of Jesus Christ — a wife named Ana. This is Ana’s story, however, not his. From childhood, the secret longing of this determined and deeply intelligent girl has been to have a Voice. Beginning with writing the stories of the matriarchs of the bible, she continues throughout her life to document the stories of forgotten and neglected women everywhere.

I was completely pulled in to the story. The historical context is rich with detail and insight into both the lives of individuals and the social and political currents of the time. Full sensory descriptions of Ana’s writing — the scrolls, inks and pens; the libraries and codices; the requisite hiding places; and the rare and tenuous gift that she had been allowed, as a woman, to learn to read and write at all. As we go through her life, we experience the inspiration for her writings and read samples as well. I was fascinated to learn that one such sample — Thunder: Perfect Mind — was an actual text unearthed from the 1942 Nag Hammadi excavation and dated to the time of the story.

There is plenty of drama — Ana’s father Matthias is the chief scribe and advisor to Herod Antipas; her adopted brother is Judas; and she meets and marries Jesus — but the actual story was far more political than spiritual … and I appreciated the historical depiction unencumbered by later religious trappings. As an aside, I loved the description of life in Therapeutae — an actual community of Jewish philosophers in Alexandria.

While Sue Monk Kidd’s style is often a little too emotional for me, I was completely drawn into this story of a strong woman insisting on her own voice — in some ways relegating the “greatest story ever told” to a mere influence. This book managed to completely shift my perspective on a period of time I knew little about.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

 

Human Compatible — Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell (Nonfiction)

An extremely well-written, comprehensive overview of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — with a focus on the very real risks it poses to the continued viability of the human race and a proposal for how to move forward reaping the benefits of AI without making us “seriously unhappy.”

AI Pioneer Stuart Russell is a Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley, has numerous awards, fellowships, chairmanships, etc. and has co-authored a textbook on AI with Peter Norvig. This is a book written by that rare creature — someone who knows his subject thoroughly and can explain it. He does not shy away from the complexity of the topic but breaks it down and explains it, simply making it accessible to anyone who is willing to read and think. He includes short, clear examples from science, philosophy, history, and even science fiction and references current and historical work from academia, research labs, and startups from around the world.

The book is divided into three parts: the concept and definition of intelligence in humans and machines; a set of problems around the control of machines with superhuman intelligence; and a proposal for shifting our approach to AI to prevent these problems from occurring rather than trying to “stuff the genie back into the bottle” once it is too late.

Russell explains the potential problems of unleashing a massively intelligent machine on the world. An AI machine offers incredible scale. Think of an entity that (with the proper sensors) can see the entire physical world at once, that can listen and process all concurrent conversations at once, that can absorb all the documented history of the planet in a single hour. And we plan to control this entity via programming. With a superhuman intelligence, the programming would need to be at the objective level. And yet — specifications — even with every day human programmers — are incredibly hard to get right. Russell uses the example of giving the machine the task to counter the rapid acidification of the oceans resulting from higher carbon dioxide levels. The machine does this in record time, unfortunately depleting the atmosphere of oxygen in the process (and we all die). Remember the old stories about getting three wishes and always screwing it up? This would make those stories look trivial. Russell never uses scare tactics and does not wildly overstate the thesis — instead he uses practical examples and includes one tremendously simple chapter (the not-so-great debate) that lists every argument people have made that we don’t have to worry and rebuts them quickly.

His solution: we should design machines correctly now so we don’t have to try to control them later. He wants to build a “provably beneficial machine” — provably in the mathematical sense. His machine would operate on only three principles: the machine’s only objective is to maximize realization of human preferences; the machine is initially uncertain as to what these preferences are; and the ultimate source of information on human preferences is human behavior. This is interesting — he wants to “steer away from the driving idea of 20th century technology that optimize a given objective” and instead “develop an AI system that defers to humans and gradually align themselves to user preferences and intentions.” There follows an entire chapter devoted to how we can program the machines to determine what those human preferences are, particularly in light of competing preferences, potentially evil preferences, the cognitive limitations of humans to understand their own preferences, behavioral economics, the nature of mind, definitions of altruism — you name it — all the fascinating areas of understanding human behavior become part of the problem. Which, while completely fascinating, strikes me as even more difficult than trying to work out how to define exact specifications in the first place!

I was left with a knot in my gut about how fast AI is moving without much oversight and how suddenly relevant these issues (that I had long relegated to comfortable musings in science fiction) have become. While I find his proposed solution intriguing, it is hard, hard, hard — and expecting random investors and startups to tackle harder design problems instead of racing towards monetization will be tricky. On the other hand, we move forward as a civilization by raising the issues and embedding them in our moral consciousness and Russell has done an excellent job of clearly teeing up a huge number of costs, benefits, and issues from technical to ethical. Highly recommended if you have any interest in the topic.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (Memoir)

This memoir is as gripping as a good novel.  Hall-of-mirrors style, we experience therapy from the perspective of the therapist with carefully selected stories that highlight both the therapeutic process and the impact on the therapist herself. At the same time, we’re along for the ride as Gottlieb enters her own therapy as the result of a (surprisingly) bad breakup. She has a real talent for insight — into herself and into others — and the training and background to understand that insight. Even better, Gottlieb can write — the prose is clear and succinct and gets to the essence of complex feelings, motivations, and awareness. My favorite one liner: “The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.”

This memoir is one of the bravest and most honest I’ve read. I never would have had the courage to bare my soul, warts and all, in such a genuine and authentic manner. The narrative embeds her personal story — the path through journalism and medical school to a combined career as therapist and writer — as well as relevant bits of the history of psychology. She references several psychologists — some famous, some new to me, and a few favorites — as she leverages their teachings in her own work. The one that hit me hardest was this quote from Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Apropos of nothing, another interesting tidbit: the countries with the most therapists per capita (in order) are: Argentina, Austria, Australia, France, Canada, Switzerland, Iceland, US. Would not have been my guess!

Did this book make me want to enter therapy? She included a definition that I hadn’t heard before — Counseling is for advice whereas therapy is for self-understanding. I’m always interested in self-understanding and working with a *good* therapist who has great skill and insight would be (I’m sure) both interesting and beneficial — but the process is long, expensive, and doesn’t appear to be very efficient — I think I’ll stick to my “self-taught” approach and continue with ongoing internal exploration.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5
Loved this book — 500 pages and I read it in a day and a half — I couldn’t stop!

A skillfully constructed family drama pulsing with life, love, relationships, tragedy, and personality — yet (thankfully) never crossing that line into the minefield of melodrama. Amina Eapen is a talented photojournalist who fled to the safety of weddings and quinceaneras after taking a stunning suicide photo that led to both massive acclaim and massive recrimination. A second-generation, Indian-American immigrant, this story features some of the immigrant flavor, but primarily throws stereotype aside to focus on intricately drawn individuals with so much detail I feel I know them better than I know myself. The action takes place primarily in Albuquerque and moves between the present (1998) and (well sign-posted) pieces of personal history.

I always hesitate to give anything away because the stories unfold at the perfect pace and you should get to enjoy the uncoiling. Suffice it to say that this is a book about family relationships, concomitant personal growth for all, love and loneliness, life and death. Characters: Amina’s father Thomas, the brain surgeon who prefers life in the U.S.; his wife Kamala who wants nothing more than to go back to India; brother Akhil, angry and ranting until he meets his perfect foil; and their extended families — the biological portion left in India and the even closer family created locally.

The writing is beautiful and manages to be funny and poignant at the same time. One of those books where I highlight phrases on most pages (see samples below). I thought the last line of the novel was absolutely perfect. Some comprehensive and edifying descriptions of the process of creating artistic photography which I found fascinating.

As an aside, I learned about a group of Christians that was completely new to me: Amina’s family are part of the Syrian Christians of India who trace their conversion to the 1st century AD after a visit from Thomas the apostle. This plays only a tiny role in the book but I love a good historical tidbit.

It reminded me a little bit of A Place For Us — which I also loved — probably because both are 2nd generation immigrant family dramas that do not claim to represent the category but are splendidly unique and have that amazing character insight that draws me in.

Some quotes:

“Amina nodded calmly, trying to keep her face from registering any hint of worry, but something in her chest bunched up on itself, like a cat being cornered.”

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing. What would they do with everyone else’s worry on top of their own? Thomas did not weather other people’s concern well. He was not going to be happy with her.”

“Cool, flabby arms squeezed her round the middle hard, more a Heimlich than an actual greeting.”

“A minute later Amina set everything on the counter between them and sat down, instantly more jittery, like there was a panic button on her ass.”

“It resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare”

“Her mother’s convictions that movies continue in some private offscreen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala’s reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted.”

“Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.”

“…she would not destroy another creature’s carefully wrought world. If she were God, she’d be a little fucking kinder.”

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

“… it was that every part of Paige, from her conscience to her politics to her grown woman’s body, was suffused by an optimism so assured that to stay with her, Akhil had to stop being such an angry dick.”

“Her cigarette had a thumb-tip-sized ash growing on it. She flicked it, stuck it between her lips like a straw, and sucked. A cat with its claws out skidded down her trachea.”

“Why bother? Once rewritten, Kamala’s history was safer than classified government documents.”

“It was one of Dimple’s favorite theories, how thousands of years of obsession with a Christian God in a subcontinent of more dynamic religions had petrified the Syrian Christian community, turning them into what she alternately called ‘the stalest community on earth’ or ‘Indian’s WASPs.’ “

“She hated seeing her own face right next to Simple’s — all beak and long chin and awnings for eyebrows, where Dimple’s was a crisp, pert heart.”

“She imagined all of it gone, undone, erased back to 1968, when the city was nothing but eighty miles of hope huddling in a dust storm. She imagined Kamala on the tarmac, walking toward a life in the desert, her body pulled forward by faith and dirty wind.”

142 Ostriches by April Davila (Fiction)

24-year old Tallulah wants nothing more than to blow her small Mojave desert town and head for a fire prevention hand crew in Montana. However, when the grandmother who raised her dies suddenly and leaves her the Ostrich Farm (complete with 142 ostriches), all bets are off.

Tallulah is a gratifyingly strong character. Coming from a family that runs away from problems — her uncle is a meth-head, her dread-locked mother is constantly on the move, and pretty much everyone she knows is a drinker — Tallulah has to learn how to face her problems, figure out what is important to her, and decide what kind of life she wants to lead. The journey is full of drama, quirky ostrich behavior, and the beauty of the desert.

The writing is decent, and I liked the overall “face your problems” message. I did have some trouble with the attitude towards the addict in the story. He inflicted real, and potentially lethal, damage on multiple people (and ostriches) and yet Tallulah continued to make excuses for him and feel bad for him. I don’t agree with having compassion to the point of relieving people of having responsibility for themselves and therefore allowing more people to be badly hurt.

That aside, a good read, likable characters, and enjoyable ostrich lore.

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 25th, 2020.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling (Non-fiction)

An absolutely, utterly clear book about how to think with Facts (factfully). I was initially put off by the self-help / Idiot’s Guide style structure and cover, but I read it because a friend who is a strong and skeptical thinker recommended it. And I’m glad I did!

The premise of the book is simple — the world is actually getting better in almost every dimension. While there is plenty of work left to do, we should be aware of the progress that has been made and is continuing to be made. We should not sink into despair at the hopelessness of it all.

Rosling is a “possibleist” — he celebrates progress while continuing to work on progressing further. A Swedish physician whose practice and research has extended across the world, he urges people to think for themselves, making use of the (many, many) facts at their disposal. He wants people to be aware of the natural “Instincts” that can make them feel “sure” when in fact they are utterly wrong.

There are ten such Instincts, and each one gets its own chapter. Each chapter starts with a small anecdote, moves on to a definition of the Instinct, proceeds with accessible graphs depicting the real data that flies in the face of the Instinct, and finishes with more anecdotes. The anecdotes are illustrative but not the basis for the facts! Very readable and I found myself constantly saying “yes!” to myself.

Some of the key messages:
• Better does not mean that there are not still problems needing work; just that the issue is improving.
• Slow change is not the same as no change.
• Different countries may currently exist at different levels of progress, but appear to be on the same trajectories. For example, the life expectancy in Tunisia today is the same as that in Sweden in 1970, but is on the same improvement trajectory.
• Continuous insistence on the urgency and utterly dire predictions on every front leads to mass anxiety or inertia, not on anything productive.
• Things change and yet it is easy to stick to “old” knowledge about the way things were when you first learned them.

The ten instincts — all obvious when described and yet so easy to fall into:
• The Gap Instinct: Stories tend to focus on gaps between two extremes; remember that the majority is usually right in the middle.
• The Negativity instinct: Bad news is more likely to reach us than good news, giving us a systematically negative view of the world.
• The Straight Line Instinct: We assume that trends (like population) follow straight lines into infinity; instead, lines tend to bend.
• The Fear Instinct: The kind of things that grab our attention (terrorist attacks, kidnapping) are usually not the actual things we should be focused on. Calculate the real risks and allocate resources accordingly.
• The Size Instinct: One statistic on its own can appear alarming; you need to view numbers in their contexts and in contrast to other numbers to get a real understanding.
• The Generalization Instinct: Pay attention to the categories you’ve divided things into — look for differences within the group and similarities between groups. And always find out how much the “majority” really is — 51% and 98% are both majorities but of very different dimensions!
• The Destiny Instinct: Change may be very slow but it is happening; don’t confuse slow change with no change and no possibility of change.
• The Single Instinct: Look at a problem from multiple viewpoints
• The Blame Instinct: Resist pointing the finger — it’s easy to find a scapegoat and offload the blame, but this prevents an understanding of the more systemic issue and stops us from preventing similar issues in the future
• The Urgency Instinct: A feeling of urgency pushes us to act before any real thinking is done. Things are rarely as urgent as they are presented.

So do you need to actually read this book now that I’ve summarized it? I found the examples and illustrations incredibly compelling, and I would recommend reading the whole thing. It’s a fast and fascinating read.

For some great examples, go to his dollar street website where he has pictures and interviews with families around the world living at different income levels. Completely stereotype breaking:

https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix

Loot by Sharon Waxman (Non-fiction)

A thorough and comprehensive overview of the world of antiquities — and the seedy underbelly comprised of looting, demands for restitution, greed, and the occasional ruined life in the name of political expediency. The author does a decent job of presenting multiple points of view fairly, only occasionally throwing in her own opinions.

She focusses on four source countries — Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy — each demanding the repatriation of important antiquities currently housed in a Western museum. As an example, Egypt insists the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone — discovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 and forfeited to the British upon his loss in 1802. She also presents the story behind the four major museum targets of repatriation claims: The Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the Getty.

There is much complexity in the stories. Many of the targeted items came to the museums over 200 years ago. Some were rescued from locals who were extracting building materials, others willingly donated by the head of the country at the time, some the spoils of war and conquest, and others a share of goods under the system of Partage that splits finds between source countries and foreign funded excavations. And others, of course, looted and sold to the highest bidder willing to look the other way when faced with questionable provenance.

The book takes us through a muddle of rationales, explanations, and hidden agendas. Some museum directors and curators point out the lack of facilities in many source countries to maintain and protect such treasures, that the local museums are not secure and ill attended, and that politics and media threats have played a large role in pushing museums to give up expensive works that were gained legally. They also point out that this type of nasty legal attacks will only push artifacts underground — away from the public and into private collections where it is much harder to identify and pursue looted objects. They also point out that while foreign governments are demanding big ticket items back — claiming they were looted — they are doing little to clamp down on modern-day smugglers, preferring to go after the deep pockets and easier targets of large, public institutions.

Read the book to find out more about the arguments from the source countries — after reading the whole thing I come down pretty squarely on the side of the museums. While there are some cases of fraud and obvious theft, for the most part I feel museums come by their artifacts as honestly as they can, given the contexts of the time, and I feel like the source countries are pursuing these objects more for political capital than anything else. I’d be interested in other points of view!