I wanted to add a bit of a personal flair to the site. One of my hobbies is reading and listening to audiobooks so I figured I’d throw down mini-reviews of each book I read throughout the year and leave them here. This is mostly an exercise for me to jot down some notes, maybe improve my writing skills and to better remember what I read.
I’ll append to this post throughout the year as more books are read; please recommend your favorites or tell my why my reviews are terrible! Last year managed to fit in 80 books, lets see how this year goes!
*UPDATE* After getting some comments I decided to change the format next year to add new books to the top instead of the bottom for obvious reasons.
**OBVIOUSLY THIS INCLUDES SPOILERS**
Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
I believe this book came to my attention as a recommendation from one of the Gates Foundation letters. Overall, I thought the book was extremely thought provoking and looked at some very important topics. In particular it looked at the history of Humanity as it passed through 3 approximate “revolutions” – the Cognitive revolution around 70,000 BCE when human societies became more capable and communication became more complex; the Agricultural revolution around 10,000 BCE, and the Scientific/Industrial Revolution which is still in progress today.
Yuval probes many uncomfortable questions such as our species likely involvement in the extinction of other human-like species, like the Neanderthals, as well as our track record of wiping out huge amounts of species throughout history, and our modern poor quality of life provided to animals such chicken and cattle.
While I don’t agree with all of the premises which Harari presents he does provide many well articulated and challenging interpretations of events throughout history, the role of ‘group delusions’ such as the believe in Capitalism or Socialism or things such as intrinsic human rights/equality of all people which, while I’d argue are GOOD things to believe and accept are certainly not things which a Darwinian existence requires or even would seem to support throughout history.
Other interesting perspectives throughout the book dwelled on questions of general human happiness and satisfaction and if that has changed much through time. There are some metrics – availability of food, diminished of wars, extended lifespans which are all seemingly objectively good changes but are those things making our race ‘happier’ or was the average hunter-gatherer approximately as happy as the average human today?
The end of the book was by far my favorite and dealt with potential upcoming challenges and questions our species will face as things like genetic editing, mechanically enhanced life, and the capabilities of general- or super-intelligent AIs come to prominence. Some of the challenges are around distribution of gene editing technology – how do we make sure the rich are not the only ones to benefit from it? As human lifespans become increasingly long – potentially indefinite – are we equipped to handle that responsibility? Will we tremble in fear from even trivial risks due to our expected indefinite life, will that make us better or worse people?
I certainly would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for a book to make them think. While I don’t agree with a number of the predictions and a few of the statements made throughout the book I found it a thrilling exercise to try to work out what merit/flaws is/are in his hypotheses and the book overall made me think more than most books I’ve read recently.
We are Legion (We are Bob) – (Book 1 of the Bobiverse series)
by Dennis Taylor
I found this to be a phenomenally enjoyable book! It is the first of a light-hearted sci-fi quadrilogy which deals with the unexpected ~second-life of Bob.
Bob made an investment in a company who would, on his death, freeze him and attempt to revive him once medical technology was capable of doing so. Little did he know that he would shortly thereafter be struck by a car and die. About 120 years after his death (his death being the early 21st century) he is awoken in an unexpected way. He is revived as a computer intelligence with all the memories, feelings, and essence of Bob.
However, things aren’t quite what you might expect. The world had been taken over by a variety of sects, the United States being replaced by a North American religious/faith based authoritarian government. In addition, due to recent scientific breakthroughs there is a new space race underway to go and colonize the stars in the name of the various global superpowers.
Ultimately, Bob is one of only 3 AIs to launch with ships and the act of launching these ships eventually leads to a nuclear winter on Earth and the near extinction of the species. Once Bob makes it out to the first new star system he starts to produce copies of his AI in to other ships he manufactures. As this happens various personality differences between his copies are evident and a gradual community of Bobs emerges.
These Bob’s end up deciding to help humanity rebuild, seek out habitable planets, and ultimately find another Earth based AI personality who is bent on destroying the Bobs as well as another species which harvests planets for minerals; despite the presence of life.
This book is filled with numerous sci-fi references, witty and absurd situations, and interesting questions which ultimately point to hard questions about what it means to be a conscious person, to be human, and how that connects to ethical and moral responsibility.
For We Are Many (Book 2 of the Bobiverse series)
By Dennis Taylor
The second book in this series delves in to some of the various responsibilities and tasks the Bobs set for themselves. Some of the pertinent situations covered are observing and possibly preventing the possible extinction of a pre-agricultural humanoid species possessing intelligence and language; the challenge and responsibility of saving and relocating the human race; the dilemma of what to do against a species bent on harvesting planets of all resources and exterminating life on those planets; and the challenges of relationships with “ephemeral” beings who live only a finite duration and how to handle that as a more-or-less immortal being.
All These Worlds (Book 3 of the Bobiverse series)
By Dennis Taylor
The third installment of this book provided some very nice resolution of arcs which were developed in the first and second books. This book had two primary themes which were the evacuation of humanity from Earth and the defeat of the “Others” who threatened all systems in the vicinity of Sol.
The writing in this installment felt cleaner with a more fluid narrative than the prior book. It felt easy to read and each narrative segment/Bob personality felt more natural and absorbing. The solutions were believable and the victory against the Others was somewhat novel. Most compelling for me was the divergence of Bob’s identity as a human and how that was reflected cognitively, morally, and with how the Bob’s perceive interacting with humans.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this as a fun sci-fi trilogy to anyone who is a fan of the genre. Can’t wait to see the next book Dennis Taylor writes in the series!
The Man on the Mountaintop
By Susan Trott and Libby Spurrier
This was an audible original and a bit different than my normal reads. It portrays life of a small hermitage on a mountain and individuals coming to seek truth or gain wisdom from the sage who lives there with his disciples. The story goes on to cover a variety of spiritual and practical questions and provides a broad range of traditional answers to some of those questions while acknowledging the limits of what answers can be given.
The production was moderately enjoyable with some interesting twists at the end but not something I’d likely recommend due to the conflation of many ideas without really understanding if there was a purpose or what stock to take in the seriousness of the provided ‘wisdom’. For me, it was neither great nor bad.
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
By Douglas Adams
This is the second of Douglas Adams’ books featuring Dirk Gently and it was another fun read. The book starts with Dirk, a PI, speaking with someone who he doesn’t take on seriously as a client but who is, shortly thereafter, murdered. This leads Dirk to feel extreme guilt and investigate the case.
The quest takes him through a variety of bizarre circumstances including meeting with Norse gods in disguise, fortune tellers and an experience with a miniaturized jet and over-sized eagles. If you liked the first Dirk Gently movie, you’ll probably like this one.
Law School for Everyone
By The Great Courses
As someone who does not know much about Law and what goes in to the legal system, this was an eye-opening and enjoyable introduction to the field. The course focused a large amount on litigation and I found the first half to be the most enjoyable. Understanding the process and procedure around filing suits, presenting evidence, presenting arguments and so forth.
By Octavia E. Butler
This was my first book by Octavia E. Butler and I found it to be very good and different than much of the sci-fi I have read before. The subject matter was broadly focused on racism and there was some sense of drawing comparisons of racism in the early 1800s and the undertones that still live today. The story was very interesting and focused on the main character and, to a lesser degree her husband, bouncing back and forth in time to a distant relative who was white and lived on a plantation with slaves they owned.
Scenes felt very well researched and authentic and the story moved along at a good pace with a number of interesting explorations of life, times, and conversations as people realized what was happening. Some of the scenes were hard to read but never seemed too grotesque. I’d definitely recommend this book and plan to read more by Octavia Butler in the future.
A Little History of Philosophy
By Nigel Warburton
By Neil Gaiman
The Andromeda Strain
By Michael Crichton
Crichton’s Andromeda Strain is, I believe, the first bio-attack type of thriller I have ever read. It’s premised by investigations in to a potentially insanely virulent and lethal bacteria from an unknown object not native to Earth. The story is filled with strong characters who have realistic conversations about how to prevent a global catastrophe. Crichton leads the reader through some very technical chemical/biological/medical discussions while making it straightforward to follow and compelling to read.
Despite being written in 1969 I thought the book held up well and was worthy of the acclaim it has garnered, the resolution was satisfying and the imperfect characters and almost exactly like real life world resonated well with me.
By Carl Sagan
As a kid I first saw the movie Contact, I only remembered bits and pieces of it but I remember being fascinated by the story. The book was a really enjoyable story which touched on lighter and heavier topics throughout and did what I felt was a great job of fusing science and fiction. The book follows a story of an astronomer who detects extra terrestrial signals and their – and later a more unified Earth’s – attempts to decode and understand the signals.
Eventually, they decode the messages and decide to build a gigantic machine which ultimately transports a small team of humans to the homeworld of the aliens who sent the message. The alien society presents a picture of a galaxy united to perform great works together and served to show what humanity could have in its future if it persevered and didn’t destroy itself.
Another interesting plotline in the book was that of Science and Religion. Unlike many authors who either naively marry the two together and say they each have their place, or the staunchly atheist writings which simply claim religion is ‘naive’ to those who know science, Sagan presented a living relationships between religion and science where some people accepted science and used that to better interpret religion; in Contact this was made manifest when inferring underlying patterns in the universe which ought not to be there and which could be indicative of a creator.
Overall, I loved this book. I don’t think it’s perfect, it oversimplifies some things and is neither a great work of fiction or a great tribute to science, but, to me, it was very enjoyable to read, provoked the imagination, and made me think about a lot of big-picture things.
Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
I am Malala
By Malala Yousafzai
This was a moving account of the early life of Malala Yousafzai covering her early life, her early passion for educating young girls and improving the condition of women in Afganistan, through her tragic attempted assassination and the couple of years following it.
The most impactful part of this account was the detailing of life in Afganistan and the way she conveyed that experience. The tragic attempt on her life and the depiction of local warlord/terrorists taking hold in the country were eye-opening and thought provoking about how things which are so extreme can rapidly inch their way in to a peoples experience.
I look forward to seeing what Malala goes on to do with her life and highly recommend this book to anyone.
Money Management Skills
By The Great Courses
No Country for Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy
I picked up this book after watching the movie earlier this year and not fully enjoying the theatrical version. When it popped up on Audible and I had a spare credit, I thought I’d give it a chance. Unfortunately I’m not much more of a fan of the book than I was of the movie.
I’ll start with what I liked about it – the characters and the language. The book very much felt like being in southern Texas and the language between the different generations of people and the flow of the dialogue felt outstanding and natural. The story also seemed to improve with the additional context the book provided. However, that’s about all I have on the good side.
The book felt almost exactly like the movie, there were few things you get out of the book that you don’t get out of the movie and where the book might have allowed for more mental experience of the characters and allowed some cool development there, it was not used to enhance that part of the story.
If you liked the movie, the book with be a very similar experience. I expect fans would get more out of it than I did.
Man’s Search for Meaning
By Victor Frankl
The first time I read Man’s Search for Meaning was in highschool and I found it to be a moving, haunting, and inspiring book. This time through left me with many of the same impressions – horror at the atrocities, inspired by those who survived and by the small acts of kindness that people who had absolutely nothing still somehow found the heart to do.
I read this alongside Night by Elie Wiesel which paints a different but equally horrible of life in those times and circumstances and both books acted as a reminder of how quickly situations can go from “just another day” to atrocities and how people can go from acting humanely to becoming monsters.
I’m not sure what I hoped to glean by rereading this and it’s hard to articulate the effect these books have when reading after reading them, but I think that it is good to remember and to think not only about the future and the best things humanity has done – as I often try to read about – but also to look at our darkest times and let them serve as a reality check and reminder.
The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance
By Josh Waitzkin
I picked this book up at a sale not knowing anything about Josh or the contents of the book. At the time however I was just getting in to online chess and learning that Josh had been a phenomenal player and getting directly relevant experience was nice.
The book itself was a better than average, in my opinion, type of ‘Self-Help’ book which, instead of giving unattainable lists of things to do provided a series of examples of how Josh approached becoming a world class performer in multiple disciplines. The content felt particularly compelling because instead of saying “Do _x_ to become better”, the lessons unraveled in a narrative way tied to how he, himself, came to realize and value them.
I don’t think this is an amazing book but it definitely left me feeling a bit more inspired and like I had a few more ideas on how to better approach different tasks and try to perform better across the board. The writing was easy to digest, the content wasn’t an endless list of things to do, and the stories were entertaining in their own right.
By Phillip K. Dick
This was a really weird book but I enjoyed the hell out of it. If you like science fiction, give it a shot. If not, probably don’t.
On the Road
By Jack Kerouac
The Flight Attendant
By Chris Bohjalian
Age of Legend
By Michael J. Sullivan
The Final Empire
By Brandon Sanderson
The Hero of Ages
By Brandon Sanderson
The Well of Ascension
By Brandon Sanderson
Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It
By Gary Taubes
The Feynman Lectures on Physics
By Richard P. Feynman
By Elie Wiesel
This is a harsh and vivid portrayal of the author’s experiences through the Holocaust. It depicts how a remote village reacted passively to growing concerns of Nazi movements towards their home and how what seemed innocuous at first became invasive, burdensome, and on to the depths of inhumanity.
The depictions throughout the novel do a great job portraying both the daily mundane struggle for survival and depict how even good people can be torn down to steal, attack, or do just about anything when beaten down enough. It portrays another side of the struggle and search for a reason to keep going which Frankl outlines in his Man’s Search for Meaning.
If you haven’t read this, I would say it is worth considering. While the topic is horrible and there are many uncomfortable moments, it seems like something which should not be forgotten or just remembered as an abstract distant atrocity of history.
By William Shakesphere
Not my favorite Shakesphere play but it was enjoyable, nice twist and resolution at the end and a few funny moments.
The Screwtape Letters
By C. S. Lewis
This is an interesting dialectical short story which features a senior demon writing advice to a junior tempter (some sort of lesser demon). The content of the writing is ways in which to seduce, trick, persuade, or pull humans from a life of good action to a life of sin.
While not a book I would normally read, I did find this quite entertaining and interesting. One of the more interesting parts was seeing what was viewed as bad action at the time this was written versus what we might see communicated today. In addition, many of the ‘slippery slopes’ to bad action seemed to be well argued and based more often in basic psychology than any sort of theology which made it quite interesting and entertaining to read.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
By Zora Neale Hurston
I greatly enjoyed this book, it was a story of an African American woman in the early 1900s and tells of the many challenges which came from living in that era. It had a wonderful sense of style with great imagery and well-developed personas. The picture of life in the country after the antebellum era, the ups and downs in the main character’s life, and her perseverance through the stages of her life combine in to a wonderful novel.
The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life
By Richard Mabey
This book was a recommendation by my mom which covered the history, biology, weird behaviors, and colorful aspects of plants in our world. The tone of the book was exciting, which was surprising for a botany book, and it sought to bring out the more interesting characteristics, historical significance, and bizarre instances of plant biology and their impact on humans and history. While very digestible I did have to google a lot of the species mentioned to get an idea of what the descriptions were referring to but I imagine a print version of this book would have been a bit better for those who, like me, aren’t well versed in the names of many species of flower, tree, and other vegetable life.
This was a different kind of book for me to read and I am definitely glad to have read it and find myself taking note of various plants and trees in my day-to-day life a bit more after reading it. I’d definitely recommend this as an accessible and fun-filled book for those interested in learning a bit more about the world around you or for those passionate about vegetable life to glean interesting and varied information across all types of plant life.
The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller
The Song of Achilles is a modern retelling of the Illiad and it does a great job bringing the classic to life accessibly while respecting the mythology and events. The story is told from the point of view of Patroclus and there is a lot of time dedicated to the early life of Patroclus and Achilles. The narrative is captivating overall the story feels compelling and made me want to read the original again. Madeline Miller’s depiction of the various characters and world felt lively and brought a nice dose of realism to the mythological setting.
While I felt there was some overdone emphasis on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles where there could have been more details in the story/world it did lead to a compelling ending and served the narrative well. I’d definitely recommend for anyone who’s looking for a modern take on the classics – though maybe skimming some background information beforehand would enrich the experience!
Tools and Weapons
By Brad Smith, Carol Ann Brown, Bill Gates
Tools and Weapons is a phenomenal book. It was written by Microsoft’s President and Communications director and covers a whole host of issues about technology’s place in the world. The discussion brings up the challenging issues of respecting privacy and data, the risks and rewards of AI, and the challenges of holding data in a world with many governments with strong opinions but limited agreement on legal and ethical responsibilities exist.
I finished this book right as MLAT (mutual legal assistance treaty – an agreement for information requests of tech companies from governments around the world) has been replaced with CLOUD, a more invasive and abusable agreement. The book struck me as extremely sincere and wanting to start a dialog about privacy, risk, and regulation in the technology space as our identities and life become increasingly entwined with the cloud.
In particular, there were sections on privacy and government data access requests which have significant bearings on individual rights and the bizarre position tech companies are in regarding what actions to take. Companies tend profit from data and have incentive to collect more; governments was access to data for legitimate (anti-terror, abuse, etc.) and illegitimate (surveillance, manipulation, targeting, etc.) purposes; there is little international consensus on what privacy rights people are entitled to or even which country owns the ‘data’ in the cloud. Companies have abused data but have also sought that governments provide protection for their users and guidance on what is acceptable. Many have even formed alliances with competitors to petition for regulation of their business in some of these regards which is a bizarre situation to think about.
This book covers many topics and does a good job showing the importance of many of these issues which are fast becoming important for individuals around the world. I’d recommend this for anyone with an interest in personal privacy, the 4th amendment, risks of AI, opinions on government regulation of the tech sector or just curiosity about the intersection of the material and digital worlds. Outstanding writing, clear, easy to understand but important and significant writing.
The Sun Does Shine
By Anthony Ray Hinton
This book tells the story of Anthony Ray Hinton, a black male who was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit in the 1980s. After a trial in which he was defended by an incompetent attorney it took 30 years to appeal the decision and ultimately the supreme court stepped in and ruled there were grounds to hear the case anew.
I was struck by the apparent disinterest of the courts in Alabama of even considering that they may have made a mistaken judgement – especially after adept expert witnesses and funds were available for the defense. The depiction of life on death row was about as one would expect it to be but the book captured the sense of hell and the occasional events which could cause joy or thoughts of hope in a place like that.
I wasn’t expecting this to be as engaging and deep of a read as it was for me and am very glad I read it, it has motivated me to get informed on an issue I knew little about and will definitely be a book I recommend to others.
The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer
By Brandon Sanderson
These are the first 3 books of The Stormlight Archive and were a really enjoyable, if a bit long, read. Sanderson vividly depicts an elaborate world with a detailed and compelling religion/mythology/history. While the start was a bit off the cuff and akin to drinking from a fire-hose the remainder of the three books compelling developed a range of varied characters and introduced a complex plot which reveals enough to compel reading to find out more but not enough that after 3 books one can confidently predict where the rest of the story will go or even confidently know who is a “good” character.
The fact that the story puts characters in enough decisions where there are many choices with no “right” or “wrong” answer easily arrived at helps to show that characters are not absolutely acting one way or another for their whole arc and allows for clever, trope-avoiding, story arcs which have some nice surprises.
If you’re a lover of high fantasy and are looking for a story which avoids some of the common and over-done tropes, I’d definitely suggest trying this book out. If you’re not an avid fantasy fan or are looking for a quick read, this is probably not a series to look in to…..there are also an additional 7 books to wait for before we find out how it all ends.
By Mark Miodownik
Liquid Rules is the second book I’ve read by Mark Miodownik – the other being Stuff Matters, a book about interesting materials in our world, how they are used and how they came to be. This book, oriented around liquids, touched on a whole world of interesting liquids, their properties, and how they impact our world. The prominence of liquids is even highlighted by the narrative method Mark uses in which each liquid used as an example is selected based on prominence in his life during a shared human experience – flying from one place to another.
The topics range from kerosene and other forms of fuels to bodily fluids, soaps, other cleaners and more. Personally, I preferred the content from Stuff Matters and found that those examples stuck with me a bit more readily than the content of this book. That being said, it was a fun short little book which was exactly what I wanted it to be – a quick journey in to a world I know little about where I learned a bit, was blown away by some crazy information, and came away entertained and a tiny bit more aware of how some things in the world works at the end.
The Age of Living Machines
By Susan Hockfield
Susan Hockfield, an accomplished scientist, former president of MIT, and advocate for cross-disciplinary research put together a book which highlights a number of ways the science of biology is increasingly being used in tandem with engineering, physics, and other sciences to create greater and more impactful discoveries than either would have arrived at on their own.
The book covers some astounding examples of bioengineering including companies which are programming viruses to gather minerals and create high-density batteries, where molecules are designed to attach to nuanced parts of biological matter and to reassemble after ingestion to allow for detection of cancer, and where newly discovered components of cell-membranes are being harvested in bulk to allow for cheaper, cleaner, production of clean water filters.
My overall opinion of the book was that it had a great number of exceptional pieces of science foreshadowing a, hopefully, great future to come. However, I listened to the audio-book and the narrator was somewhat distracting with their articulation of the content. Additionally, the book did justice to the handful of research, companies, and scientific work in progress but I would have loved to hear more to make it real. For instance, the section on using viruses to much more cleanly produce batteries was outstanding and portrayed as a nearly mature technology which is getting in the market…but there was never talk of how much cleaner it is than traditional methods, or more importantly, what is production like? Does it take hours or years to grow the materials or viruses to assemble the batteries? How much energy does it take?
The combination of a lot of detail about what is being looked at without going in to more details about when makes it hard to come away with confidence that some or all of the things discussed will come to any fruition. Another thing I would have loved to hear more about is what her takes on where this science is going in the next 5, 10, and 50 years; given her deep knowledge I am just as eager to hear where she thinks we’ll be going in the future as what we are doing today.
I’d recommend this book for science fanatics who way to hear some incredible research and projects going on which could revolutionize many parts of life in the years to come. However, if you are looking for a bigger picture take on bioengineering this is probably only a piece of that picture. People who don’t want to read about science stuff probably will not enjoy this.
The Portrait of Dorian Gray
By Oscar Wilde
This is the first thing I’ve read by Oscar Wilde and it was an enjoyable read. The novel focuses on three characters – Dorian Gray, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward – with the emphasis clearly being on Dorian. Dorian is a young man who is considered a hallmark of “beauty”, initially this was why Basil – a painter – was intrigued by him and he became a sort of muse to Basil. Lord Henry somewhat represented the ‘Devil’ or Faustian component although he merely suggested things as idle philosophizing but which ultimately led Dorian who started as innocent and naive to become a hedonist.
After Basil paints an astonishing portrait of Dorian, Dorian is shocked at his appearance and wishes that the painting may age and not his actual form which he felt was a gift; in part worried by fears Lord Henry instilled in him by suggesting once one has lost their looks and become plain that life is ever less interesting and satisfying.
The rest of the novel follows Dorians gradual self-absorption and his increasing indulgence in more and more hedonistic things – starting with a failed romance and ending with the use of others for his own pleasure, the indulgence in drugs, and bringing out the worst in others. Basil eventually confronts Dorian 15-20 years later and begs an explanation; Dorian eventually shows him the painting which had been aging and showing his “sins” instead of himself. Basil desperately wishes for Dorian to repent and become a better person however Dorian turns on Basil and murders him.
Eventually Dorian, while feeling guilt, tries to be better but, upon seeing in his portrait that he has merely become more cunning and hypocritical determines that he must destroy the painting for showing these truths about himself. He stabs the painting with the same knife used to kill Basil but it instead kills himself. He is found aged and showing his corruption having stabbed himself in his heart before the now-uncorrupted beautiful painting of his younger self.
I knew nothing going in to this novel and it felt like something of a critique against the vanity of the Victorian era and the language and pace in the writing were very enjoyable. If you’re in to late victorian writing and looking for a pseudo-philosophical work which plays with ethics, morality, subjectivity of action, and has some interesting characters this is a nice and pretty quick read.
All Quiet on the Western Front
By Erich Maria Remarque
This book was an experience to read and was something unexpected. I was aware that the topic of the book was a German soldier during World War 1 but I had no information beyond that. Remarque portrays life in the war in a dark and unsettling way which vividly captures what believably seems like a common experience amongst the soldiers in the war.
The story, which follows a soldier through a part of his time in the trenches, through his leaves, until the war ends, presents such a haunting and unsettling feeling as Remarque describes the horrors experienced and the people they happened to. Instead of portraying the war as a great just cause and the soldier as heroic figures it portrays the soldiers as human doing what they either believed or were convinced to believe was best for them and for Germany.
The description of the shock and trauma of being in the trenches, of seeing all manner of horrible things; sickness; deteriorating living conditions, and the rest of it starts as just a ‘different’ look at the horrors of war through another person eyes but it grows and builds through the whole story until the ending which leaves the reader to contemplate war, what it does to those who fight in it, how those who fight it can not prepare and are not prepared for the experience, and how living in the battlefield changes the core of a person and how they see and experience the world.
This was a hard book but something which I’m very glad to have read, it’s also one of the few times I’ve read a book about someone who was on the other side of history and while Remarque made the book relatively dispassionate/unopinionated it was interesting to think how the story from the losing side is both similar and different from the tales told by those who were on the winning side of history.
Up From Slavery
By Booker T. Washington
I really enjoyed parts of this book, especially the earlier part of how he ended playing the role he played. Other parts, focused on the value of a work ethic, nuances of fundraising, and the challenges of working in a political world were less impactful or compelling to read through. The writing was clear and direct, easy to follow, and full with meaning.
I enjoyed the book and it was interesting to see how he chose to frame his life and, in particular, what sentiments resonated at the time ~1900. An interesting read historically but not amongst my favorite biographies. It was nice to read something which seems so optimistic and the single-minded focus was extremely admirable in my mind.
John Quincy Adams
By Harlow Giles Unger
John Quincy Adams is one of those people I had known just as a historical footnote – son of John Adams, lackluster president, something something constitutional scholar, and that was about it. I chose this book as it came up on a sale and I decided to learn some more about him.
Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the parts of the biography covering John’s younger life, seeing how his early travels and relationships with politicians and inventors around the US, Europe, and Russia formed who he became and how that, in many ways, isolated him from average Americans.
There were also lots of interesting quirks about him – from bizarre puritan values, not wanting his wife to ever use makeup – to his habit of writing in his journal 1-2 hours per day (amounting to more than 15,000 pages of writing), and the fact that he was refused to campaign for his presidency as he felt it would tarnish his integrity and the integrity of the office despite everyone else doing it.
All in all, I was most impressed with how he held himself to such a high level of personal integrity. He left political postings over ethical incongruities and by and large appears to have genuinely kept himself to his standard and a desire to truly improve the country. He was also a strong proponent of abolishing slavery and politically tried to influence change there. Harlow Unger definitely approaches the biography from a favorable stance so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the worse parts of his actions or life may have been sugar-coated or skimmed but the book mostly felt object and was eye-opening for someone who knew little about about the man and the time.
Overall, a fun read which was clearly written and covers the whole course of John Quincy’s life, would recommend for anyone curious about the person, the time period, or early US govt.
Translated by Seamus Heaney
I remember skimming through this in high school for a class and not thinking much of it. Reading through it this time was more enjoyable. The overall story is straightforward and at times seems overly simplistic, but rereading certain parts and looking at the symmetry of various sections showed more than just a heroic warrior vanquishing monsters for glory. Overall, this is a simple read and it caused me to think a lot about the time it likely originated from, how time had changed it and so forth; this led me to a series of wiki articles which taught me a lot and was really interesting!
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
By Ben Horowitz
This was unlike any startup book or leadership book I had ever read. Instead of focusing on the ways to grow, innovate, stay relevant, and inspire a team, this book focused on survival, the hard choices, and the darker side of companies. Ben discusses the challenges of layoffs, bad executives, what happens when you’re not the best or a bigger company threatens to squash yours. It is a very interesting look at the world of startups and were some poignant moments where you step back and think about the moral/ethical implications of choices made to survive.
As someone who has thought on and off about doing a start-up this provided an interesting outlook I hadn’t seen in other books which simply seem to emphasize that ‘startups are hard’ and ‘lots of them fail’. I really enjoyed it and it gave some interesting management advice for sure.
By Albert Camus
The Stranger is a weird book which I have read a few times which is in part absurd but simultaneously calls out the incredible focus on conformity our society values. The protagonist (not really a valid term here) starts by attending his mother’s funeral where he is apathetic and not brought to tears which plays a part towards the end of the novel. He goes through and seems to have a limited capacity to empathize with others but doesn’t appear malevolent.
A motif in the story is that when he is stressed and exposed to the heat for prolonged times, he appears to lose his agency to a degree and behave oddly. This is shown in the ‘murder’ scene where he shoots a person who had previously threatened he and his friend. The act of murdering this person leads to the trial of the lead character and the petitioning for his execution.
Throughout the trial the lack of ‘normalcy’ in Meursault’s behavior is emphasized and leads not only to a guilty verdict but of sentencing him to the guillotine. This is an interesting book which feels weird to read and, at least this time through, felt a bit disappointing considering its reputation and impact.
By Daniel Defoe
This was a pretty fun book and shows a story which is compelling today (being stranded on an uninhabited island) through the lens of the world 300 years ago. The portrayal of faith, aspirations, race, and personal life are distant but in many ways familiar. The story itself was alright and had a few high points but I was most captivated by the portrayal of the world and culture.
By Neil Gaiman
A few months ago a I had heard good things about a new collection of Norse myths which was published by Neil Gaiman. As I’m a fan of his writing to begin with and have always wanted to know more about Norse myth (especially given how many references are in popular culture now) it was a no-brainer to pick this up.
The writing was fantastic and Neil presents a collections which engages the modern reader while showing the absurd stories in Norse myth. There were moments I was caught off guard and laughed out loud and others which were surprisingly captivating and sincere. The biggest complaint I have is that the book felt a bit short. I’m not sure how large the body of these myths is – I know it is limited – but I hope that there are more like these and would love to read more in the future.