Reading Lists: 2014 in Review

The second installment of an annual reading list 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 2014 version has 2020 edits and comments [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.

Themes for 2014: Lots of China Mieville, my introduction to Hannu Rajaniemi, copious quantities of poker books.

40. “Beyond the Basss Clef,” Tony Levin, music/biography, finished December 31.

Yes, it’s a 2-day read, and it’s a superb tag-along ride with one of the pre-eminent bass players of the last five decades. Levin’s stories about King Crimson, Robert Fripp, and Peter Gabriel, and the interleaving strands of their musical fabrics, are worth the price alone (it’s hard to find this, as Levin’s vanity imprint hasn’t re-released it so you’ll need to get one used). Toss in a few of Levin’s recipes, playing tips, insights into playing the Stick, with Funk Fingers, and practicing, and sprinkle liberally with his wry sense of humor, and this is a winner. What a great way to end the year.

39. “The Magician’s Land,” Lev Grossman, fantasy, finished December 30.

The trilogy may be one of the best things I read all year; the final installment in the series ties together multiple threads. Even though one of the major plot devices is easily derived early on, how it figures in the story, and how the characters converge from there makes this a fitting conclusion to a dense, well-written and fun-to-read story.

38. “The Magician King,” Lev Grossman, fantasy, finished December 27.

Part two of the trilogy. Moving faster and better exposition, loving the background on the events and characters from the first book. It’s the second season of “Orange Is The New Black” in magical prose. Really.

37. “The Magicians,” Lev Grossman, fantasy, finished December 22.

I picked up the first book in the trilogy on the recommendation of my friend Marc who has frighteningly similar tastes to mine, and he’s usually much more accurate than Amazon’s suggestion services. I don’t know how to explain this other than being the anti-Harry Potter: What if magic isn’t happiness and fun and the stuff of childhood dreams but instead explains why some people have the need to shop at Hot Topic or primarily express themselves through misery? Or something like that. Enjoyed it so much I bought the other two books in the series at the quarter pole.

36. “The Peripheral,” William Gibson, sci-fi, finished December 13.

Another mind-bending romp with “The Great Dismal” one. Dense and full of the hand-crafted vocabulary that made the Neuromancer trilogy so outstanding. I’m still not quite sure I “got it”, but his exploration of time travel, small effect amplified to cultural tidal wave, and affected fascination with history is just insanely rich. Like Tim Bray, I may have to read this a second time now that I have the rough outline in my head. [2020 Comment: “Agency” is the sequel, and likely 2nd book of another trilogy, in this series, and it’s just as good. Well worth the wait and if you can now read them in succession, do so while the corona of “The Peripheral” is still leaving impressions]

35. “Home Game: Hockey and Life In Canada,” Ken Dryden and Roy McGregor, sports, finished November 9.

Roy MacGregor is easily one of my favorite hockey authors, and his prose about the game is as fluid as a skilled player practicing its art. He captures every nuance of playing, not as a professional or a champion, but as a thread woven into the national sweater. More than a few times I found myself thinking “That’s why I still play [coach]” or “Something to share with our hockey parents.” The parallel treatments of Dryden and McGregor do in fact give you the pro-and-joe views, and the description of the 1972 Summit Series is as adept that of any playwright treating the Cold War from an American perspective. With the death of Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov [in November 2014], revisiting the Summit Series is timely and a good long lens on four decades of hockey, with Russian players now openly welcomed into Canada’s game. Thanks to Coach Tom for the recommendation.

34. “Like Dreamers,” history, started but not finished.

This book has occupied most of October for me, until I put it down in favor of Lederer’s memoir. It’s a fascinating look at how the current schism in Israeli society over settlements evolved, and provides an intriguing look at the post-Six Day War politics as well as the strong kibbutznik sense of loyalty to Soviet Russia that preceded Russia’s arming of the Arab countries. On the other hand, it’s very dense, almost exhaustive (and exhausting) in its narrative arcs, and hard to follow. I gave it about 150 pages.

34. “Poker Face,” Katy Lederer, sports literature/biography, finished October 21.

One of the books referenced in McManus’ “Positively Fifth Street,” this is as much a prolonged coming of age and maturity story as it is an exploration of being the risk-averse member of a functional gambling but an organizationally dysfunctional family (Katy’s brother Howard has his own collection of instructional books and videos). Nice complement to the other poker books on the list. [2020 Comment: I had the pleasure of meeting Katy Lederer in person a few years ago (and losing to her in a poker tournament hosted by her sister, the incomparable Annie Duke, whose books feature in a number of these lists. She’s as genuine as she comes across in these pages]

33. “Embassytown,” China Mieville, sci-fi, finished September 29

My other 2014 kick has been to progress through Mieville’s Bas Lag books, and after “Iron Council” I had to step back and let the images of cruelty and desperate humanity fade a bit. “Embassaytown” deals in the same themes of differing definitions of truth, unintended consequences, and the extreme (xenophobic) challenges of dealing with alien nature, whether human or not. If it’s possible for a Mieville novel to end on a happy note, this one does.

32. “Zero to One,” Peter Thiel, business, finished September 27

Yet another good business book, and a fast read. Thiel is best known as one of the PayPal founders, and more recently as espousing an “experience over education” life trajectory. His thoughts on capitalism versus capturing economic value, the distribution of socio-normative traits in founders, and why small companies fail make this worth a quarter Benjamin and a quarter day to read it. [2020 comment: This has stood up as one of the business books to which I refer frequently, although it’s almost always in a bookend with “Thiel explains how to generate new ideas and test their validity; real reliability and systems engineering then pressure tests those as they go from 1 to 100”]

31. “Positively Fifth Street,” James McManus, finished September 26

Another poker book that slipped into the anti-Mezrich stream, and this one is a four of a kind: a powerfully written account of the emotional dynamic range experienced playing live poker; an expose of the Ted Binion murder case; a documentary about the World Series of Poker at its tipping point when it went mainstream on ESPN; an exploration of the talismans, secret deals, false deities, and individual quirks that are the stigmata of those praying for luck in a casino at any point in time and space.

30. “Unlocked,” John Scalzi, sci-fi novella, finished September 22

I’ll admit the truth — I was halfway through another book when this arrived from Subterranean Press, and so infatuated am I with all things Scalzi that I opened it and read it straight through on the edge of the bed. It’s both the preface and the heart punch coda to “Lockin” and a fabulous treatment of the backstory for that book. And my copy is signed by the author, so don’t ask to borrow it.

29. “Lockin,” John Scalzi, sci-fi, finished September 6

To say that I was looking forward to this book drop through most of August is an understatement. The proper vernacular for unboxing it was “fanboy squee.” Once again, Scalzi doesn’t disappoint, but this time there are neither aliens nor space ships — only terrifying plague that accelerates technical, medical and social changes as only a crisis can. Reading this while the Ebola and childhood respiratory virus outbreaks were in the news was downright freaky. This lacks the “heart punch” that is something of a Scalzi signature (but see previous entry) but otherwise reads in nearly a single sitting — it’s a murder mystery, a technology manifesto, and yet another challenge to our definition of the human experience at which Scalzi excels. Squee.

28. “John Henry Days,” Colson Whitehead, literature, finished September 2.

Colson Whitehead is Michael Chabon without pretension. If Chabon is the university lecturer, then Whitehead is the guy in the coffee shop whose writing you enjoy tremendously because it’s grittier, more honest, and speaks to you in a way that is amazing in its punch per word. I went on something of a Whitehead institution tear over the summer, and “John Henry Days” was a fitting end to both seasons. The books takes you through parallel yet not fully conveyed voyages of self discovery, from the mythical John Henry to the folk song crafters who immortalized him to a modern day junketeer visiting the location of John Henry’s man-vs-machine duel to the former’s death. He expertly drops clues that mentally weave of causal, social and political connections, without the benefit (period or prose wise) of explicitly spelling it out for you. It’s one of those books that I thought about for a week after reaching the last page.

27. “The Causal Angel,” Hannu Rajaniemi, sci-fi, finished August 4.

The third part of the “Thief” trilogy (if it’s just a trilogy) and one that ties together many of the themes and story constructions. Rajaniemi’s world deserves its own Wikia because it’s that interwoven and complex, and he brings science and behavioral concepts to his work faster than the reader can digest them. I may end up re-reading all three parts of this, much like I did with “Dune”, knowing some of the backstory that will let me appreciate the existential themes even more. A great conclusion to the stories, and perhaps the most accessible of the three books (but you have to read the first two to have enough context for this one). I hope he cranks out many more books, because Rajaniemi significantly adds to the hardness scale in “hard sci-fi”. [2020 Comment: Another author I’ve gotten to know personally, and this series barely scratches the surfaces of his wonderful ideas and ability to impress morality and ethics into strange, useful and futuristic shapes]

26. “Colossus of New York,” Colson Whitehead, literature, finished July 29.

Reading “Noble Hustle” put me on a Colson Whitehead kick, and it’s great. He writes with a pace, a simplicity and a punch that is equal parts slam poetry and Hemingway. Who else could make a play on the rhyme for “orange” or craft “karma’s arsenal” referring to a dress shirt pin, your mind’s eye guiding the voodoo doll effects so inferred. Short but wonderful.

25. “This Has All Been Wonderful,” David ZZYZW Steinberg, music, finished July 23.

It was only a matter of time before I ended up reading a book about Phish, moving beyond the hopelessly out of date but anachronistically amusing “companions” to a tour memoir. Steinberg writes like a math professor drawing on the opposite side of his brain. Despite parallel lyrical constructions that read like they should end with Q.E.D. this is an insightful look at the guppy era Phish, before the apocrypha and mass culture accreted around them. I can’t help thinking that it would be fun to read this and James Campion’s “Deep Tank Jersey” in parallel (Deep Tank explores the summer of 1995 with Dog Voices, a Jersey Shore band that never quite Made It Big but developed a local following in similar sized venues). His advice for those on tour — to enjoy the flow, to respect the band and their art — rings true twenty years later.

24. “The Rhesus Chart,” Charles Stross, sci-fi, finished July 18

I pre-order everything by John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross. This is the latest in the Laundry series, which can only be described as James Bond with a Lovecraftian twist as seen through the lens of “The Office” (UK version, with full British humour and sensibilities, not to mention paperwork in triplicate). Stross’ latest doesn’t disappoint, is incredibly fast paced, and has helped repeal my distaste for vampiric prose. It’s more of a character study of Bob Howard (the protagonist of the Laundry novels) and less cloak-garlic-and-dagger mystery, which is a nice variation but leads to a frightening cold ending. Whatever is next, I’m pre-ordering it.

23. “The Noble Hustle” Colson Whitehead, sports/gambling, finished July 11.

This came recommended (by ESPN magazine) and after the disaster of Mezrich’s book I needed something that would treat my beloved card game with the respect and humor it deserves. Whitehead delivers in style. He is acerbic in his hilarity; anyone who can make an Iggy Pop joke work is immediately a +10 wordsmith in my esteem. As good as it is a fast read (discounted by the fact that I hit 3 Phish shows while this was open).

22. “Hatching Twitter,” Nick Bilton, business/technology, finished June 29.

Sometimes you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, and other times seeing the artistic and culinary process that seems to influence so much of our vernacular is instructive. It’s equal parts expose on the history of Twitter, the multi-voiced gospel of the true founders, some insight into the real “spirit” (if you will) of Silicon Valley and particularly the companies that are now ensconced in the SoMa area, and nerd stories. I like Bilton’s writing, and found this more entertaining than Meg Whitman’s book about the throes of eBay.

21. “Straight Flush,” Ben Mezrich, sports/business?, finished June 20.

Short form: Don’t waste your time or money. Someone got this for me as a gift (I believe it came from a book show), and it’s been on my “to read” pile for a while. It should have stayed there. It’s unusual for me to finish a 200-plus page book in two sittings, but this book was that vapid. The writing was weak, and there were entire 3-page chapters devoted to frat boy stories that did nothing to move the story along or explore the “how” or “why” behind the actions. There isn’t enough detail here to be credible, and where such little journalistic effort appears, there are disclaimers about how events were reconstructed. My 7th grade book report version is “We got schwasted for 2 years, didn’t know we were breaking laws, and everyone is mad at us.” Don’t bother — or read the Amazon reviews for better insight than what Mezrich has captured. More good poker books in my Topical Book Lists

20. “Iron Council,” China Mieville, science fiction, finished June 18.

The third book in the series set on the planet Bas-Lag, exploring parts of the world only hinted at in the first two books, and with much more complex storylines that weave forward and backward. There’s no succinct way to describe it; imagine “True Grit” meets “Dances with Wolves” and “Les Miserables” set in the post-machine construct of Frank Herbert’s first “Dune” book. It’s part Western, part revolutionary tale, part story of (selfish) redemption. As I was reading it, I thought about a side conversation I had with Danny Hillis about the Milennium Clock: if you make something perpetual, and long-lived, it tends to become a religion and invoke associated fervor. “Perpetual” is probably the most frequently used word in the book, and maybe I’m the only one who read this as something of a hagiography. After a mad rush through all three books, though, I’m taking a Mieville hiatus, because his work is just on that side of creepy and tingling.

19. “The Scar,” China Mieville, science fiction, finished June 1.

It’s a much faster, and much more compelling read than “Perdido Street Station,” a reversal of the “sophomore slump.” Set in the same world as his first breakthrough book, “The Scar” paces like a blitz of Game of Thrones episodes interspersed with a slow reveal of some eldritch horror that remains a mainstay of Mieville’s style. His language, both invented and curated, is highly textured, complex and dictionary-worthy. Liked it so much I ordered the third book in the sequence before the midpoint.

18. “Something In The Air,” Richard Hoffer, sports/history, finished May 10.

Kevin Carroll gave this to me during an invited talk at work; he gives books as meaningful gifts. A history of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, it’s not a book I would have normally chosen, but a timely one given this year’s Olympics wrapped in social controversy. As a teenager, I read Howard Cosell’s books (as I identified with the Jewish non-athlete reporter) and recall his ranting about the empty starting blocks at the Olympics, all bluster at the lack of coherence but no feeling for its source. It’s a tremendous view into the American spirit of the late 60s, of the forces that shepherded the larger Civil Rights movement, and the underlying taint of the Olympic leadership that amplifying the disaster of the Munich Olympics in 1972, much of which has not been removed or repaired.

17. “vN,” Madeline Ashby, science fiction, finished April 27.

The anti-I, Robot. A very fast moving narrative of bad ass robots and what happens when you decide Asimov was morally wrong for all of the morally right reasons. A very different view of religion, freedom, choice, and programming in every sense. And yes, I finished it in two days.

16. “Perdido Street Station,” China Mieville, science fiction, finished April 25.

This was been on the “must read” list for a while, with the list of accolades collected by Mieville growing faster than my pile of books that took priority. Frequently science fiction deals with plot devices like boy meets alien girl gender, boy loses girl through bending of space-time, major fighting ensues while reflecting on humanity, courage, redemption, and sacrifice. Mieville tackles these issues on a whole different level: pain, suffering, endurance, and even framing our world view. There are questions he never answers (what exactly are the Ribs?) and plot lines that run until the very last paragraph, leaving you wondering just how deep a hurt he can convey in his tightly packed, wonderfully worded prose. It is freakily good.

15. “Any Day Now,” Terry Bisson, fiction, finished April 11.

My first thought was this is beatnik “American Graffiti.” But coming up on the halfway point, it has mild points of weirdness poking through, a mix of real and fictional in the spirit of E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and reads like a Springsteen song told through dialogue instead of detached observation. And it gets progressively more distant from the history we know, creating an alternate timeline that intersects current events with an uncanny feeling.

14. “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” Ben Horowitz, business, finished March 28.

Maybe the best business book of the last decade, or since the dot com crash. Reading it reminded me of a lesson learned from one of my favorite and most effective managers, Peter Ryan at Sun Microsystems: I was trying to do an organization and headcount design, and was finding that the quality and quantity of my data seemed to lag that of my peers, and Peter told me “Don’t worry, we are all dealing with ambiguity. Figure out what makes sense.” Horowitz’s book is a collection of anecdotes and good, nugget-sized advice that’s meant to be applied and interpreted, not taken literally. While I found his interstitial rap quotes a bit out of place, it was equally interesting that Michael Ovitz (of CAA fame) had such an impact on Horowitz — after what technology has done to tip the applecart of media, a media mogul does the slow reveal on how to manage in technology. There’s something canonical (in many senses) about that.

13. “A Thousand Hills to Heaven,” Josh Ruxin, modern politics and a cookbook, finished March 23.

A personal recommendation from Josh’s uncle (the man behind the Jewish Major Leaguers cards) coupled with our daughter’s history in Rwanda made this a must-read. It has the airiness of a collective of journal or blog entries that had a long-view editorial calendar behind them. Each piece stands alone as a view into a post-conflict society, but together they tell a story of renewal.

12. “Blue Remembered Earth,” Alastair Reynolds, sci-fi, finished March 15.

While I truly enjoyed “House of Suns” and “Terminal World,” “Blue Remembered Earth” took a while to get going. It’s part treasure hunt and part future envisioned world, but the theme of cognitive control (to both eradicate violence and allow presence-via-intergalactic Skype) mixed with a tepid space opera didn’t quite generate the page-turner I had hoped for. The last hundred pages or so tie it together neatly, shed light on some of the minor plot devices (but not in that JK Rowling/Harry Potter “Oh, so that was the gun on the mantel” conveyance), and perhaps even made me stop and pause for a moment, but by that point I was reading to see how it ended, not because I was rushing toward the finish line. It lacks the questioning qualities of “House of Suns” and the freaky physics of “Terminal World,” and the ending felt a bit too much the Card-played “Children of the Mind.”

11. “Down Goes Brown,” Sean McIndoe, sports, finished February 24.

DGB is a funny blog, but the problem with printed collection of blog entries is that the writing prompts and themes become exposed ribs once you serialize the content. Single digit laughs, but a lot of structural replication in the form of pseudo-secret documents, Maple Leafs jocularity, and meta commentary on the difficulty of broadcasting hockey (whether or not Don Cherry is involved). [2020 comment: Now that Don Cherry’s tenor in sportscasting has been rightfully cast aside, DGB seems even more dated.]

10. “Lost Everything,” Brian Francis Slattery, fiction, finished February 16.

Eerie, evocative, moving, comparisons to “The Road” and “Grapes of Wrath” not unwarranted, this felt like a folk music hagiography of some future saint, torn between differing interpretations of faith. Too many metaphors? That’s about it. Was on the Locus award short list, and deserves a read. It moves, at times a bit aimlessly like the river on which it is based.

9. “The Fractal Prince,” Hannu Rajaniemi, sci-fi, finished February 11 (Central Europe Time).

The sequel to “The Quantum Thief” and the 2nd book in the Jean Le Flambeur series, this one is tough going for the first hundred pages, but then it accelerates with its own kind of classical physics. Rajaniemi provides some of the backstory to the context created in the first book, and the human elements here are deftly woven. There are trace elements of Dune (Axlotl tanks), St-Exupery’s Little Prince, and Vernor Vinge’s “True Names”, built upon in a style that would make Cory Doctorow proud.

8. “The Aleppo Codex,” Matti Friedman, history, finished February 1.

I don’t quite remember who (or what) recommended this to me, but it combines my love of Jewish artifacts, books, and slowly unraveling Gordian knots of influence. After meeting so many Jews and Israelis from modern-day Arab states (Iraqi, Yemenite, Moroccan, Syrian) I was at a loss to connect the pre-Diaspora times to the ingathering of the exiles in Israel. Friedman’s book does so neatly, providing enough history from the 10th to the 20th centuries to tie together stories that continue to play out today. A surprisingly good read — not exactly the “whodunnit” detective story the jacket promises, but a very worthwhile exploration of the financial, emotional and national value of artifacts.

7. “The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work”, Scott Berkun, business/technology, finished January 21.

First of all, this should be required reading for anyone charged with “transformation” or “changing culture.” Second, it will move to the top of my recommended business book list. Not just because I am an unashamed WordPress fanboy (this very blog is WP-powered, and I’ve co-authored a book on its physiology) nor because I am equally enamored of Matt Mullenweg (ever since hearing him at the first WordCamp NYC), but because Berkun provides an insight into how people work when they love working and believe in what they do. It’s a subtle blend of Kevin Carroll, Eric Raymond and Tim O’Reilly, with the grace and unexpected discoveries of a good southern Rhone red wine. [2020 Comment: Another book I frequently reference and hand out as a thank you or a gift, and one that is required reading as we talk about how to handle Bill Joy’s 2nd law — the smart people are distributed and most of the really smart ones don’t work for you — how do you organize in space and corporate culture to build on that?]

6. “Use of Weapons,” Iain Banks, hard sci-fi, finished January 19.

Another Culture book; with “Matter” sitting on my nightstand it will complete this year’s trio of cultural acclimation from the late Iain Banks. It was a bit less snarky than the other “Culture” series, and less full-out space opera while channeling a bit of Quentin Tarrantino. It kind of makes sense at the end, although it wasn’t as driven as some of his other works.

5. “Substitution Cipher,” edited by Kaye Chazan, sci-fi/alternative history, finished January 5.

Right from John Scalzi’s holiday list. As a collection of short stories, the alternative histories lack the character development and contextual depth of Jo Walton’s “small change” series, but they are thought-provoking, thoughtful and well assembled. Follow editor Kaye Chazan.

4. “Orr: My Story,” Bobby Orr, sports, finished January 4.

Recommended for every hockey player and parent, anyone who watched Orr in the early 70s, or someone who is wondering what a true gentleman and athlete sounds like in print. This is the elemental hockey story I wish I could write (balanced by Jack Falla being the hockey fiction plateau to which I aspire). The Stanley Cup winning goal, memorialized in a sculpture outside the TD Garden and the cover photograph of the book, gets a compound sentence, which is the perfect content in which to understand Bobby Orr. It’s the rest of the book that’s fantastic.

3. “The Player of Games,” Iain Banks, sci-fi, finished January 2.

Not to be outdone in pacing, this novel in the Culture series lasted a day. Not as deep as “Consider Phlebas” but full of the quirky, self-effacing machine intelligence that are Culture hallmarks.

2. “Radio Free Boston: The Story of WBCN,” Carter Alan, music, finished January 1.

Yes, I read it in two days, and yes, it was that good. WBCN was an institution, whether it was being a renegade in sportscasting, a pioneer in redefining album-oriented rock radio, or the genesis of the dozen comedy channels on Sirius XM (nobody else played spoken word tracks in the 80s). I alternated between happy thoughts of listening to WBCN while driving to and from work (including more than a few mornings driving down to Foxboro, “The Big Mattress” providing a suitable warmup for the day) and the fair, insightful treatment of the big politics of big music. If the mark of good radio is feeling like the DJ is sitting in the room with you, then the mark of a good book is believing you’re experiencing the events described in prose, personally and in real time. Carter Alan has done both.

1. “The Quantum Thief,” hard sci-fi, Hannu Rajaniemi, finished December 30.

Technically I finished this last year, but it was during the grace period of my winter vacation so it gets something of an accrual treatment. What a way to start the year: a book so full of hard science that it might require a companion quantum mechanics reader, yet so equally chockful of imaginative applications of quantum theory that you begin to question what’s really outside the realm of the possible. The first 40–50 pages are tougher to digest because you have to immerse yourself in Rajaniemi’s constructed world view, but once you do, it’s worth the price of admission. Eager to read the sequel — no wonder this was nominated for a 2011 Locus (which is where I get a huge number of my new author leads)

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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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