Catching up on books I’ve read

It’s been a while since I looked back on books I’ve read, but I had a little spare time, so…

The climate swerve: reflections on mind, hope, and survival by Robert Jay Lifton: A short book that ties the environmental movement to the anti-nuclear movement. Lifton makes the point that the anti-nuke movement is a useful model, because, like the climate crisis, it involves an existential crisis.

She who waits by Daniel Polansky: In this urban, noir, fantasy novel, "She Who Waits" is the goddess of death. The final in a trilogy of books, this one gets pretty dark. It’s a solid noir story though, if you’re into that kind of thing.

On fragile waves by E. Lily Yu: The story of an Afghani family illegally emigrating to Australia and applying for refugee status. Humanizing and powerfully tragic.

No gods, no monsters by Cadwell Turnbull: I don’t have strong memories about this one. The premise: how would people collectively react if monsters were proven to be real? Turns out, they wouldn’t do much. Some interesting ideas in here, but it didn’t really stick with me.

A deadly education and The last graduate by Naomi Novik: What if there was a school of magic, but it tried to kill its students? This is a fun spin on the Harry Potter thing.

The builders by Daniel Polansky: A group of bandits seek revenge. Only they’re all animals. Pretty great short little yarn.

The shortest history of China by Linda Jaivin: I realized I didn’t have a great sense of the grand arcs of Chinese history. This one filled in that gap. Extremely readable, but very light.

Gentlemen and players by Joanne Harris: A satisfying whodunnit. I mostly had no idea what was going to happen until the very, very end.

Everything we miss by Luke Pearson: I had completely forgotten about this one. It’s a comic about how things like depression can blind us to the world around us. Short, but powerful. (Unfortunately, for me, not very memorable.)

Just one damned thing after another by Jodi Taylor: The first in a long series of time travel novels. Pretty entertaining, but I feel like I got what I needed out of the first one. Probably won’t read more of them.

Real tigers by Mick Herron: A group of washed out British spies. This one is #3 in the series, I think? Pretty great. The books in these series are pretty interchangeable. If you like one, you’ll probably like the others.

Hero of two worlds: the Marquis de Lafayette and the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan: The story of how Lafayette played a crucial role in both the American and French revolutions. Fascinating stuff!

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline: I could see Cline struggling to address the problems and issues raised by the first book. He somewhat succeeded in exploring the problems with having absolute power. Interesting, but extremely light.

Living in data: a citizen’s guide to a better information future by Jer Thorp: A poetical meditation on the data milieu we’re all swimming through. Extremely worthwhile.

The dangers of smoking in bed by Mariana Enríquez: A powerful set of short stories. Very much in the vein of magical realism a la Gabriel García Márquez.

Everything now: lessons from the city-state of Los Angeles by Rosecrans Baldwin: A love letter to LA. I’d never want to move to LA, but this book helped me understand why people want to.

Subcutanean 36619 by Aaron A. Reed: An interesting experiment in procedurally generated novel writing. A story about parallel universes. If you order a copy from the author, it will be a little bit different from other copies.

The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams: I loved the Memory, Sorry, and Thorn trilogy. This is a follow up trilogy. A meditation on middle age, legacy, and the folly of youth. I’ll definitely read the rest.

Continuous discovery habits: discover products that create customer value and business value by Teresa Torres: A book I read for work. Some useful insights here.

Children of the fang and other genealogies by John Langan: Horror short stories. Some pretty chilling stuff.

The Rift by Nina Allan: A girl’s older sister disappears without a trace and then apparently reappears decades later. Powerful stuff.

Into the wild by Erin Hunter: The first of the Warriors series. I read this because my kid is super into this series and I wanted to see what it was all about. I can see why these are appealing and we had a great chat about it, after.

The invisible life of Addie Larue by VE Schwab: A woman is cursed by the devil to live forever and never be remembered. Compelling reading. I enjoyed it a lot.

All systems red by Martha Wells: The first of the Murderbot stories. I see why people have been raving about these books.

LaserWriter II by Tamara Shopsin: The story of an Apple repair shop in NYC in the 90s. Extremely charming. Captures a moment in time that’s long gone.

The lathe of heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin: A psychiatrist hypnotizes a man into altering reality. The protagonist is a true Taoist hero. Mesmerizing and deeply weird.

The Rosewater insurrection by Tade Thompson: Science fiction centered in Nigeria instead of, as per usual, the United States. This is a sequel in the Wormwood trilogy.

House of chains by Steven Erikson: Book 4 in the Malayan series. This was a reread. The best I’ve read so far in epic fantasy.

Books I liked in 2021

The Lido by Libby Page: A sweet and charming story about a very old woman and a very young woman who team up to save their local community pool. (“Lido” is an English word for swimming pool, I gather.)

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd: A love letter to a Scottish mountain range called the Cairngorms. A masterpiece of nature writing and just writing in general. Lovely.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault: A retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. Vivid and creative. Makes sense of some of the nonsense in that story, while still keeping that mythic resonance that has kept that story alive for so long.

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer: Environmental noir, I guess. Sparse and occasionally surreal, it very much captures the alienation created by all the devices and gadgets we surround ourselves with.

The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South by Kenneth Stampp: Round and round we go. Slavery in this country was worse than you can imagine. But you don’t need to take my word for it. This exhaustive (and exhausting) historical work from the 1960s punctures and deflates all of the positive mythologizing about the Ante-Bellum South. To my mind, it’s better to stare unflinching into this historical mire than to pretend it wasn’t really as bad as it was.

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson: I read a lot of serious books this year. Sometimes a book comes along that’s like a skeleton key for making sense of our current moment. This is one of those books. Extremely worthwhile. (And led to a really great conversation in my book club.)

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: A science fiction novel that dares to imagine what it would take to start restoring our planet instead of continuing to despoil it. There is some exceptionally clear and well-written science writing in here. Not an easy feat!

The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern: The years from 1880-1918 were a baffling and confusing time when longstanding conceptions of things like time, space, speed, history, and many other things were flipped on their heads. I’ve got a feeling we’re living through a similarly conceptually disruptive time.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard: There’s not much to admire about Ancient Rome, but there’s a lot to learn from, especially about how systems of power persist regardless of what personality is stuck at the top of the heap.

One for the Books by Joe Queenan: A book by a reader about reading. This guy’s a real kindred spirit.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman: A kids book about a magical train. I cried. And then my kid cried. So sweet and sad.

Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry Prizant: Even now, autism is poorly understand. To my mind, autism is not something to be fixed. If there’s any problem, it’s in people’s unwillingness to tolerate difference. If you meet people where they are, the world opens up in a delightful way.

The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow (written by a college friend of mine): There’s a marvelous focus on nature in this novel that spans a hundred years or so. An exquisite eye for detail and sheer joy about nature come through so vividly in the writing here.

The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (1490-1530) by Patrick Wyman: A historical work about a period of time that marked a stark transition to a new way of thinking about the world. Also provides an answer to the question: how did the historical and geographical backwater that was Europe become the dominant force in the world for a few hundred years?

Hero of Two Worlds: the Marquis de Lafayette and the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan: Read it for Lafayette’s strong moral clarity. Here’s a guy who knew what was right and wasn’t afraid to sacrifice everything for it. A real mensch.

Living in Data: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Information Future by Jer Thorp: A lovely little book that breathes life and poetry into “data”. I found it useful for thinking about the systems of data we all swim within these days.

Everything Now: Lessons from the City-State of Los Angeles by Rosecrans Baldwin: A love letter to the city of LA. A beautiful and lovely piece of writing.

Remembering the last books I read (part 4)

The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature by Christopher Slatsky: A book of horror short stories. They do the job and do it well.

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer: Some pretty good stories by some pretty great writers. I do think it’s tough for people to imagine better futures these days. I definitely felt a bit of strain in these stories.

Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich: Food for thought. A solid critique of the technosocial systems we find ourselves in. The path forward, not so clear.

Quietus by Tristan Palmgren: What if aliens arrived, but it was medieval Europe? This book was delightfully weird.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman: My kid and I both cried while reading this.

Ballistic Kiss by Richard Kadrey: Book 11 (?) in the Sandman Slim series. These books are so fun. Hard to believe they’re almost done. Even harder to believe they haven’t made tv or movies out of this yet.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland: Time travel! A fun read. I could definitely tell which was Galland and which Stephenson, though. She brought some warmth, which isn’t always there.

Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism by Barry M. Prizant: Along with Neurotribes, I’d recommend this to anyone who wants deeper insight into this thing we call autism. Bottom line: you need to meet people where they are, autism or no.

The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow: A novel written by a college chum of mine. Not what I was expecting! Some truly exceptional nature writing in this one. Really tops. Led to a great book club conversation.

Remembering the last books I read (part 3)

False Hearts by Laura Lam: A strange sci-fi thriller about separated conjoined twins who grew up in a cult. I wanted it to be weirder, haha.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard: The point that stuck with me is that the historical gossip, in essence, about the Roman emperors distracts from history about empire itself. Also, that there really isn’t much to admire about ancient and inperial Rome, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

Death or Glory by Rick Remender: A comic that’s got some real Mad Max vibes. The death count is sky high in this one, but the hero’s got some charm.

One for the Books by Joe Queenan: A book about reading by a guy who reads more than I do. I got some great recommendations from this one. Also, I appreciated the time I spent with this fellow reader.

The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World by Patrick Wyman: The story of how a set of interrelated systems and innovations led to Europe’s domination of the world. An excellent work of history.

Coda by René Belletto: A strange little novel about a perpetual motion machine, a small mystery, and the end of time. I dug it.

Bubble by Jordan Morris: I didn’t realize this was a comic when I put a hold on it at the library. Science fantasy, post-apocalypse, plus Uber-as-monster-slaying. Light but fun.

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler: So funny. Really nails the vacuousness of social media. I didn’t throw my phone into the sea after reading it, but it’s not an unreasonable impulse.

Remembering the last books I read (part 2)

(The last one got too long so I’m continuing it here.)

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch: What if the version of you from a parallel reality is kind of a jerk? What if they all are? A thriller where the protagonist’s biggest problem is himself. A good airplane book (even though I didn’t read it on an airplane).

Imaro by Charles R. Saunders: An African Conan-style sword-and-sorcery story. Pretty raw and visceral. I can easily imagine an alternate timeline where these stories were immensely popular.

The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern: A book that explores the way that 1880-1918 was a period of time that shattered the way people thought about things like time, distance, speed, history, tradition, and many other things. Really fascinating stuff. There are a lot of tracks to follow out of this one.

Broken Souls by Stephen Blackmoore: Turns out I’ve been reading a lot of books by guys named Steve. This is a supernatural noir story about a guy who occasionally has good intentions but whose efforts generally cause bad repercussions to everyone around him. A quick, fun read. Also, a sequel of a book I didn’t read, which didn’t end up mattering much.

Questland by Carrie Vaughan: Shades of Ready Player One, but this time it’s a deadly amusement park. An extremely light, quick read.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman: This collector of obscure historical memorabilia gets embroiled in a mystery surrounding a Nazi entymologist. There’s a boxer character in this book that’s a pure delight.

Rabbits by Terry Miles: The only alternate reality game (ARG) novel I’ve read that really gets at how thin the line is between these games and unhinged conspiratorial thinking. Quite entertaining. Delightfully weird. Set in Seattle, which I enjoyed.

Meeting the Other Crowd: Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland by Edmund Lenihan: Stories transcribed from around Ireland. Strange and delightful.

Everyday Chaos: Technology, Complexity, and How We’re Thriving in a New World of Possibility by David Weinberger: I found this book interesting, but I remember almost nothing from it. I expect it was due back at the library and I read it too quickly.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson: The subtitle says it all. It’s pretty funny, but also has some useful thoughts on living with mental illness.

Family Ties by Clarice Lispector: I think I read this but I have absolutely no memory of what it’s about. Did I read it? I don’t know why my past self would’ve written it down if I hadn’t. … Ah, it’s a book of short stories. I remember it now. I think I liked them.

The Memory Theater by Karin Tidbeck: A novel about the terror and boredom of timeless immortality. Also, about the power of stories. An extremely odd book that I found fascinating.

The Lost Direction by Timothy S. Boucher: (A friend of mine.) I think Tim is calling this book’s genre “lorecore”. A secret history of an ancient, lost civilization. Deeply charming. If like Tolkien (or other) fictional lore, you’d probably enjoy this one.

Remembering the last books I read (part 1)

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson: The third in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. A much tighter book than Gardens of the Moon. This was the book where I knew this series was something special. Pretty bleak. On a second read, I was extremely impressed by how many seeds were planted that bore rich fruit throughout the series.

Batman: Last Knight on Earth by Scott Snyder: All I remember of this one is that it was extremely surreal. A fever dream. But the art was cool.

The Lido by Libby Page: Before this year, I’d never encountered the word “lido”. Apparently, it’s a British term for a public swimming pool. A charming story about a neighborhood coming together to save their swimming pool. Also, the story of an old woman and a young woman becoming friends over swimming. Heartwarming in the best way.

Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson: The third book in the Malazan series. This is the one where I feel like the series really starts to come together, even though this is a looser, baggier story than Deadhouse Gates. Some of my favorite characters in the series were introduced here.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: A bleak, wintry novel about death and human-caused environmental devastation. Also, murder. Really solid writing. Recommended. I had only recently heard the term “ice dam” and then encountered it in this book. Funny how that happens.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd: Exquisite nature writing. A beautiful, lovely meditation on the Cairngorms mountains in Scotland. Worth your time, even if you don’t think you’re into nature writing.

The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharo Tsuge: A comic about a lazy man with exceptionally poor business ideas. Bleak but quite funny.

The King Must Die by Mary Renault: A retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. I’m super into these creative reimaginings of ancient stories. Really good stuff.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: Shakespeare and his son. A story about a plague. I wasn’t sure about this one at first, but O’Farrell stuck the landing, which moved this from good to great for me.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi: Part two of a trilogy. Very readable. An emperor that doesn’t really want to be one plus an empire that’s dying but doesn’t know it yet. I’ll definitely read the third one.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: I really, really liked her first book. This sequel is quite good, too. Highly recommended (but you probably want to start with the first one).

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots: A book that tries to reckon with the human cost of superhero antics. An interesting spin on the superhero genre.

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer: Another by one of my favorite authors. I guess you could call this one ecological noir. VanderMeer seems to swing between surreal and a more realistic, minimalist writing. This is one where he’s more restrained. Recommended.

The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South by Kenneth M. Stampp: Punctures many, if not all, of the false mythologies of the slave-holding South. Paints a stark and upsetting picture of a time that some in our country seem to think was just a grand ole time. Well worth a read, especially if you want some deeper insight into why the USA operates in such perverse and self-destructive ways at times.

Feed by MT Anderson: People have computers implanted in their brains and, turns out, it’s mostly used for advertising. One of the more compelling and creative teen dystopia novels I’ve read.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson: Makes the compelling, well-researched, and personally engaging point that the USA’s problem isn’t racism so much as a race-based caste system. Another one that’s very much worth your time. Thought-provoking!

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox: A charming, jumble of a book. Angels, demons, fairies, talking crows, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. Sometimes it seems like an author just has so many ideas, tumbling round and round, just bursting out. I had no idea where this book was going but I found it to be a pretty satisfying ride.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: A clear-eyed take on our climate dilemma that also manages to avoid complete doom and gloom. All about the hard work it’s going to take to tackle the challenges ahead. Robinson is an excellent science writer and describes complex scientific and technical concepts with great clarity.

Some books I read that I only vaguely remember…

(Can a person read too many books? If one measures by how well one can recall them, perhaps I’m in the “too many” camp.) Here are some books I read, but I only vaguely recall. And I only read them last year!

Something Is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV: A monster-slaying comic about a (pretty evil) secret society of monster-slaying folks. I thought the art was pretty great, even if the story felt a little … rote? Oh yeah, the gimmick is that only kids can see the monsters. I could be more generous with this one. I probably would have enjoyed this a lot more in my 20s, when I had a larger appetite for stuff that’s “dark” and “edgy”.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada: I read this one because Shimada is considered the “father” of the Shin-Honkaku (New Orthodox) genre of mystery novels in Japan. I’m fascinated by books that inspire entire new genres of writing. The deal with Shimada is that he loved mystery stories, like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, but got frustrated that you couldn’t solve the mysteries from the clues provided in the fiction itself. Shin-Honaku stories give you everything you need to solve the mystery in the story itself. A kind of super extended puzzle. There’s even a point in this book where the author jumps in and says, basically: You know everything you need to know to solve this mystery. Don’t go any further if you want to solve it on your own! The characters are pretty flat, but they’re not really the point of the story. I thought this book was intriguing and pretty unlike other mysteries I’ve read.

The Drowned World by JG Ballard: A post-apocalyptic world flooded by global warming. It felt very much like a book written in the 60s. At the sentence level, pretty fantastic. The plot was pretty forgettable. There’s a way in which this captured the emotional weight of living in a completely unforgiving environment that was quite powerful. Also, the thought of a flooded, jungle England is pretty horrifying in itself. This probably isn’t his best book. I found it in my free little library, I think.

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg: I’m sorry to say I absolutely no recollection of this book. [quick detour on the internet] Oh! It’s a book of short stories. That’s probably why I didn’t remember much from it. OK, yeah, I remember there was this one short story about a woman who has a job dressing up as Bigfoot that was quite good and definitely worth reading.

Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design by Kat Holmes: A short book that makes these two (among others) super valid points:
1. We’re all of us going to experience being disabled at some point in our lives, either permanently or temporarily, so we should be more mindful about the affordances we provide.
2. When designing something physical or digital, considering the needs of more than just men, for example, will lead to better designs.
I think I would’ve gotten more out of this if I were a designer, but there were a lot of great and specific examples in here.

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer: A friend of mine really wanted me to read this, so I did. :) As New Age, self-help books go, this is pretty good. Specific, not too much in the way of incomprehensible nonsense, and ultimately pretty pragmatic. Definitely useful for someone who finds themselves bedeviled by their brain’s internal monologuing.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez: Impossible to argue with this book’s fundamental premise. The world is designed by and for men, which leaves more than 50% of the human population out in the cold. A super important book that more people should read.