Monday, August 30, 2021

Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence (Dr. Anna Lembke)

Dopamine is a chemical messenger (also known as a neurotransmitter) that creates a reaction in the human body to various pleasure stimuli. Watching a cute dog video on YouTube, getting a slew of likes on Facebook, winning a bet in an online casino, running, drugs, alcohol, sex are all things that create that dopamine stimulus - and all are activities that can become addictive. Dr. Anna Lembke wrote Dopamine Nation particularly to address our abundance of stimuli and the increasing numbers of people who are struggling to manage it.

Lembke, a psychiatrist, spends much of the book talking about the addictive nature of technology and how it has fueled overconsumption - that despite tremendous wealth and access to resources, we are increasingly unhappy as a result. She notes that this unhappiness - or pain - is the body’s response to constantly seeking out and getting its dopamine fix from technology and destructive behaviors. Borrowing on the lived experiences of her patients, Lembke illustrates how these individuals battled through their addictions and how they worked to address them. She also shares their successes and setbacks in showing that consumption and addiction are fierce struggles.

Lembke’s illustrations of modern addiction and the issues it is unloading on the West are dynamic and powerful. She weaves in steps to take to address these issues throughout the book. While Lembke doesn’t quite take the smartphone out of your hand, she does advocate for some thoughtful steps she utilizes around her own home - no smartphones at the dinner table, for example. Many of us, however, could arguably use stronger nudges and encouragement to tweet less and smell the roses more.


Friday, August 27, 2021

The Lies That Bind (Emily Giffin)

I've read and enjoyed quite a few books by Emily Giffin and even reviewed First Comes Love on this blog way back in 2016. I don't know what happened with The Lies That Bind though -- there was a lot I didn't enjoy about this one.

In a bar late one night, Cecily Gardner is trying to stop herself from calling her ex-boyfriend, Matthew. She hears someone implore her not to do it -- that person turns out to be Grant, a guy she forms an instant connection with and quickly falls in love with. The problem is that Grant is about to move overseas.

If the book stopped there, it might have been OK. But then 9/11 in New York City is brought into the mix in a ridiculous, borderline offensive way. Cecily spots Grant's face on a "missing" poster, meaning that someone else is looking for him. She soon discovers that Grant is not the person she thought he was. 

The one question I had as I was reading this was "Why?". I'm not sure what the point of this book was, and I kept asking myself why I was reading it. The characters were not very interesting and some of them were hideous human beings. Hopefully Giffin's next book will be better than this.

MY RATING - 1.5 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World (Giles Milton)

The years after the end of World War II were marked by the development of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the collaboration of Western Europe and America.  The unfolding of the Iron Curtain across Europe was most pronounced with events in Berlin. The city’s gradual split into West and East zones, free and communist, is told in Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World.

Berlin’s postwar years were governed by American, British, French, and Russian military leaders, each with differing objectives for how the city would be governed but under an initial agreement that the city would be jointly run. Berlin resided within Germany’s Soviet zone of occupation, over 50 miles from British and American controlled zones in the future West Germany. The Russians, having reached the city first, tried in vain to establish communist control throughout the city but were only successful within the sector that they controlled. As the city and its governing committees gradually split into two camps, the Soviets and West were increasingly at odds with each other, leading to espionage and heightened military action that occasionally spilled into fighting.

Eventually, development of a Soviet blockade prevented supplies from British and American controlled German zones from reaching Berlin. American and British aircraft teamed up to respond to a city that was cut off by road and rail. The Berlin Airlift, as it is known, was a tremendous feat of logistical planning and execution. The last third of the book dives into the names and execution of one of the greatest relief operations ever.

Checkmate in Berlin is a fast-paced, entertaining read that for history fans will provide a great dive into the 1940’s and the developing Cold War as seen from those in Berlin.


Thursday, August 19, 2021

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders (Dennis C. Rasmussen)

Our nation’s Founders were revered (if not worshipped) for generations until we learned more and reckoned more with their flaws as humans. However, the documents they generated, especially the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, are still held in incredible regard by many as important parts of America’s institutions. Author Dennis Rasmussen’s Fears of a Setting Sun talks about how several of the nation’s Founding Fathers deemed the American constitutional experiment a failure that was unlikely to last.

The author pulls the pessimism from a variety of individuals and for a variety of reasons: Washington hated increasing American partisanship; Hamilton did not think America’s federal government was strong enough; Adams believed Americans lacked civic virtue; and Jefferson expressed concerns about the rise of sectionalism and factionalism. Not all Founders shared such doubts about America’s future; James Madison was quite optimistic about the future of the country and offered a much more level-headed analysis of his fellow citizens.

The sun that is referenced in the book title alludes to a story that came out of the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Ben Franklin alluded to a half-sun that was carved in the back of George Washington’s chair, remarking “I have often looked at that picture (carving) behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” Rasmussen’s analysis that many Founders, as they aged, would have felt differently may come as a surprise. However, given America’s trajectory over the past 230 years, the sun arguably has risen, despite our imperfections and major warts, and Rasmussen astutely notes that many of their fears never came to pass.


Monday, August 16, 2021

The Words That Made Us: America's Constitutional Conversation, 1760 - 1840 (Akhil Reed Amar)

History books that dive into the subject of the US Constitution are a dime a dozen.  However, Akhil Reed Amar’s The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840 is arguably one of the more comprehensive books to tackle the evolution of constitutional thinking in America’s Revolutionary era and in its early days thereafter. Amar’s book, the first of a hopeful trilogy, highlights an eighty year period from before the nation’s independence through the release of James Madison’s notes from the Philadelphia convention that ultimately drafted the nation’s governance roadmap.

Amar highlights the evolution in the nation’s constitutional thinking to a continual series of conversations, one that started with colonial matters regarding taxation (which most of us recall from our history books) and monarchical edicts. One such “writ of assistance” from the British Crown was the groundwork to our 4th Amendment in the Constitution, which bans unreasonable searches. Amar continues the journey through the nation’s founding and its reboot with the Constitution and how key leaders established and entrenched precedent that helped shape our nation for generations to come.

The author offers strong opinions and at times you may disagree with his thinking; however, he backs up his assertions with strong research. He’s very kind to the federalist point of view that Hamilton and Adams espouse and gives more praise to George Washington than most scholars in the framing of the Constitution, particularly in setting up a strong presidency. 

The Words That Made Us is not short - it clocks in at 700 pages before notes and index. It will take some time to read. However, its thoughtful scholarship and fair coverage of our nation’s history make it a great starting point to learn about America’s Constitution, a document many of us struggle to understand properly.


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era (Rory Cellan-Jones)

The iPhone was introduced to consumers in 2007, heralding the introduction of the smartphone era as we now know it. The iPhone, and other technological advances over the past 25 years, have been both a blessing and a curse for a multitude of reasons. In Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era, author Rory Cellan-Jones journeys through the evolution of technology within the past couple of decades and how it has profoundly transformed our lives, both in positive and negative ways.

This book touches on a multitude of topics like electric cars, smartphones, computers, and internet apps, showing how each of these has impacted our lives. In the case of apps, Cellan-Jones shows how they have connected us to long lost friends or to celebrities, how they entertained us, and also how they have divided us or served as conduits for misinformation. The early hopes and aspirations of the mobile and social revolution have given way to a host of trolls, hypemongers, bullies, and internet mobs ravaging parts of the landscape. Cellan-Jones spends some time, but probably not enough of it, tackling the social media landscape from this perspective. 

Additionally, the author focuses quite a bit on conspiracy theories - such as the one regarding 5G aiding the development of COVID-19. Seeing some of the conspiracy theory talk play out within the vaccination debate that’s going on now at Facebook is also another log on that fire. Also included in the book are details of the flops of the past 15 years and stories of individuals trying to make a fast buck off the technology revolution, only to fail miserably in the process.

Cellan-Jones offers little advice on how to deal with the flood of misinformation other than a passing reference to Big Tech regulation. It would have been refreshing to offer human pointers on how to filter out crap from quality. That aside, the book is a good showcase into how much technology has evolved over such a short time and that it has been a mixed blessing, mostly good but also with some huge issues that will need to be addressed in the years ahead.


Friday, August 6, 2021

Malibu Rising (Taylor Jenkins Reid)

I've only read one other book by Taylor Jenkins Reid -- Forever Interrupted, which I enjoyed. I decided to pick up her latest, Malibu Rising, thinking it would be a great summer read. But I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

In 1983, Nina Riva is preparing to hold her annual summer party at her huge Malibu home. Nina, along with her siblings Jay, Hud, and Kit, are the children of megastar singer Mick Riva, who has long since disappeared from their lives. Nina does not want the life she is currently living and has always put her own dreams on hold to take care of her brothers and sister. 

Malibu Rising goes back and forth in time, from when Mick met their mother June, to the night of Nina's party. I did care about many of the characters, but they kept dropping secrets and so many of the secrets were implausible. This book was too much of a soap opera for me.


Monday, August 2, 2021

Prague: Belonging in the Modern City (Chad Bryant)

Chad Bryant's Prague: Belonging in the Modern City takes the stories of five residents of Prague from the past through the present day. These individuals were marginalized within the greater Prague community for various reasons, but all were able to forge their own sense of belonging within the capital city of a nation that for many centuries struggled with its own identity.

Prague has been many things over its history - a part of the Holy Roman Empire, the home of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and eventually a major city within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is where Bryant begins his story, talking about the developing sense of Czech nationalism through the eyes of a guidebook writer and a German-speaking newspaperman. The city convulsed through the era of World Wars I and II, eventually becoming the capital of a communist state that itself struggled with an identity within the greater Warsaw Pact before emerging as the capital of a relatively free democracy in the post-Soviet era. Whether it’s the story of a communist carpenter during the 1920’s, an actress who performed on stage in the Iron Curtain era, or a Czech-speaking Vietnamese blogger, Bryant’s wonderful writing elevates their stories and contributions to Prague.

None of the individuals who are discussed in the book are known to most of us in America; however, they share a common theme of the individual’s struggle to fit in with their city and their country, woven within the tale of a city and even a nation that struggled in its own way to know who it truly was. Both the individuals and the city figured out how to belong despite their struggles. These five individuals’ stories are powerful metaphors for Prague.