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.
Once Upon Atari: How I made history by killing an industry by Howard Scott Warshaw
Howard was the lead programmer on ET the Video Game for the Atari 2600. The history behind that game and what was going on at Atari at the time is interesting, but he takes too many tangents and I got bored about 50% through and haven't returned to the book.
Be More Dog: Learning to Live in the Now by Rene Agredano, Jim Nelson
A hard working couple with a small business sell everything and buy an RV to hit the open road with their 3-legged terminally ill German Shepherd. Part travel log, part extended eulogy, part Buddhist mediation on learning to live in the now, as taught by a dog, it's an entertaining enough story that reminds you to be chill and be more like your dog.
Three Degrees and Gone by J. Stewart Willis
A story centered around three families in a too near future earth trying to escape to Canada to get away from climate induced devastation. Got bored maybe 1/3 in and quit reading.
Open Road: A Midlife Memoir of Travel Through the National Parks (Memoir Series Book 2) by TW Neal
TW Neal is the real life name of mystery writer Toby Neal. It feels like a series of blog posts covering her midlife crisis camping trip through a bunch of Western National Parks. That's not a criticism. I enjoy this sort of travelogue. It's not a literary masterpiece, but I was entertained, and that is all that really matters.
Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious by Seth Kugel
Seth wrote as the Budget Traveler for the New York Times for years, and in this book he makes a case that Instagram and Trip Advisor are ruining travel. He does this by telling stories, such as his trip to a small Hungarian village that had absolutely no reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp. Obsessively planing your trip based in Instagram photos from strangers kills off the opportunity for serendipity than often leads to our best travel experiences.
As I read this I was planning a week long camping trip to Asheville, Mt. Airy, and Hungry Mother State Park, with a spreadsheet, because that is the way I roll. After about two chapters I decided to stop planning and just wing it. We made dinner reservations at one restaurant we really wanted to try, and reserved one experience because it required reservations, otherwise we planned our day over breakfast each morning. It led to use visiting two museums we otherwise never would have visited, including one that put us up close with actual Woolly Mammoth fossils and the fascinating history of Saltville, VA, a town that I had never head of after living in VA for 19 years, and a town that never would have been on our itinerary.
So travel more, plan less, works.
Confess: The Autobiography by Rob Halford
Rob is, as I would assume both of my regular readers know, is the lead singer of Judas Priest. His autobiography revolves around two main concepts, Judas Priest, and his struggles as a closeted gay man fronting one of the biggest metal bands in the world. It's a really engaging book, well paced, with plenty of fun stories from his career.
Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald
This is book #11 in the Travis McGee series. It was nice to get back to thoroughly enjoying a Travis McGhee novel, as the last several have been somewhat meh for me. You still have to deal with rampant misogyny and this book throws in a couple of gay characters built on late 60s stereotypes. But the story of a young girl dead in Mexico is paced well and is fun to read. Also, MacDonald really hated hippies.
The Rum Diary: A Novel by Hunter S. Thompson
I think Hunter knew what he was doing when he didn't publish this, his only novel, during his lifetime. Set in mid-50s San Juan, PR, the sense of place and the turn of a phrase are all extremely well done. The story just sort of rambles along following a reporter at San Juan's only English language paper as he drinks too much while sleeping around, and occasionally doing his job. Then shit happens and he has to leave.
Subpar Parks by Amber Share
Amber went viral on Instagram by pairing her original art of National Parks with the verbiage of 1-star reviews of those parks. Here, she expands it into a book, with a 1-2 write-up of each park. It's wry, funny, and inspirational as you mentally plan your trips while reading.
Baseball in '41 by Robert Creamer
Robert was a noted and well respected old-school baseball writer. This book delivers exactly what it says on the cover. It's a narrative account of the 1941 season, interspersed with his personal memories as an 18 year old living through the season in NYC, trying to enjoy life as an 18 year old, with the war in Europe looming over everything. As a Red Sox fan it was a little too NY focused for my tastes, although given DiMaggio's streak and the Dodgers run that year, it was certainly justified.
Floodwood by Pete Kennedy
Musician Pete Kennedy mixes up a murder mystery, Native American theology, a bad-ass professor who makes her own crossbows, a werewolf, and a spy thriller style chase through multiple countries into one hell of a fun story.
Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein
The subtitle is Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76. So it's basically a history book of 1976, centered around MLB.
1976 is significant to me because it's the year I started watching baseball on TV. I became a fan in 1975, but we were living in Spain so my ability to follow the game was limited. We moved to Grissom AFB in Indiana in Spring 1976, so the season was my first day to day exposure to MLB.
I remembered the broad strokes of the season such as the domination of the Big Red Machine, the Yankees winning the AL Pennant, Billy Martin, Mark Fidrych, etc. Of course I had no clue back then about the reserve clause and the dramatic changes happening with free agency. I was also oblivious to the violence and muggings that were somewhat common outside urban baseball parks, and the violence inside the park with bean ball wars and players going into the stands after heckling fans. Of course, I was clueless to the fact that baseball players were, as Curtis Flood put it, basically well paid slaves.
Exit Strategy by Martha Wells
The 4th novella in the series. This time Murderbot is one a resume mission to save his former owner. 160 pages doesn't leave room for filler, and the book is non-stop action from page 1 to the finish. A fun story, maybe my favorite Murderbot story so far.
Transatlantic Passage by Paul M. Banks
Paul's new book is an entertaining survey of how the Premier League came to be so popular in the US. As a relatively new fan of English football ( I just started in 2015), I learned a lot reading this book. Unfortunately almost all of it involved the Big 6 clubs. This 100% validates my decision to not jump on an overloaded bandwagon and instead become a Southampton supporter - a club that actually does need another supporter in the US! I'm still confused by the whole loaning players to your direct competitors thing though.
As the 2021 season wraps up with the Orioles and Pirates among the worst teams in baseball, it was fun to read about how dominate they were in the 70s. The Orioles pitching rotation in the early 70s was just nuts. Guys throwing 11 inning complete games, players showing up at the ballpark drunk or hungover, Billy Martin pretty much always drunk, Ted Turner being Ted Turner, and the Red Sox breaking my heart for the first of many times in 1975.
Baseball was so much more fun in the 70s.
The amazing story of a Afghan child who grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, only attended a few of years of formal school while dodging bombs back home in Afghanistan, and eventually got to the UK as a refugee. While working in retail sales he studied on the side, enrolled in school and ultimately passed his A-levels before getting in pre-med at Cambridge. Ultimately he becomes a doctor and starts a non-profit that uses tele-medicine to help doctors in war torn Afghanistan treat patients. It's an amazing autobiography to write, and the dude may not even be 40 yet.
Pretty in Pink. St. Elmo's Fire, and ???? He was in a few others but really his time in the limelight was only a few years. And he was drunk and stoned for most of it. Not an uncommon 80s story, really. I was surprised by just how insecure he was and how fleeting his fame was. He had one commercial to his credit when he landed the role in Class opposite Rob Lowe. Today he is sober, married with grown kids, a successful Director (he did season 1 of Orange is the New Black) and an author. It all worked out. It was an entertaining, quick, read and an interesting look at how Hollywood worked in the 80s.
In 1947 Forbes magazine labeled Lancaster OH the All-American town. Supported by heavy industry, mainly glass, it was a picture from a Norman Rockwell painting. Involved citizens with good paying, secure jobs right in town maintained an idealistic life in a small down full of parks, good schools, and prosperity.
So what happened? It starts with Reagan's economic agenda that brings on the age of the leveraged buyout which mortally wounds some of the companies in town. Then NAFTA happens and jobs flee town, then private equity vultures descend on the wounded companies and finish them off by extracting what value is left while saddling them with debt. With the tax base gone the town falters, and then drugs become a major issue. However the drugs are presented here as a symptom of the decaying town, not a cause, which was an interesting take.
This is required reading if you want to understand where Trumpism came from.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
This was a 99 cent Kindle sale that now has me reading book 2 in the series. It's a first contact story set mostly in NYC among a millennial crowd, with much of the story unfolding over Twitter, Instagram ,etc. Running through the first contact story is a look at fame and what it means when it's counted in likes and retweets for the digital native crowd. The book is written in millennial so if that is going to bug you... I blew through this book and immediately requested the follow up from the library.
A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green
Didn't devour this like I did the preceding book. The author does kind of predict Facebook's new thing Meta, which is interesting, and also probably correctly predicts the consequences. Enjoyed the book but I didn't quit hit a HR like the first book for me. It's more of a solid double.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
Put it aside at about the 50% mark. It's due back to the library so not sure when or if I'll get back to it. It started off like The Martian with me unable to put it down but the story really drags through the middle part of the book with the day to day communication stuff with the alien.
The Every by Dave Eggers
The Every is Dave Eggers follow-up to his creepy 2013 novel The Circle, which centers around a company that is basically the worst of Facebook and Google. The Every is that company after it consumes Amazon and Apple and grows to basically control the digital world on a level that far, far exceeds Facebook’s or Google’s influence today.
The story follows Delaney, a young woman playing a long game of curating a social media presence that will get her hired at The Every, so she can blow it up from the inside. Her plan is centered around convincing The Every to release more and more invasive apps, in the theory they will eventually go too far and the people will revolt.
Narrator: The people are sheep. They will take it all and say thank you sir!
It’s a brilliant book for about 350 pages and if he had wound the story down around page 400 I would be giving the book a 10/10. Instead he drags it out to 577 pages and my enthusiasm waned over those last 150 odd pages, including an ending I absolutely hated.
However, as a cautionary tale about where FAANG could end up…it’s terrifying. Consider these apps from the story.
An app that analyzes the facial movements, eyes, voice tone, etc. as you chat with somebody to tell you if they are lying. It’s basically a real time polygraph on every conversation you have.
An app that reduces all physical beauty (art, people, etc.) to a numerical score. It won’t matter if you think the Mona Lisa is pretty, her app score isn’t actually that great.
A straight from Minority Report app built on the Google Home/Alexa device in 98% of the country's homes that calls the police proactively if it senses that an argument or interaction in the home is escalating towards violence.
What, you think that is intrusive? So you are in favor of child and domestic abuse?
There are more, including a kind of hilarious chapter of political correctness / inclusiveness run amok when Delaney tries to execute her new employee field trip to the beach.
Overall it’s a good book and I’m glad I read it. If it had been a little shorter it could have been great.
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl
I'm not even that big of a Foo Fighters fan but Grohl was already the rock star I most wanted to have a beer with before I read this book. It's an autobiographical sketch of his life, told in stories ranging from poignant (Kurt Cobain), to hilarious (the time he got a text from his wife asking if it was okay for AC/DC to join them for dinner), to downright this guy can't be human (flying RT from Australia to LA to attend the daddy-daughter dance with his daughters).
Dave Grohl really is one of the good guys. And he is hell of a storyteller, in music or print.
The First 21: How I Became Nikki Sixx by Nikki Sixx
Nikki's autobiography covering the 21 years that precede the events in The Dirt. Entertaining and quick read coming in at only 200 pages, including photos.
Carry On: Reflections For a New Generation by John Lewis
John's final words for the next generation of activists, written as he was dying from cancer. It's a bunch of short 1-2 page chapters that as a whole is a pretty damn good manual for how to live your life. We could all be a little more like John Lewis.