Neal's Completed Reading List
In reverse order of completion (most recent books first):
The Orpheus Project
The Orpheus myth is ancient, attributed to Plato and other writers from that era, about a most fabulous magician, who could make plants and stones weep when he played music. One part of the myth is particularly well known, about the fate of his new bride, Eurydice:
The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice. While walking among her people, the Cicones, in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice was set upon by a satyr. In her efforts to escape the satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief, played such sad and mournful songs that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.
The first popular opera was based on the Orpheus story (L'Orfeo by Monteverdi in 1607), and it has been treated as a subject of opera many times, obviously for it's sympathetic subject matter.
In 2019, the English National Opera staged an interesting event: five Orpheus operas from different composers and eras on subsequent nights (when I happened to be in London anyway):
- Orpheus in the Underworld Jacques Offenbach
- The Mask of Orpheus Harrison Birtwistle
- Orpheus & Eurydice Christoph Gluck
- Orphée Philip Glass
The last of these, Orphée, is the third of Philip Glass' Cocteau Trilogy, operas based on the films of famous French director Jean Cocteau; I had seen the other two in the trilogy but never this one (yet).
In anticipation/celebration of this happy circumstance, I'm reading many of the books and poetry also inspired by this myth, including a bunch of modern takes based on Eurydice's side of the story (a new opera debuts in 2020 called Eurydice). These books call belongs to this category of books based upon or referencing the Orpheus myth.
12. Einstein Intersection Samuel R. Delany
start-date: 2019-10-01 end-date: 2019-10-05 pages: 153 grade: B-
Very abstract science fiction from the 1970's from an author known for pretty abstract stuff. The author loves pre-chapter quotes, sometimes from his own writing journals about how he's thinking about the story. It's set in a far-off future earth with mutants and vague magic powers, based around a character named Lo Lobey who has Orpheus' (and Ringo Starr's, it turns out) magic powers. He tries to rescue his Eurydice (named Friza here) from Kid Death. Very loosely based on the myth, and abstract to the point of incoherency. Delany obviously wants to write a version of the myth, but drags in Einstein, Godel, Jean Harlow, and a hodge podge of cultural references that generate head scratching more than deep insight. Interesting take on a simple story; I don't think he added a lot.
11. A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera Vivien Schweitzer
start-date: 2019-09-04 end-date: 2019-09-25 pages: 288 grade: A
Fantastic introduction to Opera overall. While the author covers some plots, the book doesn't get lost in that, using the summaries only to add to the historic narrative. I learned a ton, and thoroughly enjoyed the writing, which was top notch.
10. Walks Through Lost Paris: A Journey Into the Heart of Historic Paris Leonard Pitt
start-date: 2019-98022 end-date: 2019-09-02 pages: 880 grade: A
This book chronicles the razing and rebuilding of Paris under Napolean III by the city planner/architect Haussmann, who was the city planner in charge. This book provides a brief history, then four specific annotated walks through Paris that the author has painstakingly recreated from archives and other historical records. Highly interesting if pointed history.
9. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel Neal Stephenson
start-date: 2019-07-20 end-date: 2019-08-20 pages: 880 grade: D+
What a terrible book! And I say that as huge Neal Stephenson fan. I pre-purchased this book when it was announced, as usual. I've never been one to claim that Stephenson is an uneditable rogue as some have suggested, although the first of his Baroque trilogy is one of the few books I gave up on. In fact, I think Anathem, Cryptonomicon, and Seveneves all have great pace and excellent third acts. This book has none of those things, and makes good the suspicion that no one will deign edit his work.
First, this is an extended allegory, which is always difficult to pull off; it's only been done really well a few times (like Animal Farm). Fall reads like a freshman college student creative writing assignment to attempt allegory–but that's not all. Second, it poorly mimics the style of Gustave Flaubert, a leader of the literary realism movement; his novels would include multi-page descriptions of mundane objects, such as chairs or doors. Fall does the same thing, but in a purely nascent virtual world, which somehow makes it extremely tedious (even more so than 19th century literature). Pages go by describing what is obviously the Garden of Eden, whole paragraphs describing virtual leaves that don't exist, and with none of the flair that makes 19th century realism readable. The author could reduce the first 400 pages of this book to about 50 tight pages. Third, if an author is going to create a bespoke world, they need to be careful not to careless contaminate references to non-relative concepts. For example, characters in the book don't know what rocks are but use the word "paving" correctly within the same page. Ridiculous inconsistencies abound, which reinforces the lack of editorial oversight–someone should have caught all these unforced errors.
Fourth, in the clumsy attempt at allegory and mixed metaphors, Stephenson eventually gives up and just has one of characters explain the associations–worst than explaining a joke. Fifth, the continuing appearance of his mystical alter ego, Enoch Root, grates more and more, especially because he had no purpose except ham-handed philosophical exposition. Fifth, while the author apparently wanted to make some points about virtual life after death and the implications, even that was tangled up in a dual plot with massive holes–can the two worlds communicate or not, or just when convenient to move the plot? Last, no compelling narrative arc exist–twenty-five pages into the book, I had an idea of what was going to happen, and at the halfway point, I knew exactly how it was going to end–and I was deadly accurate. I literally deleted the book off my kindle at the 60% mark, the resurrected it because I hate to abandon works–I was holding out the hope for a killer third act to make it worth it. Alas, it ended exactly predictably, with a literal Deus Ex Machina.
I was so disappointed in this book–his last novel, The Rise and Fall of Dodo, was fantastic, within his top ten. Fall reads like a poor attempt to mimic Neal Stephenson, which falls extremely flat. It was so bad that I'm going to tread carefully on future books and look at some reviews first. To Neal Stephenson: please find a good editor, and listen to him/her.
pages: 340 grade: B
A reasonably good if not terribly deep history of Douglas Adams and his brain child. This book contained lots of details I didn't know before, and was engagingly written, but didn't get much beyond the surface detail.
7. Fosse Sam Wasson
pages: 757 grade: B
I've been fascinated with Bob Fosse since All That Jazz came out during a pivotal point in my life–it was one of the first serious movies that I understood, and opened a lot of perspectives for me. FX just put together a miniseries based on this book called Fosse//Verdon, combining the intertwined life of these two artists (better than the book). The book uses nice narrative trick that the miniseries adopts–each chapter starts with how many years/months/days/hours left if Fosse's life. This is a good book with both interesting biographical insights but, more importantly, deep insights into his creative process, the good and the bad.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
pages: 331 grade: A+
Surprisingly, I had never read this novel, but was prompted to because of the New York Broadway play (which uses this book as source material but rearranges the narrative significantly to work on the stage). As expected,
5. All My Sons Authur Miller
pages: 116 grade: A
Great play by the master Authur Miller, the reader/audient has no idea how things will end until the very end, which creates great boiling suspense. I've seen two productions, one in London and another in New York. One fantastic directorly trick I saw in the NY production: during the first part of the play, one of the character sits quietly reading the news paper; in this production, he mouths the words silently as he reads. At the denouement, that same character must read a devastating letter that the audience already knows the contents of. Watching the character visibly read allowed the director to make that scene longer, prolonging the suspense even more.
4. The Witness for the Prosecution Agatha Cristie
pages: 37 grade: A
A short story with a twist ending, very well written, and well crafted to build a surprise into such a short piece.
3. Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars David Hempworth
pages: 311 grade: C
A plethora of breathlessly written anecdotes about rock stars, some of which I was already familiar with and others that were new. Typical of books like this, the quality of the writing isn't really the point, but this one grated a little more than most–I didn't care for the author's tone, but enjoyed many of the new stories.
2. Betrayal Harlod Pinter
pages: 148 grade: A
A famous play from the 1980's told in reverse chronology; like all such works, the real narrative lies in why people are acting they way they are early in the play (but chronologically later), which you discover late in the play (early in the chronology). Like all well done works in this genre, the author manages to pack an emotional punch outside the obvious.
1. Everything Is Illuminated Jonathan Safran Foer
start-date: [2018-10-25 Thu] end-date: [2019-03-01 Fri] pages: 293 grade: A
A fantastically quirky book, the inspiration for the movie that got me to the book, but the movie represents only a small subplot of the book. The novel exemplifies meta-modern literature: lots of different points of view, different narrators, different eras, and shockingly surprising events that still slot neatly into the universe the book creates. A fantastic book brimming with original ideas. In fact, I think the excellent movie captures the primary theme of the book better because it focuses primarily on it. However, the multiple nuance just amplifies the book. Highly recommended.
17. The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide Richard Conniff
This is a charming book, taking an anthropological approach (literally) to study how rich people act differently from others. Lots of keen observations, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor.
16. Mona Lisa Overdrive William Gibson
Re-reading the Sprawl trilogy.
15. Count Zero William Gibson
Re-reading the Sprawl trilogy.
14. Neuromancer William Gibson
Re-reading the Sprawl trilogy.
13. Everything Trump Touches Dies Rick Wilson
start-date: [2018-10-24 Wed] end-date: [2019-11-08 Fri] pages: 337
12. Fear: Trump in the White House Bob Woodward
11. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William Shirer
pages: 1280 start-date: [2018-09-01 Sat] end-date: [2018-09-22 Sat] grade: A
This is another re-read because I visited concentration camps this autumn in Poland and wanted to reorient myself to WWII. This is still the best overall book about WWII I've read; outstanding and broad coverage.
10. Technology Strategy Patterns Eben Hewitt
pages: 275 start-date: [2018-07-30 Mon] end-date: [2019-08-04 Sun] grade: B
I read a final draft, pre-release version of this book, based on a a talk delivered at a recent O'Reilly Software Architecture Conference. This book is a terrific primer for the very arcane world of technology strategists, a special breed of consultants. They use nomenclature, tools, (so many) slide decks, and other tools of the trade that can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. This book lays out the landscape via the well worn patterns approach, which works reasonable well here. Highly recommended if you find yourself in that space somehow.
9. Zappa The Hard Way Andrew Greenaway
pages: 252 start-date: [2018-08-07 Tue] end-date: [2018-08-14 Tue] grade: B
In the late 1980's, Frank Zappa put together one of the first bands in his career capable of playing his most complex music properly, including a full horn section and many of the players he had worked with for many years. The band rehearsed, learned over 100 songs, and toured Europe with plans to extensively tour in the US. Frank's Broadway the Hard Way album had just been released, and I was itching to see Frank live again (I had seen him once before, on the 1984 tour). Alas, the band developed crippling internal problems during the European tour, causing it to collapse. Some highlights of the shows they did play from Europe were captured on The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. Shortly thereafter, Frank was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, which killed in late in 1993. This book chronicles, via interviews with fans and band members, exactly what happened during that fateful tour, what caused the tensions, and why the pieces couldn't be put back together. The book is great, with lots of memories and answers to long-standing questions about what happened. Plus, it's been a great excuse to go back and listen to a ton of this music, which really was outstanding. This book likely won't mean anything to those who weren't around at the time, but it answered a lot for me.
8. Close to the Edge: How Yes's Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock Will Romano
pages: 302 start-date: [2037-02-24 Tue] end-date: [2018-08-14 Tue] grade: B
One of many histories of Yes, this one focusing on one particular period, the single album Close to the Edge. While certainly an interesting album, I don't know that there were enough compelling events to justify a book. I bought this album shortly after it was released, and know quite a lot about it, but still learned new things from this book. However, the author had to go deep, into some pretty specious territory, to fill out all the pages. Certainly an interesting read to fans, I doubt this will create converts.
7. Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth after Postmodernism Robin van den Akker
pages: 260 start-date: [2018-06-05 Tue] end-date: [2018-07-14 Sat] grade: B
One of the few available books on my latest obsession, Metamodernism. The subject of this book was fantastic, but the writing was needlessly difficult. It contains three sections (Historicity, Affect, and Depth), with an introduction and essays illustrating how each of these aspects of metamodernism manifest. The range is broad, from deep dives into novels (including an essay on David Foster Wallace), photography, poetry, and a host of other subjects. The grade of B is purely because of the terribly stilted academic writing: every sentence bends over backwards to show how clever it is, really harming exposition and clarity. However, this style commonly exists amongst academics; in this case, it is the swamp the reader must traverse to get to the nuggets of insightful information. This book isn't a great introduction to the subject, but rather a deep treatment of how metamodernism leaks through much modern art (and discourse).
6. Surface Detail Ian M Banks
start-date: [2018-04-09 Mon] end-date: [2018-06-01 Fri] pages: 627 grade: A
The penultimate culture novel: simply sublime. Banks' command of plot, detail, exposition, surprise, and fascinating philosophical exploration make this book a pure joy to read. He deeply explore virtual realities and some of the inevitable consequences (virtual heavens and hells), along with a bit of gratuitous torture detail. Still, outstanding novel, on par with the rest of the culture series.
5. Ready Player One Ernest Cline
pages: 386 start-date: 2018-03-26 end-date: 2018-04-08 grade: B-
I didn't know anything about this book before the hype about the movie started. It seemed an interesting premise, and I decided to read it before seeing the movie. It's a fine space opera set in a virtual reality world, leaning strongly towards adolescent fiction, but a good representative of that genre. The plot is interesting enough, dripping with geeky pop culture references sure to warm the cockles of many geek's hearts (everything from 2112 to Zork). The plot is predictable and relies too heavily on Deus ex Machina to fix up some annoying plot points, but overall an enjoyable read.
pages: 247 start-date: 2018-03-07 end-date: 2018-03-25 grade: A-
Another confoundingly great book by Scott Adams. He gives some of the best concrete career/life advice I've ever read, filtered through his unique humor. I've read and thought a lot about productivity, creativity, and how to be effective, and I still learned tons on all those subjects form this book. He provides a summary "book tease" which does a good (if superficial) job of describing the thrust of the book. Here is the list, with my parenthetical comments.
- Goals are for losers (He prefers systems to goals, which is a good distinction)
- Your mind isn't magic. It's a moist computer you can program. (IOW, pay atttention to inputs and outputs and manage your food/energy/music/movies/etc based on the next tip–energy.)
- The most important metric to track is your personal energy. (Excellent advice–if you have good energy, lots of other things become easier.)
- Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success. (He talks about "skill stacks"–a unique combination of skill–being more important than extreme skill in any one area.)
- Happiness is health plus freedom. (A bit more editorializing here about schedule freedom, but I like his emphasis on health and energy.)
- Luck can be managed, sort of. (The weakest advice, replicated elsewhere: luck finds those who are looking for success.)
- Conquer shyness by being a huge phony (in a good way). (Pretty good advice for painfully shy people.)
- Fitness is the lever that moves the world. (Back to health and energy, he correctly identifies exercise as a great way to increase energy. He asks: when you see people who exercise regularly, do they seem more energetic or less so?)
- Simplicity transforms ordinary into amazing. (Great Zen observation, with very little advice about achieving this beyond some anecdotal cases from his areas of expertise. )
This book careens wildly from context to context, with concrete writing advice alongside ways to "Not be an asshole". Adams has a unique perspective on the world, partially because of early training in hypnosis and a unique eye for human observation. He can shift your perception about something five degrees, but it forces you to reevaluate that thing in a new light.
Just as in his Win Bigly book, he plants an incongruity so obvious that I thought he was trolling. After all, one of the tennants of the book is to build bullshit filters around things the world tells you. One of the great pieces of advice concerns prefering systems to goals. Goals always leave you in an unhappy state–either you are striving for the goal or you have achieved it, leaving no purpose. Systems are better because you can look at the outputs to tweak future inputs, and incrementally work towards something goal-like. Amidst all the concrete, experiement based advice around a host of subjects, Adams discusses affirmations at length: basically, repeating to yourself, mantra-like, some loft goal: I will someday be a famous cartoonist. He talks about a variety of things he affirmed (and none that his affirmations didn't work for). Of course, affirmation and goal are basically the same thing; I thought he was planting some convenient bullshit for readers to spot and filter out. Yet, at the end, he dedicated a weak chapter trying to convince the readers that affirmations work somehow, without offering an explanation. So, it seems he's serious.
This is a terrific book; the aformentioned weak parts and the relentless tone of the author are the only things that knock it from A to A-. Highly recommended.
3. The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Book 3) N. K. Jemisin
pages: 464 start-date: 2018-02-25 end-date: 2018-03-06 grade: A+
A fantastic end to an outstanding trilogy. The author manages to walk the tightrope of blending world building, action driven plot, real consequences (the end of the world!), and convicing emotion. The whole trilogy is a brilliant balancing act, eventually explaining the origins of a lot of funky stuff in a convincing and satisfying way. The best new voice in science fiction/fantasy I've read in a long time.
2. The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth Book 2) N. K. Jemisin
pages: 448 start-date: 2018-01-11 end-date: 2018-02-20 grade: A
Book two of a phenomenal trilogy. It combines the page-turner characteristics of a thriller, the world building of the best science fiction and fantasy, and well realized characters. I can "see" the scaffolding of the plot, but it doesn't matter; like a well designed building, you marvel at the structure if it's made apparent. I also love the way the author describes the physics of her world. As she reveals more things, the reader understands the world more deeply than I ever anticipated. In other words, she introduces "magic", but then describes how it works later. Can't wait for book three!
1. Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter Scott Adams
pages: 298 start-date: 2017-12-30 end-date: 2018-01-04 grade: B+
This is a book I enjoyed much more than I thought. I heard the author (the creator of the Dilbert comic) on a podcast, which lead me here. Scott Adams is trained in as a hypnotist, persuasive sales, and writing. It has some incredible perception about how persuasion works and how really good sales people do it. If anyone struggles to understand Trump's appeal and how he keeps it, this is a must read. It dissects the mechanics of how he creates killer nicknames (his "best words"), how he sucks oxygen out of discussions via rhetorical techniques, and manages to avoid normally deadly controversies and proclivities.
Adams' insights in this book are incredible and perceptive. The reason it fell from an A to a B+ concerns obvious flaws in the text. He describes confirmation bias in some length, then offers arguments later in the book that reveal clear confirmation bias himself, admitting it in some cases. It happens so much I suspect it might be a troll–it's something like what he would do, and it's blatant. He also made the mistake of predicting some future events based on his analysis, which largely haven't come true in the intervening time, hurting his argument of incredible predictive powers. However, a few flaws aside, the insights make this a terrific read.
36. Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker Ed Piskor
pages: 110 start-date: 2017-12-31 end-date: 2017-12-31 grade: B
Same as above: this one carries the story of the fictional character into prison for hacking and provides more flashback back story.
35. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging Sebastian Junger
pages: 182 start-date: 2017-12-20 end-date: 2017-12-26 grade: A
This is the book I've been looking for, that I hoped The Rational Optimist might be. I've long realized that we all have certain hard-coded constants built into us by evolution because we're small group primates; Dunbar's Number is a great example of this phenomonem. The Tribe talks about another, and unravels many mysteries of why people behave the way they do. While The Rational Optimist tried to be comprehensive, The Tribe focuses primarily on how we are wired to cooperate in close-knit groups, and how modern society has created barriers against that intrinsic desire. This book is well written as well: in another contrast between the two, The Rational Optimist beats the reader do death with prose, while The Tribe relies more on illustrative stories–/Show, don't tell/. The two books try to cover different ground, but The Tribe covers its subject superbly. Highly recommended.
34. Sugar Skull Charles Burns
pages: 64 start-date: 2017-12-28 end-date: 2017-12-30 grade: A
While the ostensible length of Charles Burns' X'ed Out trilogy is 56 + 56 + 64 (= 176) pages, the actual length is closer to 528 pages: you must read the entire thing about three times to understand what's going on. And it's well worth it. It tells a surrealistic, disjointed story of a guy, his relationship(s), and how things have gone wrong. It's packed with symbolism ranging from TinTin cartoon references, William S. Burroughs, and lots of other creepy stuff. I thought for sure I had figured out what the central conflict was, but I was off the mark in a pleasant way–in other words, it didn't end in any sort of conventional way. I strongly recommend you read the entire trilogy (all 528 pages), then check out some fo the critical writing about it, including Charles Burns brings his haunting cartoon trilogy to a close with Sugar Skull and The Only Part I’ll Remember: The Dream States in Charles Burns’ X’ed Out Trilogy and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
33. Wizzywig Volume 1: Phreak Ed Piskor
pages: 110 start-date: 2017-12-27 end-date: 2017-12-28 grade: B
This is a series of graphic novels depicting much of the history of the hacker movement, including phone phreaking, blue boxes, and Cap'n Crunch whistles. The main character is an amalgam of several famous hackers. It tells the fictional tale of a loner in school who becomes a master hacker. While mildly entertaining, it didn't provide much insight for someone who already knows the history of the real people; it's a historical novel about things that happened within my life. This primarily serves as an introduction to a young audience who didn't know about paid long distance and how sophisticated early phone systems were.
32. Neonomicon Alan Moore, Jacen Burrows
pages: 176 start-date: 2017-12-17 end-date: 2017-12-19 grade: C+
Alan Moore, famous for Watchmen, can go dark, and this is the darkest graphic novel I've read. It basically takes some of the more horrible parts from H P Lovecraft and creates a sort of warped origin story. It tells the story of a couple of detectives trying to solve a series of grisly murders, tied up to a cult that follows Lovecraft's writing (as it turns out, it wasn't fiction, he was describing stuff. This one is full of creatures, rape, creatures and rape, and a bunch of other unsavory stuff. In addition, the story telling is primarily just there for the horroribleness; it has no where near the grace or symbolism of Watchmen. Only for the hard-core completests or Lovecraft junkies.
31. The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley
pages: 483 start-date: 2017-12-01 end-date: 2017-12-11 grade: C
I started this book with high hopes, and I mostly agree with the general premise, that markets are often the overlooked drivers of innovation. However, this book slides far beyond case making into full-on advocacy, and essentially erodes his good ideas with too much added claptrap. When reading authors in areas where I don't have expertise (like economics), I defer to their aleged knowledge. However, when the author wanders into areas that I know well (like computer science) and says outrageously untrue things, it diminishes my confidence in the author's opinions on other subjects. Even within the text, the author maddingly contradicts himself within paragraphs–disdaining the value of scientific research, then offering a litany of smart things innovators did with LASERs. I aslo suspect the quote by one of President Obama's science advisors recommending we abandon all technology and return to an agrarian lifestyle might have been taken out of context. Perhaps.
Like most such texts, this one conveniently ignores facts that harm the author's case and amplify others that support it. However, it ignores the fact that most complex socio-economic phenomenon occur because of a complex mix of many factors.
30. The Hive Charles Burns
pages: 56 start-date: 2017-12-22 end-date: 2017-12-22 grade: A
The promise delivered: this one is creepier and odder than the first, and more of the realy story is slowly emerging from the fog of memories, hallucinations, and alternate dimensions the protagonist experiences. This is one of those books (like Wool) that carries its own creep atmosphere with it, immersing the reader from the outset. This graphic novel is an excellent example of a good use of the medium. Can't wait for the end of the trilogy!
29. Arvo Pärt in Conversation Arvo Part, Robert Crow
pages: 182 start-date: 2017-09-01 end-date: 2017-12-17 grade: B
A book of interviews with the phenomenal and odd Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and his wife. His insights are fascinating: he studied that standard kinds of academic music in his early life, including twelve-tone and minimalism, but went back to ancient chants and other liturgical music to forge his own unique composition style, to my ears a mixture of sacred and minimalism that creates calm, sedate music. Alas, the actual contents of the book feature him third behind his wife and the overly intrusive interviewer. Boy, am I impressed with his knowledge…but wish it were somewhere else and not in the way of the actual interesting content, Mr. Pärt.
27. X'ed Out Charles Burns
pages: 56 start-date: 2017-12-21 end-date: 2017-12-21 grade: A
A very atmospheric, creepy, Twilight-zone meets Willam Burroughs kind of graphic novel, first of a trilogy. The protagonist is confused, leading to a stuttering narrative with repeating elements in suprising contexts. And this installment ends on a cliff hanger that foreshadows an intensification of the strangeness in chapter 2.
26. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) N. K. Jemisin
pages: 500 start-date: 2017-11-05 end-date: 2017-11-30 grade: A
A fantastic book! Recommended by a New York Times book review plus the considerable praise by readers, this novel resides in the genre of science fiction dealing with the end of or near end of the earth; in this case, in a far future where all the continents have merged back into one and weird stuff is happening. The book does some serious world building, and readers must work through the relentless pace of it near the front, but the narrative quickly starts paying off and never stops. Highly recommended, but fair warning: you'll quickly want to pick up the second in the trilogy, happening soon for me.
25. Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World Ella Frances Sanders
pages: 112 start-date: 2017-09-01 end-date: 2017-10-06 grade: A+
What a delightful little book. Since my first proper poetry class in university, I've been fascinated by the distinction between the denotaion and connotation of words (in fact, it was the Robert Graves poem The Naked and the Nude that brought the point home for me). This book captures words around the world for which the denotation of the word only hints at the depth of connotation each word carries. The author takes un-tranlatable phrases from different languages. For example, we say Joie de vivre rather than translate it directly into Joy of life because the original carries so much extra connotation; this book consists of similar words. A few of my favorites:
- boketto – Japanese word that means "Gazing vacantly into the distance without really thinking about anything specific"
- vacilando – Spanish word that means "traveling when the experience itself is more important than the destination"
- resfeber – Swedish for "the restless beat of a traveler's heart before the journey begins, a mixture of anxiety and anticipation"
- meraki – Greek word meaning to "pour yourself into something wholeheartedly, and doing so with soul, creativity, and love"
The entire thin book is filled with gems, along with fanciful illustrations. I got the hardback book–this is one that I fear would suffer from electronic reading, but I haven't seen it so I can't say for sure. In any case, highly recommended and guaranteed to generate a few smiles.
24. The Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead
pages: 320 start-date: 2017-10-03 end-date: 2017-11-03 grade: A
An outstanding book, another from the New York Times best sellers of 2016. It tells the narrative of some compelling characters, but the real impact of the novel comes from the mundane and horrifying logistics that must accompany something like slavery. It manages to humanize and point out absurdity without ever becoming preachy.
23. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
pages: 768 start-date: 2017-09-17 end-date: 2017-10-01 grade: A
I'm a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and didn't even realize this new book was out until a friend told me. Collaborations are sometimes iffy, but this one comes through with flying colors. It is decidedly Neal Stephenson at his/their best, with lots of quirky touches such as striking through the sometimes off-color slang with proper Victorian phrases, all nicely within the context of the novel. The authors do a convincing job explaining witchcraft with quantam mechanics and why it ended (the McGuffin of the novel). Not quite the towering Seveneves, but still an outstanding contribution to his oeuvre.
22. The Vegetarian Han Kang
pages: 192 start-date: 2017-09-05 end-date: 2017-09-15 grade: A
Another book from the New York Times best novels of 2016, this is a dark book written in a quirky, compelling style. There is nothing happy in this book; it is mostly peopled by characters who have deep psychic wounds and their foils. It covers a lot of ground about what compels people to do things that may be destructive to their lives but they cannot stop themselves. It ends with no firm conclusion, more of an impressionistic fog of troubled characters. One recurring theme that works quite well plays off the previously unnoticed ambiguity in the title–a vegetarian is someone who doesn't eat meat, but perhaps also someone who identifies too closely with vegetation as an escape. Recommended, but don't expect a happy time.
21. The Writing Life Annie Dillard
pages: 111 start-date: 2017-08-28 end-date: 2017-09-02 grade: A+
I'm finding that the odd sub-genre of books by writers about writing has some terrific works, including this one. This short book is a marvel of writing and story telling. Each metaphor offers deep insight and perception, all described in impeccable prose. The writer is clearly also a poet; she packs maximum meaning and nuance into the most compact form, which just adds to it's elegance and beauty. I can offer no higher recommendation for this book. She has some great, deep insights into writing.
The classic computer science text Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs was used for years as the introductory computer science textbook at MIT. As an experienced programmer, reading this text resonates strongly with hard-won experience–virtually every sentence caused me to sit back to ponder just how wise the advice was. I wonder if The Writing Life will have the same effect on someone who hasn't written a book? I had a strong sense of déjà vu in the parallels between the two works–in both cases, each sentence is packed with connotations that go far beyond the mere denotation of the words.
20. Change Agent Daniel Suarez
pages: 412 start-date: 2017-08-20 end-date: 2017-08-27 grade: B-
Change Agent was a return to style to Kill Decision, which is to say back to traditional potboiler science fiction. The story follows this author's general style: choose a few cutting edge science discoveries, then project into the future about the impacts they will have on, well, everything. I generally enjoyed the writing style, although the long pilgrimage in the middle seemed a little invented to string out the tail. I'm hyper sensitive to this sort of stuff, but one glaring continuity error jumped out at me: at one point, the main character professes to know the motive behind what happened to him, yet there is no way that motive would make sense to the character at that time. Anyway, a good SciFi romp.
19. Fragile as a Song Tony Levin
start-date: 2017-08-21 end-date: 2017-08-24 pages: 62 grade: A
Tony Levin is a phenomenal musician, photographer, and general renaissance man. He released this short book of poetry that illustrates just how broad his interests are. The poems here fall into mostly two camps: very sincere and bordering on sentimental (but never too far) to entirely whimsical. I thoroughly enjoyed this several book and looking for more.
18. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest: A Reader's Guide Stephen Burn
start-date: 2017-08-20 end-date: 2017-08-22 pages: 96 grade: A
I've read Infinite Jest three times now, as it's obviously one of my favorite books. So, I went into this reader's guide not expecting much fresh insight–was I ever wrong! Rather than tackle the whole thing, the author focuses on coincident dates within the narrative that only reveal themselves upon close reflection (because of the fractured time line of the novel). For example, I never realized before that the day that Hal starting secretly using drugs was also the same day Don Gately was forced into rehabilitation because of the accidental murder. It turns out there are lots of similar date collisions add even more depth to the narrative. Currently fighting the urge to take Infinite Jest off my shelf and dive in again…
start-date: 2017-08-12 end-date: 2017-08-19 pages: 286 grade: B
Reluctantly, I dragged myself into politics with this book. But, I saw an interview with the author that intrigued me, and the book did not disappoint. It's about how Bannon helped the unlikely ascension of the president, including useful insights on strategy and miscalculation from the other side. I think this book also shows possible hazards of undirected autodidacticism–sometimes even intelligent people go down rabbit holes best left unexplored. Ironically, I finished this book the day that Bannon was fired from the White House.
16. The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock David Weigel
start-date: 2017-07-18 end-date: 2017-08-10 pages: 368 grade: B
This is a brand-new rock history of my favorite era of music, and it mostly delivered. I learned a few new things, but nothing earth shattering. Living through the era, I had not realized how popular many of those bands really were. It was organized to start with Cruise to the Edge, the progressive rock cruise (I've attended all of them), so I was on the ship with the author. And, it ends with a story from NEARfest, the progressive rock festival I attended several times. So, the author certainly knows his pedigree! If you love this music, you'll love this book. If you know nothing about this music, it will baffle you.
15. Native Son Richard Wright
start-date: 2017-06-20 end-date: 2017-07-16 pages: 563 grade: A
A fantastic novel by a great novelist. This is book number 20 on the Random House Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, which I'm slowly working through–this one is a gem. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a very poor African American who commits a horrific crime, and investigates the intrinsic and extrinsic motives: a compelling combination of his personality and the culture he matured within. The writing style is sublime: each sentence has the minimum number of words to convey a visceral scene, sort of like a slightly more verbose Hemingway, but less reportery. One interesting aspect of this novel–the author describes in vivid detail what Bigger thinks throughout his crimes, yet later has Bigger try to explain those feelings and thoughts, and he cannot articulate them. I enjoyed this book thoroughly.
14. Influx Daniel Suarez
pages: 417 start-date: 2017-06-06 end-date: 2017-06-19 grade: B+
What a much better book than Suarez's previous one! Influx starts as a typical techno-thriller like his other books, but quickly goes to an unexpected place and stays there. It has homeopathic resonances with Wool and its sequels, albeit less stylized. There are still some tired tropes here (the geek and the impossibly attractive woman were destined to end up together, which is obvious from the outset. Still, a highly imaginative book with a compelling plot.
13. Kill Decision Daniel Suarez
pages: 514 state-date: 2017-05-28 end-date: 2017-06-05 grade: C+
Conflicted about this book. On the plus side: the ideas are stellar, and the author has a compelling way of creating technology mashups that seem realistic and frightening. However, it is definately potboiler SciFi, with the obvious target audience of programmers–how many books go out of their way to mention Emacs? The plot points outside the killer (literally, in this case) technology were formulaic, but overall the book is worthwhile.
12. The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker
pages: 844 start-date: 2017-04-06 end-date: 2017-05-25 grade: A+
This book has perhaps the densest prose of any book I've ever read–it seemed to last forever. Fortunately, Daniel Pinker is an outstanding writer, and reading his prose is a real joy. He provides exhaustive arguments (and I do mean exhaustive) to make all his points, and the preponderance of evidence is overwhelming. Highly recommended, but expect for this book to take a long time to read–each page is packed with information. I recently read that Bill Gates called this book the most important book he's ever read. Generally, I would be wary of hyperbole, but the case that Pinker thoroughly proves does have some long-term impacts on how we as a species approach the future.
11. The Book of Opeth The Members of Opeth
pages: 209 end-date: 2017-04-15 start-date: 2017-02-01 grade: B
A biography of the Swedish death-metal-turned-lyrical-progressive-rock band Opeth that contains a surprisingly frank look at their creative process, band member dynamics, and This is Spinal Tap moments. I was expecting a shallow rock-journalist fluff piece, but the book consists entirely of interviews with band members, interspersed with nice photography from each of the band's eras. My favorite Opeth is the post-Heritage material, and the book covers the creative decision process to radically change their sound to keep following their musical passion. Highly enjoyable and impressively frank.
10. At the Existentialist Cafe Sarah Bakewell
pages: 448 start-date: 2017-03-11 end-date: 2017-03-30 grade: B
This book purports to take the notoriously voluminous output of several existentialist philosophers and reduce it to a reasonable page count, summarizing and distinguishing along the way. Mostly, the book succeeds in this regard. This subject is necessarily obtuse because many of the prominent figures either disagreed on what it meant and/or changed their definition along the way. The root message really careens off two previous books ago: relativity. The existentialists believed that no philosophy can be understood without considering the individual first, because all their thoughts and impressions will always be relative to their experience, otherwise stated by Frederick Copleston as existence precedes essence. I enjoyed this book as a good introduction to the overall philosophical subject, the messy individuals, and how both they and their ideas evolved against the backdrop of messy 20th century events.
9. The North Water Ian McGuire
pages: 272 start-date: 2017-02-28 end-date: 2017-03-10 grade: A
What a fantastic novel! Another suggestion from the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016, this is like a gritty mixture between Moby Dick and Game of Thrones. The plot is riveting, along with lots of fascinating bear symbology. The writing style is fluid and effortless, with just enough detail to evoke scenes (sometimes vividly) with a poetic sparsity of words. This is the best novel I've read in years.
8. Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space Anna Levin
start-date: 2017-02-12 end-date: 2017-02-27 pages: 257 grade: B
Billed as a book that covers both the science of gravitational waves and the scientists who struggle to build increasingly complex mechanisms to detect this phenomenon predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The book is well written, verging on poetic in places, but the ratio of science to personality felt skewed to me. Part of the problem lies with the in-between nature of the physics. The general principle is easy to explain (and this book would have benefitted tremendously from one of the diagrams found on the previously linked Wikipedia page) but the real physics is too complex to even skim over. Thus, once the author has nicely explained the concept with a few well chosen metaphors, the rest of the book resolved to personalities and the mystery story of if/when scientists would detect the gravitational waves with their detectors. This book is an easy way to catch up on some fascinating astrophysics from the last couple of decades.
7. Serenity: Better Days Joss Whedon, et al
pages: 128 end-date: 2017-02-13 grade: C+
Volume 2 of the Serenity graphic novels. Like the first, it basically represents a short Firefly episode. A few minor character revelations, but nothing earth shattering. Neither volume really extends the TV series in meaningful ways, alas.
6. The Association of Small Bombs Karan Mahajan
pages: 288 start-date: 2017-01-27 end-date: 2017-02-08 grade: A
A fascinating book completely from left field. In an attempt to broaden my exposure and see what is considered hot in modern fiction, I added a number of books from the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2016, including this one. It did not disappoint; along the way I made 8 observations.
- the book had an unusual structure, almost like a bomb in the way story lines exploded from the initial event, which was an explosion.
- Starting the book with such a dramatic event with very little lead up sets a distinct tone.
- The author does an outstanding job of subtle foreshadowing, casually mentioning "He later regretted X" at a critical time lets the reader know subtle hints about the future.
- The author does wonderfully subtle wordplay with the title, which could also be The Associations of Small Bombs, because a number of such associations around bombs exist: the initial victims, their extended affected groups, the bomb makers, and intersections between the groups. Eventually, one of the bomb makers becomes a bomb. Many of the relationships in the book come from associations caused by bombs.
- Several characters underwent radical but believable transformations, making the question of "who is/are the protagonist(s)?" interesting.
- It has an authentic feel for India, including some intracountry issues like bigotry.
- The author does a great job, through a filmmaker character, of anthropomorphizing the bomb and its explosion–darkness followed by sudden movement in all directions.
- The author makes the point several times that small bombs are worse because the pain is more concentrated among a small number of victims. Large bombs create a lot of victims, which in turn generates media attention and corresponding government aid. However, the media and government often overlook small bombs, which intensifies the victim's family grief and coping.
An excellent book, full of interesting plot twists, a wide array of characters, transformation, and eloquent prose. Highly recommended.
5. Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories Zack Wehdon, et al
end-date: 2017-02-03 pages: 80 start-date: 2017-01-24 grade: B
Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a three-segment serial story, was the writer's strike brain child of Jack and Joss Whedon, along with a willing cast to create something truly remarkable. When I heard about it, I thought it sounded cheesy, but I didn't realize that they nailed the perfect level of cheesy and camp, an extraordinarily hard chore. I loved the mythology they created, so I was excited to see a graphic novel companion by some of the same authors. It does not disappoint. This book is a series of short comics, highlighting each of the characters, including the origin story of Dr. Horrible himself. All well done, with the same level of humor and whimsy of the blog.
4. Words without Music Philip Glass
end-date: 2017-01-26 pages: 447 start-date: 2017-01-17 grade: A
This is also a reread from last summer because I wanted to go over the music descriptions along with their creative process again. This book was even better the second time around–it is in fact one of the best autobiographies I've ever read. It covers fascinating life details of a struggling artist living in Manhattan in the 1950's and 60's in a loft with no hot water, the origins and development of his musical style and how it evolved. I suspect this book is a great contextualizer for introducing his music because it explains why things sound the way they do. Rather than force listeners to ascertain the structure and process, knowing it exists first allows for better clarity when listening to the music. No higher recommendation for this book–highly entertaining, informative, and insightful about the creative process.
3. Serenity: Those Left Behind Joss Whedon, et al.
end-date: 2017-01-20 pages: 104 grade: B-
One of several Firefly graphic novels released by Joss Whedon after the series left the air. This one is a typical Firefly episode, with each character being highly characteristic, with some mythology thrown in around the hunt for Summer. A pleasant enough graphic novel–the art is quite good, and it carries the story along nicely.rake-
2. Arrival of the Fittest Andreas Wagner
end-date: 2017-01-17 pages: 306 start-date: 2017-01-09 grade: B+
This book came to me via Amazon's long tail because I've been researching evolutionary biology for the Evolutionary Architectures book. It is about the latest advances in biology assisted by computational techniques. It is a fascinating look at how innovation happens via natural selection, and makes the argument for how the mechanisms of protein synthesis, genotype/phenotype mapping, gene regulation, and "junk" DNA all contribute to the mechanism and robustness of natural selection. While the science is fascinating, the book become repetitive because he walks through the nature of hyperspatial cubes and exponentiation three separate times, which serves to show how many avenues of innovation exists, but becomes a tad repetitive. This book also shows just how much computation has influenced biology and genetics over the last few decades.
1. Dreaming in Code Scott Rosenberg
end-date: 2017-01-08 pages: 418 start-date: 2016-12-29 grade: B
Re-reading of this book for the purposes of an upcoming conference talk, I was struck again at the futility of the slow-motion train wreck of this project, and the obvious places they wander down the wrong path. A great quote that I harvested from the book, useful to the talk:
We’ve consistently overinvested in infrastructure and design, the fruits of which won’t be realized in the next development cycle or even two—that is, not in the next six or twelve months. You pay a price for that in a loss of agility. The advice I would give is to do even more of what we’ve been doing in the last couple of years, which is to sequence the innovation, stage things, and be less ambitious. Do not build out infrastructure, like CPIA, except insofar as you need to meet the goals of the next year. I’m more and more feeling like the art here is to do agile development without losing the long-term vision—and, frankly, I didn’t even define the problem as that to start with.
Created: 2019-11-19 Tue 06:52