Books

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Note: most books here are available to download from LibGen.

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Anthony Burgess — A Clockwork Orange (1962) 🙂

Not bad. The narrator is interesting. Russian words all around — also interesting. Alex has more character than in the Kubrick movie (although I’ve seen the movie a long time ago so I dunno).

Overall.. nice but probably forgettable.

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Leo Tolstoy — War and Peace (1869) 👍

Kinda cool. Actually, pretty cool.

Almost like a diary-in-third-person for a bunch of connected characters.

Doesn’t feel like a “narrative”, as in “things happening in real time” — it’s more like “what happened previously, but being retold in present tense”. There’s a feeling of… all of it not mattering.

Very fast paced. “This guy was thinking about how he’s evidently being forced to marry this woman”, and the next page goes “and indeed they married and three months later lived together etc”.

Tolstoy has something negative to say about everyone, which is a bit annoying. But there are lots of cool details, too. Would want to read more Tolstoy.

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Milo Jones, Philippe Silberzahn — Constructing Cassandra: Reframing Intelligence Failure at the CIA (2014) 🆗

Makes a point that CIA’s failures are due to: no diversity, heavy preference for consensus, scientism (objective/cold facts over common sense or human assessments or talking to people), and some fourth thing.

I remain unconvinced about scientism, but “heavy preference for consensus” — maybe yeah. No diversity — also maybe yeah. I can see the argument for diversity.

Also also, learned a bit of stuff about the Iranian revolution, the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11 and Osama bin Laden.

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Kurt Vonnegut — Slaughterhouse 5 🆗

Weird in an interesting way. The style gets tiring at some point.

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Geoffrey Blainey — The Causes of War (1988) 👍

(Bought and uploaded to Libgen.)

A book about why wars happen.

Claims that mainly they happen because two countries have contradictory estimates about “who would win a war and how easily”, and not because of… many things. Not because of evilness; not because of accidents; not because of wanting to distract people from internal problems; etc, etc. “Wars are normal”.

Has a lot of examples but somehow even after all the examples I’m still confused about why wars actually happen, given that wars seem so big deal. But perhaps a war isn’t a big deal? If going to war with another country isn’t a particularly big deal, then it makes much more sense.

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Julian Stallabrass — Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction [aka “Art Incorporated”] (2020) 🆗

"The art world is bound to the economy," writes Julian Stallabrass, "as tightly as Ahab to the white whale." In Art Incorporated, Stallabrass offers a provocative look at contemporary art and the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last twenty years, illuminating the connections between money, politics, and art.

Stallabrass notes that the spectacular crash of 1989 profoundly changed the character of contemporary art, shattering the art-world's self-importance and producing a reaction against art that engaged with theory and politics, in favor of art that set out to awe, entertain, and be sold. He describes the growth of biennials and other art events across the globe in the 1990s, the construction of new museums of contemporary art, and the expansion of many museums already in existence.

Not an introduction to contemporary art, but rather “what incentives do contemporary artists have”. I don’t remember much, other than “the art world is looped on itself and the public doesn’t matter much” (?) and “there’s an incentive for artists to produce art that will be a good investment”.

There’s also a thing that I asked some people why they go to art museums and a few said “I just like looking at pictures and feeling things”. I don’t feel things when looking at contemporary art, so probably that’s why the book appeals to me. A similar point about another Stallabrass’s book:

Stallabrass seems alienated from the labour of his fellow workers. His problem, as a critic and an analyst, is that, like many Courtauld Institute-trained art historians, he's curiously disengaged when it comes to discussing the things artists actually make. He comes on like an auditor, balancing the books between the artist's stated intentions and the things they produce, which he tends to read as documents. There's a deadness about his expositions that makes me wonder whether he actually likes art.

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Robert Bly — A Little Book on the Human Shadow (1986) 👍

(Bought and uploaded to Libgen.)

The drama is this. We came as infants “trailing clouds of glory,” arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well preserved from our 5,000 years of tribal life—in short, with our 360-degree radiance—and we offered this gift to our parents. They didn’t want it. They wanted a nice girl or a nice boy. That’s the first act of the drama. It doesn’t mean our parents were wicked; they needed us for something.

A poetic book on the concept of shadow — the parts of us that we had to hide because they aren’t accepted by the society or by our parents, etc.

I don’t remember much already, and I’m not sure if it helped me with anything. But it was a pretty book to read.

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Edward Teach (TLP) — Watch What You Hear: Penelope's Dream Of Twenty Geese (2020) 👍

(Bought and uploaded to Libgen.)

An introduction to dream analysis, by TLP. Makes the point that “dreams are attempts to hide your true, unacceptable wish from yourself” and applies to Homer’s Odyssey. I enjoyed it.

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Virginia Woolf — A Room of One’s Own (1929) 👍

A book-long essay about.. women and fiction? About how Virginia Woolf feels about women and fiction? Perhaps just about what Virginia Woolf feels in general.

It’s very quiet. The quietest book I’ve read, and after reading it I get a feeling like I just finished walking with her in a park. Doesn’t happen often.

At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial — and any question about sex is that — one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.

I really like this approach.

And then she goes on to describe how.. women never had money, or a room of their own. And how Jane Austin was writing Pride and Prejudice in a common room, hiding her drafts whenever people would enter.

And also how having to write with anger in mind — anger at being denied opportunities, anger at being called inferior, etc — is really, really not good for writing.

It’s a hundred year old book and I wonder what she would have written now.

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Andrei Kozyrev — The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy (2019) 👍

(Bought and uploaded to Libgen.)

A memoir by the first foreign minister of Russia.

It’s very good and it makes “being a foreign minister” look simultaneously easy and hard. Like.. an actual job that someone could be good at or bad at:

  • Get a bunch of people to agree to something

  • Organize a working group

  • Keep pushing for policies that you think would be good for Russia

  • Occasionally do something brave, like “fly to Abkhazia in a helicopter under fire and have an informal chat with the leader of the rebels” or something

It’s also a really really cool inside look on how politics worked in Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union and how goals like “become friends with NATO” failed.

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Samuel Beckett — “The End” and “The Calmative” (1954) 👍👎

Samuel Beckett is a famous playwright best known for Waiting for Godot, an absurd play which I haven’t seen. Although I’ve seen the Lucky’s monologue from the play and liked it. Anyway.

The End is a short story about a homeless guy becoming more homeless. Nothing happens, he just becomes more and more homeless and that’s it. Somewhat kafkaesque. It was pretty cool to read.

The Calmative is another short story, about.. who knows what. It had long paragraphs and was much harder to read and I gave up after two pages.

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Penguin Classics’ “The Suffragettes” (2016)

A tiny collection of newspaper clippings & documents about the suffragettes movement in Britain around 1900s.

It isn’t a good starting point, but it’s good to have any starting point anyway.

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Software Engineering at Google: Lessons Learned from Programming Over Time (2020) ❓

A bunch of essays about how software engineering works at Google (management, code reviews, tests, CI, etc).

I didn’t get much out of it. Maybe it’s because I skimmed the second half, or maybe it’s because I am not doing software engineering full time nowadays.

The book still seems very readable and I might revisit it if I start doing software engineering again.

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John W. Dower — Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (1999) 👍👍

What it says on the tin. A book-long description of the seven years Japan spent under American occupation after losing in WWII.

The funny thing is that I read the book and I still didn’t know why Japan engaged in the war in the first place, or how exactly it managed to perform an economic leap after the occupation. The book does spend a bit of time talking about those things — probably — but the much more enthusiastic and well-written and huge part of the book is all about how Japan felt after WWII. It quotes poems and diaries and famous writers and letters-to-the-emperor. It spends as much time on culture and lengthy “mood of the times” descriptions as it does on politics. It’s pretty cool.

Also: the story of how a bunch of American lawyers sat down and wrote the new Japanese constitution in a week is awesome. (The constitution still stands! And in the last 70 years nobody managed to amend it. It’s the oldest unamended constitution in the world.)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald — The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, and Other Stories (1920s) 👍👍

A collection of Fitzgerald’s novellas. I think overall I enjoyed it more than The Great Gatsby (although the Gatsby is more memorable).

It turns out that I really like Fitzgerald’s style — I thought only Ilf and Petrov (a Soviet writer duo) had a style like that but it turns out that Fitzgerald is their English-speaking counterpart. E.g. from May Day, two drunken former soldiers stealing a pair of signs:

"Never mind," said Dean, nobly. "I'll leave mine here too—then we'll both be dressed the same."

He removed his overcoat and hat and was hanging them up when his roving glance was caught and held magnetically by two large squares of cardboard tacked to the two coat-room doors. The one on the left-hand door bore the word "In" in big black letters, and the one on the right-hand door flaunted the equally emphatic word "Out."

"Look!" he exclaimed happily—

Peter's eyes followed his pointing finger.

"What?"

"Look at the signs. Let's take 'em."

"Good idea."

"Probably pair very rare an' valuable signs. Probably come in handy."

Peter removed the left-hand sign from the door and endeavored to conceal it about his person. The sign being of considerable proportions, this was a matter of some difficulty. An idea flung itself at him, and with an air of dignified mystery he turned his back. After an instant he wheeled dramatically around, and stretching out his arms displayed himself to the admiring Dean. He had inserted the sign in his vest, completely covering his shirt front. In effect, the word "In" had been painted upon his shirt in large black letters.

"Yoho!" cheered Dean. "Mister In."

He inserted his own sign in like manner.

"Mister Out!" he announced triumphantly. "Mr. In meet Mr. Out."

They advanced and shook hands. Again laughter overcame them and they rocked in a shaken spasm of mirth.

I love the way everything is described — “his roving glance was caught and held magnetically”, “endeavored to conceal it about his person”, “bore the word ‘In’”, “the sign being of considerable proportions”.

Plot-wise… something does happen in Fitzgerald’s novellas, but they aren’t “about” anything, not in the way Ocean’s Eleven is about a bunch of guys pulling off a heist. Fitzgerald’s stuff is more like a Seinfeld episode than a plot-driven movie.

My favorite stories were probably May Day, The Cut-Glass Bowl, The Lees of Happiness, and The Rich Boy.

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Michael J. Seth — A Concise History of Modern Korea: From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present 👍

Nothing to say, just a well-written book about Korea. No ruminations about the mysterious Korean character or whatever, goes straight to “what happened, why did it happen, compare-and-contrast”.

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Nicholas Hytner — Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London's National Theatre (2017) 👍❓

A memoir of the director of National Theatre for twelve years.

This book has single-handedly converted me from “vaguely annoyed at theatre and convinced it’s stupid” to “excited about theatre and it’s probably awesome”. (We’ll see if this impression sustains if I ever actually go to a theatre, though.)

Adding a question mark because by the end of it I got slightly tired of reading about plays I’ve never read or seen. But only by the end.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald — The Great Gatsby (1925) 👍❓

Every once in a while I wander into a bookshop and try to find something similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I think The Great Gatsby partially fits the bill. It’s occasionally funny; the prose is occasionally great; the details are occasionally unexpected. I usually don’t expect much from old books, so I’m always happy when they joke around in a way that’s relatable, or when a character does something human and not book-character-y.

I saw that turbulent emotions possessed [Daisy], so I asked what I thought would be some sedative questions about her little girl.

"We don't know each other very well, Nick," she said suddenly. "Even if we are cousins. You didn't come to my wedding."

"I wasn't back from the war."

"That's true." She hesitated. "Well, I've had a very bad time, Nick, and I'm pretty cynical about everything."

Evidently she had reason to be. I waited but she didn't say any more, and after a moment I returned rather feebly to the subject of her daughter.

"I suppose she talks, and—eats, and everything."

"Oh, yes." She looked at me absently.

I think I would like it less if it wasn’t famous — but the fame makes it unique, and I like unique things.

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Tim Marshall — Prisoners of Geography (2015) 👍

Probably the easiest introduction to geopolitics.

“Here’s why mountains are important, here’s why rivers are important, here’s why warm-water ports are important, here’s why controlling a bunch of random small islands is important”. I didn’t know anything about any of that before reading the book, and a lot of weird things make more sense now.

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Timothy Frye — Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin's Russia (2021) 🆗

A bunch of observations on what’s happening in Russia, what challenges Putin faces, how personalist autocracies work, etc.

I wish it would compare Russia with other countries more (Russia vs China, etc). That would have helped.

My notes are here.

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Mariana Mazzucato — The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (2013) 🙂

A treatise with literally one and only one point: the state is necessary for groundbreaking innovations. Not just “supports them”, but “is the only actor that can push them through”.

Unfortunately it repeats the point over and over and doesn’t give as many examples/facts as I would have liked. Still good though because I never considered this point before.

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Edward Teach / TLP — Sadly, Porn (2021) ❤️ 😡

Years later, The Last Psychiatrist has finally published his porn book, except that it’s not about porn. If you’ve already read TLP, the novel points are:

  • psychoanalysis / dream analysis (also covered in his other book Watch What You Hear)

  • “you actual desire is to deprive others”

  • fear of dependency

  • and fear of action.

If you haven’t read TLP, you probably shouldn’t read the book. It’s 1000 rambling pages. I think it would be good for many people, though.

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  • “you actual desire is to deprive others”

Is there a ELI5 of this?

Libido is one such desire; how can that be about depriving others?

EDIT: Reading your previous post, it may be that author is using ‘desire’ in a different sense.

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Yeah. I don’t think it holds water as an argument (“you do it all the time”, “everyone does it all the time”, “nobody does it almost ever”); the observation only matters for the sake of noticing it in yourself. Or at least that’s how it works for me.

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David Satter — Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003) 👍❓

A bunch of stories about the dashing 90s (and 00s) of Russia that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Too many vignettes, not enough analysis, no comparisons with other countries. Still, I didn’t know most of the stuff in the book.

See quotes here.

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Lee Drutman — The Business of America is Lobbying (2015) 👍

(Bought and uploaded to Libgen.)

An explanation of how federal lobbying works in the US, based on author’s own experience (IIRC) and interviews of several dozens of lobbyists.

Works well even if you know nothing about Congress or about lobbying (like I did). I don’t have a particularly big/clear picture of how exactly lobbying happens, but it’s a good intro if I ever want to learn more.

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Update a few months later: I don’t remember much from it and I’m not sure if I got anything except for the general point of “if you have the expertise, you can move things in your direction by advising people who need the expertise”.

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Georges Simenon — Letter to My Mother / Lettre à ma mère (1974) ❤️

It begins with:

Dear Mama,

It has been close to three and a half years since you died, at the age of ninety-one, and perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you.

[…] As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime. Both of us pretended.

A sad, very calm, one-of-a-kind essay (?). It’s like 50 pages, but they are small pages. I loved it.

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Ruby K. Payne — A Framework for Understanding Poverty (1995) 👍

I’m interested in different cultures (poverty / working class in the US, etc) for the same reason I’m interested in the Soviet history. Although I’m not sure what this reason is. Maybe it’s awesomeness.

A Framework for Understanding Poverty is a mixed bag of

  1. thinking about how education in the US doesn’t deal with students coming from generational poverty well, and how it can do better; and

  2. actual observations on the culture and traditions of generational poverty.

I am saying “generational poverty” because it’s not an economic class, but a socioeconomic one. You won’t necessarily have a different culture just because you’re out of money. The book, and I, are interested in people coming from a different culture.

So, speaking of the second point — there isn’t as much about the culture itself as I would have liked. There is a lot, but still isn’t enough. (Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System gives much more but there was something else about it that I disliked, although I’m not sure what.)

Anyway, still a good book. I have a list of quotes here.

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Piotr Fast — Socialist Realism and its Others (1999) 👍

I had zero idea about socialist realism, other than it was vaguely boring and about stoic workers feeling proud of USSR, so I decided to find out.

[…] authors convinced that the very contact with the axiologically proper views would lead to an evolution of their readers. “The consciousness of the lower-middle class had to be transformed into collective work, had to be educated by examples of unselfish inspired service for the benefit of the society

And:

Essential to understanding socialist realism was […] that literature should be built on a socialist worldview. In Russian works this quality of the text is referred to as its partyness. […] The requirement was not satisfied by literary texts that merely did not contradict the ideology of socialism, communism and Marxism-Leninism […]

Writers were supposed to be “human soul engineers”, and suspicion fell on everyone not contributing to this task.

Personally I’m always happy to read good explanations of (bad) ideology, so that’s a thumbs-up. Also now I’m more motivated to read Ehrenburg.

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Dostoevsky — The Gambler / Игрок (1866) 👍

Goddamn. Everyone in 1866 was crazy. This is a novel about crazy people and reading it is a bit like living through a drunken dream. I liked it, but I’m also a bit repulsed.

I hope one day I’ll meet Dostoevskian (?) characters in real life and then I’ll be like “oh thank god The Gambler warned me about this shit”.

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Richard Foltz — Iran in World History (2015)

A brief-but-comprehensive history of Iran, which I bought after reading Shah of Shahs. I didn’t get that much out of it, but now I have more.. regard for Iran, maybe? Like, it doesn’t feel exotic anymore.

One thing I did get out of it is “how progressive a country is heavily depends on the government”. Apparently Iran went through waves of “progressive → conservative → progressive → conservative” in a short time.

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Oliver Sacks — The River of Consciousness (2017)

A bunch of essays. I liked the one on Darwin because I knew almost zero about Darwin before. So it’s been worth it just for the Darwin.

Quotes thread here.

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[abandoned] Elizabeth Emens — The Art of Life Admin

“Admin” is a nice word for some kind of.. maintenance/chores/something. I didn’t have it before and it’s nice to have it now. The whole book is just a bunch of musings on how admin works and how to not suffer from it.

However, I don’t think I got anything out of the book.

Quotes thread: here.

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Ryszard Kapuściński — Shah of Shahs (1982) ❤️

A short, nicely written book about the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the last Shah. I really liked it and it got me interested in history of Iran (see this card with my quotes).

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Oscar Wilde — Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1887) 👍

A short story. Well-written, very fast-paced, I liked it. I never liked classics much but The Picture of Dorian Gray was great and I can’t find anything else like it — that’s why I have to resort to Wilde’s lesser-known stuff.

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Andy Warhol — The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975) ❤️

Warhol is a nice guy and the observations are interesting. A very quiet, likable writing voice. Also something Lennon could have written, but actually better.

Want to know more about Warhol’s art and “Warhol’s superstars” now.

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[abandoned] Roberto Saviano — Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia (2006)

  • Mostly about mafia businesses

  • Interesting, although so far I can’t apply it to anything

  • “Organized crime is just another mode of running businesses and bringing value at scale” is a cool insight

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Result: haven’t finished it but reading a few chapters was nice because I didn’t know anything about mafia’s businesses at all and now I do.

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Further update: on reflection, I’m not sure I got anything out of it after all.