Reading List: Q1 2021
The ninth year of keeping a reading list: I like to chronicle what I’ve read and how I’ve reacted, mostly to share my thinking about my thinking. Books are listed in the order in which I’ve finished them, which may not reflect my reading order — I sometimes have two books going at once if one is more technical or business focused and I need to season it with sci-fi or fiction.
I also try to highlight why I picked up a book, or the path that led me to the author. The first quarter pool of Year Two of the Pandemic had a week of vacation (good for reading), no business travel (bad for reading), and an explosion of new authors and new topics (good for the brain).
1. “Finding Fibonacci,” math, Keith Devlin, finished January 5.
Sometimes I pick up reading material by snapping a picture of a cover or a spine in a display — in this case it was in the Princeton University Friend Engineering Center, with Devlin’s book perched next to other Princeton University Press volumes. It’s not so much a book about Fibonacci as a mathematician as an exploration of how he single-handed introduced modern Hindu-Arabic number systems to the Western world. Danny Hillis once told me that people who translate invention are critical; in this case Fibonacci enabled multi-country commerce, ledgers, audit trails and futures markets (whether insurance or forward pricing) because an oral tradition of real time calculation could be preserved in writing. Devlin recounts his search for some of Fibonacci’s original tracts on teaching written arithmetic and algebra, and paints a Renaissance-worth portrait of a forgotten math nerd.
2. “The Checklist Manifesto,” business, Atul Gawande, finished January 8.
My sister bought this for me as Gawande is her favorite non-fiction author. As someone who frequently uses lists to manage anxiety and set priorities, I found the general idea attractive. Once he uses the storyline of a WHO program to improve surgical outcomes, the individual examples fall into a fast paced narrative — this had the potential to be about as exciting as ISO-9001 training and instead it presents a cultural view of how to get people from different parts of the power hierarchy to work together.
3. “Ready Player Two,” sci-fi, Ernest Cline, finished January 16.
I was prepared for the sequel to be somewhat disappointing after the Rush-infused Easter Egg laden “Ready Player One.” While the 2nd installment takes a little while to get going, and has a few rough spots, the last third of the book is just superb, and is much more of a Scalzi-esque love story than a Rapture of the Nerds commentary on immersive reality. Cline cares about his characters, sets them up for a third book, and dips his toes in the emergent AI/life after Earth genres without becoming preachy. There are a few loose plot or conversation threads and the references to early video games and 1980s rock didn’t quite get me as much as the Rush and 70s rock references, but it was well worth the read.
4. “The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport,” sports, Grantland Rice, finished January 30.
During my work hiatus I entered a few writing contests; along the way I discovered a few narrow interest sports magazines one of which was called “Grantland,” named for the first widely popular sportswriter. I’ve had this on my Kindle for a full year and finally focused on reading this collection of essays, reprinted and re-released about half a century after its first printing. Good points: he writes about people he admires, and does not dish dirt, even when dealing in the dirtiest of sports (horse racing and boxing). Rice is responsible for half a dozen vernacular phrases including the “Four Horsemen of Notre Dame” and his prose is fast, flowing and forceful. Bad points: The book is full of racist, implicitly misogynistic and simply dated notions. In his glowing praise of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, coupled with his speculation on the future of African Americans (not his words) in sport, you wonder if he ever imagined his heroes competing on an ability-leveled playing field. I’m glad to have read it, but happier to have come through the back cover.
5. “This is How You Lose The Time War,” sci-fi, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, finished February 7.
I learned the definition of “epistolary” while reading “Time War” and found the format wonderful for interpretation, rather than straight exposition. In a future world where you can time travel and induce change through small action, warring factions volley timeline edits to effectively win their favored future. What emerges, though, is equal parts James Bond, steganography, and a sequence of sonnets lovingly relayed through things that remain time-invariant. There are Romeo and Juliet references wrapped in a tenderness tied with viciousness and it just works. One of the stranger (and that’s a highly dynamic range) books I’ve read but I enjoyed every bit of it.
6. “Stand,” biography/activism, Kathryn Bertine, finished February 14.
Blend a guidebook for activism with a diary of executing that guidebook against one of the most deeply entrenched, biased organizations in the sporting world, sprinkle personal tragedy on top and you have “Stand.” It is pure unfiltered Bertine — no quarter taken, no door left unopened and no tolerance for intolerance. Personally I was thrilled to see John Profaci feature prominently in the story, and portrayed as the good person I know.
7. “Bone Silence,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished February 24.
Part three of the Ness sisters and their romp through the far future. There is something very “Rendezvous with Rama” about the finale of the trilogy, echoing with reverberations from past civilizations and (presently) non-parsable technology. The series ends with as many questions as answers, but in a quiet and good place where the characters feel they have met a solid if not temporary conclusion. Reynolds writes truly great space opera, with characters you grow to love or hate, sensible action, and gentle reveals that sometimes turn into multi-book long cons. He delivers in all areas here — I’ll miss this universe, not really sure what the twinkly or the occupations mean, but happy to have room to read between the literal lines and think about it.
8. “Within, Without,” memoir, Iona Singleton, finished March 11 (one day detour)
Singleton takes about a year worth of emails from rock drummer Bill Rieflin (late of King Crimson, Taylor Swift, Ministry, and others) and shares them in a chronology of his late stage struggle with the effects of cancer and its treatment. It’s poignant, reading about him selling off his drums, realizing he’s played his last measures, strangely hopeful and full of lively imagery, and a subtle conveyance of extreme pain — emotional and physical. This is likely the first issue in a regular short story length issue of prose, and it sets the bar quite high.
9. “Ministry For The Future,” sci-fi/eco, Kim Stanley Robinson, finished March 12.
I’m exhausted after reading Robinson’s latest, and last, novel. He crafts a frighteningly real future, in which ecological human disasters, mass extinctions, and catastrophic failures run into the grandchild of Occupy, Ernest Shackelton, GreenPeace and Rachel Carson. What he started with New York 2140 as a potential future he reels back in half a century, extrapolated from current events and trajectories. The book is full of thought experiments, detours, dialogues, self-dialogues and slices of future life, all threaded together in a way that gives me hope while also blue-shifting the potential for human distinction.
10. “The Secret Apartment: Vet Stadium, A Surreal Memoir,” sports, Tom Garvey, finished March 14.
Easily the funniest book I’ve read in a long time, but also one that captures the essence of adult friendships, sports fueled passion, and Philadelphia in all of its quirks. Imagine if Thoreau retreated to Fenway Park, and found not only himself but the hilarious voice of a generation of fans, given their first World Series. I found myself thinking of my father, who parked guys at Monmouth Park, of my late father in law, who loved all things Philadelphia sports, of late night Rotary Club trips to Veterans Stadium to see the Mets-Phillies get rain delayed (which was the highlight of the action, involving drunk fans and the 600 level of seats), and lesser known athletes and coaches who show what it means to love a city and those who make sports happen for their fans. I’ve already purchased a few gift copies.
11. “A Desolation Called Peace,” sci-fi, Arkady Martine, finished March 16.
Sequel to “A Memory Called Empire” and just as rich in character development, exploration of the elite-vs-disenfranchised, and multiple levels of reflection of barbarism in all forms. Friendship, loyalty and love appear in ways uncommon for space operas, and while most of the threads from the opening novel are spun and respun, I’m hoping this leaves the door open for a third book. Martine’s writing is fast, fueled by an invented vocabulary and naming contexts that make sense if you’ve studied non-English, non-Romance languages, and rules of the court that spill over to the rest of her created galaxy.
12. “The Man Who Sold the World,” music biography, Peter Doggett, finished March 19.
I don’t think I ever determined what Doggett’s goal was in focusing on the “long 70s” of David Bowie’s career — the book touches on his upbringing, family structure, personal life, professional associations, and various excesses. The book presents about 200 of Bowie’s songs in the order they were composed, then accreted to vinyl discs, with a tepid exploration of their chord and tonal structure. Nowhere, though, does it pick a single theme — lyrical exploration, song structure, how Bowie’s personal and pofessional travails informed his music or even the social context of the times. Woven throughout are commentary threads that once critical, dismissive and apologetic: Bowie’s fascination with facism and the Third Reich, his use of classic blues chord structures, his sexuality and gender identity. It was a long read, and I completed it to see if it got somewhere — I learned a few things (Iggy Pop as an influence, Robert Fripp showing up on some tracks at a time when Fripp was re-calculating the Crim equation) but not even die-hard, life-long Bowie fans may straggle here.
13. “The Girl In The Road,” fiction with future twist, Monica Bryne, finished March 20.
Sometimes debut novels shock you out of your comfort zone with ideas foreign and brazen. Sometimes they introduce storytelling mechanics that make you realize why you’ll write reviews and novels. Sometimes they include cultural and social references so subtle (Lavie Tidhar’s invented Dune history book references in the Bookman series, eg) that you gallop through the next hundred pages. Bryne’s debut does all three intertwined with love, violence, passion, religion and the fervor of a hajj — or two, in opposite directions in space and time.
14. “The Code Breaker,” science biography, Walter Issacson, finished April 2.
I downloaded this career biography of Jennifer Doudna because I work in life sciences, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of CRISPR and Doudna is on J&J’s Board. I was well rewarded for what turned out to be one of the longer reads of the pre-MLB opening day year. Equal parts biography, chronicle of discovery, and essays on the ethics and morals of evolving science, Issacson’s book is a must read for anyone in the life sciences field, or who has wondered “what if” about a scientific subject. He dances through the difficult areas of scientific publishing priority, competition, patents and commercialization as well as the dense minefields of morals, ethics, eugenics while capturing the spirit, rewards and exhiliration of scientific discovery. I wasn’t sure if I’d find this plodding or just dense, and it was neither. Any story that ends with a Nobel Prize (spoiler alert) is a winner, but the path is so well described the whole book is a wonder.