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Book and other reviews – 2022

Every year I tend to read a good amount of books and listen to audiobooks. I’ve always wanted to retain better memory of content I consume (including movies or shows) and these blog posts have been a great way to reinforce what I’ve read or seen. To add some variety to the site I decided to start listing the books I read each year and providing brief reviews. Beyond the memory benefits this makes me do some writing, and spend a bit more time thinking critically about what I read / watch.

I’ll update this post throughout the year as I continue reading. I’d also love to get books recommendations from anyone reading this or to discuss your thoughts on any of the books listed. Please comment if you want! Here are links for past book posts; last year I managed 45, hoping to maintain or increase that amount this year!

New entries will show up on the bottom of this page. SPOILERS OF ALL KINDS BELOW!

January

Gene Machine
Walter Issacson | Biography / Non-fiction | 2021

This is a phenomenal biography of Jennifer Doudna as well as a top-notch description of the development of the CRISPR technology, its potentials and hazards, as well as the complicated ecosystem which drive this sort of progress.

The few things that struck me most from this book were: 1) how rapidly things went from trying to understand what things were made of and how things at a low-level even worked – to demonstrating that you can rewrite and do targeted cuts DNA and RNA. 2) The existence of the amateur CRISPR/gene editing technologies and how both cool and horrifying that is (you can literally go online and buy CAS-9 and CAS-11 kits to edit genes). 3) The fact that many of the moral/ethical questions of introducing inheritable gene edits in both humans and other species is actually an important question for now, not for 20 years from now and the potential ramifications of misuse; as well as the potential incredibly good outcomes.

This is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in biology, ethics, or science and which is both fun to read, full of interesting and challenging material, and which I think will give you a good primer on some very important societal debates to come.

January to May

I read the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan…. It took some time. During this time I was dealing with some pretty severe insomnia and fantasy was about as ‘heavy’ of content as I could get my brain to engage with… take any of my criticisms with a heavy dose of salt considering the circumstances. Planning to catch up on way better books in the later half of the year..

Books included:

  • The Eye of the World
  • The Great Hunt
  • The Dragon Reborn
  • The Shadow Rising
  • The Fires of Heaven
  • Lord of Chaos
  • A Crown of Swords
  • The Path of Daggers
  • Winter’s Heart
  • Crossroads of Twilight
  • Knife of Dreams
  • The Gathering Storm
  • Towers of Midnight
  • A Memory of Light

My thoughts are all over the place on this series so I guess I’ll start with some things I liked, then disliked, and overall thoughts of the stories as a whole.

I thoroughly enjoyed the pretty unique experience of seeing characters develop over 14 books, it’s something I’ve typically only experienced in the rare TV show that goes on for a good number of seasons. Experiencing it in this series was pretty cool because many of the secondary characters felt more ‘known’ than even primary characters in other books – you have a sense of their moods, how they’ll react, appreciation of their challenges and how they’ve changed, etc. I think this stands out as the most enjoyable part of the series. Another great highlight of the series is getting to see some pretty huge-scope world development. You’re not exposed to a world like Middle-Earth and traversing it as a quest unfolds, you see places and visit them…and again…and maybe several times more. Each time the characters return you see the changes. You understand the concerns of the regional peoples and leaders; this is pretty cool and in my mind done very well. Lastly, I really wanted to call out the final battle and some of the creative conflicts throughout the series. I felt the final conflict was one of the most ‘epic’ feeling things I had ever read.

Some of the things I disliked include a pretty rocky start, some inconsistencies and imo poor character writing, some unbearably stubborn characters (Nynaeve amongst others comes strongly to mind) and the fact that despite being proven wrong many many times it takes literal years to begin to see even slight changes, the last thing that really bothered me was how corrupted much of the leadership and places like the White Tower were – I know there were reasons but at times it felt that it was unbearably stupid to have overlooked or not considered many things and the lack of cooperation sometimes was mind-blowing.

It was a fun read overall but not something I see myself revisiting. It improved over time and I think largely ended on a high but it also read as ‘older’ fantasy in many ways. When reading modern fantasy by authors like Sanderson there is, in general, such a higher feeling of polish in the story and writing. I suspect Wheel of Time pioneered and gave birth to many of those modern fantasy story-telling techniques and has been an extremely positive influence in the field but for my part I suspect I will find myself rereading Tolkein in a few years and not this.

Troy
Steven Fry | Myth | 2020

This is the final book in the Mythos trilogy by Steven Fry which I absolutely loved. The series is based on Greek/Roman mythology and the first book focused on the Gods, the second the Heroes, and this final chapter dealt with the Trojan war. Fry comes across as truly passionate about mythology and as someone very learned and having done his research. Despite the going deep in to the mythology the book is easy to read, and at parts funny, harsh, human, and ultimately deeply tragic. The author skillfully balances conveying many different emotions and a complicated story while breathing new life in to an old story.

I personally found the modern anecdotes after descriptions of esoteric old customs, off-hand narrative comments to add that extra bit of fun, and other quirky ‘Fry’-isms which smoothly married an old story with a well-executed modern retelling. I would strongly recommend the entire Mythos trilogy to anyone who loves Greek and Roman mythology and especially to anyone who has wanted to but found things like Bullfinches Mythology or others to be too daunting.

Hands-On Security in DevOps
Tony Hsu | Non-fiction – Computer Science – Security | 2018

This is a book by Packt publishing. Packt publishes a LOT of technology related books. With the exception of one book which was alright every other one has been somewhere between thoroughly mediocre to bad. With a title like ‘Hand-On Security in DevOps’ one would expect snippets of code and configs for how to do various devops security tasks. What you get is not that, you get an extensive list of resources and essentially snippets from definitions of various devops concerns/issues/processes.

I think there is some value in this but it felt much more like ‘hey here’s a definition of a DevOps or security thing and then here’s a bunch of links to resources about it’, as opposed to a cohesive book where you run through robust examples (most of the ones in this book felt trite or oversimplified). Anyways, I would caution spending money on anything from Packt; nothing against this author, just the publisher seems to have a very inconsistent quality standard and more often than not I have failed to get real value from their books.

Maus
Art Spiegelman | Historical Graphic Novel/Biographical | 1980

I have only read one or two other graphic novels prior to this and those would have been while I was in high-school. This was a pretty good read and, despite the limited volume of text, it was quite powerful. It’s a Holocaust survivor’s story told in a unique and poignant way. The author is the son of the main character whose life he retells; it is recounted to him by his father when the author is apparently in his 20s/30s. The novel tells the story of survival and suffering through the German occupation as its primary material but it also tells the story of the author and his parents relationship and highlights some of the challenges of reintegrating to society after something so traumatic (his mother commits suicide) and the struggle of even relating or speaking the same language to survivors of events like those.

The story itself was well told and captivating; I am surprised at the different tones in Holocaust survivor stories and how differently the survivors coped with the experiences – especially comparing this with “Man’s Search for Meaning” or “Night”. The inclusion of comic-style illustrations to tell the story added a different types of expression which I think either don’t exist to the same degree or are much harder to do in plain writing. It was definitely worth reading and I think I’ll consider adding the occasional graphic novel to my reading list.

June

American Caesar
William Manchester | Biography / Non-fiction | 1978

I found this to be an absolutely fascinating book. American Caesar is about General Douglas MacArthur who was the leader of many of the army operations in the Pacific during World War II. The biography details his life – started in 1880 – through his death in 1964. During this time he fought in Mexico, World War I, led West Point briefly between the two wars, and then was stationed in the Philippines until he eventually was the Dai-Ichi (leader) of post-war Japan until well in to the Korean war, and his eventual retirement.

Throughout the book you see a person who is stretched between two eras – the ‘noble’, aristocratic, educated, and passionate Victorian-era values and the mechanized, changing, 1900-1950s American values. His command, leadership, and values are a mix between the two and the story was utterly fascinating to me. From his bold, lead from the front style during World War I, his attempts to modernize West Point, and his deep devotion for the Asian people he lived with and fought beside for many years, his ruling of post-war Japan, and how he balanced many noble ideals with his political ambition and politicking.

If you are curious about WW2 Philippines and Japan, history of WW2 in the pacific theater, a biography of a very unique and tremendously influential military leader, or just enjoy reading random bits of history then I strongly encourage you to take a look at this book. The only thing I will say is that after I finished the book I looked up the author and while it looks like he has many well renowned books he has also made a good number of claims (about himself and his service) which are complete lies and which make me take with a larger grain of salt some of the more charitable statements he said with regards to the General. However, this book did really scratch a history itch and I want to dive in to more after reading it!

10% Happier
Dan Harris | Biography / Self-Help | 2014

This is a quick and fun book. In short, it is the story of a person’s attempt to deal with a high-stress, public job which exposed them to a great number of traumatic events. The author details how they fell in to a variety of bad coping mechanisms – serial dating, drugs, etc – and how he eventually found his way to meditation and Buddhism which he pursued cautiously and practically; not dogmatically. The story makes a great argument for why meditation should be considered as part of a daily practice, a good story to make one think about how modern society and our lives lead us to avoid unpleasant thoughts and seek constant stimulation, and overall it’s just a good and enjoyable read.

I do hope to take away from this the following meditation strategy and to try to stick to it for a few weeks and hope it lasts. Spend 5-10 minutes per day focusing on breathing and just trying to hold on to in/out breath thoughts and to try to slow down the endless running of wild thoughts. If nothing else it will help with concentration, it’s something I used to do a lot more often but it’s been quite awhile.

July

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
Mark Manson | Self-Help | 2016

The Four Loves
C.S. Lewis | Essay / Light Theology | 1930s?

Solid book. I read it recently but reread it for a book club. Obviously strong Christian sentiments and some dated values/belief statements but I think a lot of it is very insightful writing. The thing which sticks out to me most is the presentation of ‘Friendship’ as a valid type of love which has, in recent times, been pushed aside and supplanted by notions of romantic love or love of nature.

Overall, this is a thought provoking read which anyone who spends time with will have thoughts – good and bad – about the approach, message, and importance of the topic.

Klara and the Sun
Kazuo Ishiguro | Sci-fi | 2021

This was quite a read. This is my first ever read by the author and it definitely left an impression. It was somewhere between haunting fairy-tale and uncomfortable pseudo-dystopian story. The story focuses on the life of an ‘AF’ (artificial friend) who is meant to help their paired child/children develop, be their friend and confidant, etc. The story was somewhat haunting – you can tell there are lots of chaotic events going on in the background (genetically altered vs not, free workers & communes vs hardcore independence w/ huge corporations, etc.) and there’s also a gradually unveiled story of Josie’s health issues and so forth.

The AF (Klara) has a beautiful sort of innocence and sincerity which is always slightly at odds with the darkness in the world (pollution, selfish love for one’s offspring, petty bickering and childish cruelty, etc.). The story itself does a great job of showing a possible role for future AI sorts of systems (I can totally imagine an AI like a ‘Google Home’ but which knows about you, asks about you, helps you as a kid to become more mature, etc.) while also highlighting the many tenuous balances we have with gene editing, globalization, endless pursuit of technology, the divide between upper and lower classes and so on.

This was a great read, I would generally recommend it and found it to be thought provoking throughout while gradually leading deeper in to the story as if reading down a trail of breadcrumbs. At the end you are left with mixed feelings and a vaguely uncomfortable sense of being.

Atomic Habits
James Clear | Self-Help / light-science | 2018

I think this is probably the most practical and likely to be effective self-help/productivity type of book I have ever read. Many books in this genre will present interesting topics to think about, tons of motivation, and high-level frameworks which likely work alright but when it comes to putting the book down when you’re done and feeling like there’s a set of tangible things to do; most fall short.

Atomic Habits is laid out in a very clear and practical way – chapters are generally the same form; have a great hook and then a simple, easy, and valuable ‘summary’ section at the end. But most importantly it is immediately practicable. If you buy in to the ‘crazy’ beliefs that people have habits, can form or change habits in different ways – mostly by doing a thing repetitively – and that some common-sense style strategies might be effective then you are able to benefit from this book.

It starts by laying out the inevitable ‘4 laws of habit something or another’ – you can’t be published in the genre without having a 3 or 4 law system of some kind – but the gimmicky part pretty much ends there. The gist is pretty simple though – habits are often triggered by some cue (alarm goes of, you’re out at a happy hour, a friend sends you a message, etc.); the cue triggers a craving (press snooze, just get another drink, reply and fret for a response), the response (action taken) generates a momentary reward/good feeling.

So to ‘game the system’ you should try to identify the behavior you want to make; find some cue you can rely on (after you brush your teeth, before you go to your car, before/after lunch, when you take the dog for a walk, etc.), make the action ‘attractive’ in some way (pay yourself a dollar to a travel fund each time you have water instead of soda, 5 for every beer you don’t drink while out, etc.), make the action as easy as possible (put your book by your nightstand, put your workout clothes wherever you go to normally sit down after work, etc.) and then make it satisfying (after you don’t buy that drink or you do that workout, have feel good about it working).

He goes on to provide very explicit strategies to more effectively build cues (after you brush your teeth and floss, step on the scale to monitor your health — you already do the first two, make it a habit to chain the next one on). He also provides strategies for inverting the habits – make them harder to do, avoid the cues which trigger them, penalize yourself for doing them. Again, a very simple book and pretty simple message but effective, straightforward and ‘testable’. There’s no ‘believe you are the person who behaves how you want to’ type of new-age / ‘the secret’ bullshit; it’s about incrementally building habits, sticking to strategies that you can test, refine, and rework until you are successful.

I wasn’t expecting to strongly recommend this but I wholeheartedly do! This seems like something that even highschool-aged kids could benefit from, it’s just a collection of good productivity strategies & some great resources (worksheets, templates, etc.) which you can put to a lot of uses.

Project Hail Mary
Andy Weir | Sci-Fi | 2021

I’m torn on this book. It’s somewhere between good and great on my book rating scale. This is my second book by Andy Weir and I definitely like his style. They are well researched stories with compelling arcs and fun problems to overcome. This one poses a pretty original (to my knowledge) situation where the sun is rapidly dimming and this dimming will cause catastrophic effects in the decades to come; leading to starvation, climate issues, etc. The story itself is an awesome story of Earth coming together – in a way – to find some way to survive. It’s a story of having two individuals with minimal other shared context learn to communicate with each other. It’s also a story of friendship and willingness to take risks for a greater good and perhaps as a way to live a better life than taking the safe path.

Would recommend this for any space or sci-fi fans; it’s a great story & while not as digestible and broadly appealing as something like Artemis or The Martian it is a very enjoyable read. Can’t wait to see their next book!

August

Farilane
Michael Sullivan | Fantasy | 2022

This is the second book in Sullivan’s ‘The Rise and Fall’ Trilogy, it takes place between his two main series based in the world of Elan, this second one takes place about 1800 years after the end of ‘Legends of the first empire’ and ~1000+ years after the first book in the trilogy.

I was not as big of a fan of ‘Nolyn’ which was the first book in the series but this second book won me over. Instead of the typical trilogy which has constant characters and evolves over a short period of time, this trilogy is meant to show pivotal events over ~3000 years which explain the significant changes between his two main series in Elan.

This second installment focuses on the character of ‘Farilane’ – a twin and 3rd-ish in line to the throne. She’s a scholar, adventurer, skeptic, and intensely perceptive character who’s primary mission is to find the Book of Brin. Throughout the story she has her beliefs challenged and ultimately has to make a terrible choice of incredible importance.

One of the most charming parts of the book is how the reader often knows more than this ‘scholar’ and imperial family member. There are recognizable characters who show up under different names/appearances which the reader has a great chance of guessing but which the main character misses or takes a long time to realize. This is a fun and somewhat comedic element which makes the reader feel like they are in on the joke with the author and which I rarely/haven’t seen in the genre.

The one event which really captured the uniqueness and what makes me rate this book highly is the conclusion. There’s a rare twist where a poignant choice is given to Farilane which would not have been in any of Sullivan’s other books, the pacing, development and ‘feel’ you get for the characters, climax of the story, and other elements all seemed to align to make the conclusion really stand out. While I can see it being polarizing to fans of fantasy or Sullivan’s work I particularly enjoyed it and wish more authors would take risks like this. As a last aside – I also found the book to flow really well despite having no major battle or key event really shaping the story at any point, just a very skilled piece of writing in my opinion.

One Second After
William Forstchen | Future History / Apocalyptic| 2009

I did NOT like this book. It has an interesting premise (entire grid of the US is taken out by an EMP from an atomic bomb detonating in the atmosphere) but it fails to deliver well in my mind. The two biggest things I didn’t like was that it seemed liked they ignored that electronics can be repaired (as well as things like HAM radio, etc.) and secondly that the author was really pushing the ‘noble military’/police state ideology as the ‘only kind’ to be successful.

I did like the thought experiment – how could we even hope to survive without our medicines, our supply chain, etc., it was interesting. The other thing which seemed over-stated was the impact of that type of detonation. Over and over a congressional or military study was mentioned and our ‘failure’ to take action about it was repeatedly emphasized (it was a real study). I don’t know, it just didn’t sit well with me.

I’m tempted to read further books in the series but don’t think I will; I’m curious if the mood would change at all but I don’t think so. Additionally, the characters weren’t very compelling; the female characters served little-to-no purpose (a mayor who entirely deferred to ex military; a girlfriend who did background medical stuff and kept the protagonist alive, a helpless grandmother, silly daughters, etc.). The dialogue felt alright but nothing special.

The best part of this book was the setting & thought experiment, the worst part was the forcing a political philosophy at you and missing some, I think, key factors of what would actually happen. Maybe a 2 out of 5 or 5 out of 10, something in there; it’s interesting but not what it could have been.

The Ministry for the Future
Kim Stanley Robinson | Sci-Fi / Climate Crisis | 2020

I really really liked this book. This is something like ‘climate sci-fi’ which takes a near-future look at our world if some of the moderate to severe climate change predictions pan out. It’s a story of shared inaction and suffering, of the struggle and often daunting, if not impossible, task of garnering enough support to do anything – let alone the right or more immediate thing.

The story is told through the eyes of several characters – a volunteer turned eco-terrorist after witnessing one of the worst parts of the crisis first-hand and somehow surviving; a UN leader of the ‘ministry of the future’ whose organization is supposed to somehow, without legal power, get enough countries to go along with what is needed to make a change; a team of scientist; and so on.

The story is, in my opinion, a little bit overbearing/overcertain in the way it portrays both solutions and impacts while simultaneously arguing several probably unnecessary – but still interesting – societal changes presumed necessary to achieve a sustainable society. Things like a more socialistic government, reduction of human population, minimization of rural life, minimization of power usage, etc. On the whole none of it is too overbearing but all put together it can come off as a little bit ‘there is one right way’/self-assured and more overtly political than my preferences.

I completely forgive that criticism for many reasons – it’s ultimately quite a political issue anyways – but most importantly because the underlying story is great, though provoking, and urgently timely. I highly encourage anyone who can tolerate speculative fiction to give this a shot, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Eisenhower in War and Peace
Jean Edward Smith | Biography | 2012

Okay so this book is a bit hard for me to rate/weigh-in on. I picked it up after thoroughly enjoying American Caesar and in many ways it was a great complement to it – seeing more of the focus on the European front, the other side of the decisions which impacted the Pacific Campaign and so on. My biggest takeaway seems to be that Eisenhower was a phenomenal administrator who could take, weigh, and make decent determinations on a broad amount of information. In his presidency I was mostly underwhelmed but it seems like he took a few phenomenally effective actions which helped to deescalate conflicts or preserve status quos.

That being said, I didn’t find nearly as much ‘remarkable’ in his character or vision which other biographies have painted for their subjects. On the whole I found this a pretty good book, great insight on World War II, the transformation of American and global society through those decades, and an interesting but not overwhelming dive in to the political world of the era.

I’d give this a 3.5 or 4 out of 5, good history, important decisions, well written and articulated but just a bit of an underwhelming overall picture. It was way more professionally written/researched than American Caesar which I do definitely appreciate.

September

One Second After
David Baldacci | Mystery & Crime | 2015

I was recommended this book by my Dad who started doing a lot more reading this past year. This was a pretty interesting thriller/mystery book, it focuses on a protagonist who had a traumatic injury after college which caused his brain to basically not forget anything and have a blend of synesthesia amongst other things. He ends up living a relatively normal life as a successful detective with a wife and kids until one day he comes back to his home and finds his entire family dead.

This throws him in to a deep depression where his life falls apart and he does some shady P.I. work to make a few bucks to live from the hotel he’s crashing in. Eventually a lead breaks in the case of the murder of his family, he gets pulled in and reconnects with a few colleagues. As the mystery unfolds in a pretty compelling way – a good mystery and some interesting story elements – he gradually understands and discovers who the murder(s) were.

It ends in a great conclusion which could have gone one of several ways and ultimately ends up being satisfying and opening the door for future books featuring some of the characters.

It’s a good Mystery/Crime type novel and a fun pretty quick read. Not a super action-packed read but pretty enjoyable with a decent cast of characters and it will take you on a fun journey. I’d rate it 3.5 or 4 out of 5.

Till We Have Faces
C. S. Lewis | Mythological Fiction | 1956

I went in to this book having very little expectations – perhaps expecting something Christian or something like Narnia – but what I got was way better. This book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. It focuses on the life of Orual, daughter of a king who is tremendously unattractive. She ends up having two further sister siblings who, along with their captured Greek tutor/philosopher are the core social group at the start of the book. Orual is ugly but sharp, Redival is the middle sibling with not much brains and a desire for attention and what pleases her in the moment, and Psyche who is radiant and likened to a Goddess.

Ultimately the story is about Orual, who is close with Psyche, losing Psyche to reasons out of her control and deceiving herself in to myriad other reasons why Psyche is not there. I really enjoyed the book and, being familiar with the myth, appreciate the attempt to make it make more ‘sense’ and be more rational. In the myth the reasons for Psyche deceiving the God and the siblings tricking her, and Psyche’s heroic acts of redemption are less cogent than the way this story orchestrates them. (I did only catch that this was Lewis’ reason for remaking the story from reading the wiki on it and how he found the original unconvincing; not my own deduction). Anyways, it was a fun read! If you read the earlier ‘Mythos’ trilogy by Fry which I recommended earlier, you would probably like this.

It’s a solid story about dealing with the cards you are giving, loss, and coming to terms with unwanted realities. Great writing, solid story, and a nice ending 🙂

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