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Booknotes 2.4

Nonfiction

  • Stealing from the Saracens, by Diana Darke. Fascinating commentary on early Christian architecture’s debt to Islamic architecture. It was somewhat slow going because of all the architectural terms I wasn’t familiar with, but I’m glad I kept with it. Learned a lot. Fun fact: “One striped fabric imitated by the Arabs in Spain was traded under the name tabi, after an Umayyad prince called Attab. It became popular across Europe and survives today in our word ‘tabby’ for a streaked or striped cat.” Also, before this I had never seen photos of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but I’m glad I now have (mmm).
  • The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard. Great book about Teddy Roosevelt’s journey through the Amazon. Really loved it. It’s a bit intense once they get into the jungle — when I told my wife about the candiru and piranha parts, for example, I accidentally all but ensured that there’s no way we’re ever doing a family trip there — but oh, it’s so good. Very much looking forward to reading all of Millard’s other books.

Fiction

  • Small Miracles, by Olivia Atwater. Recent winner of SPFBO. It was okay, but it didn’t really click with me and I don’t know why. If you like cozy comedy fantasy, though, I’d recommend trying it. (Clearly a lot of other people really liked it.)
  • The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Didn’t really care for it. I’m learning that while I want to like Le Guin’s books, the ones I’ve read haven’t really done it for me. Not sure why. Probably not going to read any more of hers, sadly.

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Booknotes 2.3

Nonfiction

  • All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward (1974), about Watergate. I totally ate this up. Journalism histories like this are my favorite. A couple years ago I read and really liked Yours in Truth (about Ben Bradlee), and at some point I’m planning to read Katharine Graham’s Personal History. (And of course I’m interested in more than just the Washington Post.) Always open to recommendations!
  • Size-specific Adjustments to Type Design, by Tim Ahrens & Shoko Mugikura (2014). Some great type specimens in the latter half of the book.

Fiction

  • Moon Over Soho, by Ben Aaronovitch (2011). Second in the Rivers of London series. Some earthy bits, and it definitely felt more like a police procedural than Alex Verus and the Dresden Files. Liked it enough that I plan to keep reading the series.
  • The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison (2014). “This is a boring book,” I wrote back in 2016 when I bounced off it after one or two chapters. This time round, though, I loved it! A lot! I wish there were dozens and dozens of books in the series. (And yes, I’m looking forward to The Witness for the Dead and The Grief of Stones.) It often reminded me of The Hands of the Emperor in lovely ways. So glad I came back to it.

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Booknotes 2.2

Nonfiction

  • First, by Evan Thomas. Great biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, who I didn’t know much about before this. Learned a lot about SCOTUS. I miss the days of a more balanced Supreme Court. Mildly surprised to read that O’Connor once got a priesthood blessing from Bill Marriott and also read the Book of Mormon.
  • James Patterson, by James Patterson. An “ego-biography,” in his words, which seems about right. I haven’t read any of Patterson’s books and I’m not sure I will (thrillers are too stressful for me, so I avoid them most of the time), but this was an easy, entertaining read. Not as much about writing as I’d been hoping for, though. Still, the little bit about outlining was something I needed to hear, and the perspective on co-writing was interesting.

Fiction

  • Taken, by Benedict Jacka. Third in the Alex Verus series. A fun, popcorn read. I think I liked this one more than the first two. Sort of like Dresden but without the problematic bits. Looking forward to seeing where it goes.
  • Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie. Whew, content warnings galore on this one. Much more graphic than the First Law trilogy, at least in my memory. After filtering out all the grimdark grit, though, it was a compelling vengeance tale, and my brain really liked the prose.

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Booknotes 2.1

I haven’t done a great job at consistency in titling these reading posts, which isn’t the end of the world but I do want them to be titled henceforth, so we’re going to leave the unnumbered masses behind us and resurrect the Booknotes series, starting season 2. I’ll be using the #recent-reads tag as the throughline for all of these types of posts, though.

Nonfiction

  • Chatter, by Ethan Kross. This was a useful read. I’ve been using the distanced self-talk idea since reading the book and it does seem like it works, for what it’s worth. Apparently we talk to ourselves at rates as high as 4,000 wpm. (If I could harness that and redirect its output to my laptop or phone, I could write a novel in…half an hour. Ha. Back in reality, answering what I imagine would be the next question: no, I have no interest in using AI to write fiction. Or in reading fiction written by AI for that matter.) the author says we spend a third to a half of our waking life mentally not in the present, which seemed startling at first but upon reflection made sense. Frequent time travelers, us lot.
  • Red Famine, by Anne Applebaum, about the 1930s Holodomor in Ukraine. The last third is where it gets especially bleak and so, so tragic. Now I understand why doing genealogy in certain parts of Ukraine is basically impossible. The book is horrifying, too — especially the parts about adults cannibalizing their own children. It’s an important book and I’m glad I read it because I didn’t know anything about the famine beforehand, but goodness, make sure you read something happy after this.

Fiction

  • The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks. Interesting ideas (the post-scarcity culture, the games, the central conceit), good writing. One gross part. That twist at the very end, though!
  • A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers. Cozy and philosophical. Some parts I could have done without (true of almost all contemporary novels I read), but overall I liked it.

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Recent nonfiction reads

  • The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, by Toby Wilkinson. While it admittedly took me four months to read this (slow going because of all the less familiar names), I liked it a lot. How vast a time period this is — and yet still so inconsequentially small from a geological/cosmological perspective. I didn’t realize it took three years (speaking of mere blips) from the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to when they finally opened his sarcophagus. Also didn’t know that pharaoh originally meant “palace,” or how often pharaohs repurposed the materials from previous pharaohs’ tombs. (All the time.) I took Middle Egyptian and Coptic in college and reading this book reminded me of that and really made me miss studying dead languages. I need to make time for that again, somehow.
  • Saints volume 3. Loved it. These were mostly parts of Church history I was less familiar with, so I enjoyed filling in those gaps. It was also fascinating to see how various world events affected people in the Church in different countries. Looking forward to the next volume. In the meantime, I’ve been dipping into the global histories.

Recent fiction reads

  • The Justice of Kings, by Richard Swan. I really liked this. The legal/judicial aspect was right up my alley and the fantastical/horror elements also worked well for me. The writing’s great, too. Immediately bought the sequel, which came out a few weeks ago.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Didn’t like it anywhere near as much as Remains of the Day or Buried Giant. It felt a lot more like Klara and the Sun, which I also didn’t like all that much. (This type of story doesn’t appeal to me. I need to stop forgetting this.) Also, I went in having heard there was a twist and…there wasn’t one. Not really.

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Recent nonfiction reads

  • The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder. Really good! I especially enjoyed the technical details about building computers in the early 1980s. I’m grateful that debugging is so much easier now (with the caveat that I’m sure it’s probably harder for the engineers building today’s computers than it is for those of us building higher up the stack). While part of me wishes I could have been there to build a new computer, the overtime culture at Data General seemed unhealthy and management seemed immature, and that’s not worth it regardless of how innovative or interesting the work is.
  • In Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honoré. I felt like this could probably have been shorter (self-help isn’t really my thing, by the way), but still worth reading. I now drive the speed limit, which I didn’t expect to be an outcome of reading this book. I also find myself consciously acknowledging that things usually don’t need to be rushed, which has been helpful. The bit about playing classical music half as fast was fascinating, too.

Recent fiction reads

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. For some reason I thought this was going to be boring and stodgy (I knew basically nothing about it before reading it), but it was well crafted, eminently readable, with good prose. It felt modern, too — almost like it could have been written yesterday. But it was also uncomfortable and heavy and so, so sad. This reminded me once again that as a rule I don’t particularly like dystopian fiction. Also, I learned that mayday is a borrowing from the French m’aidez — “help me.”
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I…didn’t really like it. Or get much out of it. (Even though I tried to.) For me it was kind of a rambly mess, and the humor didn’t do anything for me either. But I’m glad other people like the book. I did sort of like Cat’s Cradle, so Vonnegut’s not completely off the table for me, but I’m also in no rush to read the rest of his catalog.

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Recent nonfiction reads

  • The Rules We Break, by Eric Zimmerman. A fun exploration into game design that got me itching to design some games. The last third was less interesting to me because of what I wanted out of the book (it felt more geared toward professional game designers in some ways). I did, however, appreciate the parts on the problems with gamification and the ethics of game design.
  • The Perfectionists, by Simon Winchester. A history of precision. So, so fascinating, throughout pretty much the whole book. Loved it. It covers the making of cars, photography, jet engines, GPS, the Hubble, and more. Highly recommended.

Recent fiction reads

  • Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin. Well written and immersive. I almost quit about halfway through when a flashback reminded me of some recent tragedy, but I’m glad I returned and finished it. Really liked the game development parts. Looking forward to reading The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.
  • The Lord of Stariel, by A. J. Lancaster. I liked it (the twist mid-book was nice) but I’m not planning to continue the series. The author’s content warning page is a great idea, though — I wish more authors did that.
  • Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I don’t know how time slipped by like this, but it had been two years somehow since I last read a Vorkosigan book. (I’ve been trying to read at least one a year, spacing them out so that I don’t run out too quickly. I’m in the middle of the series now.) I liked this one a lot. Looking forward to seeing phase 2 of Miles’s career.

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Minor prefatory note: I’ve updated the reading page with a slight redesign and (for 2022 reads) the year of publication.

Recent nonfiction reads

  • I Wish I’d Been There, edited by Byron Hollinshead. Historians talking about the parts of American history they wish they could go back in time to see. Really enjoyed this, and now I’ve got a whole bunch more parts of history I want to read up on.
  • Extra Life, by Steven Johnson. Such a fascinating book. Strongly recommended. (Also, those milk deaths in Manhattan — yikes.) I especially loved the corrective focus on larger networks and activism, which this quote from the book summarizes nicely:

In an age that so often conflates innovation with entrepreneurial risk taking and the creative power of the free market, the history of life expectancy offers an important corrective: the most fundamental and inarguable form of progress we have experienced over the past few centuries has not come from big corporations or start-ups. It has come, instead, from activists struggling for reform; from university-based scientists sharing their findings open-source style; and from nonprofit agencies spreading new scientific breakthroughs in low-income countries around the world.

Recent fiction reads

  • Petty Treasons, by Victoria Goddard. A novella, and a prequel to The Hands of the Emperor. The second-person POV was a little bit harder to read for some reason (which wasn’t the case with Ogres below). Nice to return to the world, though, and to see some of the retold events from a different perspective.
  • The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler. This had a bit of an Arrival vibe. Overall, I liked it, but it wasn’t as perfect a fit for me as I’d hoped it might be. Still interesting, though.
  • Inside Man, by K. J. Parker. A novella. Enjoyed it. The central conceit of this subseries of novellas is fun. (Well, it would be utterly horrifying in real life, but as a fictional exploration it’s fun.)
  • The Expert System’s Champion, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A novella, takes place ten years after The Expert System’s Brother. The second half was much more interesting for me than the first half (which I struggled with, not sure why).
  • The Law, by Jim Butcher. A novella, takes place after Battle Ground. Fun to return to that world (though acknowledging that as usual with the Dresden Files, there are male-gazy parts I could very much do without).
  • Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Another novella. Yes, yes, it was to pad my numbers. I do really like novellas, though, and I wish more books were shorter. This was my favorite Tchaikovsky read so far. That final twist!

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Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker is finally available as an ebook! (On the Kindle store, anyway. I haven’t checked other places.)

Recent nonfiction reads

  • Terry Pratchett, by Rob Wilkins. Quite liked this one. The end is sad, but that’s usually the case with full-life biographies. Probably about time to read another Discworld novel.
  • Chokepoint Capitalism, by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow. Maddening. I really, really do not like big, hungry capitalism, and I hope we as a society can push things back to a healthier level. Job guarantees sound amazing.
  • Human Errors, by Nathan H. Lents. So fascinating! I jabbered about this book to my wife and coworkers ad nauseam — the RLN, throat structure, wrist bones, DNA copy rates, sickle-cell disease, retinal wiring, I’ll stop now. For me the takeaway that I think I’ll remember most was that animals in the wild are constantly on the edge of starvation and so we’re evolutionarily wired to eat as if it’s our last meal before winter, which also leads to it being really easy to gain weight but really hard to lose it.

Recent fiction reads

  • I tried to read China Miéville’s The City & the City, but the central conceit — two cities interleaved in the same space where each city’s residents straight up ignore the other city — just wasn’t doing it for me. Probably because I went into it expecting there to be a magical/supernatural reason people couldn’t see the other city (a ghost city of sorts that occasionally leaks through).
  • The Expert System’s Brother, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A novella. Enjoyed it, and looking forward to the sequel. And to the rest of Tchaikovsky’s books (including City of Last Chances, which came out today, I believe).
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle. A novella. Quite liked it. A bit graphic at the end, which reminded me that this was horror and not just dark fantasy, and that horror isn’t my thing most of the time.
  • A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow. A novella. Really liked the variations and folktaleishness.

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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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