Three Great Books #2

Schadenfreude, robots with feelings, and Cold War spying.

Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman. Oh, to have the confidence of a man who wrote of his office space rental company (in an IPO filing, presumably with a straight face) the phrase “Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness.” Adam Neumann was the CEO of WeWork until it was revealed to be far less than the sum of its parts, and if you are petty like me, you will love reading about his rise – enabled and encouraged by venture capital bros – and crash, when investors finally woke up, smelled the free kombucha and realized the company was worth a fraction of the money it was gunning for. You will love hearing about how Adam led WeWork to invest in a wave pool company and a school for budding (i.e. five-year-old) entrepreneurs. You will love reading the list of items that Adam and his wife Rebekah required at the WeWork all-hands, forced-fun “summer camp” in 2018, including 12 packs of SkinnyPop popcorn, a boatload of Aesop personal care products, 12 cases of Don Julio 1942 tequila and dairy-free oatmeal packets. And you will love hearing how being a tall, charismatic white guy lets you do things like put your feet up on someone else’s desk in the middle of a business meeting and lose billions of investors’ dollars. Or you’ll just be angry, because the system often rewards this kind of baseless confidence, and somewhere, the next Adam Neumann is getting a big check.

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I loved the author’s earlier “Never Let Me Go,” and this has a similar literary sci-fi vibe. The Klara of the title is an Artificial Friend, or AF, a very lifelike robot living in a store and awaiting a wealthy parent to purchase her as a companion for a child. (The Sun is a key character because AFs are solar-powered.) Klara becomes the AF to Josie, a teenage girl who is mysteriously ill. The novel takes place in a not terribly distant future of jobs erased by technology and the political tensions that big societal shifts tend to bring. The extreme helicopter parenting and isolation of teenagers under pressure to achieve, especially, seems only one step beyond the pandemic present. As he did in “Never Let Me Go,” Ishiguro slowly sets the scene, doling out context and clues until you get a sense of what’s really going on. Klara’s desire, if a humanoid robot can have such a thing, to do right by Josie is heartbreaking, and I’m still thinking about the final scene.

The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre. “This should be a movie,” I thought about 900 times while reading this true story, which was recommended by a friend (thank you, Noam!). It opens with a nail-biting scenario: It’s 1985, and the head of the KGB branch in Britain, Oleg Gordievsky, has unexpectedly been called back to Moscow. But Gordievsky has actually been feeding information to MI6 for years. Is the KGB on to him? If so, how can he escape? And what about his family, who has no clue what he’s been doing? The book rewinds to show how Gordievsky grew up as a loyal Soviet citizen – “born into the KGB,” the author says -- and became first an ambitious spy and then a disillusioned double agent. Meantime, in the U.S., an embittered, self-pitying CIA officer, Aldrich Ames, has been selling secrets to the Soviets, including the names of spies, perhaps even Gordievsky’s. The only hope for Gordievsky’s escape is an improbable, prearranged exfiltration plan, the details of which I’m now imagining as a montage set to “Tusk,” like in the pilot of “The Americans.” Full of spycraft and behind-the-scenes Cold War nuggets, including how Gordievsky might have prevented nuclear war.

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