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Books

Despite a tendency to fall asleep and drop the book on my face, I love to read and try to mix it up between genres. I thought it’d be fun to keep a list of the good ones here — the really exceptional ones I’ll cover with a full post, but if it’s on the list then IMNSHO it’s worth your time. Please share your own recommendations too, so that I never run out of good reads, and don’t miss the links at the bottom to previous years!

The Lost Cause by Cory Doctorow

I have no idea how Cory Doctorow churns out so much unique, thought-provoking stuff, but I'm glad he does. The Lost Cause takes place about thirty years in the future: climate change wreaks havoc on the planet, a new generation innovates to save it, and a powerful minority of geriatric MAGAs keep doing the stupid stuff they do. By moving the timeline forward, Doctorow makes obvious the inevitable result of today's ugly, self-defeating inanities, and perhaps offers some ways forward. I don't agree with every solution he puts on the table, but that's not the point --- his protagonists try, again and again, to make things better. Relentless positive action. Exactly what we all need to be doing.

The Devil's Sea by Dirk Cussler

I read every Clive Cussler book as fast as he wrote them, and even stuck around for a short while once he was being ghostwritten. But it's been years since then, and I didn't miss them. Until a friend gave me a copy of this one written by his son. Clive's Cussler's son writing about Dirk Pitt's kids ... so meta! It was exactly what you'd think it is --- a great adventure story filled to the brim with stereotypes of the genre. I loved it. 

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen

Too soon or perfectly-timed? I'm not sure, but a novel about the flu of 1918, in Washington State no less, hits pretty hard. The cooperative, semi-socialist town of Commonwealth, built around a mill deep in the Cascade foothills, tries to escape the pandemic by establishing a strict quarantine. Of course things go wrong, for all the same human reasons we lived through a couple of years ago. Throw in a little WWI red-baiting and we're on our way. Super-readable and thoughtful, glad I picked it up!

Educated by Tara Westover

Yikes. Westover's memoir is both tough to read and hard to put down. Her survivalist/fundamentalist family in rural Idaho is jam-packed with about every flavor of psychotic and pathological awfulness imaginable. Her ability to make it out is remarkable. But honestly I'm just left wiht an ever-stronger belief that all religion really does is provide air cover to evil. We'd be better off without it.

I love this book; it feels like I'm talking to my grandma (both of them). It's a story about a young couple that moves from the midwest to Whidbey in the 1930s just as the Deception Bridge is being built. Filled with a ton of real-life places and history about Whidbey and a wonderful sense of real people trying to build their lives. Don't come here looking for a deep, multi-perspective look at those years --- it's nostalgia, kind of like watching The Waltons. And very successful at it!

Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner

A (mostly) homeless man and his dog recounts three years travelling in and between Austin and Los Angeles in the late 1980s. Eighner is a startlingly weird dude, intelligent and relatable in one moment; deeply unlikeable and self-defeating the next. Unlike everyone else writing about homelessness, he's not trying to convince you of anything --- he's just describing his life and thoughts frankly and without any seeming personal filter. It's no "recipe to fix the problem," but it is a powerful and uncomfortable read of the sort that's well-worth the investment. Glad I found it again.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every few years I pull out our (not sure if it was Lara's or mine) college-era copy of Gatsby to re-read. There is something really unique about Fitzgerald prose, and the bizarre years he writes about when this society of twenty-something rich kids just wandered around the world being silly and dramatic. Well worth it, although for a quick Fitzgerald fix I'd recommend this great short stories collection instead --- Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a classic.

Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers didn't actually knock my socks off, which is unusual for a Doctorow book. I surely came in with unfair expectations though --- it's a solid story and (as always) he made me think while keeping me engaged in a fun story. At its core I think Makers is a bit of an ode for all the folks (myself included) who dove into the dotcom era as true believers. Yeah tons of it was stupid (just like Perry's BWE car), and a bunch of conmen played the hype without building anything real. But there was amazing, world-changing stuff in the mix too. What Doctorow sees (and shares) is that you don't get one without the other ... and that it's ok --- more than ok --- to be one of the believers.

I listened to these lectures with my subscription to Wondrium (highly recommended), but you can also pick it up on Audible. Prof. Lacy is frankly a bit insufferable --- but he is super-enthusiastic about his subject, knows his stuff, and I got a ton out of his lectures. He is an unabashed champion of cultural relativity as a vehicle to create understanding, not as a crude bludgeon against "the west". He reminded me a bit of the professor from my first college anthro course, Hoyt Alverson. Who come to think of it was also a bit insufferable. Maybe it runs in the field....

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

A bunch of different threads revolve around residents of the Met, a skyscraper turned housing co-op in 2140 after two climate-driven "pulse" events leave the first few stories of most New York City buildings underwater. Of course because it's New York, residents just adapt --- streets are now canals, lower floors are boat garages, oyster farms and roof gardens provide most of the city's food, and Wall Street keeps on trucking. Ultimately the stories all converge, but I won't give that part away. The book is long and the interstitial exposition is kind of pretentious. But the world is incredibly well-crafted, and kept me more than engaged enough to stick through the slow bits.

Part experiential historian, part Kerouac-ian wanderer, Rinker Buck writes some great books and I can't get enough of them. His latest recounts his real-life 2016 adventure piloting a 1830s-style, hand-built flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi from Pennsylvania to New Orleans. It's not a "reenactment" of anything --- his boat has two outboards, and much of the trip is learning to navigate around huge modern barge strings --- instead it's an exploration of life on the river from the late 1700s through today. It's also a brave look, acknowledging the powerfully-good and shameful parts of our history in equal measure. Great stuff.

Aftermath by Levar Burton

Yes, that Levar Burton! An OK story about a near-future USA pretty much destroyed by a second civil war, and folks trying to make their way in the, well, aftermath. Burton is a good storyteller, but it feels a bit like the plot and characters were recycled bits and pieces rather than something really new. Glad I read it, but don't think it'll stick with me.

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

I never pass up an opportunity to gush about Cory Doctorow; his latest novel is just more awesomeness. He somehow manages to love technology and embody all of its great 90s promise, while remaining eyes-open about the awfulness that's there too. Red Team Blues follows those threads nominally through a crypto thriller, but it's really about a person who's just trying to do the right thing. And I'm a sucker for that narrative.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

The story of SOE, OSS and CIA agent Virginia Hall, winner of the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (man does that sound British) for her awe-inspiring work in France during WW2... read more

Chokepoint Capitalism by Giblin & Doctorow

Cory Doctorow is one of my favorite novelists (read Walkaway!); he's also a wonky dude who thinks a lot about economics and individual freedom. Chokepoint Capitalism is a thought-provoking (if not page-turning) look at the many ways in which corporations cement themselves as exclusive or near-exclusive middlemen between creators and their audiences --- and from that position squeeze an astonishing amount of value out of the exchange.



The topic is absolutely fascinating. And while I think the authors unfairly discount a lot of real innovation that has helped companies achieve their dominant position, they 100% prove their case that without exception the end result is broken for creators and the rest of us too. It's the classic monopoly / anti-trust story, but again and again reinforced rather than corrected by our current system. I'll definitely spend some more time on this; it's worth a longer assessment and review. But for the time being --- read the book yourself and bring an open mind --- important stuff.

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside is set in a world where technology is based not on physics but on "scriving" --- the application of runes and symbols to objects to "convince" them to change their reality, like making wheels turn by telling them they are always rolling downhill. It's a fun premise (a bit reminiscent of The Warded Man, one of the best series of all time) and while it is "magic," it's magic with rules, which keeps it interesting and thoughtful. The characters are great and the mysteries keep getting more intricate --- I'll definitely be back for the rest of the series.

Orlando People by Alexander Kane

Lara and I (and Copper the dog) recently road-tripped to California and back. On the way down we listened to Killers of a Certain Age which is an amusing adventure-comedy about four retirement-age female assassins who end up having to kill their ex-bosses. It was entertaining, but on the way back we listened to Orlando People and it was fantastic. Especially as an audiobook --- the narrator is spectacular. Good enough that we're now making our way through the next in the series!

My most recent Wondrium course is Native Peoples of North America. It's really well put-together and engaging, but also a pretty tough reality-check. Of course it's no newsflash that the United States treated Native America shamefully, but the sheer tidal wave of dishonor detailed in these lectures is frankly overwhelming. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the world might be different had we simply said "enough" in the late 1800s and started honoring the treaties we made. Pastwatch is not that story; but it is a similar exploration --- how would the world look if Columbus had taken a different path? Card's scenario is compelling, impressively-researched, and fun. Thumbs up!

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers is the remarkable creator of Monk and Robot (A Psalm for the Wild Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy) ... if you haven't read those, stop reading this now and go fix that! A Closed and Common Orbit is book #2 of her other series "The Wayfarers." --- intertwined stories of a woman and an artificial intelligence figuring out how to live in the world. Chambers is frankly a genius at building worlds where folks have figured out how to embrace and celebrate differences, living together in ways that give me just a little hope for the real world. I dig it.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

The story of Bletchley Park is amazing top to bottom --- WWII could have played out very differently if not for that nerdfest of women and men (including Kate Middleton's grandma!) working together to break Axis ciphers. The Rose Code is a really well put-together novel about three women from very different backgrounds working at Bletchley. Their perspectives make a nice complement to the more "famous" folks like Alan Turing. The historical setting is engaging and really well researched; the plot just screams to an incredible climax in the last few chapters. Thanks for the recommendation, Kellie!

Never by Ken Follett

I've always known Ken Follett as the Pillars of the Earth guy, but apparently he's written more than just that! Never is a modern-day, world-ranging story that follows seemingly-disparate threads as they edge slowly but surely towards global catastrophe. At first I thought it seemed like fun but forgettable airport bookstore thriller stuff. But as the storylines accelerated into the second half, the book became absolutely compelling. Two big themes: (1) how illusive our ideas of personal "power" really are; and (2) how we can find joy and love in the world despite that. A great read.

River of the Gods by Candice Millard

Apparently folks in mid-1800s Britain were obsessed with finding the source of the Nile river. Some fascinating stuff, but also a bit of a slog. Most of the book is taken up with accounts of the total asshats the British explorers were, both to each other and to everyone they encountered on expeditions and at home. Also, they seemed to be constantly sick with malaria or whatever, and had to be carried in hammocks by their guides --- does that even count?

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