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Learning

Books from Q4 2018

Continuing from Q1, Q2, & Q3.

48. “The Worst Journey in the World” – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The title of this book is pretty accurate. It covers the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole during 1910-1913 – a failed race (Roald Amundsen won) that resulted not only in reaching the pole late, but in the death of the main expedition teams. Overall, it’s a very un-even book and could have used a more forceful editor. The story and mission of the team are compelling, but the interesting bits are bogged down by redundant descriptions of countless identical mountains, valleys, and ice floes.

49. “Blood of Elves” – Andrzej Sapkowski

Schlocky low fantasy at its finest. This wasn’t nearly as terrible as I was expecting and I’ll likely finish the rest of the Witcher series.  It’s obvious that there’s a bit lost in translation from Polish to English, but once you get through the first few chapters you don’t notice it as much. There’s considerably less misogyny than in the Witcher games, but it is only book one.

50. “Hollywood Dead” – Richard Kadrey

The Sandman Slim novels are a guilty pleasure of mine. Kadrey is weirdly inconsistent book-to-book and this was one of the lesser entries in the series. The end does a bit of tacked-on setup for a sequel but I think it would have been OK to end the series here. It doesn’t feel like there’s much ore left in the mine.

51. “The Time of Contempt” – Andrzej Sapkowski

More Witcher.  The translation work gets better, probably the original authorship as well. 

52. “Baptism of Fire” – Andrzej Sapkowski

These titles are terrible. Maybe they sound better in Polish. Sapkowski hammers on some fantasy cliches pretty hard. The pace and world building are entertaining, but there’s a lot of deus ex machina as the series  goes on and stuff like “how magic works” becomes increasingly nonsensical.

53. “Tower of Swallows” – Andrzej Sapkowski

Seriously, what is with these titles? A non-linear narrative starts creeping in for this book. It’s slightly confusing at first, but I eventually figured out that it was likely being used as a way to glue short stories together to make a novel. As that kind of tool, the narrative works pretty well.

54. “The Lady of the Lake” – Andrzej Sapkowski

Sapkowski does a decent job of tying together all the loose ends and bringing things to a close. The pace is un-even and there’s a bit of a “The 20x endings The Return of the King (the film)” effect. “Is it over?” Nope. “How about now?” Still nope. That does make the actual ending a bit abrupt. If you’re glueing short stories together, I guess there’s probably not a clear way to end your book other than to stop glueing and that’s pretty much what happens.

55. “The Self-Driven Child” – William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

The core of this is pretty much “Control is an illusion. Let your child make mistakes and be there to support and advise them.” I can’t really say that it was good or bad, just that it was written for a much more anxious person than I, for I am a blade of grass in the breeze.

56. “Season of Storms” – Andrzej Sapkowski

This book is nearly unreadable. I made it three chapters in and couldn’t go any further. It starts with what could only be described as a scene from Fantasy Law & Order, with characters, including a sorcerer and a witcher, exchanging legalese in Latin. I feel dumber for having read the few pages I did.

57. “Kubernetes Up and Running” – Brendan Burns, Kelsey Hightower, Joe Beda

This is one of the better “Up and Running” O’Reilly books. A lot of it is out of date, even though it’s only a year old, due to how fast Kubernetes is evolving. Fortunately, the core concepts are the same and most of the out-of-date knowledge is easily updatable. The only thing I’ve done with Kubernetes prior to reading this book was a convention workshop two years ago (although now that I’m thinking about it, that may have been Docker Swarm), so the hands on stuff was really helpful to get me up to speed enough to start building things.

58. “Designing Data-Intensive Applications” – Martin Kleppmann

I don’t have enough computer science knowledge to get the full benefit of this book. It goes deep into things like b-trees and the history of replication algorithms that I lack the depth to grok. There were a few chapters that I understood reasonably well and were interesting to me, but several where I mostly thought “I know what these words mean individually…”. It has an illustrated map at the beginning of each chapter, which was fun.

59. “Symphony for the City of the Dead” – M.T. Anderson 

That the Soviets measured how well things were going in Stalingrad during its siege by how many people were being arrested for cannibalism says a lot about both the contents of this book and the Russian experience of WWII, which really isn’t covered much in US history lessons. The book itself is odd but engaging. Somewhat set up as a biography of Shostakovich, he mostly fades into the background of the hell being visited upon Russia during his life. Maybe that’s partially the point though.

60. “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 

I don’t know what to say about this book other than everyone should read it.

61. “American Indian Stories and Old Indian Legends” – Zitkala-Sa

I’m glad this exists as a historical record, but it doesn’t really succeed as a book. It’s a mish-mash collection of Zitkala-Sa’s serialized autobiography and some Sioux folklore.

62. “October” – China Miéville

I wanted this to be better than it was. I picked it up as it is the confluence of two interests – Russia and China Mieville, whose weirdness I thought would do justice to the weirdness of the Russian revolution, but he mostly plays it safe with a not-that-interesting, month-by-month narrative leading up to the October Revolution.

63. “Factfulness” – Hans Rosling

I bought a box-worth of this book to give as Christmas presents. It’s soooooo good and is exactly the book the world needs right now, filled with hope and wisdom. It is the perfect mix of STEM comms with both clearly translated data and infectious passion. This was by far my favorite book of any I read this year.

64. “Scarcity” – Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

It was likely a mistake to read this after “Factfulness”. It’s possible that it is an OK book, but it pales in comparison and follows the standard slog of “here’s a mildly interesting thesis followed by 300-400 pages of repetitive narrative to back it up.” 

65. “The City of Brass” – S. A Chakraborty

Middle-Eastern-themed fantasy. Yaaaas! None of the historical context makes any sense given the anachronisms referenced but the novelty of the setting and mythology relative to what normally makes its way into Western readers hands makes up for it. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

66. “Annihilation” – Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy reminds me a lot of Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris“. The film treatment of “Annihilation” is tons better than “Solaris” though (I can’t speak to the Russian film version as I have not seen it.). Like “Solaris” I would caution against reading this before bed as you will have strange, potentially disturbing dreams.

67.  “Authority” – Jeff VanderMeer

See above.

68.  “Midnight’s Children” – Salman Rushdie

I tried, but this got super-boring after the first 100 pages or so. I get why it was/is an important book in the context of India giving the middle finger to colonialism and such, but Rushdie’s writing comes off very smug in the “Look at me, I’m a literature major”-type of way. I feel the same way about Gabriel García Márquez though so maybe I’m the problem.

69.  “Things Fall Apart” – Chinua Achebe

This was a good reminder that I need to read more African literature. I came away challenged by it and need to read more about how it was received within Nigeria as the author is pretty matter-of-fact about “Here are some things that sucked prior to colonialism and here are some sucky things white people brought. Both sets of things suck.”

70.  “Naked Lunch” – William S. Burroughs

No. Just no. Paul Bowles remains the only Beat writer I can tolerate. 

71.  “Boom Town” – Sam Anderson

I wish more sports writers would pivot to non-sports writing. They come at their subjects with so much energy. Anderson’s subject in this case is Oklahoma City which he tackles in a way I don’t think anyone ever has, addressing both the city’s strangeness and banality. I am somewhat biased, being a resident of OKC, but enjoyed the book a lot and think non-residents would as well. Other residents have complained about how much space is given to Wayne Coyne, given that he mostly seems to be a sad, coked-out, creepy-old-man these days, but that all seems to fit the nature of the place to me. 

72.  “Rework” – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

I enjoy the sentiments of Fried and DHH’s writing more-so than the writing. That’s possibly an issue with the format, given that their books tend to be blog posts edited into book form. There’s probably a jokey metaphor about the Ruby programming language hidden in that description, but I’m not savvy enough to reach for it.

73.  “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” – Hunter S. Thompson

Matt Taibbi’s intro to this book sums up my thoughts on Thompson pretty well. If you read Thompson thinking that his drug-fueled escapades are the point, you are, in fact, missing the point. Thompson’s vices served to help quiet the voices in his head and help him cope with a world he wished was different. Taibbi does hand-wave past Thompson’s racism in the book a bit too easily – there’s… a lot of it.

Also, the recent wave of people trying to rehabilitate Nixon can all go die in a fire.

74.  “Acceptance” – Jeff VanderMeer

See above for the comments on the Southern Reach trilogy in general. As for the closing book, a few threads get away from VanderMeer, but he does a good job of wrapping things up. I hope he keeps writing weird stuff. 

75.  “All the Real Indians Died Off” – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

This is a really accessible intro into modern issues and misconceptions around North America’s indigenous peoples. I finished it while visiting my home town for Christmas, which happens to be the capital of the Choctaw Nation. There are a couple of interesting chapters on the standards that indigenous people are held to by others, especially related to authenticity and being “too white”.