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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre relates a facet of World War II that is simultaneously one of the more morbid and lighthearted stories I've read about that horrible time.  The full title of the book is Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.  It relates a bizarre method the British used to convince Germany that they weren't planning to invade Sicily, which seems to have been their only reasonable target.  They planted a dead body with papers that appeared to be private correspondence between Allied generals that indicated where the next major offensive would take place.  While it certainly drags in places, I enjoyed the book overall.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Sun Does Shine

I used to be very pro death penalty.  Even today, I don't have a philosophical problem with putting someone to death based on their commission of certain crimes if we can be sure they committed those crimes and the penalty can be carried out humanely.  I'm going to put our ability to humanely carry out a death sentence to one side, though if you haven't watched the John Oliver segment on it, you should.  It's horrifying.

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The Sun Does Shine

I used to be very pro death penalty.  Even today, I don't have a philosophical problem with putting someone to death based on their commission of certain crimes if we can be sure they committed those crimes and the penalty can be carried out humanely.  I'm going to put our ability to humanely carry out a death sentence to one side, though if you haven't watched the John Oliver segment on it, you should.  It's horrifying.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

4 years!

Today marks my completion of four years of doing at least one half hour of reading per day. In the past year, I have read 33 more books comprising 14,786 pages. This brings my total for the four years to 129 books totaling 65,187 pages.

My year four books were:

Foundation and Empire - Isaac Asimov (282 pages)
The Emporer of all Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee (609 pages)
All the King’s Men - Robert Penn Warren (464 pages)
Second Foundation - Isaac Asimov (279 pages)
Seal Team Six - Howard Wasdin (416 pages)
The World According to Garp - John Irving (624 pages)
Foundation's Edge - Isaac Asimov (480 pages)
Algorithms to Live By - Christian Griffiths (368 pages)
Crime & Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky (551 pages)
Foundation and Earth - Isaac Asimov (528 pages)
Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris (288 pages)
The Golden Bowl - Henry James (789 pages)
Prelude to Foundation - Isaac Asimov (512 pages)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot (384 pages)
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury (159 pages)
Forward the Foundation - Isaac Asimov (464 pages)
The Stranger in the Woods - Michael Finkel (224 pages)
The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow (608 pages)
Southern Reach Trilogy - Jeff VanderMeer (901 pages)
Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson (656 pages)
Go Tell it on the Mountain - James Baldwin (272 pages)
The Fifth Season - J.K. Jemisin (512 pages)
Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl (200 pages)
Moby Dick - Herman Melville (592 pages)
The Obelisk Gate - J.K. Jemisin (433 pages)
The Righteous Mind - Jonathan Haidt (528 pages)
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (80 pages)
The Stone Sky - J.K. Jemisin (464 pages)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (327 pages)
A House for Mr. Biswas - V. S. Naipaul (576 pages)
Fleet of Worlds - Larry Niven (304 pages)
Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America - John Charles Chasteen (400 pages)
Light in August - William Faulkner (512 pages)

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America

Most of the historical non-fiction that I've read so far has been focused on the United States or one of the world wars.  It was something of a departure to read Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America by John Chasteen.  This book covers Latin America from the first European encounters in the late 15th century up to the present.  It's actually a textbook, but I found it remarkably readable.  Obviously a 400 page book covering over 500 years and 20 countries can only have go into so much detail.  Even so, I think it provided me with an excellent look into the evolution of Latin America and how it came to be what it is today.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Broken Earth trilogy

N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy seems to have received pretty much universal acclaim.  I enjoyed the series, but I don't know that I'd agree with the most effusive critics, who have given it labels like "one the greatest works of fantasy literature ever put to page".  The person who wrote that isn't alone.  When the last book was published the author became the first to win three consecutive Hugo Awards and the series became the first to have all of its works awarded the Hugo for best novel.

The writing style takes some getting used to.  It has the typical problem in sci-fi and fantasy novels with making up too many words.  While I get that it can be seen as adding flavor and depth to the author's world, I would sooner them just use existing words for things that are already real.  There is also a seemingly random use of perspectives for the narrator.  There's a reason for this, but it can be jarring at first and you don't really know why it's happening until late in the first book.

Jemisin does weave a fairly rich narrative and world.  Her characters a complex and generally very well made.  The work is fairly progressive in its portrayal of sexuality, sexual identity, and marginalization in society.  I'm no developmental psychologists, but the reaction of children to abusive situations seemed off to me.  A big positive is that she actually finished her series in a timely manner, which is a lot more than you can say for some fantasy authors.

I recommend the books for anyone who likes fantasy.  I will note that they do have mature topics and have sexually explicit scenes, so keep that in mind.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Moby Dick

Along with War and Peace, Herman Melville's Moby Dick has always been what springs to mind when I think of "great books".  I put that in quotes because that was my perception of what literary critics believed, I didn't personally have a view on either of them until recently.  When I read War and Peace I was very surprised to enjoy it very much.  It remains my favorite book.  Moby Dick, not so much.  I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't say it was altogether enjoyable.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Steve Jobs

I've never cared for Apple products, so I never really had much of an interest in Steve Jobs.  I always saw him as a very arrogant leader of a company that I didn't really care about.  I had no idea how arrogant he really was.  His biography by Walter Isaacson is my latest non-fiction book, which tells the fascinating story of an emotionally stunted but brilliant individual.  I enjoyed it and learned a lot that I didn't know.

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Southern Reach Trilogy

I recently asked people for recommendations for science fiction and fantasy books and got a tremendous response.  Even excluding books that are part of incomplete series, I received recommendations of 74 books comprising 39,785 pages, so I have my work cut out for me.  I started with the Southern Reach trilogy, which is probably better known by the name of its first book, Annihilation, since that's what they named the Natalie Portman movie based on the series.  Ordinarily I would read one book from a series like this and then rotate through my other lists before reading the next.  In this case, I finished the first book in two days because I couldn't put it down and immediately started the next.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Adventures of Augie March

Picaresque novels generally convey the story of an imperfect protagonist in an even more imperfect society.  The term itself comes from a word meaning "rogue" and the protagonists are generally individuals who move from place to place surviving by their wits.  This will generally involve illegal behavior of some kind.  Picaresque novels are often defined by the way they use comedy, satire, and sarcasm to skewer the society in which the protagonist is forced to survive.  Publishers Weekly listed The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellows as its number one recommendation for a picaresque novel.  While it certainly wasn't terrible, it's a book I'd have a hard time recommending.

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Monday, March 4, 2019

The Stranger in the Woods

Seemingly on a whim, at the age of 20, Christopher Thomas Knight abandoned all of his possessions and wondered into the woods.  He lived there for the next 27 years with virtually no contact with another human being.  In The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel tells Knight's story.  It's a pretty good read, but I think Finkel tried too hard to distill meaningful life lessons that just aren't there.

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Friday, March 1, 2019


Lately my consumption of science fiction has been focused on Isaac Asimov.  More specifically, I've been reading his Foundation series of novels, having already completed his Robot novels.  Asimov wrote seven novels about the Foundation, an organization created to shorten the anarchy following the collapse of the galactic empire and steer everyone to a prosperous unified future.  This is supposed to be possible through the use of "psychohistory".  This refers to a terribly named new field of math which allows for statistically accurate predictions of the future.  A fundamental tenant of psychohistory is that it only works on large groups of people and is useless at providing information on the course of an individual's life, which is far too random for a meaningful prediction.  I like the early books in the series fine, but I found the other tedious at times.

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I find psychohistory fairly ridiculous, but that's fine.  Many great sci-fi works have an implausible technology as their premise.  My biggest issue is that Asimov spends a truly ridiculous amount of time having the characters pontificate about this and other aspects of his made up world.  This gets worse as you get deeper into the story.  Foundation, the first book, is 296 pages long, while the fifth, Foundation and Earth, is 528 pages long.  I'd say they'd be about the same length if Foundation and Earth lost all but one instance of the many, many times the main characters have the exact same pointless conversation only using different analogies. 

Maybe Asimov thought the parts of his books I found boring and unnecessary were essential or maybe he was trying to reach a page count.  Personally, I think his ego just got massive to the point he couldn't conceive of readers not being interested in endless rambling about his ideas.  Asimov was an extremely accomplished writer, and he'd be the very first to tell you that.  You can't read the forward of any of his books without learning just how massive his contributions to science fiction were.  I don't think it's inaccurate, it just seemed to be something he needed people to know and that same egotism could have impacted his writing.

I you are going to read these books, I would strongly urge you to ignore Asimov's suggested reading order.  The last two books published in the series (Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation) are prequels and he suggested reading those first to read everything in chronological order.  I think that's a terrible idea.  Asimov's books seem to universally have a twist or surprise reveal at the end.  Reading it in that order would spoil a lot of what's in the books that were published earlier.  I think you should just read them in the order of publication.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Fahrenheit 451

The latest of my "great" books is Fahrenheit 451. It's one of those books that I probably read at some point, but can't remember for sure.

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is another of the many, many non-fiction books recommended to me by my friend Daniel, and it's a very interesting read.  Henrietta had an incredibly aggressive form of cervical cancer.  Cells that were taken while treating that cancer became the first known "immortal" cells, meaning that, given an appropriate culture medium, they could infinitely divide and create new cells.  The book has three fundamental components.

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The first component is about the medical implications of those cells, which would be hard to overstate.  Doctors had long sought after a viable way to study human cells that hadn't just been taken from the donor.  This predated the ability to freeze cells and   even any kind of standard way to culture cells.  The cell line taken from Henrietta revolutionized medical research.  It was essential to the creation of the Polio vaccine along with other treatments.  The cell line also managed to destroy years and millions of dollars worth of other research.

The second main topic in the book is medical ethics.  Henrietta had no idea he cells were being taken for research.  Her family only learned how significant her cells were after she died.  That cell line generated millions, perhaps billions, in profits for various parties. and Henrietta's family never got a cent.  There is a large discussion of how patients generally, and African Americans in particular, were treated as guinea pigs by their physicians in the mid-twentieth century.  The author also discusses how, even in the present day, patients have little to no right to control what happens to materials taken from them during the course of medical procedures.

The entire book is really structured around the third element, the actual life of Henrietta Lacks.  The author had to do fairly exhaustive research and even then there are a lot of unknowns.  Sadly, but for her cells, Henrietta would have largely been forgotten after her death.  Her race and socio-economic status didn't predispose her to having many written records and interactions the family had with the medical and legal establishments didn't make them inclined to share.

As you've probably guessed, I would highly recommend this book.  Despite the subject matter, it is very accessible and a fairly easy read.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Golden Bowl

In my quest to read the "great books", I've read a few books with narrative styles that seemed to prioritize confusing or innovative writing over conveying a story.  The worst offenders were Ulysses and Infinite Jest.  The Golden Bowl isn't nearly as bad as those, but it certainly fits in the general category.  Even those praising Henry James' novel have described it as "labyrinthine and claustrophobic". It's also not an upbeat story.  It revolves primarily around jealousy, adultery, and betrayal.

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The novel seems to be considered significant because it delves so deeply into the consciousness of the characters.  His use of language while exploring the characters' consciousness is fairly unique.  While I found it interesting at first, it was ultimately exhausting to read.  Take this quote: "He found himself therefore saying, with gaiety, even to Fanny Assingham, for their common, concerned glance at Eaton Square, the glance that was so markedly never, as it might have been, a glance at Portland Place".  Now picture that at the beginning of a paragraph that extends for pages in a book that's nearly 800 pages long.

I think one problem I've had with the books that are more difficult to read is that they're not compatible with what I'm trying to do with my reading.  I'm trying to sit down a read books and absorb a story, while I might really need to spend three to four times as long as I would on a normal book of similar size in order to really appreciate what the author has done.  Instead, I move forward at the best pace I can while reading everything.  This leads to the book being obtuse and frustrating and makes just want to end it.  

I can't recommend The Golden Bowl.  Maybe that's only because I haven't given it a fair shake.  I still think Ulysses was a cruel prank by Joyce.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was my second book by Fyodor Dostoevsky and I wasn't terribly impressed.  It's probably my lack of sophistication as a reader.  I didn't enjoy The Brothers Karamazov either, but I still found it to be very well written with very memorable scenes.  Crime and Punishment is structurally interesting but, while dealing with fairly similar subject matter, lacks characters that are nearly as interesting as those in The Brothers Karamazov.

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The protagonist, Raskolnikov, decides that the true geniuses of society are justified in taking any action, no matter how repugnant, so long as it is needed for them to accomplish great things.  Conveniently, Raskolnikov is such a genius.  Using his newly rationalized freedom, he decides to kill an old woman who is also a pawn broker.  He botches it up in a few different ways and proceeds to lose his mind.  Most of the time his actions (and the actions of others) made no sense to me.  There are interrogations that seem interesting but peter out to nothing.  It's not clear to me that Raskolnikov ever felt remorse of any kind.

This book presents the same obstacles that I find in every Russian novel.  Every character has three or more names, none of them familiar or easy to remember.  There are situations that don't come across easily over the gap of time and culture.  I'm glad I read Tolstoy first so that I knew I could enjoy Russian literature and wasn't scared entirely away by Dostoevsky.

The World According to Garp

The World according to Garp is a truly bizarre story.  It generally fallows the life of Garp, a man named after the mentally disabled veteran that his mother raped to conceive him.  It's also about the books written by Garp and his mother.  I can't go into too much detail without spoiling it, but I will say that I enjoyed it and had trouble putting it down.  It's not for everyone, though.  It's fairly graphic when it comes to sex and the injuries suffered by some of the characters are not for the squeamish.  I think people with strong feelings about feminism (whatever they might be) will also be uncomfortable at times.