Ben Crowder

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Booknotes 1.6

Nonfiction

As far as A Distant Mirror goes, I spoke too soon. Mired in the uninteresting-to-me Battle of Poitiers, I ended up abandoning the book once more. I now expect this to be a tome I read over several years, a hundred pages here and a hundred there. Which is something I’ve come to terms with.

I just finished John Seabrook’s The Song Machine, which I read in the hope of learning more about the process behind creating hit songs — anthropologically, not as something I intend to try myself. The dissonance between the hits the book covered and my own taste in music (film scores, some Broadway, hymns), however, ended up being strong enough that I didn’t really care for the history. Probably should have bailed early on. People who like pop and rock and hip hop, though, would probably like this book. (I hate earworms. So. Much.)

And mere minutes ago I began Madeleine Albright’s Madam Secretary, about her time as U.S. Secretary of State. Memoirs sometimes irritate me — overall, I think I’ve found that I prefer biographies — but I’m hoping this one doesn’t veer in that direction. And apparently this is the curmudgeon post where I get all my kvetching in.

Fiction

Shimmerdark ended well. Enjoyed it.

After that, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The haunting Arthurian atmosphere was delicious, though I wish there had been more actual Arthurian elements. (Which just means I need to go find those sorts of books. This book doesn’t actually need to change.) Lovely prose, lovely character voices (or voice, rather — they all felt somewhat the same to me, but in a wonderful way that felt appropriate to the storytelling). And the boatman metaphor! Whew. I read The Remains of the Day just over a year ago and loved it, and I’m looking forward to Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun.

Lastly, I picked Cryptonomicon back up again and am now a third of the way through. Definitely earthy. Also, I knew that Stephenson is notorious for what you might call info dumps, but they’ve turned out to be fascinating, and the writing is so compelling and readable that I actually look forward to them almost as much as I do the story itself.


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Booknotes 1.5

The issue in which we drop the bullets. (In the lists, that is.)

Nonfiction

Eyes in the Sky was good but didn’t click with me as much as I’d hoped. I’d still recommend it to anyone interested in aerial surveillance, though. Or anyone who wants to be a little creeped out.

Next I read James Gleick’s Genius, a biography of Richard Feynman. A bit slow in places thanks to the physics details (which I should have expected if I’d thought about it at all), but overall I very much enjoyed it. History of science is my jam. (I should mention too that a few years ago I read and liked Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.) Looking forward to reading Gleick’s books on chaos and information theory.

After a six-month hiatus, I’ve again picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and it is deliciously good. Perhaps not the right choice of words given that the section I returned to was all about the Black Death, but in a bizarre plot twist the book now feels like a cozy comfort read. I do not understand myself. At any rate, what I’ve found lately is that A Distant Mirror rewards a slower, savoring pace, which I wasn’t prepared to commit to six months ago. With eight hundred pages left, I suspect I’ll be reading this one for months.

Fiction

The City of Brass was great — fantasy novels set in the djinn-haunted deserts of the Middle East are apparently my thing. I can’t remember if I’ve actually read any others (The Phoenix and the Carpet, maybe? I was a kid at the time and don’t remember anything about it except that there was a lot of sand), but I want more. Recommendations, please.

Next I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Quirky typographic pseudohistory is also very much my thing. Robin’s newsletters are always a delight, too. Looking forward to Sourdough.

I started Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon but shelved it after twenty or thirty pages because it was too similar in time period to Genius. It’s daunting because of its length, but I hope to get back to it soon.

After that I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. Bizarre postapocalyptic biotech with a three-story-tall murderous flying bear. Great writing. Weird as heck. (Which is refreshing once in a while. I particularly like it as a reminder that a string of words on page or screen can conjure incredible magic in the mind.)

Next: Will Wight’s Skysworn, fourth in the Cradle series. These have workmanlike, windowpane prose ala Sanderson, which lately does not spark much joy for me. But the action is compelling enough that here I am four books in and still planning to read the rest.

And now I’m just over halfway through Sarah Mensinga’s Shimmerdark, which came out a couple weeks ago and is great. It didn’t hook me until about a third of the way in, but then things got much, much more interesting in several ways. (Back in September I read Sarah’s novel Currently and really liked it. Shimmerdark is even better.)


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Booknotes 1.4

Nonfiction

  • I finished Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. Great biography, studded with interesting detail that was new to me. (Which is no great surprise. I believe I read Franklin’s autobiography when I was young, but that’s it.) The bits about invention and science and the forging of America caught my interest as expected, but the feeling that lingers for me is melancholy, rooted in Franklin’s distance and coldness toward his wife and children. Heartbreaking.
  • After that I read Ken Kocienda’s Creative Selection, about his time at Apple working on Safari and the iOS keyboard. Not heartbreaking at all. Enjoyed the history. (Books about how particular pieces of software were developed are right up my alley.)
  • Just yesterday I finished Will Hunt’s Underground, about caves and cataphiles and the Mole Man of Hackney. Fascinating throughout, but claustrophobia had me wanting to get it over with as quickly as I could. Not joking. Still recommended, though.
  • I’m twenty pages into Arthur Holland Michel’s Eyes in the Sky, about satellite surveillance and Gorgon Stare. Good so far. Gorgon Stare is an amazing name.

Fiction

  • Finished The Bone Shard Daughter. Enjoyed it. Some good twists I didn’t see coming.
  • Also read Robert B. Parker’s Ceremony, part of his Spenser series. I try to occasionally read other genres to expand my palate, but more and more I’m finding that realistic, gritty crime is very much not my thing. This book turned out to be seedy and disturbing and a bit past my comfort level, but completionist tendencies made me finish it (admittedly with liberal skimming). I’m done with the Spenser series, though. And somewhat dumbfounded that I made it this far into it.
  • As a palate cleanser, I read Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. It was good! My favorite stories were “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, “Exhalation,” “Omphalos,” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom.” I wish Ted Chiang were a faster writer with dozens of books already in print. (But that would probably shatter what I like about his work.)
  • And I’m now halfway through S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass. Enjoying it. The real-world geographical references continue to throw me — my brain remains utterly convinced the book takes place in a secondary world — but it’s not a big deal.

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Booknotes 1.3

Nonfiction

  • Finished How Asia Works. The third section was on finance and…it turns out I don’t really care about finance. Maybe someday that’ll change, but I’m not there yet. That section was a murky slog through which I forced myself in the misguided hope that perhaps I’d pick up enough contextual clues to, you know, have a clue what it all meant. Overall, though, the book was excellent. The manufacturing section is still my favorite of the bunch.
  • I’ve resumed reading Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin biography, which I’d put on the backburner when I started serializing my reading. About a quarter of the way in, and wow, it’s eminently readable. Loving it. By the way, I have a profound weakness for books about inventors and scientists and (less common) printers, so if you have any good recommendations, please send them my way.

Fiction

  • Finished Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and liked it very much, even though there’s basically no magic and it’s pretty much fantasy Rome. Glad I still have most of K. J. Parker’s books left to read. (Shadow is the only other of his that I’ve read. And some short stories years ago.)
  • I’m a quarter of the way through Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter. It’s hitting a lot of good, intriguing points for me (in the vein of mysterious things happening) and I’m looking forward to the rest.

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Booknotes 1.2

  • Here we are again, two months later. Aiming to get back into the weekly habit, but this may end up being a more sporadic season.
  • I bumped my daily reading goal back up to 100 pages, and I also serialized my reading so I only read one nonfiction and one fiction at a time. Without that, I’ve found that I ignore the harder books and keep returning to the easier ones. Serialization forces me to make progress with books I might otherwise abandon (but that I still want to finish).

Nonfiction

  • It’s been a while since I read The Ghost Map, but it was quite good. Not as much about maps as I’d been hoping for, but that wasn’t a problem.
  • After that I read Seven at Sea by Erik and Emily Orton, about their family taking up sailing and spending a year or so living on a boat. My wife read it with her book group and, with one of my friends embarking on a similar journey with their family around the same time, it caught my interest. The book was a mixed bag for me, but I’m still glad I read it.
  • Next up: Jennifer Steinhauer’s The Firsts, about several of the women who were elected to Congress in 2018 (AOC, Ilhan Omar, etc.). Really liked it.
  • And then there was Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day. I had high hopes for this book, expecting to glean some good, actionable productivity advice. I was disappointed. About the only thing I got out of it was this passage: “The chief beauty about the constant supply of time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoilt, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your career. Which fact is very gratifying and reassuring. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose. Therefore no object is served in waiting till next week, or even until tomorrow. You may fancy that the water will be warmer next week. It won’t. It will be colder.” Which is great. The rest, not so much (for me).
  • I read Coretta Scott King’s autobiography, Coretta. Loved it. The first half was much more interesting to me, but I’m still glad I read the second half (post-assassination).
  • Thanks to serializing my reading, I finally finished Morris Hicky Morgan’s translation of Vitruvius’s The Ten Books of Architecture. This book was much more delightfully wide-ranging than I’d expected, with commentary on astronomy and machines and art, among other things. (Vitruvius had it out for non-realistic art, let me tell you. Fantasy was not his thing at all.)
  • I’m currently almost halfway through Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works, an economic analysis of why some Asian countries have taken off economically and others haven’t. It’s a bit slower going for me since I haven’t read much economics yet, but still quite readable and overall I’m learning a lot and loving it (especially this middle section on manufacturing, though the agriculture section was also fascinating).

Fiction

  • The Gameshouse turned out middling for me, which was a mild surprise since I’ve really liked the other books by Claire North that I’ve read (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch). I loved the Venetian setting, though.
  • After that I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Borders of Infinity, a novella in her Vorkosigan series. Well done as usual.
  • I also read Andrew Rowe’s On the Shoulders of Titans, second in his Arcane Ascension series. Definitely popcorn gamelit for me, which I like as an occasional thing but I can’t read too much of it in close succession.
  • And then James S. A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes, sixth in the Expanse series. It was okay, I think, but I don’t know that I liked it as much as some of the earlier books in the series. Not sure why. I do, however, like seeing how drastically things in that universe have changed since the first book.
  • After that I read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance. Glad I still have eight or nine Vorkosigan books left. (I’ve been metering them out so they last longer. Ditto for Discworld. Which reminds me, I’m about due to start Guards! Guards!)
  • Also read Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth. I loved it, and in thinking about it afterwards, that’s pretty much entirely because of the voice. Looking forward to reading everything Tamsyn writes. (As is usually the case with these novels, by the way, I would love the book even more if it were free of objectionable content. I don’t know why I feel the need to disclaim that, but there you go.)
  • I got partway through Matt Larkin’s Darkness Forged and then bailed since it got a little bit too explicit for me, and the voice wasn’t really doing it for me. I do look forward to reading more Norse-inspired fantasy, though.
  • I’m now a fifth of the way through K. J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and it’s great so far. More engineer protagonists, please.

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Booknotes 1.1

  • Weeknotes are dead, long live booknotes. In the interest of experimentation and partly because weeknotes were starting to lose their appeal for me, I’m retiring that format. In its place: booknotes. They’ll be effectively the same as the reading section of the weeknotes. The rest of what I used to write about in weeknotes will move back to normal (if sporadic) blog posts.
  • I’m also planning to try out seasons, so this is season 1, issue/episode/whatever 1. I have no idea how long the season will be or what would warrant moving to a new season, but I figured it would be fun to try out and see how it goes.
  • I’m dropping my reading goal from 100 pages/day to 50, so that I have more time for projects.
  • Another thing I want to start doing with these booknotes is, when first mentioning a book, talk about why I’m reading it and what I hope to get out of it. (At this point I plan to do this only for nonfiction. I unofficially sort of started doing it in my last weeknotes.)

Nonfiction

  • I finished The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Great book. I really, really enjoyed the parts where he made things like the circuit breaker and the windmill itself, and that’s exactly what I wanted out of it. I hope to find many more books like it, with lots and lots of making things.
  • I’m now reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, about cholera in 1850s London. I’d heard about the book several times before, and I’m interested in the story of how they figured out what was causing the epidemic, and in learning more about the London of that time. So far (I’m a fifth of the way in), it’s great. But cholera is not great.
  • I need to make more time to read Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin, because I’m really liking it and just hardly ever get to it. As far as intention goes, I’m reading it to learn more about Franklin’s work as a printer, inventor, and scientist, and secondarily to learn more about his political career.
  • The Vitruvius is somewhat slow going but fascinating. There’s a bit about good buildings lasting forever, which made me realize I tend to think of buildings as somewhat more ephemeral and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because buildings on campus are always going up or coming down. Or maybe it’s a habit of mind stemming from all the time I spend building ephemeral software. Whatever the case, the idea of fairly permanent alteration of the landscape (not just in preparing for buildings to go up but the building itself) intrigues me.

Fiction

  • I finished Killer Dungeon. Fun series. Not a whole lot to say about it.
  • This week has not at all been a fiction week for me. I’m around a fifth of the way into Claire North’s The Gameshouse but haven’t really gotten hooked yet. I can’t tell if that’s because of everything else going on (nationally and personally). I think I’ll stick with it for now.

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