2018 in reading log review version, year six in a series. I’ve mostly kept the original content with a bit of 2020 commentary [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. 2018 also marks the year when the Snowman went into decline; I’ve pulled various original posts from the blogs that were effectively long book reviews and pasted them here. What should you find in 2018 redux? Authors outside of my normal reading lanes, a lot of commentary about music and the music business including some Grateful Dead jams (Carol Miller’s book in particular still stands as a great read), and my introductions to both Ada Palmer and NK Jemisin were brain altering (in a positive, non recreational chemistry way). If you like these, support your local book stores, buy them new to support great authors, and tell the world.
42. “Come With Me: A Novel,” fiction, Helen Schulman, finished December 24.
I get my next book pointers from all manners of sources — references by favorite authors, sci-fi award nomination lists, personal recommendations, and in some cases, the multiple-hop closure that uncovers a gem. In the case of “Come With Me,” it started with a simple quote from a college friend that her wedding was finally in the NY Times, a cross-reference to the backstory for this book published in the Grey Lady by my friend’s sister-in-law — Helen Schulman (said friend’s family gets a shout out in the acknowledgements). With such preface, I really and truly wanted to love this book — inspired by prefatory events to a friend’s wedding, with a real-world reduction of some science fiction ideas into a fractured Silicon Valley love story. What’s in the book is a cornucopia of ideas — LGBTQ sexuality and identity, Silicon Valley bullies, the impact of technology on our ability to have intimate conversations, the stresses of being a kid in current “rat race” of college admissions, and an exploration of fidelity, decision making and personal identity. Unfortunately, each character or idea is developed between a third and halfway through, then abandoned as the author moves onto another idea or thread. I found the Scott McNealy privacy quote in the opening a nice reminder of my own series of decisions (around joining Sun and then leaving Oracle), but had trouble identifying with other themes — I’ve witnessed some of the Silicon Valley work and lifestyle issues raised, but felt they were treated with kid gloves; I like the idea of exploring how we are the sum of our decisions, but feel that Annie Duke makes the same points much more practically in “Thinking In Bets” — the whole premise of “Come With Me” was that we could look forward and see how decisions made now create (or remove) options in our lives, and it’s thought provoking but still felt — like any exploration of the infinite — necessarily incomplete. That said, it’s worth a read, especially if you’ve spent very little time in Northern California, or if you have and question the decisions that framed your time there.
41. “Thin Air,” sci-fi, Richard Morgan, finished December 19.
Richard Morgan writes intense, often violent stories — if you transform Liam Neeson’s “Taken” roles into gritty sci-fi, you capture the essence of his characters. The adaptation of “Altered Carbon” put Morgan into more of the mainstream, a view that is well deserved for his deep catalog of books with deep plot lines. “Thin Air” delivers once again — politics, corruption, blind consumerism and thoughts on liberty from the cellular to the network to the planetary level. It’s dense, and proved to be a harder late night read than I expected, but well worth the romp to the ending which carried vague memories of the tail out of “Blade Runner.”
40. “Hunting Fish,” poker, Jay Greenspan, finished November 26.
A sidecar to McGuire’s book, which focuses almost exclusively on poker in the Nathan Detroit like permanent floating games in major cities. Greenspan decides he wants to prove himself as a professional poker player, and in so doing drives from the Northeast to Los Angeles through every small and medium stakes game, in a well told microcosm (and micro-stakes) of “Rounders” and “Molly’s Game.” His stories and observations hit home, not just about making a living on the road and finding stability, but also balancing the proof that you’re up to a task with the value in repeatedly doing the task. No sooner did I finish laughing at his “bad beat guy” stories than I sat down at the Mirage opposite a guy-with-hat-and-stories (and 2nd best hands, twice).
39. “Lost Vegas,” poker, Paul McGuire, finished November 18.
McGuire is an accomplished and hilarious writer, whose work I encountered first via Twitter and Phish fan circles (he’s the author of Coventry Music, as well as the Wook Patrol podcast. His first writing claim to fame, though, cultivated during the Phish hiatus, was writing about poker, which he does with as much scathing humor and deep insight as he does covering The Phish From Vermont. “Lost Vegas” is about the World Series of Poker as much as it’s about the need to gamble, to escape, and the depths to which both of those urges drive people. It induced so much convulsive laugher that I was banned from reading it in bed. Who else is going to call a low-end Vegas hotel “a hospice with slots?” [2020 comment: I’ve since read other output from McGuire, and he is Genuinely Funny. In one of his other books he makes up band names, and I still laugh at the mythical “Sausage Ambulance” because it is both the most brutally metal and the most Joey Buttafuco thing in a quantum, non collapsed (except from giggling) state]
38. “The Labyrinth Index,” sci-fi/fantasy, Charles Stross, finished November 8.
It was a double header of fan-boy-dom as I picked up the latest “Laundry Files” installment hot on the heels of Scalzi’s latest. I have to admit: Stross writes very tongue-in-cheek eldritch horror fantasy, but it’s just real and palpable enough that it gives me bad dreams for a week. This is the first Laundry Series book that features neither Bob Howard nor Mo O’Brien and instead brings in new protagonists from earlier books. The dramatic climax is more subtle than some of the previous eight books in the series, and more secondary characters meet ill fates than is typical, on top of a somewhat difficult premise carried over from “Delirium Brief” that the UK government has been taken over by cultists and non-human terrors. There are the usual historical riffs, and I found myself enjoying the development of previously supporting characters more than I would have imagined, but honestly, I miss the plucky Bob Howard. Stross reflects the political climate of both the UK and US well (having adopted the end of the “Delirium Brief” to fit the Brexit storyline 2 years ago), but I still found it middle-of-the-Stross pack. That is, as the saying goes, like being a B student at Stanford.
37. “The Consuming Fire,” sci-fi, John Scalzi, finished October 28.
I adore John Scalzi’s writing because he creates context and depth that is unreal, even for science fiction. You feel his characters, they are gently revealed and pushed into actions and thoughts that entirely human in decidedly non-human (of today’s standards) settings. It’s space opera without aliens, or at least where the only aliens are ourselves. The second book in the Interdependency series ties off a few threads from the series opener, but then takes on issues of theocracy, palace intrigue, political vendettas and the price of privacy — it’s The Borgias meets Star Trek: The Next Generation (absent Wil Wheaton as a mild villain or annoying teen) and it thoroughly works. The downside is that these books are spaced about a year apart, which assures they will continue to be of a remarkably high and typical quality, but it also means I need to keep checking my notes to remember what happened in the last episode.
36. “The Stone Sky,” sci-fi/fantasy, NK Jemisin, finished October 22.
35. “The Obelisk Gate,” sci-fi/fantasy, NK Jemisin, finished October 12.
34. “The Fifth Season,” sci-fi/fantasy, NK Jemisin, finished September 29th.
It took me just under a month to make it through Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy, and it was well worth the effort, the leaps of lexical faith and suspending my normal avoidance of “fantasy” as a genre. This is a huge story, an evolutionary story, and equal parts “Dune,” “Return of the Jedi,” and the book of Genesis in terms of emotional impact. Arthur C Clark once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Jemisin’s three-part series concludes with the exposition that fills in the indistinguishable parts from the first two books, slowly reveals the narration scheme, and extends the tendrils of family, community, love and redemption until they are once again rooted in the familiar. We glimpse the backstories for the oppression, fear, and near Biblical lore that frame the earlier parts of the trilogy, I varied between feeling that “fantasy” was an appropriate label for her work based on how “magic” permeates the latter half of the story, but equally feel that “harnessed quantum physics” might be better, and make Clark proud. I’m happy to have discovered a (relatively) new sci-fi voice, and I now have the gumption to tackle the 1,000+ pages of the Inheritance Trilogy.
It took me maybe 30 pages to get into this, as the beginning wraps a few of Jemisin’s narrative styles and vocabulary techniques into a densely packed scene. I ended up going back and re-reading the first chapter as I progressed to be sure I didn’t miss any nuances. I can see why she has been multiply-awarded and why her work is regarded as some of the best new sci-fi: she’s remarkable not just in terms of world building but in how her characters, while perhaps nothing like you today, reflect a bit of you if you look for the 2nd and 3rd order reflections. On top of that, this is one of my first hard geological science (versus quantum or astrophysics science) fiction books, briefly explained in the author’s notes at the end, and absolutely wonderfully woven through — — how the geological facets inform religion, culture, lifestyle, and literal power. Jeminsin takes something as seemingly simple as hair and describes it in ways that convey status, physical desire, and (overt and) latent geographic biases. Growing up with very curly, unruly hair that looked nothing like my peers’ (except for one kid we nicknamed “Triangle Head” for the way his curly hair refused to sit flat) I found the distinctions around hair both highly personal and highly insightful; it’s a way to capture characters’ origins and contextual clues without much exposition. The book itself deals with love, oppression, hate, fear, long-term human evolution, and religious precision. My cultural and historical resonance points included press-ganging, police brutality, the literal interpretation of the Bible, Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio,” Coheed and Cambria’s “Year of the Black Rainbow,” southern plantations, caste systems, patronymic conventions, and plate tectonics. Seriously. She really is that great a writer, and has now joined the Stephenson/Doctorow/Gibson/Stross/Scalzi plateau of authors whose works I will exhaust — in just one book.
33. “2020,” near future politics, Kenneth Steven, finished September 21.
Written before Brexit and the Trump presidency, Steven paints a picture of how a terrorist attack factionalizes the UK, tracing the story from multiple perspectives. It’s scary, it’s remarkably reflective of current times, and it shows how single events can amplify forces that have been simmering — think assassination of Archduke Ferdinand level impact. It’s closer to a novella than a full length novel, and much more of a scenario planning guide for metastable times. As such, it’s required reading if you want to see what uneven discourse brings.
32. “Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip,” music, Joel Selvin & Pamela Turley, finished September 17.
At times poignant, maddening, insightful and at others approaching the arid nature of the deep desert, Selvin and Turley trace the post-Dead history from Garcia’s death to the final “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago. Having read Lesh’s, Kreutzer’s and Owsley’s biographies and songs of the Dead, this fleshed out the interleaving story lines. Selvin doesn’t quite take sides but he comes across as equally critical and inspired by Bob Weir’s touring stamina (and self-medication to deal with same) but overly critical of Phil Lesh’s handling of the Dead’s affairs. Topping it off (from my Phish-oriented viewpoint) was his needless picayune needling of Trey Anastasio’s performances in the final five shows; while perhaps unintended it cements the view that Deadheads and Phans exist with some sort of Pauli exclusion principle of band orbits. What you get is a family portrait of basic dysfunction after the patriarch has died, and the family struggles to find what they were really about, anyway. Learning about the Terrapin Station plans and seeing how the band wanted to preserve its live show legacy, while coming to realize that the Grateful Dead were, at the end of the long trip, really about the fans, made it worth the two-week slog through the investigative reporting.
31. “Up All Night: My Life and Times In Rock Radio,” music/biography, Carol Miller, finished September 2.
Carol Miller is — and should be — synonymous with album oriented rock, the cool smart older cousin who got you to listen things you hadn’t heard before. The book struck me as charming — a weird word for a rock and roll memoir — but that’s really what it is, whether her description of her marriage to VJ Mark Goodman (the guy who basically declared open television war on her own radio lifestyle), or her disclosure of KISS’s Paul Stanley as a somewhat nebbishy guy without the spandex and makeup. It’s not a kiss and tell, nor is it a chronicle of rock and roll debauchery. Instead, it’s a highly impactful and sometimes moving tale of a Jewish woman who excelled despite cultural, organizational and institutional biases against her, with an undercurrent of living with a genetic predisposition to breast/ovarian cancers at a time when those ideas weren’t given the first glint of credence. If we remove the sexism, sexual harassment, misogyny, cultural taboos about genetics and cancer, how many more brilliant, funny, and ear-opening people like Carol Miller can we empower into cultural icon status? Bonus points for giving Penn’s WXPN college radio props, liberal sprinklings of Yiddish phrases that transported you back to growing up Jewish in the last century, and giving one of the few true slams in the book to Opie and Anthony, who deserved it — and you have a memoir equal to Carter Allen’s paean to WBCN.
30. “Without Their Permission,” business/technology, Alexis Ohanian, finished August 27.
Blazingly fast read for a 240-page book that I was prepared multiple times to put down as yet another glib “I made a fortune and so can you” volume. There are times when Ohanian’s “gee whiz, aren’t we goofy” deprecating humor just seems misplaced, but they are occluded by what is really three novellas tied together by a common character — Ohanian himself. The first third is the story of Reddit, and the courage it took to make a big bet and build something for which there was no user model. The middle third extrudes that experience into a survival guide for startups, which I have quoted at least twice this week alone in terms of defining the business value of a new platform or project; the final third polishes the first two with a moral compass that guides us toward using technology for good rather than advertising fueled evil. I finished it quickly because I was pleasantly surprised and my return on the cost and time invested (so far) has been quite high.
29. “Bear: The Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III”, music/biography, Robert Greenfield, finished August 23.
Continuing the trend of reading books about the extended Grateful Dead family despite never being much of a Deadhead, I felt compelled to round out the Robert Greenfield musical biography canon. Greenfield’s writing is a delight, rather than waltz through the chronological details that make most biographies seem like a never ending religious service, he finds the smallest details that embellish a story, and then each chapter is revealed, as if crystallizing, from that seed. And that analogy isn’t too far off for the life story of the Grateful Dead’s sound engineer and acid cook (I called my 90 day plan for a former job “The Owsley” because he once referred to himself as a “chemist and an engineer” and that felt that entirely appropriate). Bear was at once an intense and intensely interesting character, and he’s probably given far too little credit for his two graphical contributions to heads everywhere — the dancing bear and the stealie. Bear’s description of life as constantly moving and rotating, with him trying to latch on, seemed to describe a few weeks of my work life pretty accurately, making this yet another fabulous Greenfield volume.
28. “Reach For Infinity,” sci-fi collection, edited by Jonathan Strahan, finished August 18.
I sometimes pick up these curated collections of hard sci-fi if there are 2–3 authors represented whose other works I like. I’ve been partial to the short story format since high school, where the reader is left to fill in the context and often the more formal conclusions (I’m increasingly convinced this is the same reason people like the escape room idea — you live out a short story in 60 minutes or less). Buying a few collections where the story consistency is high is preferable to subscribing to one of the classic sci-fi monthly magazines (although “Compelling Sci-Fi” has proven the exception, maybe because it only does short stories and feels more like a semi-regular collection). This is one of three books edited by Strahan that examine different evolutionary phases of humanity’s relationship with space, in this case how our perceptions of self and our place in the literal universe evolve. When Peter Watts, Alistair Reynolds and Hannu Rajaniemi make the table of contents, I’m hooked and each story was dense, full of clues to be interpolated, and I’ll make my way through the other two volumes before the year is out.
27. “Record of a Spaceborn Few,” sci-fi, Becky Chambers, finished July 30.
Becky Chambers has rapidly become one of my new favorite sci-fi authors. Her books combine the practical space travel aspects of a James SA Corey (the Expanse series) with the human aspects of a Scalzi novel, and written in a way that is always questioning what it means to be human (or other sapient species) in a highly complex and evolving universe of characters. Her use of pronouns, relationships, and typical plot devices (yeah, things blow up, there’s violence, there’s tension, but they aren’t the main story, they’re waypoints) is world class. Her first novel (and the first in this series) almost didn’t see ink on paper but went on to be multiply award nominated, and the continuations in this world are just as rich and rewarding. “Record” starts out as what feels like a set of disjoint journal entries that gently converge, like a tangled mess of interstates whose interchanges were engineered over years, until you realize you’re going somewhere heartwarming.
26. “The Prague Cemetery,” historical fiction, Umberto Eco, finished July 25.
I often wonder why I read Umberto Eco. When I first picked up “Focault’s Pendulum,” it was pre-Amazon, pre-Internet and it was something of a mathematical and literary goof. But the trope of tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek as writer makes fun of the fourth estate and accidentally stumbles into conspiracy theory root causes should be retired. It’s as if he’s trying to write a satire of fake news — and my good friend Bill once pointed out that things that can’t be taken seriously also can’t be the subject of satire. You can roast “Star Trek” with good measure, but “Saturday Night Live” can’t be made more farcical or humorous. And Eco tries to do exactly that with his accoutrements of French menu brain dumps, historical character references (in this book, only the protagonist(s) is/are fictional, which makes this a satire of history as interpreted by a fiction writer). I bought this after purchasing a few books about Prague on Amazon (and having it show up in my recommendations, as I’ve bought other Eco books online), but it was a head fake best not followed.
25. “Game 7, 1986,” sports, Ron Darling, finished July 16.
Darling’s book is an exception to nearly every sports story in existence, in that it’s neither a heroic tale nor a tragedy of the commons — it’s a short story about a non-decision in what was arguably the largest game in Darling’s career (Game 7 of the 1986 World Series, versus the Red Sox, after the Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner incident that made Babe Ruth wave off multiple signs from above). Darling crafts a great baseball tale, dissecting the first third of a game to which he is more of a footnote than a central character. It’s sincere and transparent, and focuses on his various states of mind and his ability to manage them in parallel with being managed by Bobby Valentine. A perfect companion to Keith Hernandez’s book.
24. “Freeze Frame Revolution,” sci-fi, Peter Watts, finished July 14.
Technically a novella due to the length of the main body, but seriously a hard sci-fi novel in terms of concepts and depth. As the cover notes suggest, it’s a book about planning a revolution in a severely constrained environment in terms of space (literally), time, and ubiquitous surveillance. Partly the second generation of the themes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and infused with novel ideas about very, very long term space travel, hibernation and social structures, this one took me about as long to digest and think through as it did to read. Came highly recommended and for good reasons.
23. “Mother American Night,” biography, John Perry Barlow with Robert Greenfield, finished July 12.
Well worth waiting for this one — completed just days before Barlow died earlier this year, it’s not hyberbole to call it a “tour de force.” Barlow covers everything from his Wyoming family history to his sideways reconnection with Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There are portions that ramble and are not quite the narrative quality of the rest (namely his discourses on his relationships and romances) but on the whole, seeing how Barlow’s sense of independence, definition of freedom and interpretation of free speech started with ranching, evolved through the Grateful Dead community’s tape swaps and landed squarely in an institution that seeks to preserve the interpretation of free speech and communications on the internet makes this a must-read for just about everyone. It’s particularly timely and insightful; while I may not have always agreed with Barlow’s stances I found his arguments even-keeled, respectful and informed — good ingredients for our current course.
22. “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” music, James Campion, finished July 6.
Complete disclaimer: James Campion and I were high school classmates, four decades ago when the musical inspiration for this book struck. I’ve read all three of his music-related books, from the summer down-the-shore bar crawl of “Deep Tank Jersey” to the pulled back covers of Kiss’s “Destroyer” album in “Shout It Out Loud” to his latest, a sincere, deeply personal inspection of the musical life of Warren Zevon.
If you, like all college radio DJs of the 70s and 80s, loved the movie “FM” and Linda Ronstadt’s performance of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” in it, read the book to get the encyclopedic reference to the song, written and recorded by Warren Zevon. It’s hard to write a book like this without veering into the near spiritual grounds of hagiography; your love for the artist and his or her work spins up momentum to paint everything as wonderful if not life-changing and largely misunderstood. What Campion creates, though, with “Martyr” is a fair picture of a tortured artist who was under-appreciated. The stories from the studio musicians and the overall rock and roll albedo reflects back on Zevon’s career in a way that most readers will find illuminates some facets of their own lives. Given his interactions with Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel in the Los Angeles music scene, it’s fair to ask why Zevon’s music didn’t have broader appeal and more airplay — which is indirectly where Campion goes, through his examination of the lyrical, structural and narrative structure of a dozen songs and albums.
My friend Bill used to say that the best radio DJs — like WPLJ’s Pat St. John in the day — made you feel like you were sitting in their living rooms, listening to records and getting an insider’s view, rather than being on the receiving end of a broadcast reaching millions. That is precisely the experience you get with “Martyr” as well; for me it was a reference to a high school teacher (we all knew someone like him), how various albums intersected our own lives and the impressions we retain of where, when and how we listened to them. I loved the book for the same reasons that I can associated Peter Frampton’s cover of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” with a particular section of Beach Haven’s Long Beach Boulevard.
Campion descends through the layers of Zevon’s music gently, starting with the most literal interpretation of lyrics, then tying in the personal and contextual stories of Zevon’s life and relationships, and finally reaching for the intellectual threads that bind each album together and tie one to the next, a string of small buoys bobbing rather forlornly in a nearly forty year deep sea of rock music. It’s worth venturing out to explore them all
21. “Summerland,” sci-fi, Hannu Rajaniemi, finished July 1.
Weird and wonderful and wound through with wispy tendrils of Stross, HP Lovecraft, steampunk and Jo Walton’s alternative British histories. Rajaniemi writes spycraft and detective stories with style, and he introduces yet another half dozen scientific and fanciful devices that are left for the reader to imagine in full impact and description. What starts out as spy-versus-spy turns into an existential thought exercise on the meaning of life when there’s a redefined meaning of death, and without resorting to the preachy, maudlin or decoupled scientific analysis, “Summerland” romps to a satisfying conclusion. One of the few books this year that came before coffee on a Sunday morning. My only wish: another book or two set in this world, so we can learn more of the backstory of what-might-have-been-Marconi inventions.
20. “I’m Keith Hernandez,” sports, Keith Hernandez, finished June 24.
As Hernandez wasn’t your typical first baseman, his early career autobiography isn’t your typical kiss-and-tell or road to the championship travelogue. Instead, it’s a sincere look at just how hard it is to succeed at the highest level of anything, especially professional sports. What sets Hernandez’s auto-biography apart is his deep and frank analysis of self-doubt, self-confidence and the modulation between those two induced by strong parental influences. There are no extremes — he didn’t succeed because of his father or in spite of his helicopter style; he didn’t thrive because he was always the best or always the smallest/weakest/had the most to prove. Along the way, he pays appropriate tribute to players who have either been maligned (Pete Rose) or under-appreciated (Willie Stargell) and those greats with whom he played or was compared. He is as funny in prose as he is on the air, and he pulls no punches about the over-analysis and over-management of today’s game. If you can hear him on his book tour, by all means do so, because the anecdotes he fills in (from after 1979, when the book concludes, leaving the door open for a sequel) are well worth the price of admission.
19. “Gnomon,” sci-fi, Nick Harkaway, finished June 17.
Nick Harkaway writes near-future science fiction that is eerie and direct in its reflection of our current path while also layering multiple story lines and viewpoints in a style that’s vaguely symphonic. As you read, you see the echoes of characters in other narratives, wondering how many of them are actually the same personae in different settings, and how many are representatives of the same themes played out in distinct contexts. “Gnomon” is a dense and long book (well over 600 pages, discounting the chapter title page separators that just add to the page count) and as I progressed through it, each time I’d thought I had neatly delineated the characters and their relationships, the story took another turn or descended into another level of recursion. The self-reflection, self-reference, phase shifted and parallel views of some interpretation of reality — seen through the lenses of ubiquitous surveillance — create a narrative that constantly makes you question what’s real, what’s imaging, and quite literally who is who in the cast of characters. And I think that’s what Harkaway was going for — five tales including one from the future that you’re certain is the hard sci-fi part of the book, until you aren’t. Privacy, surveillance, the ad-driven economy, “if it’s free, you’re the product,” “you have no privacy, get over it,” “I have nothing to hide, so why do I worry about privacy,” and swatting all went through my mind. And I was vaguely reminded of Ada Palmer’s “Terra Ignota” series which deals in the same “who will watch the watchmen if all of the watchmen are us” thematic elements, also mixing a bit of historic drama with just enough here and now. It’s unusual for me to still be turning a book over in my mind a few days after its completion, and even more rare for me to decide to completely switch genres (from sci-fi to baseball in this case, and not just because I’ve just heard Keith Hernandez on his recent book tour) because I need to process what’s in the queue already.
18. “Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces,” non-fiction, Michael Chabon, finished May 20.
An ultra fast read that’s closer to novella length and significantly shorter than Chabon’s previous works of quasi-fiction, this one undid the good feelings I had about “Moonglow” and instead resonated as something of an apology — for his style of fatherhood, for his somewhat snarky persona, for not producing another full length book (it’s a collection of stories that appeared elsewhere). The first piece, about accompanying his son to Paris Fashion Week as a Bar Mitzvah gift, tries to be touching but instead comes out as an appeal to see the trip through the narrator’s eyes, rather than the true subject of the story. Maybe that’s what was intended, and I’m just too literal or myopic to see it. Or else I was tired of looking up more vocabulary words (again). My main complaint? Chabon quotes advice he was given that each child you have robs you of a potential novel, and he echoes that repeatedly, while I’ve felt for more than 25 years that my kids gave me the ability to write books, most of which are still in my head.
17. “Outwitting History,” Jewish history, Aaron Lansky, finished May 18.
A perfect book for a bibliophile. Lansky chronicles his interest in the Yiddish language and culture, and how it led him to rescue over a million volumes of Yiddish books from literal neglect in their old age. There is a certain phraseology, a set of nuances that are unique to Yiddish (and possibly one of the reasons so many Yiddish words migrated to English vernacular) and Lansky captures their history and their rightful place in written culture wonderfully. In addition to the typical stories about meeting elderly families who are all too happy to feed him and regale him with stories, Lansky provides an expose of how Yiddish ended up as a sandwich language, between the Pale of Settlement immigrants who saw it as a common thread and the emergency of modern Hebrew speakers who eschew the reminders of the Jewish ghettos.
16. “The Show That Never Ends,” music, David Weigel, finished May 11.
A history, current within a year or two, of the rise, fall, and rebirth of progressive rock. While the various incarnations of Yes figure prominently in the stories, this starts with the emergence of King Crimson (and Robert Fripp’s decades of distilling and reconstituting the band) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (hence the hat tip in the title) as the dominant forces of progressive rock. Weigel’s premises are solid — progressive rock was melding improvisational jazz with symphony-like constructions of themes and variations, and the Crim and ELP represented the extremes of both trends. The book follows the early prog band tracers into both metal-infused prog (Opeth, Coheed & Cambria) as well as Marillion and Porcupine Tree, highlighting the influence of Steve Wilson on the current brand of long-form song writing. At the same time, while given some early mentions, the Canterbury scene (Hatfield and the North, National Health, even Gong) seem a sidebar, Pink Floyd and their advances in stage production (The Wall, anyone?) are hard to find and the ultimate infusion of classical themes into eclectic and electric folk — Renaissance — are without mention. It’s easy to veer into “is it prog or not” and be so inclusive that this book would have topped four pounds and 1,000 pages, but it’s far from a complete history of progressive rock. Even with the limited rock band family trees, though, it’s a useful read and reinforced (for me) the jazz influence on prog rock, which partially explains my love of both forms, and equally underlines my interest in Phish (as an improvisational, push-the-edges of goofy musical exploration).
14. “Tomorrow’s Kin,” sci-fi, Nancy Kress, finished April 25.
15. “If Tomorrow Comes,” sci-fi, Nancy Kress, finished May 1.
Nancy Kress is a prolific writer and her world building skills are superb, giving her novels richness and consistency like a fine meal — you want to savor each ingredient and each subtle note, while eagerly waiting to see what comes next. The first book in a trilogy, the book veers away from the typical “aliens have landed and want to kill us” trope and instead explores “aliens have landed and are us” with all of the usual xenophobia, delirium and skepticism (some well founded) you’d expect.
Once again turning the sci-fi layout ninety degrees, part two of the “Yesterday’s Kin” trilogy takes us to the not-so-alien planet where all of the politics of a scientific occupying force are played out, building on the themes of the first book. Distrust of science, misgivings about the “others” and basic tribal loyalty all conspire to make this a superb middle book. I’m already eager for the final installment.
13. “Head On,” sci-fi, John Scalzi, finished April 22.
New Scalzi pre-ordered. Delivered, started the next day and finished within 48 reading hours. That tells you something about the pacing, the pleasure factor and the writing style, and I find it’s true of nearly everything Scalzi writes. The sequel to “Lock In” where the concepts and characters are introduced, “Head On” deals with violence in sports, racism, social justice, the self-referential world of venture funding, the politics of quasi-monopolies (whether sports leagues or consumer products), epidemic healthcare at epidemic scale and what private market forces might do in the near future. In short, it’s putting Men In Black, Any Given Sunday, To Live and Die in LA and The Sting into the blender and setting on “delightful puree.” As usual, there are touching moments interspersed with laugh out loud pages, and what detail Scalzi omits in his crime scenes he makes up for with the real content: people and their relationship to each other and technology that variably connects us.
12. “Close To The Edge: How Yes’s Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock”, music, Will Romano, finished April 18.
I’ll read just about anything that treats the music and musicians of Yes with respect, journalistic integrity and a healthy dose of humor to offset the typical self-serious nature of any progressive rock discussion. “Close To The Edge” is one of large, straight edged corner pieces in the puzzle of my musical experience and interests — starting with its live performance on “Yessongs” (the opening “Siberian Khatru” may be one of my favorite recordings ever) and the continuing onto a summer Sunday night, camped on the floor in a beach house in Harvey Cedars, NJ, the summer between junior and senior years of high school, working on a math puzzle (yes, I did math puzzles over the summer as kind of an off season training for math league). Listening to WYSP in Philadelphia (before CDs, before digital music, before I owned a Walkman) I heard all of “Close To The Edge” track as the Sunday night album, and really listened to it — the soaring arcs of the title track, the repeated themes of “And You And I” and what is to me some of Steve Howe’s defining guitar work with the semi-hollow body Gibson on “Siberian Khatru”. For 45 minutes I literally sat wrapped in odd time signatures, difficult chord progressions, higher level mathematics, tidal forces, and probably part of a Crust and Crumb bakery elephant ear, consuming during the commercial break when the LP was flipped over. Finally, my son and I got to see Yes perform all of the album, followed by a meet and greet, just before Chris Squire’s death, filling my mental notebook. It’s one of those albums that makes you hear something different each time, and that’s what Romano captures in this book — it’s as much the shoulder history of the band before and after the album as it is a discussion of how it came to be made, the classical symphonic, religious, literature and musical influences that peek through, and how the album represents a perfect storm of composition, performance and anti-establishment thinking. You’ve never heard any of the songs on a Top 40 radio station, yet anyone who loves progressive rock can sing their favorite riff. Romano’s book is a bit dense at times, and it uncovers all of the related historical context in sometimes excruciating detail. It’s not a bad book for that reason, but it can read more like a scholarly work than a rock and roll history lesson.
11. “Dark State,” sci-fi, Charles Stross, finished April 7.
After reading “Empire Games,” the first book in the Merchant Princes Multiverse series (that has 3 or 6 prequels that set the full backstory and context), I was intrigued, and “Dark State” is a great continuation of the story. Rather than relying on time travel and the inherent paradoxes in introduces, Stross uses the concept of diverging parallel timelines to construct a rich set of interlocking narratives about politics, family, power and history. You definitely have to read these in order (easier now that both are in print) and I’m sure there are nuances from the first Merchant Princes books that fill in some of the political gaps. The Appendix to “Dark State” is one of the best summaries of European history from 1600 to World War II ever written, and its point-counterpoint analogue discussion of one of the timelines in “Dark State” is one of the more powerful and useful pieces of exposition I’ve read in a long time. You can read the Appendix as a preface to the book, but then I think you’ll try to read additional insight and motive into the story; reading it afterward set up the next book and spurred a few “ah ha” revelations that were more subtly conveyed. It’s not the mildly snarky “Laundry Files” style, but it’s spycraft and state secrets and backroom power struggles with well composed characters, and now I’m waiting for January when the third book goes to print — not just to see who the Forerunners are/were/will be.
10. “Molly’s Game,” poker, Molly Bloom, finished March 24.
The source material for the same-titled movie, this is another romp through a high limit, highly private poker world much like that of “The Banker, The Professor and the Suicide King.” Bloom retraces her somewhat surreptitious steps from LA neophyte to executive game runner, describing the tension, the politics and the money involved, but saying almost nothing about the game itself. It’s a good rags to riches to rags again story, on par with “Wolf of Wall Street” or anything else that bumps into the ultra-high-end of any power-and-money play. [2020 comment: The book is much better than the movie, and more sincere]
9. “The Will To Battle,” sci-fi, Ada Palmer, finished March 19.
The third installment in the “Terra Ignota” series, and the densest (so far) of the three. Palmer takes the wonderful world she’s created — new global political organizations, post-scarcity transportation, energy and food economies, and a healthy dose of religious tension — and then grandly plays out tribal instincts, our belief in miracles vs science, trust, redemption, and synthetic family dynamics. It is the densest book I’ve read this year, with multiple voices, including a reflection of the reader who regularly breaks the implicit fourth wall of the drama so created. Historical, political science voices offer timeless and timely commentary as their thought experiments are conducted in the wild. The sense of grandeur and pomp is balanced by the rising tensions between the global factions, and that momentum carries a book which has the information richness of a textbook set in the plotlines of a murder mystery. Had European history been written from this perspective I might have paid attention in high school. Ada Palmer continues to push the bounds of what the “future present” means and how we should see — or hope to see — ourselves in it.
8. “Elysium Fire,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished February 25.
Reynolds creates worlds that test the asymptotic confidence limits of our behavioral, cognitive and human-machine interaction beliefs. He makes us think about good and evil, about very long term survival and retribution, and even about democracy as a multi-thousand year institution in different ways. The “Revelation Space” sub-series that starts with “The Prefect” now has, about a decade later, a proper and deeply designed sequel. “Elysium Fire” explores the themes of trust, identity, and basic detective work again but with richer explorations of the characters from “The Prefect.” His worlds are richly textured, and despite a few less-scientifically tenable bases (matter than can be manipulated by thought, and the idea of a spaceship having a “braking burn” versus turning around to thrust in the direction of travel) Reynolds creates another great story that makes me want to find out more about the context for the rest of “Chasm City.”
7. “How The Universe Got Its Spots,” science, Janna Levin, finished February 13.
The first real long read of the year, and not because of page count but due to page density. In my effort to read more science and music and fiction, and less space opera science fiction, this book stood out to me (mostly because I saw it featured in a book store in Austin). It’s a slice of life, a literal series of letters from Levin to her mother that explain some of the fundamental mathematical and physical puzzles of quantum physics without resorting to math or cheap analogies. On the other hand, because I felt like I was jumping into and out of Levin’s scientific career, there wasn’t a clear destination for the writing — I learned a few things, and the notion of a finite universe and associated curvature of space-time makes much more sense now than it did when force-fed during Physics 105. I was hoping for more insight into how theories develop or evolve, or how cross-discipline discovery takes root, and those moments in the book were like space itself — bright and rich in energy but spaced far apart.
6. “Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker,” poker, David Diamond, finished January 28.
It’s a book about Annie Duke rather than a book by her — so the typical erudite treatise on decision making, poker strategy, game theory and behavior psychology is instead a parallel story about Duke’s personal life and her first World Series of Poker tournament win. The book seems to focus more on her mental health than her mental strength, and as such isn’t as useful as a teaching tool. It reads, at times, like a long transcription of the ESPN coverage of the WSOP, but without the commentators deconstructing each player’s hand in real time. There are a few grammatical and one glaring poker error as well (there’s a nut straight constructed using three cards from the Omaha player’s hand, while the player did indeed have the nut straight but only using two cards to make a straight to a K, not an A — a minor detail but indicative of the emphasis on telling a human interest story about poker players rather than a poker playing story with a human angle). [2020 comment: I don’t think Annie Duke particularly likes the net result of this book, but it does complete the 360 view of her life from her own writing, the book below featuring her brother Howard and her TV appearances]
5. “The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King,” poker, Michael Craig, finished January 25.
Once I get into a theme or author, I tend to follow it to its closure, reading as much of the author’s work or the subject’s threads as I can. After finishing Annie Duke’s latest and summarizing my list of poker books I decided to go back and fill in the rest of the Lederer/Duke family written history: this book that prominently features Annie’s brother Howard Lederer (“The Professor”). The fairly linear narrative pits Howard and a cast of poker legends in a series of the all-time richest poker games played in Vegas for tens of millions of dollars. Andy Beal, the banker, a self-taught high stakes poker player and risk aficionado is traced from his bankroll roots in distressed banking services to his desire to play the Sky Masterston sized players in Vegas. There is some insight into both Beal’s and his opponent’s strategies, but this is more a glimpse into how the higher end of the poker spectrum functions: players investing in each other, maintaining six figure piles of chips or cash, and setting boundaries on their risk appetite and tolerance. It’s not a poker book but does paint a picture of the type of mental fortitude needed to play at that level.
4. “Thinking In Bets,” business/sports/non-fiction, Annie Duke, finished January 21.
Annie Duke is best known as a professional poker player and author of poker oriented books, but in “Thinking In Bets” retraces her academic history — it’s a business book, a strategy book, a behavioral psychology book, an organizational effectiveness book and of course has residual elements of a poker book at its core. It is, quite simply, one of the best business books and actionable management books I have read in years — it’s up there with Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One.” If you’re wondering what Pete Carroll’s pass play call at the end of the 2014 Super Bowl, Steve Bartman’s interference in the Cubs playoff game that eventually forced him out of Chicago, legal strategists, poker professional Phil Ivey and corporate planning have in common, buy and read, then re-read Duke’s book.
I digested an advanced reader’s copy of the book, and it’s one of the few things I’ve annotated as I went, making notes that I’ve used in staff meetings and 1:1 discussions in the last few weeks. The whole thing reads the way you’d expect and want; it’s like talking to Annie Duke in your living room with the right blend of snark, deep insights wrapped in powerful examples, and force. I’ve read several dozen business and strategy books, and most of them paint generic pictures of leadership or organizational behavior — “Thinking In Bets” actually lays out a map for where your decision making processes (and as a result, leadership and organizational acumen) are deficient, and how to build a self-improvement plan to address those shortcomings. It’s a bit of personal coaching in a purely positive direction, which is as rare as it is helpful.
Here are just some of the things I took away:
Resist the urge to associate bad outcomes (Seahawks losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl) with bad decisions (Pete Carroll’s play call was backing by solid data). My concern is that as we make continued investments in data science and analytics, we will tend to use that data for “resulting” rather than supporting the quality of decisions, and we’ll end up with many fewer aggressive or game-changing decisions.
We can improve the way in which we collect and vet data, and that process may challenge some of our assumptions (one of my immediate reactions was that adopting this line of thinking actually addresses the closely held belief firewall that Matt Inman addresses in his “belief” comic)
Some decision paths have hysteresis — even if you end up at the same outcome, the path you take to get there may be different and therefore your valuation of the outcome is different. The example Duke dissects is winning $1,000 and then losing $900 of it back, versus losing $1,000 and winning $900 back — you’re likely to be happier you “only lost” $100 versus the outcome where you “only won” $100.
We have to imagine the future impacts of our decisions, which involves scenario planning, careful consideration of risks and future inputs (information) we may or may not see, and some of that future-proofing involves changing our reward valuation such that we are able to break consistently bad or ill-informed decision making processes.
Sound like a lot? It is. It’s a dense book. I read it in parallel with a some “lighter” science fiction because I found I had to turn over some of the ideas in my mind and think about both how I’ve personally exhibited some of the impairing behaviors, and how I could better use these strategies in my professional and personal domains.
[2020 comment: Two years later, this doesn’t seem like an over the top review as much as the basis for my recommending this book to any number of friends and co-workers, and using some of the techniques Duke unravels to deal real world work situations. I believe careful references here helped me land my current job.]
3. “Points of Impact,” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished January 22.
I continue to read the “Frontlines” series by Marko Kloos because they are fast paced and the military writing is excellent. When I pick up a space opera, I want some facet of it to be entirely accurate — the Newtonian physics of space flight, the quantum physics of information flow, the hand to hand physics of battle. In the seventh installment in the series Kloos digs into the life of the veteran soldier; it doesn’t matter who the enemy is (and it’s the same alien enemy, faceless and massive as in the previous books) because it’s more about fighting the feeling of always fighting. Kloos manages to tease apart different aspects of the characters, this time revisiting scenes of previous books to add to the context. There’s definitely an end in sight — whether it’s one or three books out, regular readers feel like they’re catapulting along to the conclusion.
2. “Seven Surrenders”, sci-fi, Ada Palmer, finished January 12.
1. “Too Like The Lightning”, sci-fi, Ada Palmer, finished January 3.
I’m not really sure how to describe this — it’s a pastiche of Dune, Anne Leckie’s challenging use of gender, and Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway” post-scarcity but post-1% of 1% secret society, mixed with a set of mysteries worthy of the depth and creepiness of China Mieville, with a careful sprinkling of Doestyevsky’s context sensitive naming. It seems Ada Palmer is on most of my favorite authors “ones to watch” informal lists, and this novel is why — it’s dense, wonderfully constructed, challenging in terms of narrative structure and multiple intersecting plotlines, and I think it reads as Palmer intended — four centuries future interpreting the late 18th century French monarchy. Whether you look for explorations of tribalism, theology, human-computer interaction, the richness of data or just the distilled essence of humanity, it’s in the Terra Ignota series.
The continuation of the first part of “Terra Ignota” is denser and richer in palace intrigue than the opening book, and draws on Palmer’s knowledge of classic literature. More theological and even a bit deus ex machina, the story continues to explore a future utopia which has been conflict free for three centuries — except where the conflicts are small scale, surgically precise and craftily hidden. How the global politics revert to the mean while Palmer presents half a dozen views, names and faces of a deity make for a much faster paced story than “Too Like The Lightning” while also setting the stage for the eventual conflict you knew was coming.