Reading Lists: 2013 in Review

The first installment in about nine years of reading lists, many of which I kept to answer “What do you read” and “Where do you come up with those crazy ideas” when posed as valid and interested questions. This 2013 edition has been edited with bit of 2020 edited [so noted]. I provide author and title only; find these at your favorite bookseller (online or real world) as there are no advertising or commissionable links below.

Topics for 2013: music, Neal Stephenson, lots of Iain Banks, first Jane Leavy sightings, quite a few Doctorow, Scalzi and Stross references, and a bit more author breadth.

31. “The Circle,” techno-drama, Dave Eggers, finished December 23.

This is the first book that I’ve picked up where my wife recognized the author (“Zeitoun” among other titles). A dozen pages in and it’s creepy enough. If Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow had a love child book, with Bruce Schneier doing color commentary, this might be it. It’s getting a lot of attention in the nerd circles, for good reason. Eggers claims it’s not about Google (like “JPod” wasn’t about Microsoft) but there are strains of Google, Facebook, and even Oracle in the viral mix. It’s not a happy book; it’s not an engineering book; it is an important book. Gave me the willies, but is now on the required reading list for anyone dealing with privacy, security and big data.

30. “Analog Days,” music history/science, Trevor Pinch, finished December 13.

Based on a friend’s recommendation, I picked up the paperback edition to learn more about the history of the Moog synthesizer (to go along with my t-shirt featuring the Moog ladder filter patent). I distinctly remember sitting in the car with my dad, probably around 1974 or so, when he had read the articles (probably in Popular Mechanics or Popular Electronics, not the mainstream media) about the “Moog synthesizer” and we ended up discussing whether it was a cool thing, a bad thing, or just a funny name. But that moment also drove me to want to dig more deeply into things outside of my “usual” sphere of influence (my father was a practicing dentist at the time, not a keyboard player or electrical engineer). Been fascinated since, with a lot of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Rick Wakeman driven Moog music to fuel the interest. The book is dense but informative, and fills in the context that led to that direction-setting car ride. It covers ground all around the Moog center, including competitors, sales and marketing, and the rise of electronic music (it’s not a description of ladder filters and oscillator design, if that’s what you’re seeking), so it can venture into dry land as well as wet sound. Slow, but worthwhile read.

29. “Consider Phlebas,” sci-fi, Iain Banks, finished November 24.

After loving “Hydrogen Sonata” and Banks’ idea of a quirky, irreverent “Culture” of post-humanity that is effectively the transitive closure of hipsterism, I decided to go back to the original material. This one moves and has creatively imagined characters, species and settings.

28. “Bruce,” music, Peter Ames Carlin, finished November 10.

Having read the wild tales of Clarence Clemmons, and having been a Springsteen fan since I had his English textbook in 10th grade (seriously, those little lines in the back showing previous students who had been assigned the book said “B Springsteen” and of course I just returned it like the good little dweeb), I felt like this was on my required reading syllabus for the year. What I didn’t expect is how many times I’d put the book down to think about something written, how it reflected my own thoughts about music, and now that I have a kid starting out in the music business, how I might want to modulate my own attitudes and values. The little backstories (as in how Southside Johnny earned his moniker) are delightful without venturing into kiss-and-tell territory. It took me almost a month to finish it (it’s not all that long, just densely written and rich) but it’s definitely in my top five favorite books of the year.

27. “The Hydrogen Sonata,” sci-fi, Iain Banks, finished October 13th.

I had not read Iain Banks at all, and he came highly recommended from a friend who rarely ventures into the sci-fi space (but is among my best-read friends in science, technology and business). So the referral carried a lot of weight, and having finished “Hydrogen Sonata” just after Banks’ premature death, I feel like someone who discovered the Beatles after they broke up. I’m eager to go back and read more of his “Culture” universe, because he does for snarky, semi-(British)-cultured AIs what Charles Stross does injecting bureaucracy into James Bond fantasies. It’s funny, it’s unexpected and it works.

26. “Tesseracts 11,” sci/fi anthology, multiple authors, edited by Cory Doctorow, finished September 29th.

A nice collection of Canadian speculative fiction. It’s a larger form factor version of Asimov’s, but you can sense a bit of Doctorow’s influence on this one. No aliens, no space opera, just a sneak peak into the possible future, creepy as it may be in multiple tales.

25. “Over Time,” sports/biography, Frank DeFord, finished September 5th.

Given to me as a “you should read this” recommendation, in equal part because it’s by a Princeton alum and a noted sports writer, I found the first few chapters dense and not quite funny enough. But it grew on me, and by the 7th inning stretch, Deford’s description of his time with Arthur Ashe, it was worth the journey. He turns a phrase and makes self-referential jokes with equal panache, and it was a good counter balance to Jane Leavy’s “Squeeze Play.” [2020 comment: With Deford’s passing, this is a great glimpse into what is increasingly a weaker art of sportscasting, where soundbites and video forwards seem to carry more weight than knowing the sport and its contexts]

24. “The Shambling Guide To New York City,” fantasy, Mur Lafferty, Finished August 12.

Based on the recommendations of the Donner party and Cory Doctorow, I started on this one, although I usually eschew the vampire/zombie genre. Lafferty’s writing is funny and fast-paced; this feels more like a Stross novel with occasional zombie glances and mentally, I keep associating the protagonist Zoe with her name- and occupation-sake from “House of Cards” which is half the fun of reading.

23. “Pitching In The Promised Land,” baseball/Israel, Aaron Pribble, Finished August 1.

Having seen one game of the one-season Israel Baseball League, I can safely vouch for the accuracy of Pribble’s book from a player and fan perspective. While he could have used this memoir to discuss the cultural dissonance faced by all of the players, and drawn parallels to issues Israel faced in integrating its Eastern African immigrants, Pribble instead descends into whining about the Palestinian conflict and comes off as under-educated about the historical and social context. It’s a fair book and I was hoping this would be one that I’d give out as the default sports-Jewish-themed gift this holiday season, but like Pribble’s pitching arm it’s not making the final cut.

22. “Neptune’s Brood,” sci-fi, Charles Stross, Finished July 26.

I adore Charles Stross and his ability to make science fiction, and space opera in particular, much less politically and religiously charged and much more like an ultra nerdy James Bond story. He succeeds with “Neptune’s Brood,” set with some of the same context as “Saturn’s Children” but this story gallops along and appeals to the quant nerds, the gravitational nerds or anyone else who gravitates to the Stross-Scalzi-Doctorow core. A quick, fun book.

21. “The International Bank of Bob,” finance, Bob Harris, Finished July 20.

Reading this book I was reminded all over again why I joined Kiva and projects like our United Jewish Federation Peoplehood cohort: to empower small-scale businesses like those that bootstrapped my family after they emigrated to the States. It’s equal parts financial insight, travelogue (by an expert travel writer) and peek into what life is really like on $3 a day for the whole family.

20. “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane,” fantasy, Neil Gaiman, Finished July 2.

I’m not really sure how to describe Neil Gaiman’s writing — lyrical, emotional, frightening. If William Gibson is the cyberpunk narrator of Papa Legba, then Gaiman is his British poet. I finished it in under three nights — it’s that good, as is everything of Gaiman’s I’ve read.

20. “Love Goes To Buildings On Fire,” music, Will Hermes, picked up and put down June 30-July 1.

I had such high hopes for this musical tour of the roots of the punk movement in New York, but it’s more scattershot than a freshman college DJ’s first show. I may revisit it.

19. “Look Me In The Eye,” biography, John Elder Robinson, Finished June 30.

The second book about life on the autism spectrum that I’ve read this year; this one is autobiographical. It seems only mildly edited so you can pick up on the cadence of Robison’s thoughts. Coach Digs recommended this when I told him I was reading Ace Frehley’s autobiography (much earlier in hockey season), as Robison was the guitar tech who developed the smoking, flaming, rocket shooting guitars for KISS’s lead man. Highly recommended, as the current birth rate of kids somewhere on the autism spectrum is about 1 in 150 — you’re very likely to end up going to school with, working with or traveling next to someone who shares Robinson’s issues with social interactions.

18. “Pacific Edge: Three Californias,” science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, Finished June 23.

Possibly my favorite of the trilogy, both because I could see where Cory Doctorow got some of the inspirations for “Down and Out” and because it captures the political constraints that re-enter any utopia that was intended to remove them in a rich, “future present” story.

17. “The Gold Coast: Three Californias,” science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, Finished June 16.

Future dystopia novels are fun because you find little clues as to how the timeline has evolved from now to then; multiple dystopia novels written serially by the same author show how the author’s breadth and depth have evolved over longer times and distances. Completely different from “Wild Shore” complete with its own vernacular; the tectonic plates around LA shifted violently along Cold War fault lines. I read this one about twice as quickly as the first in the trilogy; maybe it was the obscure “Yessongs” reference or the fact that I felt like I was reading the first novel dismissive of future hipsters; either way it was a fun read. Interesting how Robinson interpolated some trends (like video and hipsterism) and yet missed things like the cell phone and the denouement of the Cold War. But both of those hits and misses just add anxiety to an already intentionally fast paced (compared to “Wild Shore”) story.

16. “The Wild Shore: Three Californias,” science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, Finished June 8.

Cory Doctorow wrote that “Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom” was inspired by this trilogy, and decided to pick it up since I found “2312” entertaining and have enjoyed Robinson’s stories in Asimov’s. The story moves, and while some of its 1980s writing context shows through, the characters develop and breathe. Read carefully and you find the literary grandparents of kids who show up in Doctorow’s “Homeland” and “Little Brother” although they’ve been splashed by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Ishihara’s “The Japan That Can Say No”

15. “The Human Division,” John Scalzi, science fiction, Finished May 31.

Scalzi is on my “immediate read upon release” list, along with Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. This was originally done as a series of 13 single-chapter stories that are threaded together as the next installment in the “Old Man’s War” world. It’s a fun read, and the fact that it was written to be either standalone or in “Mega Mega Scalzi” mode doesn’t impair the pacing or stories at all. Somehow, Scalzi continues to make space opera humorous, and although this book is missing the classic “heart punch” I think it only tees up another book. Not quite “Redshirts”, but on jocularity par with “Judge Sn Goes Golfing.”

14. “Father’s Day,” Buzz Bissinger, biography/fatherhood, Finished May 18.

Right up with Jack Falla and Roy MacGregor sits Buzz Bissinger on my favorite bookshelf of favored sports writers. Bissinger turns the thousand watt bulb on himself and his relationship with his autistics son. I’m only one-fifth into it but I’m fascinated. His prose reads like the liturgy of a sports fan: “any pain is tolerable if love is involved” is a reference to Dartmouth’s (losing) football team. This is easily one of the best books on parenting, and fatherhood, ever. It ranks with Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions” and it makes you appreciate the wonders that are your own children so much. Buy it, read it, give it as a gift, re-read it.

13. “Incompleteness,” Rebecca Goldstein, math/biography, Finished May 12.

I read Goldstein’s “Mind-Body Problem” at the suggestion of good friend Pep years ago, and hadn’t thought much about her as an author until (surprise!) she had a piece in the “Jewish Jocks” anthology. So when you take a writer whose style I like, with a favorite topic (intractable computing problems) and a story that is at least partially set in Tiger Town, it’s got my name on the library slip inside the back cover. This was a difficult read, and much less about the theorem and its impact on mathematics, logic and computer science than about the Vienna Circle, Godel’s isolation as a mildly eccentric genius, and the mathematical historical context. Godel’s work opened the door to the study of logic that is recursive and self-referential; Goldstein’s repeated use of “prolix” is reflective.

12. “98% Funky Stuff,” Maceo Parker, music/biography, Finished April 23

Maceo Parker blows the meanest saxophone on the planet. The title comes from a spoken intro he uses at shows: “This is 2% jazz, 98% funky stuff.” It’s a quick read and a nice glimpse into life on the road with the late, great James Brown. Nothing too heretical or out of bounds, and no real insights into composition or motivation other than Maceo likes to make people happy.

11. “Squeeze Play,” Jane Leavy, sports fiction/baseball, Finished April 15.

I bought this after reading Leavy’s post-”Koufax” contribution to the “Jewish Jocks” anthology I finished earlier in the year. It pre-dates “Art of Fielding” by two decades and was called the best baseball fiction book (of its time). It’s dated and somewhat predictable, and I was most intrigued by how baseball and baseball writers are portrayed as equally sexist and slovenly. It’s fiction but fiction rooted in fact, and I doubt the baseball locker room (or sports desk) has changed much in that time span, although the technology is better. A fair read, but not movie material. [2020 comment: I’ve now read all four of Leavy’s baseball books, and while this one is different, it’s an important part of her “cycle” through the sport. It’s fun, it’s much less serious than Koufax, Mantle or Ruth, but it shows a depth and side of her writing that makes you appreciate her love of America’s pastime even more]

10. “The Mongoliad: Book Three,” Neal Stephenson and others, historical fiction, Finished April 7 (Central European Time)

A rousing finish and I found myself accelerating through the last 500 pages of the nearly 700 page conclusion to the series. This was a surprisingly fun read, despite being heavy on the sword and spear fighting details. If you can imagine a well-written treatment of a kung fu movie, with as much emphasis on loyalty and cathartic fight scenes, this is it. [2020 comment: I fear this is the book that made Stephenson think he could write just about anything, and have it go to print with de minimus editing. It’s overly long]

9. “The Mongoliad: Book Two,” Neal Stephenson and others,historical fiction, Finished March 29.

The middle volume of a trilogy is usually the one to make or break it; you either hang up before the midpoint or start to see how the storylines may converge. You can see a bit of Stephenson’s influence in Book Two; the storytelling goes into much more detail and the sub plots thicken accordingly.

8. “The Mongoliad: Book One,” Neal Stephenson and others, historical fiction, Finished March 15.

Took me two tries to get into, but it reads like Neal Stephenson researched The Hobbit without the need to invent Elvish. Good historical fiction, and now that I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Ukraine some of historical incidents are more meaningful. Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson on the cover immediately catch my eye; their story started as an exercise in serial work and an agile-like audience sensing; it’s since been edited and published as three books of increasing length.

7. “Jewish Jocks,” anthology, Jewish/Sports, Finished February 26.

Not playing to the “light reading” meme, this is a wonderful collection of stories by writers well versed in sports and other topics. From the legacy of Jewish boxers to the requisite Howard Cosell story to Jane Leavey’s followup to her Sandy Koufax biography, there’s enough variety and insight here to make this a serious read instead of a novelty gift.

6. “Homeland,” Cory Doctorow, Politics/Science Fiction, Finished February 11.

When a new book comes out by {Doctorow, Stross, Scalzi, Gibson, Stephenson} I tend to Control-Z on everything else and pick it up. The sequel to “Little Brother” still has me thinking about the ending, 12 hours after finishing it and on top of a good sleep, because it’s that thought-provoking and action-spurring. No matter how you voted in the last election (in any country) or whether you’re technically a “Young Adult” (target audience) or chronologically much older, get it and read it and thoroughly digest each of the afterwords, especially the words of Aaron Schwarz.

5. “Who I Am,” Pete Townsend, Biography/Music, Finished January 24.

Obviously my reading pace slows post-vacation, further bound by the constraints of work, work travel, and recovering from whatever winter viruses invaded my home. That said, two and a half weeks of chapter-at-a-time reading of “Who I Am” was very well spent. Coming in over 500 pages long, I expected Townshend’s book to be full of stories, and he doesn’t disappoint. This isn’t an expose of The Who as much as it’s an exploration of his own demons, fears, and creative muses. While I often find autobiographies overly descriptive of minor incidents and light on motivation, “Who I Am” reads more like a life coaching manual for musicians.

4. “Fountain of Age”, Nancy Kress, Sci-Fi, Finished January 7.

A collection of short stories bound together not by time but by age and memory, and how our use of one affects the other. Haunting, sometimes troubling, vaguely spiritual, always gnawing at the question of what makes us human and just how far we can tease that strand of DNA. Picked this one up as an Amazon recommendation after buying her latest novel, and recognized “The Erdmann Nexus” (the collection’s lead story) from an issue of Asimov’s a few years back. The title story alone is worth the purchase price.

3. “Why I Left Goldman Sachs,” Greg Smith, Biography/Finance, Finished January 4.

Smith’s op-ed piece in the New York Times spoke to me, offering the abstract of a eulogy both for my friend George (who had a spectacular career at Bear Stearns, pre-collapse) and the level of integrity he represented. The book fills in the details and is worth the read, although I’d highly recommend pairing it with “Assholes: A Theory” (to fully grok the sense of entitlement that rankles through the last third of the book) and “A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers” (explaining what happened at Lehman, and the sub-cultural greed that fuels and re-inforces such behaviors).

2. “Ready Player One,” Ernest Cline, Sci-Fi, Finished January 2.

Bought this on a recommendation from the ever-popular Squeech based on its infusion of Rush references and 80s gamer culture. While I’m not a gamer — my early 80s college diversions redirected my laundry quarters in pinball machines — I adored enough of the 80s music, TV, and nascent videogame industry to really appreciate the extra life that Cline brings to this one. It’s a fast read, and full of just enough surprises and turns to keep you turning pages. A book about Easter Eggs is full of its own Easter Eggs, for example a nod to “Middletown Dreams,” a lesser-known Rush song from the mid-80s, is typical and fits perfectly into the prose. [2020 comment: With Neil Peart’s passing in January 2020, this seems more relevant; if Neil were to co-author a sci-fi book that captured the spirit of 2112 a few decades after penning the original, I think this would be representative]

1. “No Regrets”, Ace Frehley, Music, Finished December 28, but based on my vacation calendar the that was the first day accrued to 2013.

Not the meta-proverbial KISS-and-tell, neither the self-absorbed ramblings of a 70s rocker. Ace covers his boyhood and the genesis of KISS reasonably well, and his various descents into substance abuse and KISS dissolution, but there’s very little about song writing, life on the road, his favorite shows, or even a glimpse into his daily routines of practice and creativity. Compared to something like Neil Peart’s “Roadshow” or Keith Richards’ “Life”, the only regrets here are spending full cover price for it. Buy it used if you heard “Rock and Roll All Night” at your 8th grade dance.

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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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