The Burning God

by R. F. Kuang

In the final book in The Poppy War trilogy, Rin makes like a phoenix and burns.

Maybe that’s not a helpful summary, but also it is. The Poppy War was an amazing book. It probably shouldn’t have become a trilogy. This final book just felt like R. F. Kuang kept getting tired of the plot elements they had been building up, and just killed them off. I think they just got tired of the story.

So did I.

The Includers: The Traits of Culturally Savvy, Anti-Racist Leaders

by Colette A.M. Phillips

Advice for white male leaders who want to be DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) allies. And also an argument for this approach:

If we want to end systemic racism, it’s going to take white men. Why? Because they hold that power.

p. 8

Phillips is not wrong. It is a lot easier to walk through open doors than break them down, and white men are still guarding most of the doors to American businesses.

And yet there is an elephant in the room: there are still too many white men leading businesses (and in other positions of power). Even if things are improving, white men are still heavily overrepresented in leadership positions. This elephant seems quite comfortable in this room.

Phillips gets so close to pointing this out in the later chapters of the book:

Your company can’t say it cares about diversity and inclusion and have a white, male CEO and an all-white board of directors advising your CEO.

p. 140

But then she waters it down with an example that suggests a solution: put a chief diversity officer (preferably someone who is “diverse” themselves, I assume) on the board. And come on, how many companies have a solitary person of color on their board, and that person is the DEI officer?

If the problem we’re trying to solve is too many white male leaders (it is), the solution has to be fewer white male leaders, not more white male leaders starting DEI initiatives to address systemic racism. I think if you are a white man who really wants to be an ally, maybe the best thing you can do is make room at the top for someone else by stepping aside and playing a supporting role.

Phillips almost says as much, later on:

[W]hite allies … are accomplices and advocates who, in solidarity, are willing to “lead from behind” …

p. 200

Leading from behind is pretty hard to do when you’re the one in charge, but Phillips won’t come right out and say that.

Yes, I’m being cynical while Phillips is being pragmatic. I am a white man criticizing a Black woman leader’s detailed proposal for moving the needle on racism. And probably not being entirely fair to her. I am complaining because I want to skip the marathon and teleport straight to the finish line. Phillips is actually running the race, doing the hard work, and as far as I can tell she is actually moving the needle on increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Boston business world.

Ugh, I sound exactly like Summerfeld’s white liberal (man).

So is it a good book? Part of me wants to dismiss it as just another thought leader’s fluffy business book. But if I’m struggling this much with this book—and I am definitely in the target reader demographic—I guess maybe it has been pretty effective at getting me to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in some different ways. I guess if you are a white man in a leadership role, it’s probably worth a read.

CAPS LOCK: How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design, and How to Escape from It

by Ruben Pater

A thought-provoking book about the close bond between design and capitalism. Like what do we do with the fact that the word branding is inextricably intertwined with slavery? The Dutch West India Company’s “brand guidelines” included these instructions:

[A]s you purchase slaves you must mark them at the upper right arm with the silver marker CCN, which is sent along with you for that purpose.
p. 135

And now we talk about personal branding.

Fuuuck.

I’m not sure the book delivers on the “how to escape from it” promise in its subtitle, but it has me reconsidering a lot of the things I thought I knew about design, and I’m grateful for it.

Pedro Páramo

by Juan Rulfo

Keeping a promise he never intended to, Juan Preciado goes to find his father, Pedro Páramo, in the town of Comala. Instead he finds a town full of restless ghosts.

This was a beautiful, haunting little book. I think I would need to read it again to feel like I understand it—and maybe take notes. But it is a good, quick read, so I might.

Harbinger

by PA Vasey

Note: I probably picked up this book at the wrong time. I’ve been devouring science fiction and fantasy for a few years now, and everything I pick up is starting to seem derivative. I’m in a bit of a reading funk. So take this review with a grain of salt.

A first-contact story that takes place in the modern post-COVID, AI-obsessed, Silicon Valley tech bro world. But disappointingly predictable all the same.

It was OK.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door

by Sam Greenlee

In all his career as a professional Negro, Summerfeld had never before encountered a white liberal who actually wanted an original opinion from a Negro concerning civil rights, for they all considered themselves experts on the subject.

p. 3

I love clever writers, and Sam Greenlee is a very clever writer. The wry smile he wears as he puts down words is crystal clear on each page. As is his rage.

We been on our ass, but never on our knees and that’s what the white man don’t understand. He thinks it’s the same thing.

p. 81

It’s a spy thriller that manages to have some interesting things to say about race relations in America. It can feel heavy-handed at times, but maybe a more subtle approach wouldn’t work. Or maybe I’m just a white liberal considering myself an expert on Greenlee’s subject.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. It fed my radical soul, and I think it’s worth a read.

Elder Epoch

by Zamil Akhtar

After reading Conqueror’s Blood I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading the Gunmetal Gods Saga. But I picked up Elder Epoch anyway and I’m glad I did. It puts the characters back in the center of the cosmic horror action where they belong.

The story was already complex, and in this book it grows even more so, reshuffling the powers of the world and adding threats from beyond the veil.

Akhtar calls it cosmic horror. I’d say it’s a potion brewed from the Crusades, the Book of Revelation, and Lovecraft, with a fair few other influence seasoning the cauldron.

I guess I’ll keep reading.

ADHD 2.0

by Edward M. Hallowell, John J. Ratey & M.D.

A person with ADHD has the power of a Ferrari engine but with bicycle strength brakes.

p. xvii

ADHD 2.0 is an book about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder from the authors of the popular Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder—from Childhood through Adulthood. It purports to give up-to-date recommendations for recognizing and coping with ADHD.

I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, so I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can. Someone recommended this book to me when we were discussing my diagnosis.

I like the analogy I quoted above. It’s helpful. And of course I like thinking about my brain as a Ferrari. But overall I have some issues with this book.

Everything seemed OK until page 40, when out of nowhere the authors cited a chiropractor, Robert Melillo, who now says he can cure ADHD and other disorder with balance training.1 Seeing a chiropractor cited for curing mental disorders sent my antennae right up. It wasn’t hard to find this 2018 investigative report by NPR, which concluded there was no evidence for his claims.

On the very next page Hallowell and Ratey recommend another company, Zing Performance. Like Melillo’s business there is some foundation for the theory behind the treatment, but the treatment itself is unproven and controversial.

It would be one thing if Hallowell and Ratey had written something like “The underlying theory is sound and this treatment seems to address it, so we think it could be worth a try. But no promises.”

Instead, this is what they said about Melillo’s Brain Balance Achievement Centers:

[I]n our opinion, they do provide a valuable and usually successful treatment for selected children with more severe ADHD or autism.

p. 40

And this is what they said about Zing Performance:

[T]he gain is clear. These exercises, if done faithfully, do indeed work the vestibular system hard, and many report subsequent improvements in the symptoms of ADHD.

p. 41

There isn’t much disclaiming in those endorsements, even though it seems like there should be quite a lot of it. So after Chapter 3 I stopped trusting Ratey and Hallowell.

The pseudoscientific trend continued. In chapter 5 they recommended the Kolbe Index, a personality test that claims to measure your “innate abilities.” And like other personality tests—Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, etc.—it’s about as scientific as astrology. In chapter 6 they recommended the Feingold diet, which is not supported by good evidence of effectiveness. And OmegaBrite, an expensive omega-3 supplement. (I took this for a while and found it highly effective for upsetting my digestive system.) And CBD, of course, the snake oil du jour. And the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, a cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) device billed as a “superdevice for depression” (not ADHD, notably). I mean, come on.

I’m no scientist, but I am skeptical. Something’s off, here.

I didn’t learn anything about ADHD from this book, and given all the apparent pseudoscience I don’t think I would trust anything in it, anyway. If there is any redeeming quality in the book it is the authors’ appeal to reason in the next-to-last chapter, on medication, which anyone who gobbled up the bunk in the previous pages may especially need to hear.

Confidential to the person who recommended this book to me: Even though I did not like this book you have been extremely helpful to me as I learn about ADHD and how to live with it. Thank you and I’m grateful for you.

  1. From his book, Disconnected Kids: “ADHD, dyslexia, and even autism, among others, can become a thing of the past.” ↩︎

Translation State

by Ann Leckie

An exploration of the limits of identity, plus legal and political intrigue and a bit of space magic.

I read Leckie’s Imperial Radtch series a few years ago and loved it. I enjoyed the story, but also the way she omitted gender signifiers and used she/her pronouns for nearly all the characters. In Translation State she introduces some new pronouns, like e/er and xie/xir. This time I found it distracting and tiresome.

Perhaps for that reason I found this book hard to get into. It had a long, slow start for me. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it does have me very curious to read more about the aliens in Lecki’s universe.

Jenny Trapdoor

by Neal Asher

Jenny is a war drone in the shape of a trapdoor spider, created by an insane AI. At the edge of the Graveyard she feeds on prador, the enemies of the Polity, until she is nearly destroyed. When she awakens hundreds of years later she finds a changed world and a strange new friend.

This novella is definitely meant for existing fans of Asher’s Polity Universe. It is another chapter from the backstory of Penny Royal, the strange AI from Dark Intelligence. I wouldn’t start with this book, but if you are a fan I wouldn’t skip it.