A list of books I've read this year.
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
This is a stand alone novella from Becky following a group of human explorers many light years from home, exploring planets on behalf of Earth. Assuming Earth still exists. And if Earth, or all the people, are gone, why are they still exploring and what should they do next? I didn't actually realize that this was a novella while I was reading it. Becky packs a lot of action and story development into less than a novel here.
Running with Sherman by Christopher McDougall
Tone, Twang, and Taste: A Guitar Memoir by Pete Kennedy
Suggested Reading by Dave Connis
On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger
When journalist Emily gets let go from her local alt weekly she embarks on a 1-year journey to explore low wage work, and of course write a book about it. She logs a couple of months at an Amazon warehouse near Louisville, KY, a call center in Hickory NC, and a McDonalds in SF. All the jobs suck, and the suckiness can be summed up by this line.
A good rule of thumb: the more interest management takes in workers’ use of the bathroom, the more that job is going to suck.
At Amazon it was pretty clear to me that the humans are essentially beta testing the software that will control the robots that eventually replace them. That job at least paid okay compared to the others.
I will never again get frustrated with a call center agent. First, they probably don't actually work for the company you are calling to complain about. Second, the systems they are working with are so kludged together that it is a miracle they are ever able to look up your account. And third, their job is not to help you. It's to sell you something else while they have you on the line.
At McDonalds, you get in trouble for clocking in 1 minute late, or 1 minute early. So you end up with 6 employees hovering over a register to clock in during the 60 second window. This also means McDonalds is essentially stealing time from employees every day as they have to aim to be at work 20 minutes early to avoid the repercussions of being 1 minute late. Also the scheduling software is set to keep the store understaffed at all times to minimize labor costs.
These jobs keep people in fight or flight mode for 7 hours a day. Never 8 hours - can't have people being full-time employees now. Being that stressed simply ain't healthy. If you want to fix healthcare costs in this country maybe look at the way late stage capitalism endeavors to keep everybody stressed out and sick.
One more thought from the book.
As more and more skill is stripped out of a job, the cost of turnover falls; eventually, training an ever-churning influx of new unskilled workers becomes less expensive than incentivizing people to stay by improving the experience of work or paying more.
When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Reviewed on the blog.
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I'm a fan of the author's Temeraire series but this book did not grab me. It's classic fantasy - commoner discovers she has magical power - but I just didn't get into it and bailed after 100 pages.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold: A Novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Reviewed on the blog
Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby
I picked this up at the library on Friday and finished it on Sunday. That probably tells you everything you need to know.
Beauregard or "Bug" is a retired professional get-away driver. After his last big score 3 years ago he bought a double-wide, some land, and an auto shop and settled down to be a legit businessman with a wife and kids in rural SE Virginia. Unfortunately, business isn't going so well and he is behind on rent, bills, his kids need braces and college money, etc. Then opportunity knocks and he has a shot at a jewelry store heist that will catch him up. Unfortunately for him, the jewelry store is really a front for organized crime, and they are not happy about 2 million in diamonds vanishing in a robbery.
The book is faced past, exciting, violent, profane at times, and almost impossible to put down. Underlying all the action is a current of institutional racism as Bug (a black man) tries to run a legit business in rural Virginia where the Confederate flag flies freely.
The Postmortal: A Novel by Drew Magary
In 2019 a cure for aging becomes widely available across the world. You can still get hit by a bus or get cancer, but you will no longer age physically.
What could possibly go wrong?
Drew's debut novel answers that question. I was entertained reading it.
Traction: Get a Grip on your Business by Gino Wickman
At The Edge of Ireland: Seasons on the Beara Peninsula
It was marketed as an updated McCarthy's Bar and in fact he visits McCarthy's Bar early in the book. However it lacks the charm and humor of Mccarthy's Bar. I got bored about 1/3rd of the way through it.
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
A paranormal murder mystery is way outside my lane, but I don't see how this doesn't end up in my top 5 this year. The ghosts were just creepy enough to keep me on edge, and the murder mystery is engaging and entertaining.
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper: A Travis McGee Novel John D. MacDonald
I got on a Travis McGee kick 8 or 10 years ago and read the first 8 or 10 in the series. For reasons unknown I suddenly had a hankering to read these stories again so I picked up the next one on the series that I haven't read online via the library.
It's a Travis McGee book - you know what you are getting. A mystery novel set in the 60s, written by a guy that was pushing 60 in the 60s. The sexism and background racism that just never occurred to white folks back then (or today, sadly) can get annoying, which is why I burned out on them back in the day. I was entertained, but I can take it only in small doses so I probably won't be reading another Travis McGee novel real soon.
Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion byTom Beaujour, Richard Bienstock
It delivers exactly what is advertised on the cover, although it should probably be named the "US Hard Rock Explosion" as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal barely gets a mention. Lots of drugs, sex, and depravity, because it was rock and roll in the 80s. Mostly centered on the Sunset Strip bands, although the east coast tribe from NJ/NY gets some attention too.
The Greatest Show on Dirt by James Bailey
A slice of life for a recent college grad working for the Durham Bulls. It's got a little romance, a little mystery, and a whole lot of baseball and drinking. The author actually did work for the Bulls and although he says the book is entirely fictional, it does go exactly how I'd imagine if I'd been the 22 year old happy to work for $1000 a month because it kept me at the ballpark all day. And to be clear, I'd have been happy to have that job. Still kind of want it, actually.
Death in Yellowstone by Lee H. Whittlesey
The subtitle of the book is Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. It could have been shortened to People are Idiots.
Lee was a 30+ year veteran ranger at Yellowstone, and he obsessively cataloged every death in the park that wasn't a common auto accident. It's way more entertaining than it sounds. Froze to death? It's there. Mauled by a bear? Of course Jumped into a 200 degree geyser and boiled alive? Yep. Also suicides, murders, and pretty much every other way to die.
The code breaker : Jennifer Doudna, gene editing, and the future of the human race by Walter Isaacson
Fascinating account of the race to discover, understand, and commercialize the technology powering the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines. It's a story about science, it's a story about some seriously smart women scientists, and it's a story and politics, jealousy, and how collaboration in science really works today; and it's a story about the conflict between science and commerce. Doudna just won the Nobel prize for her work on CRISPER, the gene editing technology inspired by how bacteria have been fending off virus' forever. It was key to creating a vaccine in a year, and it's going to be key to a whole rash of amazing medical advances in the coming years.
Issacson also delves into the ethics of manipulating DNA. Nobody is arguing against out new ability to eliminate sickle cell anemia, but what if the parents want a kid with blue eyes? What if two deaf parents want a deaf kid? Designer babies are coming and the ethical considerations are going to be a big deal. Also, if we engineer the diversity of the human species out of our DNA, what are the long term consequences? The book raises a lot of interesting questions.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
Black Buck is a how-to manual for succeeding in sales, wrapped up in a brutal satire of start up tech culture, with a heavy dose of racial commentary disguised as satire. I say disguised because a lot of what our young sales star Darren experiences in the book seems completely absurd to me. But I’m a white dude. I expect most black people would just be nodding their heads thinking, yep, been there done that.
In the book, Darren, an underachieving high school valedictorian who skipped college to work at Starbucks, impresses the CEO of a Counseling As A Service (think AirBnB for mental health) startup and gets invited to join the sales team. There he survives a fraternity inspired hell week of training and racism as the only black person in the company to ultimately become the sales star, only to lose his way when the success goes to his head. Darren comes back to earth with a non-profit dedicated to teaching sales skills to people of color, only to find himself on the wrong end of a campaign of terror by a white nationalist organization.
I greatly enjoyed this book, but then a send up of tech sales culture wrapped about some serious social commentary is hitting me right in the sweet spot.
You don't belong here : how three women rewrote the story of war by Elizabeth Becker
You've probably never heard of these women.
Kate Webb (New Zealand born Australian/Journalist) – Frances FitzGerald (American/Journalist) and Catherine Leroy (French/Photojournalist)
That's a crime. These women broke the "glass ceiling" on war reporting in Vietnam, consistently delivering the most nuanced and timely news and photojournalism, only to buried by history. Ken Burns somehow managed to do however many episodes on the Vietnam War without using anything from these women. The book delivers the background on who they were and how they ended up in Vietnam, as well as compelling and more sensitive trip through the history of the war as they saw it than you will find in most sources. Highly recommended.
Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow
A new book set in the Little Brother Universe. This time revolving around counter-terrorism expert Masha Maximow, who works for a large government contractor doing bad government contractor stuff while still also keeping one foot in the resistance.
She can't have it both ways. Or can she?
If you loved Little Brother or Homeland you'll enjoy this. I did.
Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein
A slice of life trip through one-year (2012) of minor league baseball, following 9 players at different stages of their careers as they navigate life in the minor leagues, all hoping for just one chance, or one more chance, to prove they can stick in the show.
All the players followed are in AAA, or at least start there. AAA sucks. Nobody wants to be there. It's one tantalizing phone call from a $400K minimum salary (in 2012), private flights, suites at the Ritz, etc. AAA is dinner at McDonalds and sharing a room at the Holiday Inn Express. It's both heartbreaking to see these guys so close to the dream, and inspiring to know that most of them would do it even without the prize on top, because the simply love baseball.
Re-born in the USA by Roger Bennett
Roger is 1/2 of the hilarious and informative Premier League analyst team at Men in Blazers. His coming of age story growing up in bleak, downtrodden Liverpool in the 70s and 80s is both incomprehensible and completely familiar. At some level pre-teen and teenage boys are all the same I guess. You'll laugh, and cry, and his descriptions of life in all boys private school in England, of trying to fit in with the cool kids, of making into the cool kids group only to learn they are all assholes, losing his virginity, being obsessed with popular music, but not too popular, because that would be lame.
And you'll wonder, or at least I did, about how he talked his parents into letting him spend a month of the summer after 10th grade in Chicago with basically a pen pal, and somebody whose parents I assume his parents had never met.
Seriously Roger, how the hell did you pull that off?
Anyway, the book is a lot of fun and a wild trip down memory lane for us GenXers, even if our childhoods in the US were wildly unlike his.