LOOK WHO’S BACK

TIMUR VERMES

Hitler wakes up in a back alley in Berlin in 2011; he can’t figure out what is going on. It is too quiet: no shelling, no shooting, no sirens. The people he meets believe he is a method actor always in part. Soon he is on TV and the people love his rants. One review is headlined: “Loony YouTube Hitler/Fans Go Wild for His Tirades!/The Nation Is Stumped: Is This Humor?”

Hitler misunderstands everything about progress. He attributes as much of it as he can to Aryan brilliance. What is this thing called Vikipedia? Clearly it’s Germanic, with the first part of the name a homage to Viking heritage. What about YouTube? At first he thinks it must be U-Tube, as in the U-boats that served Germany so well in wartime.“I realized at once that I held [a cell phone] in my hands a masterpiece of Aryan creative genius, and all it took was a few swipes of the finger to discover that — of course — the superlative Siemens company had been responsible for the technology that brought this miracle to pass.”

If you enjoy satire this is a book for you.

LIFE ON THE GROUND FLOOR: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine

James Maskalyk

Those who work in the ER burn out faster than any other type of physician. I’m not sure if it’s the shifts or the long, steady glimpse of humans on their worst day. In this memoir Maskalyk takes us from Toronto’s St. Mike’s Hospital to a teaching hospital in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, to his original home, a cabin in northern Alberta, where his grandfather is preparing to die. All add depth to his ruminations on caring for others, life and love. “Medicine is life caring for itself, to me, it’s the greatest story.” 

It is easy to ignore your own worries when there is a never-ending list of worse ones placed in front of you,” he writes wistfully. “My relationship failed. Friends fell away. Beauty too. I felt fine.

Most of the work here is in minor. ERs are open all hours, and since the service is free, people often come in early, instead of an hour too late. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with their bodies at all. There are so many measures in place to keep people well, or to catch them before they get too sick, I can go weeks without intubating someone. Worried minds, though, latch onto subtle sensations that magnify with attention, and lacking context, they line up to be reassured. The two populations, the sick and the worried, mix together, and separating them keeps us up all night.

Suffering souls, though, there is no shortage of them. They circle this place. Some sleep right outside, on sidewalk grates, wrapped in blankets, waiting. One is splayed in the clothes he lives in, face pressed against the metal grille in a deep, drunk sleep. Every few minutes, a subway passes below the grates, and a rush of warm air flutters his shirt like a flag.

THE SHOE ON THE ROOF

WILL FERGUSON

The Shoe of the Roof is a thought-provoking novel about faith and the thin line between madness and reality. Thomas Rosanoff is a brain-research grad student. His father, Dr Rosanoff, is a famous psychiatrist who gained his notoriety by studying his son’s life in great detail and publishing in “The Boy in a Box.” Having a famous father is a double-edged sword for Thomas: he gets away with a lot at the university, but he has to put up with a lot of ribbing.  Using his father’s name, Thomas kidnaps three patients from the mental hospital, who think they are Jesus. He wants to experiment with them to prove that bringing them together will cure them.  He believes that they will sort out among themselves that three Jesuses can’t exist all at once, and so at least two of them will have to cure themselves of their delusion.

You need to read Shoe to find out what the title means. Also, read Ferguson’s 419; it won a well deserved Giller Prize. There was an excellent Peter O’Toole movie of a similar theme from 1972, The Ruling Class. O’Toole was a British lord who believed he was Jesus. I may be available online.

DYING: A Memoir

CORY TAYLOR

Taylor was 60 when she was told that what had started off as a melanoma was now incurable cancer. She had already witnessed difficult deaths: both her parents died in nursing homes after long and humiliating dementia. The last time Taylor saw her mother, she watched as a nurse changed her diaper. “The look in my mother’s eyes as she turned and saw me reminded me of an animal in unspeakable torment.” Taylor’s one comforting thought when she received her own terminal diagnosis was that she wouldn’t have to go like that: she had the time, and the mental capacity, to find her way towards a better death. Interested in assisted dying, she ordered a euthanasia drug from China. It gave her peace of mind to know she had a way out if needed. “It surprises me that I have any qualms at all [about euthanasia], “since I have never thought of myself as a person of particularly high moral standards.”  

Taylor examines the experiences that shaped her into who she is. Each vignette glimmers like her description of the light in Fiji, where she lived briefly as a child: “so pure that it infused every object with an extra intensity, so that a flower was not just red, or a blade of grass just green.” “The moments that stand out for me are the ones when I felt most alive.” 

“When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.”  “The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me.”

THE WORLD’S MOST TRAVELED MAN: A Twenty-three Year Odyssey in and Through Every Country on the Panet

Mike Spencer Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An amazing book for travellers. This guy has done it all, the most wild, the most extreme, the most bizarre. All done with the same backpack. One thing though, I don’t understand how he financed his travels. At times he speaks of loading his pack with stacks of cash. But he never writes about working for a few months to get the cash for the air flights. Yet he keeps returning to Canada to keep up with his family and friends. Now he did hitchhike and stay in hostels in areas most people wouldn’t go at all. Brown spent time in each of the countries he visited, getting to know the local people and customs, exploring cities and backwaters until his curiosity was sated, vagabond style; no luxury hotels or guided tours for him. He hung with witch doctors, hunted with Pygmies, sipped wine during a Taliban gunfight, inspected active volcanoes, mingled with penguins in Antarctica, been detained by the CIA in Pakistan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“For me, travel was compulsory, for intellectual reasons. ” “There are so many generous and friendly people around the world, in every country. If you are patient and friendly yourself, good karma will come to you.”

 

“When I was hitchhiking north from Baghdad during “Operation Iron Grip” of the second gulf war, the guy who picked me up was a keen fan of Saddam Hussein. When we were passing the town of Tikrit, he pulled over, saying, “Let’s have some food in the president’s hometown.” Soon we were eating chicken and rice in a big open-air restaurant with a hundred or more of Saddam’s tribesmen around me. Here I was talking English with this guy, everyone giving me the evil eye. I wondered if they’d come over and cut off my head like they did to the Japanese backpacker who tried Iraq at the same time as me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The book would have been better with more photos, like these. It’s a great read even if only to show you which countries you don’t want to explore.

ADVOCATE

DARREN GREER

Jacob lives with his mother, aunt and austere grandmother Millicent. “The grandmother of complaint and derision.” His estranged uncle returns home because he is sick. His sisters are overjoyed. His mother is full of criticism and reproach. As he gets sicker and sicker the reader realizes that he has AIDS and in fact, he is the first AIDs victim in Nova Scotia. As rumour is spreading in the community Jacob loses the one friend he had because his friend’s mother has condemned their relationship. Eventually, in the panic about his uncle’s disease, Jacob is barred from school and most other places in town, and his family become pariahs just when they need community the most. Advocate is a well-written book about a sad time.

RECKLESS DAUGHTER: A PORTRAIT OF JONI MITCHELL

DAVID YAFFE

Joni Mitchell fans this book is for you. It is less about her life and more about her music. She once said she paints her joy and sings her sorrow. The book has tons of fasinating facts about the her lyrics. “You said you were as constant as the northern star. I said constantly in the dark, where’s that at?” was written about Leonard Cohen. I read the book with my computer at hand, so I could plays songs on You Tube that I wasn’t familiar with. The defining act of her life was making an adoption plan for her child when she was an unknown singer-songwriter in Toronto. It is refered to in song through out her writing career. It brought back memories of seeing Joni in concert and of loving her music. Fans will not want to miss this.

HUM IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE WORDS

BIANCA MARAIS

Set in Johannesburg, HUM centres on Beauty Mbali and 9-year-old Robin Conrad, each of whom is impacted by the 1976 Soweto Uprising, in which white police officers opened fire on peacefully protesting black schoolchildren. Robin’s parents are killed in the backlash, while Beauty’s daughter, Nomsa, goes missing from her Soweto school after taking part in the uprising. Robin’s liberal aunt is an airline hostess so hires Beauty, an educated Xhosa, as a caretaker for Robin so she can remain in the city and continue her quest to find her daughter. This is a difficult transition for Robin who is used to staff having a separate living unit, not using family plates and utensils and certainly not being treated as part of the family. As she bonds with comes to love Beauty, Robin withholds information about her daughter, Nomsa for fear of losing Beauty. The only criticism I have is that Robin’s narration does not ring true for a nine-year-old girl.

I didn’t know what to say in a world where people were hated and attacked for not being the right colour, not speaking the right language, not worshipping the right god or not loving the right people: a world where hatred was the common language and bricks the only words.”

“She speaks Zulu, but I am able to understand her. All our languages overlay one another like blankets of mist on a mountaintop.”

“a river of blood in the streets and the children are floating in it… they are human debris swept along in a flood of destruction.” 

“Almost everyone who mattered most to me was in the same room…. Black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, Christian, Jew, Englishman, Afrikaner, adult, child, man, woman: we were all there together, but somehow that eclectic jumble of labels was overwritten by the one classification that applied to every person there: ‘friend.’ “

INTO THE WATER

PAULA HAWKINS

“Seriously: how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.” 

The death of Nel Abbott in the Drowning Pool opens this overly complicated novel.  Her teenage daughter Lena believes her mom committed suicide, but Nel’s estranged sister Jules, returned reluctantly back to Beckford to care for Lena, believes it was something else. As Jules looks for answers, in her own past and among the locals, she finds that Nel has made a number of enemies while writing a book about the Beckford drownings, and that Lena’s best friend, Katie, died a few months earlier in the same place. “Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women,” Nel wrote.

Once the cases are closed, the people of Beckford debate who is and is not a “good person.” They apply the label forgivingly to men with excuses for their misdeeds but withhold it from the women who end up tangled in the weeds of the drowning pool.

It takes careful reading to follow all the twists and turns, and follow all the characters and clues, but in the end, it is worth the effort. This is Hawkins first book since she wrote The Girl on the Train.

“Yes, it is. It’s, like, when someone has an affair, why does the wife always hate the other woman? Why doesn’t she hate her husband? He’s the one who’s betrayed her, he’s the one who swore to love her and keep her and whatever forever and ever. Why isn’t he the one who gets shoved off a fucking cliff?” 

“Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.” 

 

TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines

JUDITH NEWMAN

Parents, educators and those who work with people with special needs will love this book. It is laugh aloud funny, especially the chapter that gave its name to the book. Gus, the son with autism, is a twin. His brother Henry, neuro-normative is funny too. It is touching how Henry takes care of his twin. Newman has a flare for descriptive writing, notably her humour.

“Just how bad a mother am I? I wondered as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in conversation with Siri. Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his BFF. Obsessed with weather formations, Gus had spent the hour parsing the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms — an hour in which, thank God, I didn’t have to discuss them. After a while I heard this:

Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”

Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”

Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”

Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”

Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”

Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”

Siri: “See you later!”

That Siri. She doesn’t let my communications-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us wanted an imaginary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary.”

And this one: “Last night, as he was going to bed, there was this matter-of-fact exchange:

Gus: “Siri, will you marry me?”

Siri: “I’m not the marrying kind.”

Gus: “I mean, not now. I’m a kid. I mean when I’m grown up.”

Siri: “My end user agreement does not include marriage.”

Gus: “Oh, O.K.”

Gus didn’t sound too disappointed. This was useful information to have, and for me too, since it was the first time I knew that he actually thought about marriage. He turned over to go to sleep:

Gus: “Goodnight, Siri. Will you sleep well tonight?”

Siri: “I don’t need much sleep, but it’s nice of you to ask.””

If you like kids and you like to laugh, this is your book.

THE BEST PEOPLE

ZOE WHITTALL

Everyone loved George Woodbury. Ten years earlier he became a hero, tackling a gunman in the prep school where he taught. Year after year he won the Teacher of the Year award voted on by the students. He sat on many boards and committees in the town. Until he was arrest for sexual misconduct and attempted rape that was said to have happened when he was supervising on a girl’s volleyball away trip. Five girls have come forward and made complaints. At this point, Whittall chooses to leave the perpetrator and the victims and follow the innocent bystanders: Joan, his wife and a well-respected nurse, Sadie, his daughter, an overachieving high school senior, and Andrew, his son, a lawyer who lives in New York with his boyfriend Jared. They become pariah, nobody wants to talk to them or be seen with them. They gossip about the mother, “How could she not have known?” Sadie refuses to visit her Dad and moves in with her boyfriend, Jimmy’s family.

People is a page turner with a great ending.

GIRLS LIKE US

GAIL GILES

When two special education students graduate from High School, social services finds them jobs and and a place to live. Quincy is alway angry. She became brain damaged when one of her mother’s boy friends hit her on the side of the head with a brick. Biddy hides behind a heavy overcoat and layers of fat. She was raised by her grandmother, who didn’t want her when she was abandoned by her mother. Quincy’s job is in a bakery which suits her because a foster father taught her how to be an excellent cook. Biddy, who is less functional – unable to read at all, is to cook and care for the elderly woman who owns the house where they have a suit over the garage. Soon they realize that they need to compromise, Quincy will do the cooking for all three and Biddy will do all the cleaning, which she loves doing. And we sit back and watch them grow.

Even though terrible things happen it is a feel good novel.  Easily read in a day or two, it will warm your heart.

THE SPARROW

MARY DORIA RUSSEL

This is one of my favourite books of all time. You must read it and it’s follow up Children of God.

In the year 2019, an observatory discovers radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), known for its missionary, linguistic and scientific activities. Only one of the crew, the Jesuit priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz, survives to return to Earth, and he is destroyed physically and psychologically. What did happen to his hands?  The story is told with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Father Sandoz’s interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest, organized in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz’ return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations, but also because the mission ended disastrously.

Sandoz initially believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Sandoz tells how they travelled by asteroid to the planet Rakhat, and how the crew tried to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village, inhabited by a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, the Runa, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Welcomed as ‘foreigners’, the Earthlings settle among the natives and begin to learn their language, Ruanja, and culture. They transmit all their findings via computer uplink to the asteroid-ship in orbit.

When the Earthlings meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions, he is a different species from the rural natives, a Jana’ata. An ambitious merchant named Supaari VaGayjur sees in the visitors a possibility to improve his status. The crew begins to grow their own food, introducing the concept of agriculture to the villagers. These seemingly innocent actions and accompanying cultural misunderstandings precipitate events which lead to a slaughter.

Russel handles themes of first contact with new species (races, cultures), communication (Sandoz is a linguist) crises of faith( Sandoz strong faith is completely shattered when he returns) and spirituality. It all makes for a powerful read.

“See that’s where it falls apart for me!” Anne cried. “What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame. I just can’t swallow that kind of theological candy. Either God’s in charge or he’s not…” 

“Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.” 

“That is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances…is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.” 

“[John] watched the flames for a while. “I would have to say that I find God in serving His children. ‘When I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stanger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you came to me.'”
The words lingered in the air as the fire popped and hissed softly. Sondoz had stopped pacing and stood motionless in a far corner of the room, his face in shadows, firelight glittering on the metallic exoskeleton of his hands. “Don’t hope for more than that, John,” he said. “God will break your heart.” 

 

TESTIMONY

ANITA SHREVE

A sex scandal at a New England private school comes to light. There is a tape of three senior basketball players with a girl in a drunken bacchanalia. The trouble is the girl is only 14. The headmaster tries to deal with the matter internally but it escalates beyond his control: the police are called.  The ramifications ripple into the community and beyond.The national press gets wind of the story. We become aware of other incidences that precipitated this assault. There is a death. Careers are ruined. Marriages end.

Shreve is a master of timeline manipulation, slowly painting the narrative as we read.

THE INCEST DIARY

ANONYMOUS

A horrifying and harrowing memoir of a daughter and her father. “We never kissed. …we didn’t kiss when I was a teenager, we didn’t kiss when I was eleven or ten or nine or eight or six or five or three.”As a young girl, the sex would make her bleed copiously in the bathtub. Her father tied her to a chair and put her in the closet.“He said he couldn’t help it. He told me it was my fault. It must have been my fault. He said that he couldn’t help it because I was so beautiful and it felt so good. He said he was a sick man. A weak victim of his desire. And I, too, felt desire; I felt my wildness.”

“From the time I was very young, my father told me that we were one person, that I was just a part of him. I grew up with that inside me. I grew up with him inside me.” My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret. But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I wanted it, and sometimes I seduced him.”This prolonged sexual abuse continued throughout her childhood until she began to crave it. An important part of the book is how it affects her adult life and adult sexuality.

THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL

 

HEATHER O’NEILL

Two abandoned babies are dropped off at the orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Rose develops a gift for humour and movement; Pierrot for music. When they were young adolescents they were sent to rich people’s homes to entertain for generous donations to the orphanage. Escape seems possible, happiness imminent. They dream of creating their own circus together for fame and fortune. As the mother superior knows, though, happiness always leads to tragedy. Rose and Pierrot are farmed out as teens to separate homes, with no idea where the other has gone. And the Sisters make sure they never find each other. A good portion of the book is the two yearning for each other and almost crossing paths, so it is a delight when they find each other as adults.

Hotel reminded me of The Night Circus which was full of magic realism. O’Neill is a wonderful writer so Hotel is a page turner.

“Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand themselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.
You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.”

All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the
inalienable right to be free.” 

A GOOD COUNTRY

LALEH KHADIVI

Laguna Beach, California, 2010. Reza Courdee, a fourteen-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In that instant, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza–now Rez–feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily. His girlfiend Fatima describes it as “all that American-white-boy shit”.

When the Boston marathon bombs and things begin to change for Rez. He falls out with the bad boy surfers and in with a group of kids more awake to the world around them, who share his background, and whose ideas fill him with a very different sense of purpose. Fatima attends a mosque out of curiosity and afterwards decides to wear a headscarf. Rez is given a post-graduation surfing holiday in Bali by his father, and while he is there he stumbles into a modest neighbourhood mosque and muses: so this is Islam. Within a year, Reza and Fatima are naively making their way to Syria to be part of a Muslim nation rising from the ashes of the civil war. The novel charts the journey to radicalisation. A Good Country is expertly shaped, and persuasively investigates an important phenomenon of our times.

 

A TWO-SPIRIT JOURNEY: An Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojbiwa-Cree Elder

MA-NEE CHACABY

 No one should have to endure the shocking amount of sexual and physical violence this woman endured from childhood. As a child she had the support and guidance of her grandmother who saw the two spirits in her and knew she would have a difficult life. Her step-father taught her how to hunt, trap and survive in the wilds, yet ended up sexually assaulting her. Her abusive mother sent her to marry a man who would torture her for years. It is no wonder that she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. When she finally embraces her two-spirit orientation, she discovers that despite two-spirit teachings being a long-standing indigenous tradition, a new kind of abuse — virulent homophobia — soon comes her way, both from the aboriginal reserve community and from the white community residing nearby in Thunder Bay.

That all this sorrow and pain happened in this country is a national shame. The solution she puts forward, by the example of her exemplary life, is for our government and her own community to support the myriad of programs and teachings Ma-Nee Chacaby and women like her have introduced over decades. From groundbreaking and controversial AIDS awareness programs in the 1990s to the work she continues to do today, both with her own family and her extended reserve family, her life and this memoir ultimately serve as handbook of hope.

EVERYBODY LIES

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOOWITZ

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has written a fascinating book about social scientists using data collected by Google or Facebook in their research. Things to be learned from reading LIES:

  1. Some people use search engines as confessionals. They type complete sentences like “I am sad.” or open-ended questions like “Is my daughter ugly?”
  2. People assume machines (like the Google search engine) will keep their secrets. For sensitive topics, Google may generate more honest data than surveys. There are many questions asked to Google that I’m sure people won’t pose to a librarian.
  3. Google searches for “Obama” is frequently paired with “kkk” and the “n” word. The prevalence of racist searches does not exhibit a North-South divide – it’s East-West.
  4. As President of Harvard, Larry Summers spent quite a bit of time brainstorming with Economics PhD students on how to beat the stock market using new data. (And they came up empty-handed, or so they say.)
  5. Some economists found that going to Stuyvesant (a highly influential high school) conferred no meaningful benefit to one’s career – at least, this is the case for those who attain a score close to the cutoff in the admissions test.
  6. There are 6,000 searches on Google a year for “how to kill your girlfriend” while there are 400 murders of girlfriends.
  7. “Big data” does not provide any insights that surveys can’t at the aggregate level so people slice and dice the data to examine “micro” segments, which means they are analyzing a huge collection of small data sets.

I borrowed this interview from VOX’s interview with author Stephens-Davidowitz.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Liesa new book that uses data on America’s Google habits as an insight into our national consciousness. Two findings from the book dominated the conversation: America is riddled with racist and selfish people, and there may be a self-induced abortion crisis in this country. But there was plenty more revelatory data in the book that we didn’t cover. So I wanted to follow up with Stephens-Davidowitz to talk about some of the other provocative claims he is making. I was particularly interested in sexuality and online porn. If, as Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “Google is a digital truth serum,” then what else does it tell us about our private thoughts and desires? What else are we hiding from our friends, neighbors, and colleagues? A lot, apparently. Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz’s data suggests that there are more gay men in the closet than we think; that many men prefer overweight women to skinny women but are afraid to act on it; that married women are disproportionately worried their husband is gay; that a lot of straight women watch lesbian porn; and that porn featuring violence against women is more popular among women than men. I asked Stephens-Davidowitz to explain the data behind all of this. Here’s what he told me.


Sean Illing

Last time we spoke, I asked you about the most surprising or shocking finding in your research. We talked about racism and the possibility of a self-induced abortion crisis in America. Here I want to dive into something a little lighter: sexuality and online porn. What did you learn about this?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn is the biggest development in sexuality research ever. I don’t understand how social scientists weren’t begging Pornhub for their data. I was one of the only ones. I sent some of my results to some of the most famous sociologists and sex researchers in the world. Many of them had no interest.

Sean Illing

Why does porn data offer such unique insight?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, to learn about sex, the main approach was to ask people. But people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.

Sean Illing

You combed through the data — what did it say about us?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s a lot of variation in what people like. Probably 30 percent of people exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.

Sean Illing

Why focus on sex? Were you initially interested in this, or did the data lead you to it?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s a book about human nature. Sex is a big part of human nature. Some reviews of Everybody Lies have criticized me for being obsessed with sex. Everybody is obsessed with sex. If they say they’re not, they’re lying.

Sean Illing

You point to some interesting data in the book about sexual orientation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s clear that a lot of gay men remain in the closet. In places where it’s hard to be gay, such as Mississippi, far fewer men say that they are gay than in places where it’s easy to be gay, such as New York. But gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.

Sean Illing

This doesn’t necessarily tell us how many people are gay in these areas, but it’s a revealing data point.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I look at the data a whole bunch of ways and conclude about 5 percent of men are predominantly attracted to men.

Sean Illing

Can you really draw concrete conclusions from this sort of data? People search for things for all kinds of reasons, right?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think porn is a pretty good measure of people’s sexual fantasies, even if they never act on them.

Sean Illing

What’s your response to people who are skeptical of inferring anything from this stuff?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think watching a porn video is a lot more telling than answering a survey question. I agree you should be cautious in how you interpret it, though.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about what married people are up to online.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.

Sean Illing

Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think women are too obsessed with their husbands’ sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.

Sean Illing

What are husbands secretly worrying about?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are crazy.

Sean Illing

What should husbands be asking Google? What would they ask if they knew what their wives were Googling?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are more physically attracted to women than men.

Sean Illing

Tell me about America’s suppressed sexual desires.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There are still sexual preferences that people hide today, even in socially liberal places. About one in 100 porn searches are for the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. But very few young men are in relationships with elderly women.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure what I think about that. Any theories?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s interesting. Some sexual preferences I first learned about on The Jerry Springer Show,which featured really poor, uneducated people. People attracted to animals or family members or the elderly. But, now from seeing porn data, I realize those preferences also exist among wealthy, educated people. Wealthy, educated people are more cognizant of contemporary social norms, which means if you have such an attraction, you hide it.

Sean Illing

I recall something in the book about the sexual preferences we hide largely for cultural reasons or for fear of being judged. Can you talk about that?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

If you define being in the closet as picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want, many people are in the closet. For example, I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.

Porn featuring overweight women is surprisingly common among men. But the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends.

Sean Illing

That says something truly awful about our cultural pathologies. People should be free to like whatever they want, but the pressures to conform are overwhelming — and ultimately unhealthy.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s also inefficient. There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency.

Sean Illing

All right, give me a couple of unusual desires you noticed — one from men and one from women.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It is really amazing how much tastes can vary. There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises. There are men who just watch porn featuring women with enormous nipples.

Sean Illing

How about other countries?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one Google search in India that starts “my husband wants …” is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” Porn featuring adult breastfeeding is higher in India than anywhere else. In just about every country, just about every Google search looking for advice on breastfeeding is looking how to breastfeed a baby. In India, Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband.

After I published this finding, some journalists interviewed people in India. Everyone denied this. But I am sure, based on the data, that there are a reasonable number of adult Indian men desiring to be breastfed. It is really amazing that this desire can develop in one country without ever being openly talked about.

Sean Illing

Any other findings from countries not named America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Japanese men have recently become obsessed with tickling porn. More than 10 percent of Pornhub searches by young Japanese men are for “tickling.”

Sean Illing

So basically all of humanity is united in its weirdness?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, basically. Some people respond to Indian men wanting to be breastfed and are like, “Indian men are so weird.” That’s not the right response. The data from porn tells us that everybody is weird. Thus, nobody is weird.

Sean Illing

And yet we all feel weird because we assume (wrongly) that no one else is as weird as we are.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyone’s porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds. And then we’d all get over it and be more open about sex.

Sean Illing

Any other surprising findings about women in America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

About 20 percent of the porn women watch is lesbian porn. A lot of straight women watch lesbian porn.

Sean Illing

That’s not very surprising.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn featuring violence against women is also extremely popular among women. It is far more popular among women than men. I hate saying that because misogynists seem to love this fact. Fantasy life isn’t always politically correct.

The rate at which women watch violent porn is roughly the same in every part of the world. It isn’t correlated with how women are treated.

Sean Illing

Let me ask you this: Has all of this research changed how you think about sexuality in general?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I have always wondered how homosexuality made it through evolution. Like, isn’t evolution supposed to make people desire heterosexual sex with fertile people? But after studying porn, I realized homosexuality is hardly the only desire that doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Less than 20 percent of porn watched these days features vaginal sex to completion among two people who can conceivably have a healthy baby. Cartoons, anal sex to completion, oral sex to completion, foot sex to completion, incest, elderly porn, tickling, animal porn, sex with objects, etc.

Sean Illing

Sex is clearly about a lot more than procreation, and I’d say a lot of needless suffering has resulted from our confusion about this.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think the reason is we are growing up under very different conditions than we evolved under. Hunter-gatherer kids didn’t watch The Simpsons. And hunter-gatherer adults didn’t watch Simpsons porn. I think we are evolved so that if we grew up in hunter-gatherer conditions, just about all people would have an overwhelming desire for vaginal sex. But modern conditions take sexuality in all kinds of directions. I’m becoming more convinced of that the more data I look at.

Sean Illing

So what’s the future of online porn? Where is it going?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think anal sex will pass vaginal sex in porn within three years. That’s what my data models suggest.

Sean Illing

Somehow that feels like a perfect point on which to end.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

People should buy my book. There’s a lot more!