Reading List: Q2 2021

At the midpoint of the year, I’ve finished 30 books, which is slightly higher than average and much more reading given that I haven’t been on a plane for business travel in over 18 months. The bulk of my spring reading was women sci-fi authors and diverse authors; features were “Project Hail Mary” (Andy Weir’s latest, it would be a superb movie) and Monica Byrne’s “The Actual Star” (I’m a Patreon supporter of hers, got an advance reader copy that completely blew my mind, and a movie adaptation would be no harder to follow than “This is Us”). The conclusion of Becky Chambers’s “Wayfarers” series was a Scalzi-esque heart punch, and a nice spectrum of socially impactful reading made this a good, invigorating wordy spring season. Read Terry Miles’s “Rabbits” if you liked the Matrix or Umberto Eco. It hurt my brain.

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15. “The City In The Middle Of The Night,” sci-fi, Charlie Jane Anders, finished April 8.

For once I read the author’s second book ahead of the first novel and now I’m eager to consume the rest of her catalog. Anders did a lot of research into what life would be like on a tidally locked planet, and the ecological stresses caused by an invasive species — in this case, human beings who presume (as always) that other life forms aren’t quite equals. There are two cities that straddle the terminator between blazing day and frozen night; both take their definition of culture to the extreme; and when the usual group of misfits and visionaries collide there is alternating hope and despair. Fun, thought provoking, and Anders’s creation of utterly complex vocabulary ranks up there with Arkady Martine’s in vying for my favorite meta-literary devices of the year.

16. “The Actual Star,” sci-fi, Monica Byrne, finished April 20.

I read a pre-release galley of the actual book of “The Actual Star” but I’m going to re-read it upon release. There are layers and layers here, from three parallel stories told 1,000 years apart to a post-capitalism, post-democratic future that veered away from panopticon creepy to “it takes a village” practicality. Objects literally drop through the timelines, as do the characters if you find the acrostic clues. There are faint echoes of Bryne’s “End of My Line” essay — who (really) are our children and how do we shape them? Who tells our stories, and is that the richer family than the biological one? What if diaspora is the normal order of the universe? Three weeks after turning the last page I’m still turning it over.

17. “All The Birds In The Sky,” sci-fi, Charlie Jane Anders, finished April 25.

A Nebula, Crawford and Locus Award winner, and predecessor to “The City In The Middle of the Night” explores love, redemption, science versus faith vs nature, and issues of loyalty graphed against all of those dimensions. While the story is painted as a “science versus magic” showdown, it’s a multi layered love story that explores where we place science and scientific thought against our emotional selves.

18. “The Galaxy and the Ground Within,” sci-fi, Becky Chambers, finished May 2.

The final book in the Wayfarers series, and one of the most fun, gentle sci-fi book series I’ve read. There’s little space opera and orbital dynamics, rather, the entire book is about gender, love, and what passes for family in the future. I was thinking of the Broadway show “Come From Away” while reading it, with Chambers’s exploration of culture and cultural bias thrown into the blender with a short-term disaster requiring strange port-fellows.

19. “Two Truths and a Lie,” fantasy novella, Sarah Pinsker, finished May 4.

Eagerly awaiting Sarah Pinsker’s next book, I downloaded this short story and found it creepily fun, in a Neil Gaiman remixed with “Catch Me If You Can” vein.

20. “A Punk Rock Future,” music/sci-fi, edited by Steve Zisson, featuring Sarah Pinsker and Erica Satifka, finished May 10

26 short stories set in a variety of futures where music and culture have sedimented and normalized, and the punk ethos runs strong in rebellion, counter-culture movements and independence. References to bands that ruled the 1980s airwaves on WPRB are strong, and I thought of MacArthur Award winner (and former DJ) Chuck Steidel frequently as he lived this lifestyle 40 years ago — discovering our origins and paths, both in the cosmos and reflected in our current music. It’s fun, it’s fast, the stories vary in length and quality as much as they do in intensity, but that’s what you want from such a broad collection.

21. “I’m Still Here,” social justice, Austin Channing Brown, finished May 16.

A sadly necessary book for current times; Brown explains in sometimes delicate, sometimes excruciatingly blunt detail what it’s like to be Black in America. What it’s like to be a Black woman in America. It’s one of the books that you read, stop, process and pick up again, and that processing led me to rethink things from speech patterns to how I explain my company’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

22. “The Burning,” history/social justice, Tim Madigan adapted for young adults by Hilary Beard, finished May 21

I had zero knowledge that the Tulsa Massacre occurred, wiping out an entire section of the city inhabited by Black families who fled the post-Civil War South. It simply didn’t exist in any version of US History, including a college level course in 1983. Beard’s adaptation pulls quotes, headline style, for emphasis that amplifies the horror and terror in the book. If you’re wondering how systemic racism survives, consider that the Tulsa massacre was 100 years ago (this week), and that was 60 years after the end of the Civil War.

23. “We Are Satellites,” sci-fi, Sarah Pinsker, finished May 24

Vague echos of Scalzi’s “Lockin” where neuro-augmentation, socialization of technology and technology as discrimination function come together in a great, fast story. This could just as easily have been written about the introduction of the iPhone and its cultural impact, but the extrapolation to explicit brain surgery and perception enhancement, and how that fails in so many modes, is frightening and thought provoking.

24. “Life…Real and imagined,” fiction, Tony Markellis, finished May 28

A book of short stories drawn from life on the road and a life of listening well (the mark of a great bass player; leave space for others to fill), Markellis recently passed away and left only the first half of this collection in print. It’s a wry look at life, at differences, at life as seen through a consistent viewpoint aimed at many different times and cultures. There are undoubtedly truthful elements unpinning each story, but it’s just hazy enough to make you wonder what Markellis imagined and what he overheard, the truth often stranger than the fiction.

25. “Project Hail Mary,” sci-fi, Andy Weir, finished June 1

Weir’s development of scientific stories is first rate. He manages to capture thrill of breakthroughs and success and the soul crushing feeling of defeat, especially in time-critical situations. His world creation for “Hail Mary” (mild spoiler) in creating an alien race so is to antithetical to human biology makes the entire story, and has you cheering for both races, yet it is ultimately a story of friendship and teamwork. I loved “The Martian” and his latest blows the airlock doors off with its risk taking, both in prose by in character.

26. “Uncanny Valley,” business, Anna Wiener, finished June 7

Two strange truths about this book: I downloaded it because I felt it would be an important view into how to be a better ally to women in the technology workplace. It ended up explaining my decision to leave the vendor side of technology, eschewing the Silicon Valley commute for something with social imperative. Without naming names of companies, people or even places, Weiner perfectly captures the zeitgeist (better than Google ever intended) of a marginalized, non-coder technology employee. The book resonated with me, not as the learning tool I expected but as a validation of a decision I made exactly 8 years ago. It’s still uncanny.

27. “A Bear, A Backpack, and Eight Crates of Vodka,” Jewish, Lev Golinkin, finished June 15

The story of a Jewish family that emigrated from Ukraine in 1990, through Lafayette, Indiana to the Princeton area, and the author’s journey of re-embracing his Jewish identity. Golinkin’s narrative of abuses, humiliation, and the degradations of seeking asylum are equally terrifying and reflective of how insular we have become as a society. Small moments, such as his receipt of a warm jacket while at a Vienna intermediate waypoint, keep surfacing as signs of hope that are magnified into Golinkin’s belief in something positive, versus living in the negative spaces of who he wasn’t — a Russian, an immigrant, a non-English speaker, a Jew.

28. “Rabbits,” sci-fi, Terry Miles, finished June 22.

Conspiracy theory meets The Matrix meets the quantum Illuminati as interpreted by Umberto Eco on a bad day. If that sounds multi-layered and strangely weird, it is, but it’s also textured and full of nuance and an anti-Matrix non-deus-ex-machina romping conclusion that makes you rethink the whole thing.

29. “Tokyo Ueno Station,” fiction, Yu Miri, finished June 25

An eerie, haunting story of a. homeless man who suffers multiple losses on multiple scales. The hero — and he is, in a story of fortitude and resiliency — becomes homeless not through a single tragic event or mental health failure but through the slow degeneration of his family, work, and lifestyle contexts. If you ever wondered what a homeless man did before taking to the streets, or what multiplicity of social and political failures made that a way of life, it’s a fascinating read.

30. “Between The World and Me,” non-fiction, Ta-Nehisi Coates, finished June 30.

Typically I discover a new author through referral, then devour all of her or his material including video interviews and podcasts. I had heard a snippet of an interview with Coates where he explained how words live within context — his wife calling him “honey” is quite different from a random stranger calling him “honey.” This book is a thorough explanation of that context of being Black in America, written as a very long set of essays for his teenaged son. If you are white, this book will make you sad, angry, and remorseful, and I frequently found myself asking “what would I do and what can I do here?”

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Hal Stern

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