Reading List: Third Quarter 2020

I read 15 books in the summer quarter, possibly a record (one of them was novella length, and one was a clunker, which kind of even out). For the first time, more than half of my reading was by women authors, and half was not science fiction. Having discovered Alix Harrow, Sarah Pinsker, Hank Green, and an old pre-Culture Iain Banks, it was one of the best non-summer summers ever, and mentally cemented the value of sitting quietly with a good book and good coffee (or in the case of my Atlantic City beach reading, a pepper and egg from White House Subs and a bag of biscotti ends from Formica Brothers)

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22. “Ten Thousand Doors of January,” sci-fi/fantasy, Alix E Harrow, finished July 1.

If you love words and their power, you’ll appreciate the layering and subtlety of Harrow’s book; if you think about cultural appropriation and disruption then you’ll revel at the storylines that literally wind their way through worlds. At its heart, it’s a love story and a family story, but it’s also about discovery and confidence as many “through the portal” tales are. Through whatever lens you focus the book, though, it’s elegantly crafted and couples the right amount of exposition with the slow reveal and “I think I know where this is going” twists that make you want to race through the book and then rue the speedy decision.

23. “Days of Awe,” fiction, AM Homes, finished July 5

I was introduced to Homes through a Princeton Alumni magazine profile piece (see my January reading snippets) and generally liked “May We Be Forgiven” but this collection of short stories went in some random directions. Generally, I like random, as it’s what attracts me to science and speculative fiction, but the recurring sadness, dysfunction and selfishness in these stories left me wishing for at least a hopeful set of endings.

24. “King Of Russia,” sports, Dave King, finished July 12

I’m partial to books written by coaches that give insight into their motivations, teaching techniques and general sense of how to maintain order in a mildly chaotic world. Dave King takes that to an exponentially large scale as he tackles the head coaching spot for a Russian League (KHL) hockey team, 15 years ago, in the infancy of the league’s appeal to NHL-calibre athletes. We meet a young Evgeni Malkin (as himself) and some NHL stalwarts, a year after the NHL lockout that sent a number of marquee name players to the KHL. King captures the weirdness of being in a foreign country for an extended period, the similarities of hockey locker rooms globally, and how he chose broad motivational and narrowly personal techniques to take his team to the KHL equivalent of the NHL Conference Finals.

25. “Weird,” non-fiction, Olga Khazan, finished July 16

Suggested to me by a former manager who proclaimed to run the tech equivalent of “The Island of Misfit Toys,” this was a wonderfully rich exploration of what it means to feel distanced or different, and how to deal with it. Nearly every emotion I felt as an slightly out of place non-pretty student at Princeton, as a new engineer in the depths of the USENIX community, and as an album oriented rock listener immersing himself in early punk radio is explored and turned over and brightened. I took so many things out of this book that were affirming about weirdness and feeling weird, in a weirdly good way.

26. “The Relentless Moon,” historical sci-fi, Mary Robinette Kowal, finished July 19

The “Lady Astronaut” series is Kowal’s re-imagining of the space race, versus a killer asteroid, with gender politics, pandemics, anarchy, protests, and subterfuge. The novel picks up two minor characters from the previous novels and pulls them front and center in a space opera that reads like an Earthbound spy thriller. It’s alternately funny, pulse-quickening, hopeful and insightful, all done with strong women in strong roles in a story that mirrors our current times and tensions.

27. “Or What You Will,” fantasy, Jo Walton, finished August 3.

I adore Jo Walton’s writing, richly saturated in the canons of actual history, Great Works, and alternative history. “Or What You Will” is a Miles Davis worthy vamp on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that also explores death, immortality, legacy and synthetic family context (strangely enough, I’m reading Elizabeth Becker’s “Summer Tour” about my own synthetic Phish family of the warmer months, made richer by having exploring Walton’s world first). If you ever had an imaginary friend, or longed to write a friend into a book, or loved a place and a time so much that you would perform wonders of world creation around it (see: Phish tour, Atlantic City, and Long Beach Island in my life) then you’ll love this, a multi-voiced chorus on all themes that ends with a flourish and a smile.

28. “Summer Tour,” fiction/music, Elizabeth Beck, finished August 6

While I’m thoroughly lamenting not having a Phish tour on which to embark this summer, Beck’s book brought the zaniness, the closeness, the musically and physically insane things together in a tale of endless summer love that is just right. Up there with Bruce Novotny’s “Tales of an Endless Summer” this book reminds you of what it was to be young, in love, and searching for the ultimate chord, in life or on stage. It’s not heady stuff, except it is, if you know where to find the Katy Tur level Phish culture references.

29. “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (Carls Book 1),” sci-fi, Hank Green, finished August 11.

At once a send up of our real time, influence and social media driven lives and the danger of monoculturalism, as well as an exploration of what a real galvanizing moment for humanity might be — as if climate change, pandemic, and wealth concentration weren’t table stakes. There are parts that feel like Ready Player One, and parts that are Philip K Dick level hair raising, and parts that feel like a treatise on imposter syndrome. No matter what side of any current debate you’re on, it’s a fascinating and fun read; the giant robot overlords are less Pacific Rim and more Childhood’s End, unless they’re not (that’s the sequel).

30. “Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and Tina,” music, Chris Frantz, finished August 14.

I’ve been on something of a Talking Heads kick for the past few years, ranging from the occasional Phish cover to seeing David Byrne’s American Utopia, and I’ve also been trying to read as many music biographies as I can to get a sense of how songs I love were created. Frantz delivers in all measures — he explores the dynamics of Talking Heads, life with the ghosts of David Byrne, recording, writing, and a New York City that was not about investment bankers and sports stars but gritty artists and musicians pouring the foundation (with drugs, booze, concrete and even harder rock) for the next half century of culture. Many times, I found myself thinking of Cruella de Vil, “a friend from (art) school” when reading of the way in which Talking Heads dynamics played out, and at others I found myself firmly resonating with David Byrne’s position somewhere on the less neurotypical spectrum. But above all else, this is a love story, four decades of the one of the funkiest rhythm sections from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, without the usual rock star excesses — no divorces, no children out of wedlock, no cars in swimming pools. Frantz’s own detoxification gets all of three sentences because his autobiography is really more love songs about buildings and food.

31. “A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (Carls Book 2)” sci-fi, Hank Green, finished August 15.

(Note: I didn’t finish this in one day, I interleaved Frantz’s hardcover book and the Kindle version of Green’s books based on reading inside or outside). A true deus-ex-machina revival of the five main characters from “Remarkable Thing,” finally exploring what the Carls were, and how humanity started circling the toilet drain. Instead of relying on heavy-handed miracles, though, Green takes the idea of a helping friendly book to almost humorous extremes, and to good effect. If you thought “The Circle” was creepy, or if you’re wondering about the line between perversely accurate recommendations and mind control, dive in. This was full of twisty little passages, not all alike, but it ends in five good places.

32. “The Ox,” biography/music, Paul Rees, finished August 23.

Completing the four corners of all of The Who biographies, the John Entwisetle book felt like the Keith Moon biography reading guide and a counterpoint to both Townsend and Daltrey’s stories. Related in the third person, it was a bit dry, and more of a chronology than an exploration of his bass playing, his composition influences, even his tone. Entwistle followed the Moon path of self destructive behavior, although with less outrageous stage presence. His predilections for collecting, for shopping, for outrageous clothes are touched on, but not deeply explored.

33. “By Force Alone,” fantasy (kind of), Lavie Tidhar, finished September 3.

How many variations are there on Arthurian legend? How about the one where Lancelot is a kung fu master from Jerusalem, Arthur and the knights are a Middle Ages Mafia, and England itself is a forgotten Roman Empire backwater not yet populated with Anglo-Saxons? Throw in some requisite sci-fi alternative reality moments, a fair bit of standard fantasy base for wizards and fairies and mer-people, and set it at a blistering pace. I’ve loved the way Tidhar blends the familiar and the truly weird, and he doesn’t disappoint here. As I was reading, I was thinking of the Broadway production of “Camelot” and how an adaptation of “By Force Alone” would be the perfect new-New York gritty, dirty, survivalist play that off-off-Broadway will need.

34. “A Song For A New Day,” music/fiction, Sarah Pinsker, finished September 6.

This book is amazing on about six different levels. It’s set in a post-plague, post-domestic terrorist America where large gatherings are illegal and the arts are dying. Considering it was released in 2019, it’s not so much prescient as it is a logical, painful extrusion of where we were in 2018, following the lines going south, to a predictable future. The protagonist — a gay ex-Orthodox Jewish woman who is just starting a Four Non Blondes musical ascension, only to find she has played the last known live concert before the revocation of convocation. What follows is a story about love, song writing, big tech, social isolation, and how music is the antidote for many of our ills, predicted and real and remembered. I’ve been riding a crescendo of great new authors and books and Pinsker’s book left me smiling for a week.

35. “Espedair Street,” music fiction, Iain Banks, finished September 12.

I consumed all of Banks’ “Culture” series of space operas, and they were chock full of snark, humor and fast paced writing. After making my way through some dense musician biographies, I discovered this one of Banks’ earlier, pre-sci fi works that is based on an amalgam of Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Marillion. It’s mildly heartwarming (as much as anything can be when infused with Scottish brogue transliteration and a palpable sense of permanent dampness in the north, very “Synchronicity” in its timbre). It’s fun, it’s both a send-up of Led Zeppelin and The Who while also touching on Yes, Floyd and maybe even Toto.

36. “A Memory Called Empire,” sci fi, Arkady Martine, finished September 27.

Take a solid, staid space opera deep in the mental gravity well of a literal planetary palace, modulate it with a naming scheme bordering on Ionescu-level absurd, and convey in public oration phrased in dense poetry. Add the inverse of favored Western history tropes: send ups of the British Monarchy, the Russian Czars, and the European “discovery” of Latin America. Sprinkle some potentially adverse AI behavior and a killer alien fleet (that had both better feature centrally in the sequel due out next spring!) and the focus on grammar, memory, lineage and culture is just superb. Martine’s debut novel won the 2020 Hugo Award and as soon as I finished it I pre-ordered the sequel.

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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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