Reading List: First Quarter 2020

Hal Stern
6 min readMar 30, 2020

I’ve kept reading lists for several years. Writing short summaries every week and a half keeps the keyboard muscle memory fresh; I’m often asked for recommendations so I annotate these by theme; the lists are another way to mark time as mid-life and now Corona virus chip away at statutory calendar milestones.

Here is the first quarter of 2020, in book report form, a dozen volumes that benefitted from a week of vacation but suffered from a reduction in business travel and its associated reading windows.

1. “The Bookman History,” Lavie Tidhar, sci-fi/alternative history, finished January 3.

Tidhar writes about places and times that you think you’ve inhabited physically or mentally, then he twists time and space so you’re left wondering how you ended up in this eerie, borderline creepy state. The steampunk, somewhat technically advanced England of “Bookman” feels like Neal Stephenson’s “Diamond Age” until you find out the British Monarchy are extraterrestrial lizards, passing strange on the way to shift-caps lock-alt reality. It’s a superbly crafted, mutually reflective story about us and them and otherness, told with the density of a Talmudic text. A description of books on a musty shelf include the sidelong glance at “Dune” through “My Father’s House” by Princess Irulan, and at that moment I was thoroughly infatuated.

2. “Camera Obscura,” Lavie Tidhar, sci-fi/alternative history, finished January 13.

Part two of the Bookman series, taking place a few years (perhaps) after the first book, and romping through France and what should be America, “Camera Obscura” builds on the weird and winding world. It’s a bit more disturbing and graphic than “Bookman” but is bound more tightly with fewer jump cuts in setting and plot.

3. “Recursion,” Blake Crouch, sci-fi, finished January 19.

Crouch’s books deal with some classic science fiction tropes in mildly new ways — in this case, the crossover between memory and time, quantum states and consciousness. He veers into ethical areas, political, moral and sometimes philosophical, but the book remains fast paced without getting preachy. Crouch writes good fiction; he tells a story across multiple timelines without losing focus. That said, I still give his science a solid “B” (compared to “The Expanse” where the physics are perfect and the people are flawed) but the minor defects are spackled over by his exploration of how memories connect us.

4. “The Great Game,” Lavie Tidhar, sci-fi/alternative history, finished January 21.

The conclusion of the Bookman histories, and well worth reading to the finish. I was thinking of Jo Walton’s “Among Others” for its vast reference of science fiction as highly impactful literature, and then Tidhar takes this to a new level where the authors themselves come alive as actors in the novel. Imagine the backstory of “Wicked” blended with a very timely send up of the British monarchy (here embodied in sentient, space faring lizards) and it gets wilder from there.

5. “May We Be Forgiven,” AM Homes, fiction, finished January 22.

I discovered AM Homes through a profile in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (she’s teaching creative writing at Princeton), and decided to dive into the deep end. Her fiction is violent, intense, disturbing yet quite relatable. I was reading a chronicle of middle age, but distorted and phase shifted and amplified to 11. At other moments, she captured the dynamics of a neurotic Jewish family across three generations perfectly. She packs a huge number of ideas into a dense book, from love and loss and family structure to our personal passions that blind us to larger opportunities.

6. “Agency,” William Gibson, sci-fi, finished January 24

Gibson’s storytelling has become more nuanced, more indirect and more carefully crafted since the Sprawl trilogy. While touching on the future of culture, economics and power hierarchy, he picks up on ideas introduced in The Peripheral to examine the butterfly effect on world events, influenced not by insects but by effective human-machine intelligence interplay — bugs in some sense of perfection of software agency, if you will. He remains unique in his ability to cast doubt, despair and shadows over our future, only to shine an LED flashlight of hope where you least expect it. And phrases like “soldering iron stigmata” set the hook deep — how else do you describe the hardware hacker’s lair in just three words?

7. “Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey Through Rural North Dakota,” Chuck Klosterman, music, finished February 3.

I habitually discover things ten years later than I should; this is a confluence of Amazon recommendations, friends’ recommendations and swimming in a sea of cultural references that is moving past me faster than I paddle. Attempting to solve the Navier-Stokes equations for this information flow is pointless. I just end up reading books that are a decade or two past their release, and sometimes past their cultural sell-by date, and find I still enjoy them. I’m not sure what the common sentiment about Chuck Klosterman is; his writing is at times brilliant and at others hideously dated in its views. “Fargo Rock City” is a now 20 year old collection of essays about metal — glam metal, heavy metal, hair metal, and completely unnecessary use of diacritical marks that would make Accenture’s logo nerds squee. The central tenet of the book, I think, is one that I loved learning in 7th grade music class — you can like bad music, and there’s good music you won’t like. Much of the book, then, is Klosterman’s apology for liking bad music. What ensues is partial hilarity, partial self-examination, and a surgical dissection of some inherent wrongness that gives credence to what Mr. Spangler tossed out as an aside 45 years ago, when I was just learning about Queen, Yes and Rush (bands given their due credit in his essays).

8. “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches,” Tyler Kepner, sports, finished February 17.

I’ll bite on a slider of a baseball book that goes beyond the swing-and-miss biography. Kepner hits a ground rule double with this one — it truthfully is a baseball history, incredibly well researched and full of first hand anecdotes. It’s also a baseball history, so it can be as dry as a July afternoon in Citizens Bank Park, without any seasonal, game or player development drama. I appreciated the history of pitching, and the variety of mechanics explained without resorting to tensor physics and Navier-Stokes equations for air flow around the ball.

9. “Bone Silence,” Alastair Reynolds, sci-fi, finished March 3.

The third book in the “Revenger” series, Reynolds picks up his tale of space pirates, ancient and future civilizations, and injects a bit of human philosophy into the mix. He makes you either love or hate his characters without pages of exposition, and the story has the usual twists and turns (although one of them is a bit too easily guessed). Checking in around 600 paperback pages, this is another hefty but exhilarating burn through the future Solar System.

10. “What To Do About The Solomons?”, Jewish fiction, Bethany Ball, finished March 10.

Sort of “All Families Are Psychotic” set against the backdrop of over the top LA and the communist kibbutzim of pioneer-era Israel. Yes, it’s weird and the story unfolds non-linearly, and you learn about the characters you way you would from a too-drunk uncle at a bar mitzvah, but that kind of makes it work as well. I enjoyed the smattering of colloquial Hebrew throughout, the use of the foreign term to describe something we’d immediately associate as an American (or at least native Israeli) behavior. It’s entertaining, and maybe a bit of commentary on our voyeuristic times, and Ball doesn’t extend this longer than needed to get to a moment of family joy.

11. “Whisteblower,” business, Susan Fowler, finished March 15.

A remarkable view into the Silicon Valley “bro” culture, into greed over morals, and bravery. There were times I clenched when reading her accounts of work and educational experiences, and others that provide a glimpse into how cult-like leadership leads to mystifying behaviors. Highly recommended, and speaks to the difference between diversity and inclusion.

12. “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” Jewish fiction, Boris Fishman, finished March 29.

If you read this as a treatise on Russian immigrants and their varied experiences in America, it’s good — it informs what some of may friends and acquaintances have seen first hand, and is perhaps a century phase shifted view of how my grandparents were slowly integrated into New Jersey. Written from the perspective of the mother of an adopted boy, though, it felt oddly paced. Some of Fishman’s phrasing is wonderful, some of it plodding. What I found displacing were the multiple speeds and directions — it was an episode of Seinfeld but with the titillation of a daytime soap opera, rather than a wry pronouncement on immigrant-in-America status updates. This was the second book I browsed at Kolbo in Brookline, only to buy the Kindle version, and I think I’m happier I didn’t schlep the book back on the plane, but feel Kolbo is owed props for their curation.



Hal Stern

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