Season of the Witch


Of the many historical narratives I’ve read, Season of the Witch is perhaps the most compulsively readable. More than just a dispassionate historical account, it seethes with the energy of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and is suffused by the evidence of the author’s own passion for his hometown, one whose tumult in the 1960s and 1970s served as a crucible to create its unique character and legacy.

Season of the Witch is a people’s history of San Francisco, told vibrantly through the ages through the quotes, written records, and oral accounts of the city’s many larger-than-life figures. San Francisco, more than any other city in the US, seemed to act as a haven for the dispossessed, the outcasts, and the dreamers, and it was replete with many community heroes – lawyers, doctors and public servants – who used their powers to help them.

In the 1960s, the city’s famed progressivism made it a beacon of hope for thousands of America’s lost children as they flocked to Haight-Ashbury in and after the Summer of Love, and it was up to San Franciscan heroes – faced by a callous municipal government – to help them as they came in their thousands, needing shelter, medical attention, and spiritual succour.

San Francisco became a haven for gays and lesbians long before it was even remotely kosher in the eyes of the rest of the nation or the world, who would band together with other communities and rights groups in the city to create a formidable progressive political movement – one that would eventually cascade throughout America in a rainbow wave.

But San Francisco could sometimes be too open, especially to dangerous ideas and people. The city was wracked by waves of terror during the racially motivated Zebra murders in the 1970s, bringing the city almost to its breaking point, as black and white started to eye each other with fear and distrust. Truly bizarre cults and movements arose, from the infamous SLA that brainwashed newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple cult that ended in such horrific tragedy in Jonestown.

These events reverberated up and down the city and even affected City Hall, implicating even heroic and well-respected figures as George Moscone, Willie Brown, and Harvey Milk, all of whom were overly cozy with Jones because of his ability to come off as a bleeding-heart liberal, espousing at face value the principles of diversity and acceptance.

The tumult between the city’s liberal bona fides and the vestiges of its conservative Irish roots came to a head in the infamous episode when Dan White took a gun to Moscone and Milk, killing them both, and then escaped a long prison sentence, largely by dint of his aura of white-bread wholesomeness.

After this terrible climax, San Francisco was beaten back on its heels, but in true San Franciscan fashion, it recovered on the strengths of its ethos of acceptance and togetherness in the face of adversity – first through the vicarious euphoria of the 49ers’ celebrated victory against the Goliath-like Dallas Cowboys in the NFL playoffs, then as the city suffered through an AIDs epidemic, when whole communities pitched in to provide comfort and succour to young men who were perishing due to the then-mysterious disease.

Talbot’s narrative brings these events, and the people that lived them, to vivid and pugnacious life; his staccato prose leaping off the page like a broadsheet of the times, spinning a narrative of San Francisco and its heroes as possessing a number of virtues, chief of which is their willingness to embrace difference, a virtue displayed multifold during its many tribulations. Though Talbot has done a very creditable job of showing the many faces of San Francisco’s heroes – from Moscones’ inveterate womanising and the intimations that vote rigging by the People’s Temple helped in his mayoral victories, to concert promoter Bill Graham’s unscrupulous business practices. These are fully-formed people – heroes to some, villains to others; larger-than-life personalities seemingly driven by the city’s boundless aura.

For sure, the actual historical truth of things may not be so beautifully resonant; it is probably more staid, prosaic, and ambiguous. But Talbot has created a beautiful, haunting, unputdownable tale of San Francisco at its worst and best, one that deserves to be included in the hallowed annals of great historical writing.

I give this book: 4.5/5 footballs



No Is Not Enough


What it’s about: Naomi Klein diagnoses the failings of neoliberal capitalism following Trump’s shock ascendancy to the highest office in the land, and gives readers a foundation for how to build a unified resistance based not merely on opposition, but on a foundation of strong, affirmative shared values.


  • The world reeled when Trump won, not just because he was a buffoon, but because of what he signified – a herald of an era where branding was king and the tool of neoliberal capitalists to propagate themselves by exploiting the labor of the poor, and for disaster capitalists to profit and flourish from crises, both real and engineered.
  • According to Klein, Trump himself is the epitome of both tendencies. First, his business empire is built upon his Trump branding, a form of rent that he extends to franchisees in return for handsome royalties, which in turn gives him a kind of immunity to his antics – because his crassness is part of that brand, of hedonistic, callous excess turned up to eleven. When Trump acts crass, he is not judged as harshly because he is conforming to that brand – this is, I think, a valuable insight that Klein has given us about why Trump appears so invulnerable to criticism.
  • Second, the incompetence of his presidency has merely led to more shocks – periods of extreme crisis, unrest and instability in the general world order, which are rich seams of opportunity for disaster capitalists to profit from. The incompetence of the federal government in handling these crises is just used as a justification to reduce the size of government, creating a self-fulfilling, self-reinforcing loop of the steady erosion of the public realm, or creates a period where democratic norms are suspended, allowing them to ram through a capitalist wishlist of neoliberal reforms that concentrate wealth ever more in the hands of the rich.
  • Global warming and extreme weather are just one, rather worrying part of this torrent of anthropocentric crisis, one that neoliberals are all too ready to be sanguine about because to stop the tide of global warming would be to cease the culture of unchecked extractionism that drives capitalist growth.
  • Klein tells us that the need for resistance is stronger than ever, but left-leaning coalitions often break apart because they are driven by a multitude of different agendas – feminism, native rights, environmentalism, racial and social justice, LGBTQ rights – and often their marriage to the cause is one of convenience, and has only a tenuous link to the critique of the neoliberal state of affairs. There is no blood-and-soil essentialist tribalism that unifies the disparate threads of the left in pseudo-religious fervor.
  • Ultimately, Klein tells us – to mount an effective resistance and to offer a real, sustainable solution, no is not enough – there needs to be a coherent, singular manifesto that everyone on the left can agree on, a set of shared goals and values based on compromise and mutual respect, a vision and mission to fight for. She offers one such vision – the Leap Manifesto – a mishmash of liberal identity politics and native rights mixed with awareness of the effects of capitalism on the working class – which provides a strong conceptual backing from which to build a new social vision.
  • Klein here once again writes with galvanizing force, synthesising various discursive strands of the new Trumpist reality into a coherent and singular thesis of what Trumpism signifies. It is a taut, powerful and impassioned call for positive action, given life and breath by the righteous outrage generated by the visible incursions of Trumpian depredations into our everyday reality, and the looming threat to the viability of our living planet. While her Leap Manifesto might not be the answer, what she says needs to be done strikes a chord of truth – to combat the a machine built upon essentialist tribalism, the Left must come up with a manifesto of its own, not just in opposition to an enemy, but in fashioning a new and better state of affairs to today’s Trumpist reality.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Trump steaks

What Happened


What it’s about: Hillary tells us what happened and what could have been.


  • I have to admit, my interest in reading this book was somewhat voyeuristic, the desire to get into the mindspace of a public figure who has been so endlessly analysed and dissected by the media. I wanted to know what she thought about the whole affair, the terrible day that Trump won the presidency, about how she would answer the question: “what happened?” The various stories circulating around that said the work didn’t pull any punches spurred on this avid interest in reading her book.
  • Well, I have to say it’s not as juicy as screed as it could be, but is actually a kind of post-fact manifesto, a wistful but detailed fantasy of the good she imagined she could have done had she won the presidency. It was a chronicle of her thoughts about being a woman in power, of her true passion of working on policies that would lead to the betterment of the children of America. Indeed, pretty much all the juicy bits, I read before actually buying the book.
  • That said, she is strident in her criticisms of the state of American politics and society in this age of Trump.  She doesn’t hold back in accusing the Russians of an all-out campaign to undermine American democracy and aiding the Trump campaign, and she has no compunctions in warning us of just how incompetent and unfit Trump is to be President, both from a personality and policy angle.
  • It’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Hillary after reading the book – while she does get tied up in her own significance at times, it was still a surprisingly self-aware and engaging look at herself and the decisions that ultimately led to our present situation. Who can blame her for trying, appreciating the significance of her candidacy for millions of men and women in America? Should we blame her for losing to a buffoon, for her unpopularity, which was the result of decades of Republican smear tactics? For her emails, blown insanely out of proportion? For the media, walking hook, line and sinker into Trump’s shock doctrine and inadvertently pushing his brand even more into the American consciousness?
  • Ultimately, though, this book is the kind that will not have much lasting power. It isn’t a call to action or a manifesto, not a manual for revolution – it is just a journal of introspection, self-reflection and a wistful imagining of a what-could-have-been, a kind of cathartic exercise for Hillary, even (and she admits it, in the book). It is a book to be consigned to the background texture of history, fitting for a woman whose time in the spotlight is probably over, however unjustly.

Verdict: Equal parts what-if policy manifesto, self-reflection, and screed, What Happened gives an interesting and unique account of the election from Hillary herself, but doesn’t rise above its own self-preoccupation to deliver a strong message of hope and action for the American people, sorely needed in these times.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pantsuits


Spring Chicken


What it’s about: A journalist plumbs science and pseudoscience for the secret to living a longer and healthier life.


  • This is a book that, naturally, touches on something of abiding interest to everybody on the planet – how to stay youthful and healthy for as long as possible. It’s not just about keeping death at bay, but to increase your healthspan as long as possible. There’s also a brief meditation on the socio-economic and environmental impact of having a bunch of eternally-living folks around, which is a subject of another book, presumably one about the necessity of space colonisation.
  • Gifford’s wry, layman-peeking-in sort of tone lends an approachable air to the already intriguing subject matter. His attention is prolific, touching on nearly everything being done in the field, from the serious scientists to the celebrity hacks trying out dubious supplements like HGH (which, spoiler, are pretty dangerous and can even increase your chances of cancer or other age-related diseases.)
  • Gifford spends time as a volunteer in the massive Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Ageing, a decades-long study aimed at identifying all the external predictive correlates of senescence. He finds that it has as much to do with behavior as genetics (of course).
  • According to Gifford’s research, an important biomarker of senescence is inflammation, caused by senescent cells whose telomeres have depleted and hence are reaching the end of their replicative lifespan (telomerase activators are implicated in causing cells to go cancerous, so pumping yourself full of telomerase is not a particularly good anti-ageing strategy). Inflammatory compounds like cytokine contribute to all manner of age-related diseases, such as heart failure and dementia. Basically, it’s a catch-22. Left to their own devices, your cells either die (after becoming senescent) or become cancer (and you die in both scenarios). There isn’t any getting out of this bind – at least, not yet, with current technology.
  • There are, of course, certain people who possess certain sets of protective genes that guard against the effects of old age – and these lucky people can live to fantastically old ages even if they pursue all manner of bad habits. It seems that such genes are not selected for because there is no evolutionary pressure to privilege them – after all, such genes, whose effects only become evident in older folks, don’t really affect people’s chances of having babies.
  • Are there miracle medicines or interventions to extend lifespan? Gifford’s answer is, unsurprisingly, a “it’s too early to tell”. There are studies touting the restorative effects of rapamycin and metformin that have some scientific purchase (unlike HGHs peddled by aforementioned celebrity kooks) that may or may not have efficacy beyond the lab environment and/or horrible side effects. There’s also the creepy fact that blood transfusions from young to old mice (i.e. parabiosis) have restorative properties in the latter, due to some as-yet unclear property of young blood. But the biomechanical pathways for these substances are not well-understood as of yet.
  • That said, the good news is that there are plenty of behavioral modifications that most people can adopt to maximise their chances of living long and healthy lives. These include, naturally, losing weight, frequent exercise, and being educated, as well as having a positive outlook on life. One can also try some other, more drastic, lifestyle changes, such as intermittent fasting/caloric restriction and introducing physical stressors to the body from time to time, like taking dips in ice-cold water.
  • And so, whatever it is, after all that talk about scientific measures to reverse ageing, it seems like the age-old adage of “use it or lose it” still wins out in the end. Essentially, you gotta work hard for the life you want. Even if it means earning enough money to pay for frequent blood transfusions from broke Gen-Zers.

Verdict: Engaging, accessible and soberingly wry, Spring Chicken educates and entertains while reminding us that the reins to our own health are entirely in our hands.

I give this book: 4.5/5 danishes


The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty


What it’s about: Dan Ariely takes us on a tour of human dishonesty and tells us that humans in general don’t rely on dispassionate cost-benefit analyses (expectation of reward vs penalty of being caught) to guide when they cheat. Instead, cheating is motivated by a number of things, including, most importantly, whether we are able to rationalise the cheating to ourselves such that we can maintain a positive self-image.

The list of such rationalisations might include: whether other people in your social circle or culture are doing it (social and cultural norms), whether someone else can benefit from it (collaborative cheating), whether there are a large number of ways to justify the cheating (creativity), the emotional disposition of the cheating person (willpower depletion), whether the person has done it before (the “what-the-hell” justification) and a few more.

Conversely, cheating can be mitigated using tried-and-tested methods to outsource the “moral compass” or remind people of the rules of the game, including through supervision, pledging or moral suasion.


  • This book strikes me as one of those “I could’ve told you that” tomes that provide, at best, simple (lab-environment) experimental backing for well-understood but ill-defined social adages. Humans cheat when they can rationalise it to themselves. That’s essentially what the book says. Hardly earth-shattering to presuppose that we are not all amoral cost-benefit calculators.
  • But even the distinction between rational cost-benefit analyses and rationalisation isn’t quite as stark, because what constitutes utils to you might be different from me. If a person cheats because everyone is cheating, is that necessarily not a cost-benefit analysis borne from the quantification of the “everyone does it” excuse as an input in the cost-benefit calculator?
  • Ariely’s approach to substantiating his claims strikes me as a bit overreaching, because he writes as though his series of experimental protocols demonstrate the conclusive truth of everything. But his experiments are all carefully controlled and offer comparatively little in terms of payoffs and risks, and by and large he relies on a common pool of university students (although he does conduct experiments on other people from time to time). Are his models really extensible to real-world cheating, Bernie Madoff style? I’m not so sure yet . That said, his conclusions are quite parsimonious in that they are not extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and I don’t disbelieve in anything he claims through what I understand from my Jungian received folk-wisdom corpus of moral sensibilities.

Verdict: While written in an engaging and accessible style, this book doesn’t quite manage to conclusively prove its truisms beyond the four walls of the psychology lab. But it does provide a useful conceptual framework to crystallise the folk wisdom on how cheating comes about into something more academically rigorous.

I give this: 4 out of 5 worksheets full of matrices



Easily the most inspiring book I’ve read in a long time.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked gives voice to something I’ve felt for a very long time – that cooking is more than an act of self-sustenance, but one of creativity, mystique and self-empowerment.

There is a power to the act of cooking. It is ingrained into our history as a species. Cooking unlocked the nutritive potential of our food sources, enabling our ancestors to evolve more quickly and freeing up their time spent foraging and hunting to kickstart a civilisation. In modernity, it remains a last holdout of artisanship in the face of an all-consuming capitalist juggernaut, powered by the cold logic of comparative advantage.

There is therefore a nobility to cooking – it hearkens us back to our roots in the deep past, and is one of the few ways left for ordinary people to create something of value and worth with their own hands – a product that gives creative satisfaction to the creator, pleasure to the partaker, and binds us closer together.

With that frame in mind, Pollan explores four realms of cooking in this book, in four distinct parts related to the classical elements – fire, water, air and earth. Fire, naturally, applies to roasting and smoking. Water is the act of braising and making stews. Air is the act of baking, and earth is the act of fermentation, both in food and drink. There are, of course, overlaps – but in essence the division is a poetic and apt one.

For each part, Pollan interviews and works with masters of each of the four crafts – pig smokers,  sous chefs, bakers, homebrewers, and “fermentation fetishists”, talks about the historical, scientific, nutritional and creative aspects of each process, and eventually describes his attempts to recreate some of what he has learned in his own kitchen. Pollan’s enthusiasm is infectious, his research far-ranging, and his exhortations to try it yourself compelling. For each foodway, he portrays the food, when properly made, as something transcendent in tastes and smell but also nourishing and sustaining from a nutritive, cultural and psychological standpoint. And then, he walks the talk and tries to make it himself – drawing the book back to its fundamental thesis – the need to cook for yourself to reap the multitudinous benefits of the act.

Reading Cooked didn’t change my mind about anything – because I was already convinced of cooking’s value in achieving fulfillment. But it did open up a new dimension of things that I was previously unfamiliar with, and showed me just how interesting the art of food-making can be. The chapter on breadmaking, for example, taught me that it’s possible to make a loaf of healthy, delicious bread in the style of world-class bakeries like Tartine in your own home, using varieties of bacteria that you can cultivate in your own kitchen. The chapter on braising underscored the point that you don’t need expensive cuts of meat to create rich and sustaining stews. The chapter on fermentation taught me the cultural depth that can be found in each culture’s use of bacteria to alter their food to impart unique (and sometimes acquired) tastes and smells.

In essence, cooking, itself, is something that ties us back to our cultural and biological roots, while opening up whole new worlds of experience in the comfort of our own homes. Michael Pollan’s Cooked is, if anything, just about the best tome to evangelise that message. It’s certainly inspired me to want to try all that he does, and more.

I give this book: 5 out of 5 lactobacillus starters