The Year of Reading Injudiciously
In January 2017, I found myself with a job, and consequently, a commute. I drive to and back from work, and spend about an hour on the road.
For the first half of the year, every other week, I also drove four hours or so, one way, because A and I lived in two different cities, in two different states.
An unexpected side-effect of my newfound employment and associated
commute is that I have "read" far more books than I otherwise would
have. In reality the books were read to me, but for
bragging purposes, I am sticking with the claim. This is a form of
cheating, but since I am the cheater and the cheated, no harm is done
to anyone else.
I have long given up on listening to
propaganda news and the such on
the radio, so I resorted to audiobooks in order to ease some of the
commute pain. By the end of the year, I seem to have "read" 108
books: 53 of them are audiobooks.
I have also embraced ebooks, reluctantly at first, and then with abandon.
Previously I had adopted an anti-DRM stance, and had rejected DRM-encumbred ebooks. I have since become a sell-out, and I have learned to rationalize my acceptance of what some good people call digital handcuffs: the public library offers them whether I check them out or not, and some of my tax dollars pay for that stuff, so might as well get my money's worth of them digital handcuffs, right?
To be clear, I still do have objections to DRM and the megacorp's hegemony over the publishing industry (and the market as a whole), but I am just one tiny inconsequential person and it appears that my feeble resistance is laughably futile.
There's another thing about my reading in 2017. Like many other people who were faced with a sudden rude awakening, I have also been reading stuff I normally would not have read: American politics.
For the first six years of living in the US, and even prior to that, I have found politics here not especially interesting. I had never heard a speech given by Barack Obama until the "we killed Osama bin Laden" speech, even when the entire world was going crazy over Obama in 2008, for example. I chose to be blissfully ignorant.
That changed in November 2016, for the obvious reasons, and I have been trying to figure out what is really going on with America since. I may have developed an unhealthy obsession with the topic, and have read way more than I should have; some of that was very good and very insightful, some of that happened to be trash that never should have been published in the first place.
Presenting my read list in some sort of thematic order would have made sense, but I read in a haphazard manner: sometimes depending on what is available, sometimes based on a hunch, and sometimes based on what people are talking about, sometimes for no good reason at all.
If you, dear reader, care for recommendations of a fellow injudicious reader, my favorite titles are in bold.
(On the other hand, if you fancy yourself to be a prudent reader, why are you even reading this?)
- Snowden, Ted Rall (2015, paperback).
Among Americans, Edward Snowden provokes extreme reactions: he's either a traitor, or a hero. For Rall, Snowden is a hero, and he makes no attempt to hide his admiration for the protagonist of his story. Of the considerable number of people that acquire security clearance, how and why did Snowden become the whistle-blower? This is an exploration in graphic novel format.
- Museum of Mistakes: The Fart Party Collection, Julia Wertz (2014, paperback).
Julia Wertz ran a popular web comic strip, which heralded stories from her own life, and this book is a collection of early ones. I had cut down on webcomic consumption some years back, so I wasn't familiar with her work. I am glad that I found the book: it is really funny, and refreshingly honest.
- Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1), Gene Luen Yang (2013, paperback).
- Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2), Gene Luen Yang (2013, paperback).
Two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion. I remember embarrassingly little of it, except that the art was pretty cool.
- A User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting Guy Delisle (2013, paperback).
- Even More Bad Parenting Advice, Guy Delisle (2014, paperback).
Dad jokes collection that can be actually pretty funny, depending on the kind of sense of humor you posses.
- Scott Pilgrim, Volume 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, Bryan Lee O'Malley (2010, paperback).
I had seen the movie and liked it. I am conflicted as to which I liked better: the movie or the graphic novel.
- Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars - Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth (2016, hardcover).
Graphic novel about Apache wars of the 1870s. Illustration stood out, but the script did not: it is confusing and rambling.
- Couch Tag, Jesse Reklaw (2013, hardcover).
Graphic novel memoir. I liked it at the time of reading, but by the end of the year I remembered nothing of it, so I had to look up to see if I can recall what it was about. What does that tell you?
- The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson (2016, ebook).
Bill Bryson's publishers roped him in to write a follow-up to his popular travelog, Notes from a Small Island, twenty years after it was originally published.
- Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me! Famous People Who Returned Our Calls: Celebrity Highlights from the Oddly Informative News Quiz, Peter Sagal (2009, audiobook).
"Wait Wait…" is my favorite show on radio after "Car Talk", but like I said, I do not really listen to radio anymore. This audiobook suited suited a 4-hour drive once, and that is all I remember about it now.
- Alias the Cat!, Kim Deitch (2007, hardcover)
Trippy and rambling, but I guess that is kind of the point. I did not enjoy this graphic novel on first reading, but it actually is a lot of fun. I should perhaps read it again.
- What Do You Care What Other People Think?, Richard Feynman (2005, audiobook).
Feynman's autobiographical notes. Mostly about losing a loved one, work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and investigation into space shuttle Challenger's explosion.
- Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, Peter Schweizer (2015, ebook).
This book investigates connections between the Clinton Foundation's benefactors, and the Clintons' use of their influence to help those very benefactors. Schweizer does not offer conclusive evidence for outright corruption, but there are fourteen chapters of dealings that look bad, and it is rather extensively cited.
I have been looking for point-by-point rebuttals on the allegations, I have not found anything of such nature, yet. There used to be a "brifings" section in Hillary Clinton's website that purportedly did this, but that section no longer exists.
The book's production was supported by Government Accountability Institute (which in turn was bankrolled by some controversial men: Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer, the Koch brothers); it was later made into a graphic novel and a documentary. All this, and many other confounding factors, might have had an effect on the 2016 presidential election outcome.
- In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan (2008, audiobook).
Michael Pollan's well-known aphorism ("Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.") unfortunately became way too popular for its own good, as it also acts as a kind of horse-blinkers. Pollan recognizes that not all plant-based food could be "healthy", gives a hat-tip Gary Taubes for Good Calories, Bad Calories, and then goes on to stress the importance of a "balanced" diet anyway.
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo (2014, audiobook).
If you minimize your possessions to the bare minimum good stuff (the stuff that "sparks joy" within you) by throwing out all the extraneous stuff you do not really need, your life will be awesome. This pitch is repeated ad nauseum; listening to the same thing in someone's robotic monotone made it worse. They should perhaps have decluttered the damn book?
- Think Like a Freak, Steven D. Levitt (2014, audiobook)
Content from Freakonomics blog/podcast, third in the series. Contains useful tips on applying the unconventional approach that the authors made popular.
- No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, Anand Gopal (2014, audiobook)
This book covers conflict in Afghanistan, through the eyes of several Afghanis: a Taliban commander, a warlord who sided with the US, and a village housewife.
- Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, Florence Williams (2013, audiobook).
In addition to the useful and necessary nutrition, mother's milk also carries a hodgepodge of scary synthetic toxins (paint thinners, flame retardants, and the such), because the fatty tissues in breasts easily absorbs contaminants present in the modern environment.
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson (2012, audiobook).
Nations prosper or fail because of the strength or the weakness of institutions they are built on: those with "inclusive" institutions prosper; those with "extractive" social systems ultimately fail, regardless of other factors. The authors offer a tour of the world history to support their simple and fascinating thesis.
- Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, Atul Gawande (2003, audiobook).
This is Dr. Gawande's first published book – although he's one of my favorite authors, I'm afraid that his newness as a writer showed a bit.
- What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: And Two Other Short Guides to Achieving More at Work and at Home, Laura Vanderkam (2013, audiobook).
Successful people wake up early and give themselves some time to do things that enrich their life. I do not eat breakfast on most days, so I am afraid that I cannot join the ranks of successful people. I usually wake up early though, so maybe I have my chances?
- The Best American Travel Writing 2016, Bill Bryson and Jason Wilson (2016, ebook).
Collection of travel essays by various authors. It has some very good pieces, but I was turned off towards the book by the "Keralan" chapter where the writer describes just the things that she experienced in the tour package and nothing else. Nothing wrong with doing those things or writing about it as such, just do not present that as the "best" travel writing.
- Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2001, audiobook).
Humans often attempt to attribute random events to non-random causes, and we are pretty bad in figuring out the actual causes of most events. Taleb is not like the rest of us, because he is a really smart and enlightened man.
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Frans de Waal (2016, audiobook).
You know Betteridges Law of Headlines, and you know the answer to the question posed in the title of this book: no, we are not smart enough to know.
The anthropocentric viewpoint has been a hindrance in understanding how non-humans think and act. Animals are smart in different ways. Human measurements of intelligence is useless in understanding animal intelligence.
- Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operate, Gary J. Byrne (2016, audiobook).
Byrne served in the White House during Bill Clinton's second term, and wasn't pleased to see what he saw, and what he heard from others, and absolutely did not want to see the Clintons in the White House ever again.
- Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression, Dale Maharidge (2013, ebook).
America is an sad place to live for poor people, and often their destitution is often because no fault of theirs. People lose their jobs, or there was a major illness in the family that drained all their savings, or maybe the economy was not doing well like in 2008, or financial institutions committed acts of fraud: millions have lost their homes and were thrown into the streets. This book documents stories of some families that lost everything in the second great depression of 2008, and their struggle for survival.
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012, audiobook).
Some things become stronger when exposed to stress and volatility (the way people build muscle from resistance training, for example). Taleb coined the term "antifragile" to describe this quality, because "resilience" or "adaptability" do not adequately describe it.
- The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes (2016, audiobook).
I am yet to finish Taube's Good Calories, Bad Calories; I have read How We Become Fat (the latter appears to be the "lite" version of the former), and I am convinced that he has a good case for what causes obesity and other modern day health troubles; The Case Against Sugar builds a stronger case against sugar, which we have been consuming in historically unprecedented quantities.
- At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson (2010, audiobook).
A history of domestic life: how did the houses we live in came to be the way they are? Bryson goes from room to room (living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom…), and describes their evolution. This is pretty western-centric; I believe there is room (ahem) for a similar book on the story of non-western houses.
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport (2016, audiobook).
We are impaired of our ability to do focused deep work in the modern world because our environment is hostile to deep work. Paradoxically, deep intellectual work also happens to be the most valuable kind of work that we can do.
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance. (2016, ebook)
This turned out to be more of one person's autobiography than what I expected. That in itself isn't a bad thing though: Vance has a good story of finding a good place for himself in the world, in spite of all the odds.
- Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond (1997, audiobook).
Eurasian civilization has survived and thrived, while many great ancient civilizations have not. This book argues that this is not due to an inherently superior culture, but from certain historic and technological advantages.
- Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel and Blake Masters (2014, ebook).
Notes from Stanford CS183, in book from. Contains the accepted Silicon Valley wisdom on creating startups.
- Low-Carb Fraud, T. Colin Campbell, Howard Jacobson (2014, ebook).
I have been looking for solid counter-arguments against avoiding carbohydrates from our diet, but sadly found no such thing in this book: it is mostly the tired ad-hominem attacks (on Robert Atkins and Gary Taubes), appeal to authority (the authority being himself), and dishonesty (such as: there are no ancestral societies that thrived on a low-fat diet – what about the Inuits, the Māoris, the Masais?), and just very ranty. A sad wasted opportunity.
- When to Rob a Bank, Steven D. Levitt (2015, audiobook).
Fourth in the Freakonomics series: collection of stories that follow basically the same recipe.
- The Underachiever's Manifesto: The Guide to Accomplishing Little and Feeling Great, Ray Bennett. (2006, hardcover)
Short sweet book on not sweating it too much, and not being too hard on yourself.
- Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, Sudhir Venkatesh. (2008, audibook)
The author's fieldwork in Chicago's housing projects while doing his doctoral research took some unexpected turns. He started hanging out with gang members, became close friends with a leader, and was coaxed into becoming the gang's token leader for a day so that he can see for himself what it is really like.
- The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse, Mohamed El-Erian (2016, audibook).
The argument is that central banks, when faced with the responsibility of handling the 2008 financial crisis, have done an admirable job, and will need to continue doing so. Maybe so, if you are a financial industry insider. El-Erian is one, and this book is self-serving sophistry, and it made me angry.
- Gratitude, Oliver Sacks (2015, audiobook).
Sacks' posthumously published essays, written after his cancer diagnosis.
- The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax (2016, ebook).
Analog things – film cameras, vinyl records, moleskin journals, brick-and-mortar indie bookstores, board games – waned for a while, in the onslaught of digital things, and now they are coming back.
(Incidentally, in my town's main street, there's a record store, an indie book store, a board game store, a photo studio that has a collection of old film gear, a cobbler's store, a tailor…)
- The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, Bernard Roth (2015, audiobook).
Accomplishing things is a skill that can be learned. The details are hazy to me, which might be as well.
- How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, Jordan Ellenberg (2014, audiobook).
Using Mathematics in dealing with day-to-day issues. The audiobook was a drag; perhaps I should read the paperback?
- Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes (2017, ebook).
Blow-by-blow account of 2016 presidential campaign: learning from Obama campaign, Clinton's campaign relied too much on sophisticated and complex software models, and too little on actual groundwork, and ignored some key constituencies. This worried people experienced in traditional campaigns; even Bill Clinton, who had ears on the ground, worried about the way things were going.
- The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer (2013, audiobook).
Story of America's transformation in the recent decades, told mainly as stories of three Americans: a former political aide, a failed bio-fuel entrepreneur, the daughter of a drug addict who eventually became a community organizer. These stories are interleaved with shorter life stories of people such as Sam Walton, Elizabeth Warren, and Jay-Z.
David Brooks panned the book for what he perceives to be a lack of rigorous analysis, but in my mind that precisely is the best thing about this book: analysis is left to the reader.
- How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, Joel Pollak and Larry Schweikart (2017, ebook).
Dispatches from Donald Trump's 2016 campaign trail, by two campaign insiders. Chest-thumping, cheer-leading, blow-by-blow account of the campaign, from the side of the candidate that few expected to win but won anyway. They speak as if they knew it all along; that is probably hindsight speaking. I doubt that they were that sure all along.
- Car Talk Science: MIT Wants Its Diplomas Back, Tom Magliozzi and Ray Magliozzi (2016, audiobook).
I do not find cars very interesting, but Car Talk used to be my favorite show on NPR (back when I used to listen to NPR) because I loved (and still love) listening to these two brothers' compulsive and infectious laughter. I dearly miss them. As far as I am concerned, it hardly matters what they actually talk about in the show. It is all about that laughter.
- Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers (1994, audiobook).
There are "equity feminists", and there are "gender feminists", and the latter have stolen feminism from the real feminists. There are real issues that unprivileged women face that should be addressed by feminism; but for gender feminists it is all about the setbacks a privileged group of women face while climbing their career ladders.
- Making It Big in Software: Get the Job. Work the Org. Become Great., Sam S. Lightstone (2010, paperback).
Interviews with people who became successful in computer software business: Steve Wozniak, James Gosling, Marissa Meyer, John Bentley, Marc Benioff, Bjarne Stroustrup, Peter Norvig, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman.
My favorite is Richard Stallman's answer to this question: "How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you keep your software life from dominating everything?"
To this Stallman says: "Why would I want to do that? My work is not programming; it is campaigning for freedom for software users. This is not just a pastime and not just a job. It's the most important thing I know any way to do. I'm proud of it, and when I achieve something, I am very satisfied. It should be the main focus of my life, and it is."
- Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others, Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman (2012, paperback).
Summary: be nice and be respectful to other people.
- Guilty as Sin: Uncovering New Evidence of Corruption and How Hillary Clinton and the Democrats Derailed the FBI Investigation, Edward Klein (2016, ebook)
Clearly the intended audience for this book is not me: it is the angry Republican who is already convinced that Clinton is guilty of something, and it doesn't matter what. Regardless, I have read it, and regret reading it. In my defense, I am new to this genre, and I do not know how to tell between the good ones and the really trashy ones.
- Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off of Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism That Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison, Peter Schweizer. (2011, ebook)
American elected officials engage in a shocking amount of lawful but questionable practices while holding a public office, for their private gain (example: stock trading based on prior knowledge of legislation), and to the detriment of those whom they are supposed to serve. Schweizer has clearly chosen a camp, and therefore he aims to hurt the opposition – part of this book is about dubious investments in energy companies during Obama years, for example – and that is the great weakness of this book.
- Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley, Antonio García Martínez (2016, audiobook).
Martinez regales us with his stories of creating a startup that was acquired by a bigger company (Twitter), and then leaving it to work for Facebook. Entertaining, even though I personally find Silicon Valley's giant success stories less than wholesome.
- One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, Sam Keith (1973/2011, ebook).
Building a cabin by an Alaskan lakeside, by yourself, and surviving a winter there, mostly by yourself – that holds greater appeal than moving to San Francisco to work for a tech startup, doesn't it?
- Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Thomas Frank (2016, audiobook).
The Democratic party no longer works for the working class people; it has become a party of elites, and it serves, and is served by, what Frank calls people of "professional class".
- Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016, ebook).
Reports from Louisiana, with interviews with Tea Party supporters. Petrochemical industry has done considerable damage to the environment, often displacing people and making their land and homes worthless, and their waterways unusable. They do this with impunity, and with the government's support. There's very little opposition from the affected as well; Hochschild tries to understand why.
- Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin (2017, audiobook).
Crispin do not like contemporary feminism; I could not quite figure out why, and exactly whom it is that she dislikes.
- The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Abigail Tucker (2016, audibook).
As I was writing these notes, it was sunny but quite cold outside (-14 °C), and a few inches of snow had piled up. Appu cat insisted on going outside, and came back in a few minutes with a freshly killed vole. Just… how did he do that?
Turns out that household cats are hunters par excellence.
Appu and his sister Ammu adopted us seven years ago. Today it is impossible for us to imagine a life without the two of them. We are very devoted, and we are hardly alone in the cat craze.
Indoor cats are a recent phenomenon – until the invention of cat litter in 1947, and commercially prepared dry food became popular around 1950s and 60s, cats came and went as they pleased.
Considering the limited utility of cats (as compared to dogs) to humans, this is a mystery. They might even be harmful (toxoplasmosis) while controlling our irrational brains by evolving their features to be appealing to us, and even learning to modulate their voices to invoke our affections with an oxytocin rush.
Cats! How do they do that?
- Kerplunk!: Stories, Patrick F. McManus (2008, audibook).
I've been informed that this is not the most funny McManus book. I haven't read any of his other books. I found this one to be quite funny.
- An Evening with Garrison Keillor, Maya Angelou, Laurie Colwin and Tom Wolfe: A Gala Evening of Readings to Benefit the Homeless (1991(?), audiobook).
I think I will claim this to be a "book", for the purpose of claiming an exaggerated reading list.
- Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (2004, audiobook).
Birds in Haupt's immediate surroundings – starlings, crows, cormorants, woodpeckers, sparrows, and the such – are a source of fancy. This is a delightful book, and Haupt has excellent mastery over the craft, and my complaint is that it should have been longer.
- Prison Island: A Graphic Memoir, Colleen Frakes (2015, ebook)
Graphic novel memoir, about the author's teen years in McNeil Island, in Washington State. Frakes' parents worked for the prison in the island. When the penitentiary closed down for good in 2011, the family went there again to take another look.
- What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe (2014, audiobook)
Munroe's answers to some hypothetical questions about unlikely situations. Audiobook version failed to keep my attention, and the ebook was poorly formatted for my devices. Maybe I should read the paperback?
- The Effective Engineer: How to Leverage Your Efforts In Software Engineering to Make a Disproportionate and Meaningful Impact, Edmond Lau (2015, paperback).
Some good advice in there, and most starting programmers could do a lot worse than reading this book. There are things even I, a Hardened Grizzly Veteran and a Cynic (disclosure: some of those adjectives are false, except the one about being a cynic), found useful: such as, for getting the best returns from your effort, figure out what is the most "impactful" part of the project you are involved in, and expend most of your energies there.
- The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman (2016, audiobook).
This could be a companion book to Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?: we are not smart enough to know how smart birds are, either, because bird brains are designed differently from primate brains. Birds are extremely smart but in their own ways; therefore "bird brain" as an insult is quite insufficient.
- My Little Town, Garrison Keillor (2011, audiobook).
Keillor continues to make fun of the imaginary people of his imaginary hometown.
- Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, Brian Alexander (2016, audiobook).
I have seen many small towns and old industrial cities all over the US Midwest in states of ruin. In fact, outside major cities, those that are not in a state of ruin are rare. Major cities too have got their share of ruined parts. They are all places with a history of past prosperity.
Lancaster, Ohio is one such rundown town. It used to be an entirely different place in its heyday, back when the hometown company, Anchor Hocking Glass, thrived. What happened?
This book answers the broad question of what happened to industrial America, while describing the history of Lancaster's decay. Alexander places the blame on an era of economic ideals popularized by Milton Friedman, endorsed by presidents from Ronald Raegan onwards, and eagerly adopted by corporate America.
- What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank (2004, ebook).
Perhaps the best known book on the rise of conservatism in middle America. Midwest wasn't always conservative: old midwest leaned left, than it is today. Eventually economic conservatism won over elites, and social conservatism won over working class people, and the strange coalition soon began to win elections.
- The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, Larry Young and Brian Alexander (2012, audiobook).
Our relationships cannot be attributed solely to cognitive processes; hormones play a surprisingly large part. I need to find a paper copy and take some notes.
- Stories: An Audio Collection, Garrison Keillor (1992, audiobook).
These stories are not set in the imaginary Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, but I was still entertained.
- The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew B. Crawford (2015, audiobook).
I do not know of quite what Mr. Crawford was going on about, but it is quite apparent that he is a very concerned and very smart man. I have previously read his other book, Shopcraft as Soulcraft, and I was hoping to learn something from this one. Other than perhaps that focused work is good work, but we already know that.
- Twitter: The Comic (The Book): Comics Based on the Greatest Tweets of Our Generation, Mike Rosenthal (2014).
Read, and forgot all about what was in it. Which makes it, you know, just like twitter dot com.
- Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017, audiobook).
Practical suggestions on raising a feminist child. Or, what you would call a normal child.
- How to Be Black, Baratunde R. Thurston (2012, audiobook).
Humorous take on being a black person in America.
- I'm Tempted to Stop Acting Randomly, Scott Adams (2010, ebook).
Scott Adams has pariah status in certain circles. This he mostly earned during the 2016 presidential election, and prior to that, by other shenanigans. But I still kind of like Dilbert, what can I do?
- The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin' Dixie Outta the Dark, Trae Crowder, Drew Morgan, and Corey Ryan Forrester (2017, audiobook).
Turns out that there are rednecks out there who are also liberal in their political views, and this comedy trio belongs to that group.
- NPR Laughter Therapy: A Comedy Collection for the Chronically Serious (2013, audiobook).
This could not make me laugh. Not even once. Perhaps it will work only on the chronically serious folk.
- Pearls Hogs the Road: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury, Stephan Pastis (2017, ebook).
Prime attraction is that Bill Watterson came out of retirement and drew three strips for this book.
- The Book of Obama: From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Ted Rall (2012, ebook).
Rall lists plenty of reasons to be disappointed in Obama presidency by the end of the first term. Grievances include but are not limited to: his voting history as senator (in favor of invading Afghanistan); the appointment of Lawrence Summers as Treasury Secretary and the subsequent bank bailout; failure to prosecute white collar criminals that caused the 2008 downturn; ongoing conflicts abroad.
The backdrop of this book is Occupy Wall Street protests; hence "the age of revolt" in the title.
- Photojournalism: 150 Years of Outstanding Press Photography, Reuel Golden (2011, paperback)
I am the kind of photographer who spends an unreasonable amount of money on gear and then shoots pictures of cats and dogs and flowers in the yard. The photographs presented in this book are powerful, and they have greatly embarrassed me.
- The Great LIFE Photographers, Gordon Parks (2010, hardcover).
Excellent anthology of photographs by hundred-odd LIFE magazine photographers.
- The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and and Alastair Smith (2012, audiobook)
Not even dictators can completely get away with doing whatever they want: they must strive to keep the support of their core backers, or they will be thrown out of power soon enough. The same principles are at work in democracies as well.
- Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore (1998, ebook).
I did not grow up with western superhero comics, and perhaps that is why I was not impressed by this book.
- The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Barack Obama (2006, audiobook).
I wasn't paying close attention to the 2008 US presidential election; so I needed to figure out what was going on back then.
- Portrait Revolution: Inspiration, Tips, and Techniques for Creating Portraits, Julia Kay (2017, ebook).
- Start Sketching & Drawing Now: Simple Techniques for Drawing Landscapes, People and Objects, Grant Fuller (2011, ebook)
I have not started to put the lessons to use.
- How to Draw Comics: From the Legendary Co-Creator of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Iron Man, Stan Lee (2010, ebook)
An excellent overview of how comics are made: walks you through the stages from conception to finished product (character design, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering…).
- Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley (2013, ebook)
Part memoir (of growing up with a mom who is a chef), part recipes. Illustration, as always, is excellent.
- Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life: A Former CIA Officer Reveals Safety and Survival Techniques to Keep You and Your Family Protected, Jason Hanson (2016, audiobook).
There are a few things worth learning from this one, especially regarding situational awareness and preparedness. But the aggressive sales pitch made it unbearable.
- How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016, P.J. O'Rourke (2016, ebook).
O'Rourke is a conservative, and yet maintains a rather low opinion of just about every aspirant – Republicans and Democrats alike – in the 2016 presidential election.
- Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Joshua Green (2017, ebook).
On how Steve Bannon, his band of "honey badgers", and other influential non-traditional Republicans helped Donald Trump on his way to the presidency. People see Bannon as some kind of arch-villain; but he is someone who grew up in traditionally Democratic family, and eventually switched sides during the Reagon wave.
Bannon, and the billionaire Robert Mercer, played key roles in the campaign; their multi-pronged attack (which encompassed Breitbart News website, Clinton Cash books produced by Government Accountability Institute, Clinton Cash the documentary produced by Glittering Steel, data analysis by Cambridge Analytica) turned out to be ultimately quite effective.
- What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton (2017, ebook).
Too many words to say nothing at all, and surprisingly little introspection. She lost because of the commonly raised reasons: Russian meddling in the elections, and James Comey's actions that may have turned the elections, racism and sexism helped her opponent, and so on. For a book written by someone marketed as a "policy wonk", this book contains little policy; this is about the candidate's feelings during the campaign and after.
I was curious about if this book would attempt to address the allegations meted out in Clinton Cash. Clinton mentions Robert Mercer and Steve Bannon (who is really behind the book), but is completely quiet on Schweizer's controversial book and its contents.
- Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small Town America, Bill Geist (2008, audiobook).
By now I have spent most of my time in America in some its small towns. Although I clearly do not blend-in in small town America, I quite like small town America; I much prefer small town America to my current suburban America situation.
I loved Bill Geist's stories from small town America. And now I love small town America even more.
I found a copy of this book for the first time in a place that was described in the very book: Nick's Kitchen, in Huntington, Indiana. (The famed pork tenderloin is pretty good, but their pies are even better.)
I am also planning to visit another closeby landmark mentioned in this book soon: Moonshine, Illinois (population two), to try their famed moonburgers.
- Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, Bernie Sanders (2016, audiobook).
Sanders narrates his life story, his political beliefs and activism, how his 2016 campaign became considerably influential from the original fringe status, his view of what ails America, and his vision for the country's future.
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz (2014, audiobook).
I think there are better ways of running software business than the the Silicon Valley standard Venture Capital-driven high-growth startups. I hope to stay clear of such employment as long as I am in the software business: they are unduly stressful on everyone involved, founders and employees alike, and that is no way to live our short lives in this world.
However, I quite liked this book, which is based on a series of blog posts that Ben Horowitz wrote as a VC, reminiscing the time he ran a startup mode enterprise software company that was later acquired by Hewlett-Pakard. He came across as human, and I found the war stories of running a business and successfully finding an "exit" at a very challenging time quite engaging.
- National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Travel, Robert Caputo (2005, paperback).
Good practical advice on taking better travel pictures. This is a little dated, and therefore contains some advice about film and film gear, which I imagine would no longer be applicable to its intended audience.
- Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards, P.J. O'Rourke (2011, ebook).
Collection of political satire. It was good enough to keep going till the end, but not good enough to recall the details. Maybe except that O'Rourke likes to skewer most politicians, regardless of their party affiliation.
- My Friend Dahmer, Derf Backderf (2012, ebook).
Backderf's classmate, Jeffrey Dahmer, was a noted weirdo and outcast in high school. Dahmer had no real friends, his family situation was worse than your average dysfunctional family situation, and to ease his pain, he passed his days in an alcohol-induced haze. Years later he was convicted as a serial killer – he had raped, killed, and chopped up, and preserved body parts of about seventeen victims by the time he was caught. Breaking the usual serial killer pattern, he fully co-operated with the investigation.
My Friend Dahmer is the story of this real life murderer. Backderf is empathic to his classmate, situation, while fully acknowledging that this is no excuse for the crimes committed.
(I could also recommend Backderf's other graphic novel, Trashed, about his life as a garbageman in small-town Ohio: it was excellent and opened my eyes to things such as garbage pickup service that I only had a faint appreciation for, even when my life was critically dependent on those very things.)
- Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (2014, ebook).
A couple realizes that time freezes when they're having an orgasm – the world literally comes to a standstill, and they could use the opportunity to do anything they want. Such as, robbing banks.
I have only read the first volume of the multi-part series. I don't think I want to read further.
- The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, Susan Bordo (2017, ebook).
According to this litany, Hillary Clinton lost because everyone else opposed her: Russians, James Comey, Bernie Sanders and supporters, all the right wingers, a country full of alleged sexists and racists, and a very crude and very crass opponent.
But that is the thing about running for world's most powerful position: given the stakes, you will invariably run against some vicious opposition. Why couldn't Clinton, with her several decades of experience in government and policy and politics, run a more effective campaign?
I was again curious to see if a sympathetic portrayal of Clinton would include a better point-by-point rebuttal of the allegations from Clinton Cash, but I was sorely disappointed: it stops at flat-out denial. Unfortunately Peter Schweizer has written a far stronger book.
- Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives, Dean Buonomano (2016, audiobook).
Our brains sometimes fail us. Although we take pride in our rationality, we often behave irrationally. Our brains are good in certain kinds of tasks (such as those involve pattern recognition), but even our own crudest machines can beat us in certain other kinds of tasks (such as, adding several large numbers). This is because the conditions under which our brains evolved are different from our current challenges.
- Men Without Women: Stories, Haruki Murakami (2017, ebook).
Short stories set in that familiar yet odd Murakami universe, about friendless men who have lost their women and thus are left incomplete.
- After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan, Ted Rall (2013, ebook).
After the American invasion of Afghanistan, Rall visited the country twice. First time in 2001, representing a couple of news organizations; and second time in 2010, raising money from crowd-funding. On both occasions he went there as an independent, "unembedded" journalist.
By the time of his second visit, Afghanistan had changed considerably. In 2001 Afghanis were hopeful of America's ability to change their situation; by 2010 they had given up. Outside the major cities, the Taliban was in full force; some of the old inter-city passages that Rall had counted on traveling had become extremely unsafe.
After the initial shows of considerable force, and strategic mis-steps such as bombing innocent civilians, and spending huge amounts of money with relatively little to show for it, the US were failing in their longest war abroad. How did that happen?
- Two Brothers, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (2015, ebook).
Daytripper is the first book by the Brazilian twin brothers that I read, and it mesmerized me. You should absolutely read it.
Two Brothers, based on a novel by Milton Hatoum, nearly approaches Daytripper levels in terms of artistic achievement. Something seems to have lost in translation though
- The Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges (2010, ebook).
America however has entirely forgotten the affair (although Labor Day is celebrated on a different day), and that is no accident at all: it is the result of decades of suppression of labor movements (example: Taft-Hartley Act of 1947), silencing of anti-war activists, Communist witch hunts, Raegon-era union busting, fear of foreign terrorism, and surrender of the liberals class to these new ethos in exchange for professional survival. The permanent state of war suppresses dissent and breeds unquestioning patriotism, and has the dual advantage of being very profitable for some corporations.
Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the corporate state has put the liberal class on a death march. Liberals did not protest the stripping away of the country’s manufacturing base, the dismantling of regulatory agencies, and the destruction of social service programs. Liberals did not decry speculators, who in the seventeenth century would have been hanged, as they hijacked the economy. Liberals retreated into atrophied institutions. They busied themselves with the boutique activism of political correctness. The liberal class was eventually forced in this death march to turn itself inside out, championing positions it previously condemned. That it did so with almost no protest exposed its moral bankruptcy.
"The left once dismissed the market as exploitative," Russell Jacoby writes. "It now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply a defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps inversion."
I first learned the phrase "inverted totalitarianism" from this book, and I think it is an accurate way to describe the way things are.
- What Every American Should Know About Who's Really Running America, Melissa L. Rossi (ebook).
Rossi seems to have found a formula: her other books include What Every American Should Know About the Middle East, What Every American Should Know About Europe, What Every American Should Know About Who's Really Running the World, What Every American Should Know About the Rest of the World…
The idea is that rogue public representatives represent none but themselves. Plenty of examples are given, and the (arguably limited) actions ordinary citizens can take to correct the situation.
- Story of Little Babaji, Helen Bannerman and Fred Marcellino (1996, hardcover).
Found this book in our friends' toddler's collection, and I am charmed: the story is short and sweet, and Marcellino's artwork is ridiculously excellent.
(The original, The Story of Little Black Sambo, was criticized for its racism. I did not find the "racism-corrected" version racist, but what do I know.)
- The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, Carlotta Gall (2014, ebook).
Gall covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the New York Times, and has ties to Afghanistan from the time her father, Sandy Gall, reported from the country.
The book's insight is that the real root of the troubles Afghan government and US forces face in Afghanistan is the insurgents from Pakistan, and they are supported by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and military intelligence, and this is regardless of US support for Pakistan.
ISI and Pakistani military play by their own rules, sometimes in defiance of their own civilian leadership. They use jihadists as a pawn in the dangerous geo-political game they play to keep India, Iran, and Russia in check – and it has lead to predictable results. A notable example is the Siege of Lal Mosque.
US eventually learned its lesson, and decided to keep Pakistani authorities in the dark when raiding Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. The compound was close to Pakistan Military Academy, and the house had no escape routes, which strongly suggests that Laden was under tutelage.
Gall's prose is surprisingly uneven for someone who wrote for a major newspaper for such a long time.
I am grateful to public libraries. I read all these books except two thanks to public libraries, without spending a direct cent. That they exist in this day and age, in this country, is nothing short of a miracle to me.
I would also like to let bygones be bygones: I will need to forget that I have done this to myself on my own volition. I should learn to focus on the quality of my reading in 2018. I will read fewer but better books. Some classics, some computer science and math books perhaps. Let us see.
But I don't think I have found a way to avoid audiobooks yet, other than enjoying engine noise during my commute.
Or worse, podcasts.