Reading List: 2nd Quarter 2020

This was my strangest quarter of reading in the near decade I’ve been keeping statistics. Zero business travel, zero vacation days, and a lot of real world stress conspired to make this list a Litvak kugel density word salad.

Highlights: New starts by NK Jemisin, closure from John Scalzi, two prog rock biographies (one good, one meh), and my first meltingly wonderful foray into the weird wild world of Alex Irvine.

13. “The City We Became,” sci-fi, NK Jemisin, finished April 25.

Imputing the writing timeline for this first in a new trilogy, it’s clear that it’s NK Jemisin’s love-hate-love letter to New York City. At the same time, it’s a story of unity, of identity, of strength against forces of evil frankly too weird for the average grizzled New Yorker to fathom. Which makes it perfectly timely and eventually timeless. You don’t just love her characters, you want to shake them a bit and say “Get a sense of the larger picture; get off the island (and swim back to shore)” (to quote Claudio Sanchez, about whom I also thought frequently while reading this). Eagerly awaiting the next installments, and happy that the first landed on a temporary resolution in time if not also in space.

14. “The Last Emperox,” sci-fi, John Scalzi, finished May 3.

The 1–2 punch of happy science fiction writers, with the last part of the “Collapsing Empire” trilogy. Usually Scalzi’s novels are marked by a gut punch, a reveal that they’re more love stories and reflections of his views of happiness than galactic scale warfare. “Emperox” does not disappoint on any count, but it goes a step further. There are references to his writerly friends, and the final scene makes me glad I studied Sartre in French for an entire year of high school, just to appreciate the non-violent yet utterly fitting beauty of the conclusion that is also a Scalzi hallmark.

15. “Foreskin’s Lament,” Jewish/non-fiction, Shalom Auslander, finished May 9.

Kolbo is a Judaica store in Brookline, Massachusetts with a small but well-curated book selection; for three decades of marriage it has fueled my own explorations of what it means to be Jewish in America. Auslander’s book took those learnings, heaped in heaping spoonfuls of irony, guilt, and self-loathing, channeled Philip Roth, and then pureed the ideas for several hundred pages. Angry, disturbing, hilariously funny, and yet exploring the “otherness” that comes from strict adherence to a thousand years of legal interpretation, it’s a wild ride. I finished it with a newfound appreciation for the Orthodox and better insight into what prompted Deborah Feldman to live and write “Unorthodox.”

16. “Auberon,” sci-fi, James SA Corey, finished May 10.

Novella length story set in the later Expanse universe, and a neat exploration of corruption, adherence to violent ideology (didn’t intend to draw the ideology parallel to the previous book, it just happened that way) and setting up some final drama. I feel I should read more of the side stories because they add texture to the main sequence of books.

17. “Aftershocks,” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished May 22.

The first in a new series by “Frontlines” author Marko Kloos, this time set in a six planet system that is half a decade removed from war. Kloos writes military sci-fi brilliantly; his command of physics, weapons, tactics and conveying them in prose are all first rate. While I found the “Lanky” aliens a bit odd in the second half of “Frontlines,” there are no aliens, deus-ex-machina or other plot mechanics (yet). Aside from imagining a faster than light version of the Internet and the fact that we’re still using tablets when we’ve conquered the stars, the storyline is fast paced (as always with Kloos’s writing) and the characters are uniquely human. We haven’t met the enemy yet (perhaps he is us?) and you can see the influences of George RR Martin and James SA Corey’s Expanse series in very positive reflections.

18. “Without Frontiers: The Life and Music of Peter Gabriel,” music, Daryl Easlea, finished June 3.

Not your usual fan-boy “everything he does is magic” trope, and not without a bit of UK-first posturing (the author refers to Phish as “an American cult band”), but overall a very solid treatment and exploration of how Peter Gabriel went from entitled British public school lad to world music, human rights and artistic legend. The construction of songs and sounds, and some of the backstories, make this much more interesting than a discography or a purely historical retelling of times and places. With current events in the United States, Gabriel’s music from “Biko” to “Don’t Give Up,” and his created characters — Muzo who serves as backdrop for “On The Air” and “Red Rain” for example — are delightful when treated as first class citizens in his own story.

19. “Ballastic,” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished June 7.

Good news: I’m really liking the four viewpoints of the “Palladium Wars” series. Bad news: I have to wait a year for the 3rd book in the series. With the exposition of the first book done, Kloos hits multiple-G acceleration with the storylines, and the plot thickens with stolen nukes, more clever physics, and palace intrigue. I’m building a sense of who the bad guys (or women) are, and it’s only fueling my appetite for the story.

20. “Anthropocene Rag,” sci-fi, Alex Irvine, finished June 13.

Twenty plus years ago Bill Joy wrote an article for Wired called “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us,” also known as the “grey goo” manifesto — sentient nanotech taking over the earth and foisting whatever control structures it inferred on humans. Take that as a foundational layer, add in your worst day on Twitter, the historical fiction of EL Doctorow or Lavie Tidhar, and some existential questioning and you have this book. It melted me, in so many good ways. It’s fast, furious, funny, curious, leaves a lot of threads hanging, and when you’re done you’ll say “but wait, I could use another three chapters.”

21. “All My Yesterdays,” music/biography, Steve Howe, finished June 22.

I really, truly wanted to love this book, as Steve Howe’s guitar playing has been part of my music upbringing for over 40 years, and Yes was the first band that made me go full on fan boy mode. Unfortunately, this is truly a chronology of recording dates, tours, and band formation and dissolution meetings. I was hoping for more insight into how Close to the Edge came about, or the writing process for Tales from Topographic Oceans, or the structure of “To Be Over” (one of my favorite Yes songs). It’s clear how much he was aggravated by Chris Squire’s partying and Wakeman’s overall cheekiness, as they either detracted from the on-stage performances or the ability of the “classic band” to compose. Like Neil Peart, Howe’s commitment to near perfect performance and intense, meaningful improvisation is outstanding, but that’s lost in the narrative, which veers into sidebars on his eating habits, or particular non related events; at points the book jumps around time-wise even though it’s primarily constructed as a time linear story. My copy was inscribed by Steve Howe (pre-sale) and I’ll enjoy having it in the music collection, but it was a long slog of a week of reading.

On the queue to start the summer quarter: Alix Harrow’s “The Ten Thousand Doors of January.”

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By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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