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Posts tagged 'Jake Picks'

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

In 2013, London School of Economics professor David Graeber wrote an editorial for an obscure leftist online magazine entitled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” In it, Graeber hypothesized that huge swaths of employment are bullshit. Even though we’re obligated to pretend otherwise, these jobs don’t provide any discernible benefit to society, and there would be no difference if they simply vanished. If all nurses or trash collectors disappeared overnight, the effects would be dire and dramatic, but could we really say the same of telemarketers or middle managers? The article went viral, crashed the website, and was translated into at least a dozen languages. Hundreds of readers, some angry and others empathetic, replied. The article inspired polling agencies to conduct studies, which found that around 40% of workers responding believed they had bullshit jobs. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory expands on Graeber’s initial article, and aims to draw attention to what he considers “the biggest problem in the world that nobody is talking about.”

What are some examples of bullshit jobs? (In the section that will make you laugh to keep from crying, Graeber uses the testimonies from the hundreds of working stiffs who wrote him following his initial essay to create a taxonomy of bullshit jobs. The taxonomy includes “flunkies,” who exist to make other people seem more important, and “duct tapers,” who fix superficial problems rather than treat underlying causes.) Aren’t these types of jobs not supposed to exist in a capitalist society? Why do people who work bullshit jobs report feelings of misery, even when conditions are cushy and the compensation is generous? How did bullshit jobs proliferate, and why do we, as a society, not object to the proliferation? And finally, what (if anything) can be done about the situation? Graeber draws on economic, political, social, moral, and psychological theories to explore these questions.

Anyone who works (or has worked) a bullshit job should read this book. Anyone who thinks the invisible hand of the market can do no wrong should read this book. Anyone who is looking for alternatives to doing things the way they’re done because “we’ve always done it that way” should read this book. Graeber’s vision of employment is dim, but there may be light at the end of the tunnel of drudgery.

nonfiction  Jake Picks  economics


Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

Rice Moore is the caretaker on a private nature preserve in the Virginia panhandle. Moore is the sole human inhabitant in this pristine 7,000 acre wilderness. One sweltering summer day, he discovers a mutilated bear carcass on his property. He sets out to find the lowlifes who did this and put a stop to them. It’s going to be dangerous work that puts him square in the sights of disgruntled hillbillies, vicious motorcycle gangs, and ex-military poachers. He’ll have to be extra careful, because any scrape with law enforcement could ping his location to the deadly cartel mobsters he’s been hiding out from (these bad hombres are a big part of the reason he took the job in the first place). Rice’s skills will take him only so far; he’ll have to become a force of nature if he wants to come out in one piece.

Bearskin would be good enough if it were a typical tough-guy potboiler, but a few things make it stand out from a crowded pack. First, it’s surprisingly ecologically-minded. Rice deeply cares about all creatures great and small on his preserve, and the reader will learn much about the ecosystem of old-growth Appalachian forests. These forests also make a unique setting for this kind of story. We’re accustomed to seeing hardboiled anti-heroes carry out investigations in big cities, and it’s refreshing to see the story beats play out in depressed rural areas. Finally, McLaughlin is a first time author. It’s exciting to see a new talent debut so strongly, and I’ll be looking forward to what he does next.

Readers of thrillers, Southern Gothic, and rural noir will find much to like about Bearskin. Hikers, campers, and other outdoorsy types will appreciate it as well. I think it also may appeal to fans of more literary genres, as long as those readers can handle occasional bursts of bone-crunching violence. At any rate, I think it’ll be one of this summer’s hottest reads with lots of cross-genre appeal. 

Thriller  Nature  Jake Picks  Fiction


Tenements, Towers and Trash by Julia Wertz


Tenements Towers and Trash by Julia Wertz

Cartoonist and urban explorer Julia Wertz gives a tour of her adopted hometown in Tenements, Towers and Trash.  It’s far from a guidebook, and doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional history.  Instead, it’s a passionate and irreverent look at a city that’s always changing. 

Wertz revels in lesser-known aspects of the history and character of the five boroughs.  Instead of lessons on Tammany Hall or Ellis Island, we learn about pinball machine prohibition (in effect until 1978!) and the contested genesis of the egg cream (a once-popular soda shop concoction).  Instead of tours of Central Park and the Empire State Building, we get an inventory of the city’s best independent bookstores and detailed directions to Staten Island’s Boat Graveyard.  A large portion of the book consists of Wertz’s highly detailed black and white illustrations comparing city blocks then and now.  We see how select parts of the city have transformed (for the most part) from the utilitarian city neighborhoods that urban activist and author Jane Jacobs inhabited in the mid twentieth century to a homogenized playground for the 1%.  Wertz also shows us the route of a typical “Long Walk,” a meandering 15-mile stroll through Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. 

Jake Picks


Sourdough by Robin Sloan


Cover of "Sourdough" by Robin Sloan Sourdough by Robin Sloan is probably the most enjoyable—and purely readable—book I’ve read this year. It’s an adventure, a puzzle, a glimpse into the future, and a celebration of food. And I learned a lot about bread, which usually doesn’t happen with the books I read.

Lois Clary programs robots at a San Francisco startup. After work, she orders the soup and sandwich combo from the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall that two brothers of indeterminable ethnicity run. Sadly, the brothers must return to Europe (visa issues) but as a parting gift, they give Lois their starter—the living bacteria culture that gives sourdough bread its signature taste. Desperately seeking a hobby, Lois bakes some bread, and discovers she has quite the knack for it. While tasty, the loaves are a little strange. Are those faces in the crust? And late at night, is the culture…singing? Lois doesn’t have time to worry about these peculiarities, as she starts supplying her work cafeteria with sourdough. Soon, she finds herself working at a strange sort of farmers market where other gourmands are hard at work fusing technology and food. But will the culture behave long enough for Lois to make a living from baking? And just who is this Mr. Marrow that bankrolls the project?

Sourdough is Robin Sloan’s second novel, following the perennial librarian favorite Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. The two books share some DNA: they both feature hapless geeks who find themselves at the intersection of a rustic craft and the latest technology, while a mysterious organization watches over the whole operation. Anyone who liked Mr. Penumbra will enjoy Sourdough, and vice versa. Oh, and like Mr. Penumbra’s the cover glows in the dark. Check it out!

Jake Picks  Humor  Fiction  Contemporary


Every Man a Menace by Patrick Hoffman

HoffmanEveryManQuestion: How does the designer drug MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly) get from its naturally occurring state in Southeast Asian trees to getting snorted up noses in Miami clubs? Answer: Very, very carefully, and through many pairs of grubby (and often blood-stained) hands. Patrick Hoffman explores this supply chain in the pulpy, noir-tinged Every Man a Menace.

An ex-con returns to San Francisco to keep an eye on an erratic dealer, as a favor for his still-incarcerated boss. A Filipina grandmother ponders a power play. In Miami, an Israeli club owner grows depressed with the high-flying lifestyle of a drug-trafficking middleman—until he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman. They, along with a whole slew of unsavory characters are all involved in orchestrating a multi-million dollar shipment of Molly. With this much at stake, things are bound to get ugly.

Patrick Hoffman examines the intricacies of large-scale drug trafficking in a highly thorough manner (before writing he worked both as a public defender and a private investigator, so I suspect he really knows his stuff). The operation works out well, for a while. But when people start making mistakes (honest or otherwise) things take gruesome turns. The best part of this book is the way that that Hoffman captures the quiet desperation of his subjects. Sure there are a handful of “made” men (and one “made” woman), but most of the characters are low-level hoods in way over their heads. People's options narrow, until bad decisions are the only ones left to make. They think they're smart enough to pull off moves they have no business pulling off. They’re ready to leave the trade and go on the straight and narrow—just after this one last shipment, this one last score, this one last hit. On streets this mean, don't expect any happy endings.

- Jake


Thriller  Mystery Thriller  Mystery  Jake Picks  Crime


Bill Broun's Night of the Animals

BrounLondon, 2052. The UK is an extreme surveillance state governed by Henry IX, a.k.a. “Harry9.” Inequality and substance abuse are rampant (the drug of choice is Flôt, a legal hallucinogen with ruinous withdrawal effects). The natural world has withered away and most of the world's remaining “natural” animals (i.e., not genetic clones) are confined to zoos. To add to unpleasantness, the sighting of the Urga-Rampos comet is causing cultists to come out of the woodwork. They're conducting mass ritualistic suicide, and they're bent on taking animals with them.

Enter Cuthbert “Cutty” Handley—a homeless “Flôt sot” of some 90 years (lifespan extending medicine and artificial organs are one positive of this future). As a child, Cutty's brother Drystan disappeared while playing in the woods one day. Drystan may or may not have become a sort of “Christ of the Otters,” as evidenced by the large mustelid Cutty saw in his brother's stead. Since then, Cutty may or may not have gained the ability to communicate with animals. His grandmother called this gift “The Wonderments.” His primary care provider, Dr. Bajwa, calls it a sign of mental illness. Either way, Cutty has taken it upon himself to free the animals from the London Zoo—especially the otters—as an act of atonement, and as a way of seeking closure with his long lost brother.

At the risk of sounding cliché, this book is unlike anything I have ever read. The story works together speculative fiction, magical realism, and world religions (Christian, Sufi, and Sikh faiths play important roles in the characters' lives). The writing is an interesting patchwork of “fading and emerging” dialects, slang, and jargon, with footnotes to help us out when needed. I would recommend this book to fans of science fiction, offbeat literature, and animal lovers. I’m definitely interested in seeing what first time author Broun does next.


SciFi  Magical Realism  Jake's Picks  Fantasy  Dystopia  Contemporary


But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

KlostermanIf you had asked Aristotle why a rock thrown into a pond sinks to the bottom, he would have said it’s because the rock wants to get back to its rightful place below the water. This notion was the prevailing wisdom for some 2,000 years until Isaac Newton came along with his theory of gravity and proved that it wasn’t the case. Is it possible that in another 2,000 years our understanding of gravity will be similarly upended? In his latest book, Chuck Klosterman asserts that it’s not only possible, but probable. Unless of course, it isn’t. Confused yet?

Klosterman tries to imagine what future generations will think of paragons of modern life. What will people 20, 100, or 1,000 years from now think (or know) about rock music, football, the Constitution, or the very fabric of the universe? It’s almost impossible to even make such predictions. The paradigm shifts that change our perception are so monumental our present-day brains can’t even comprehend them. (This view is nothing new, it should be noted.) But that doesn’t keep Klosterman from trying to predict the future. He probes these questions in an irreverent, funny, and thought-provoking manner. Interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Byrne, Junot Díaz, Richard Linklater, and many, many more round out the text.

Klosterman began the notable part of his writing career as a music critic. His earlier books focused on highbrow examinations of lowbrow culture, but his following works took a more philosophical turn. But What If We’re Wrong? is his most brain-bending book to date. I predict it will keep creative, open minds from turning into mush over the summer. 


Philosophy  Jake's Picks  History


Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life By Steve Hyden

HydenBeatles or Stones?

It’s an age-old question, and a bit of a cliché at that.  However, it absolutely reveals quite a bit about one’s personality, according to music critic Steven Hyden.  Indeed, noted musical rivalries and feuds—be they real, perceived, or unrequited—help us understand human nature.  The desire to create intersects with the desire to compete, and thus the feuds of rock and roll legend are born.  They’re never really about the music, and one has to examine the root causes of these quarrels (young vs. old, commercial success vs. critical appeal, party animals vs. wallflowers).  The way these competitions play out explains a great deal about the artists, their fans, and society at large. 

The 16 essays in this book cover a wide range of musical eras and genres and artists (from Clapton vs. Hendrix, to Biggie vs. Tupac, to Kanye vs. Taylor), so there’s likely to be something for everyone.  Readers will also gain insight into Hyden’s thoughts on sports, movies, relationships, and the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.  These ingredients work together to create an enjoyable and wholly readable account of pop culture philosophy.        

This is the first print book from Hyden, who wrote for the now-defunct sports and culture blog Grantland (may it rest in peace).  He does have the tendency to insert his own opinions and experiences into the essays, which might make some readers feel like they’re getting drinks with an old friend who only wants to talk about himself.  If that doesn’t faze prospective readers, I absolutely recommend it to fans of Chuck Klosterman, Rob Sheffield, or anyone who has argued about music late into the night in bars, dorm rooms, or on long road trips.

Jake's Picks


Speak by Louisa Hall

HallI had a hard time trying to classify Speak. Is it a thoughtful mediation of the human condition through a lens of historical fiction? Is it science fiction? Or is it closer to science fact? No matter what one chooses to call it, I found it to be a compelling and timely story.

In Speak, six tenuously connected stories recount pivotal inspirations in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), through journal entries, letters, chat logs, and more. Like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, these stories span centuries and continents to nest upon each other. These narratives include the journal entries of a teenage Puritan bride crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th century, correspondence from pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing to his deceased friend’s mother, and the final fading thoughts of an illegal robot sentenced to rot in an airplane hangar sometime in the not-too-distant future. Each narrator uses the works of the previous one to help develop or implement AI, a technology that is bound to play a huge role in our lives (and probably sooner than we think). The sci-fi side of this book contains some interesting (and often frightening) ideas about what the future may hold for us as society becomes more and more dependent on technology and machines start to meet our social needs. Each story also explores what means to be a human, as our narrators fulfill the need to communicate—even if nobody is listening.

Speak is a fast read that is sure to appeal to fans of science fiction and literary fiction. Anyone interested in a vision of the future or a philosophical look at the psychological needs of humankind would probably enjoy this book.


Speculative Fiction  Science Fiction  Jake's Picks  Historical Fiction  Dystopia  Contemporary


Purity by Jonathan Franzen

PurityJonathan Franzen, celebrated author of “Big Important Novels,” has returned with Purity, his first new book of the decade.  This monster of a book explores the concept of privacy in the digital age, the lasting effects of bad parents, the search for identity, and much more.  It’s big, brainy, sometimes slow, and sometimes abrasive.  It’s also one of the best books I read last year.

Twenty-something college grad Purity “Pip” Tyler is working a dead-end job, burdened with $130,000 of student loan debt, and squatting with anarchists in a dilapidated house in Oakland.  Most troubling of all for her, she can’t escape constant contact from her agoraphobic, hypochondriac mother.  After a chance meeting, she takes an internship with The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-style online venture dedicated to exposing government and corporate secrets.  Andreas Wolf, a charismatic übermensch who grew up under the omnipresent eye of the East German Stasi, heads The Sunlight Project and harbors some secrets of his own.  In Wolf, Pip sees an opportunity to learn about the father her mother has kept a secret from her and thus learn more about her own identity.  If you’ve read The Corrections or Freedom, you know the drill: the plot bounces across continents, narrators, and decades as the characters become embroiled in the great crises of our time.

If you can handle far-reaching literary tangents (nuclear proliferation, fine art, and digital privacy are just some of the subjects which receive lengthy subplots), flawed characters, and a 550-plus page count, give Purity a try.  When I finished this book, I felt like I had been taken around the world and through time; and offered a glimpse at how historians, philosophers, and other big thinkers the future will view the world we live in today.


Purity  Parenting  Jonathan Franzen  Jake's Picks  Digital Age


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