Ben Crowder

Blog: #recent-reads

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Grief hit a little bit harder the past few weeks and made reading more difficult.

Recent nonfiction reads

  • The Anna Karenina Fix, by Viv Groskop. A short, enjoyable survey of Russian lit. The part that stuck with me most: “[Ann Patchett] describes reading Anna Karenina at the age of twenty-one and believing that Anna and Vronsky were the most charming, romantic people in the world and that Kitty and Levin the most boring, pathetic people in the world. She writes, ‘Last year I turned 49, and I read the book again. This time, I loved Levin and Kitty… Anna and Vronsky bored me.’ As we get older, she concludes, ‘we gravitate towards the quieter, kinder plotlines, and find them to be richer than we had originally understood them to be’.” I feel like I’m getting to that point, where I’m more interested in quieter, kinder plotlines.
  • Out of the Software Crisis, by Baldur Bjarnason. A bit more prescriptive than I was in the mood for. I also haven’t run into a lot of the programming culture he describes. That said, I did find a couple of the ideas interesting: first, programming as a branch of design rather than engineering — more like filmmaking than bridge building. I’m still thinking on this and haven’t yet decided whether I agree. Second, programming as pop culture, with a neverending stream of faddish new technologies. This one resonates with me. It’s exhausting. The older I get, the better “use boring technology” sounds.

Recent fiction reads

  • Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. Some parts have not aged well at all, and there are definitely some cringey bits, but ignoring all that, overall I liked it. (This in spite of cyberpunk not being an aesthetic I really care for.) Interesting ideas, and the linguistic angle appealed to me.
  • The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik, third book in the Scholomance trilogy. Not as good for me as the first two — in fact, I almost gave up a third of the way in, and then again two-thirds in. I struggled with the voice, which surprisingly started grating on me for some reason. But I still liked some of the reveals later in the book.

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Recent nonfiction reads

  • Karachi Vice, by Samira Shackle, about contemporary Pakistan. Really good, liked it a lot. It’s frustrating that villages there still don’t have good access to water, and that the rich continue to tread upon the poor.
  • How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith, about slavery. Really, really good. Strongly recommended. I haven’t read many books about slavery (yet), but this one very much opened my eyes — not only to what happened in the past but also to what’s still happening even now (like in Angola, the prison in Louisiana). Heartbreaking. This was also the book that woke me up to the fact that several of my ancestors from Virginia and North Carolina were slave owners. I’d been aware of that before (one of them is buried at Blandford Cemetery, which one of the book’s chapters is about), but back then it didn’t hold any emotional meaning for me. Now it does. I’m still coming to terms with it — with knowing some of my ancestors were complicit in an enormous crime against humanity. This’ll take some time to process.

Recent fiction reads

  • Babel, by R. F. Kuang. Liked it a lot! More dark academia, please. The way the book addressed British colonization, too, was direct and pervasive and I really liked it. Also enjoyed the magic system and the linguistics.
  • The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu. This paired well with Babel. Lots of tragic Asian history interwoven throughout. Some stories were better than others, as is always the case. There was one story that had a father committing suicide that was a little bit harder to read. (That said, fictional depictions of parents dying don’t seem to affect me nearly as much as film depictions.)
  • Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir. What a bonkers book. I didn’t know what was happening most of the time, but I also didn’t particularly mind because I liked the voice so much. (After finishing the book, I found an explanation on Reddit that made everything make a lot more sense. In hindsight, it would have helped if I’d read summaries of Gideon and Harrow before starting on Nona.) Looking forward to Alecto.

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Recent reads:

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. My first time reading Vonnegut. Not really what I expected — I don’t know what on earth I was expecting — but I think I liked it. Weird book, though. Looking forward to reading more of him.

Ultralearning, by Scott Young. As I got into this book, I realized I was mainly mining it for ideas to help me get better at writing. And it did deliver, though there’s certainly a lot of the book that wasn’t as useful in that regard.

Educated, by Tara Westover. Whew, that was intense. And maddening. Couldn’t put it down.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Not my usual reading fare, but I really, really liked it. Thoughtful and bittersweet and slow, in a good way.

A Craftsman’s Legacy, by Eric Gorges. Made me want to make things with my hands. Which is why I read it.

How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, by Randy Ingermanson. Framed as a story, which ended up not being my thing, but I do think the snowflake method has a lot of value and I’m currently trying out some variations on it in my own fiction.

Brothers in Arms, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Good as usual. I love the Vorkosigan books. Great comfort reading, kind of like Discworld for me.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden. A bit of a slow start for me but then it got good — and darker than I’d expected, which in this case I liked.

Becoming Superman, by J. Michael Straczynski. What an amazing, inspiring story. Plenty of content warnings, though — what a messed-up family.

The Worlds of Medieval Europe, by Clifford R. Backman. Surprisingly readable for a textbook. (Is that bad to say? Any offended textbook authors in the audience?) Learned a ton, particularly about the parts that were blanks in my mental chronology (800s, 900s, etc.).

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty. Great book — at least if you think about death all the time like I do. I honestly have no idea what normal people would think of it. Right after I read this book, I got an ad from a local mortuary that offers free tours, and you better believe I’m going to go check it out once the semester’s over.


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Recent reads:

Good to Great, by Jim Collins. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would (having previously had a bit of an aversion to business books). Recommended.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear. Some good ideas here, particularly the push to focus on systems and processes and identity instead of goals.

Quiet, by Susan Cain. Changed how I think about myself and others.

The Light Between Worlds, by Laura E. Weymouth. A lovely, wonderful novel. One of my favorite books ever.

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer. Fascinating book, though the material was disheartening and frustrating.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. My first time reading this. Definitely darker than I expected (I hadn’t heard about the ending). Not really sure what I think about it.


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Recent reads:

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. My favorite parts were the bits on solitude and on analog hobbies and strenuous leisure.

The Revenge of Analog, by David Sax. After reading this, I was ready to shrug off all my digital hobbies and go full analog. Still working on finding the right balance.

Range, by David Epstein. I’m cheating a little by including this since I’m still in the middle of it, but it’s good and right up my alley. The part about premodern villagers being incapable of abstract thought was fascinating.

The World as It Is, by Ben Rhodes. I didn’t vote for Obama, but now I wish I had. A good on-the-ground look at those eight years.

Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson. Whew.

12 Strong, by Doug Stanton. Also whew.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant. The hunt for a man-eating tiger in eastern Russia. Eye-opening.


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Recent reads:

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall. This was my first foray into geopolitics, and I really liked it. Looking forward to Robert Kaplan’s Revenge of Geography as well.

Tubes, by Andrew Blum. A look into the infrastructure of the Internet. It’s easy to forget about all the wires when we live in a somewhat wireless age, so I appreciated the reminder.

Moon Shot, by Jay Barbree. The story of the early American space program, running through the end of the Apollo missions and a bit beyond. I loved it.

Word by Word, by Kory Stamper. A delightful book about lexicography at Merriam-Webster.


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