With the winter break I was able to read quite a bit! The books were pleasurable though less brainy than previous months.
The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (P.S.) - Reading linguistics books is dangerous when you’re married to a linguist. Pinker tells an interesting tale, but I wasn’t completely convinced. I found the overview of cognitive science studies absolutely brilliant.
Homeland: The Legend of Drizzt, Book I: Bk. 1 - The Drizzt series is very well reviewed, and I understand why. The lowest ratings hint at the fact that the books are pretty simple and thrive in D&D lore. The book is definitely no Diamond Age or Dance with Dragons, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable.
Exile: The Legend of Drizzt, Book II - More of the same: a straightforward, pleasurable hero story based in D&D universe. The Drizzt series is a nice break from the more involved Wheel of Time.
The Shunned House - I asked friends for fantasy series recommendations and received too many good suggestions. H.P. Lovecraft was one of them, so I found this book and plowed through it. I see why people love Lovecraft! I cannot describe how, but the writing style is so evocative and creepy.
Case of Charles Dexter Ward - Perhaps because I haven’t read many graphic novels, or perhaps because I am impatient, I found myself skipping the drawing and going straight for the story. This made for a quick read. Unfortunately, I felt Lovecraft’s ability to generate tension and suspense was was hindered by the shortened story.
The Wendigo - Amazon recommended this along when I got the Lovecraft book. I would have liked more description of the Wendigo (and if the story wasn’t written a century ago I would have wanted to hear how wendigos are undiscovered), but I liked the book overall.
Fifty-One Tales - This is another recommendation from a friend. Apparently, Edward Plunkett a.k.a. Lord Dunsany, is one of the first fantasy authors. While The King of Elfland’s Daughter was recommended, I was drawn to this book as an introduction to his style. Of the 51 tales, my favorites were The Workman–about a workman vainly struggling for immortality–and A Moral Little Tale, which says that Puritanical beliefs are actually devilish because God appreciates mirth.
Dracula - A classic fantasy story that I knew but had not read. I hate redoing things, so reading a story I already knew was challenging; however, the book was good. It unfolds as a series of diary entries, which I thought was unique and clever. I am stunned at the lack of resolution–I feel like the climax is on the penultimate page.
The Elements of Style (a.k.a. Strunk and White) - This is a short book, but it was not a quick read for me. Between The Language Instinct and conversations with my linguist wife, I have come to realize that I have an elementary understanding of English grammar. Strunk and White often pressed the limits of my knowledge with highfalutin terms like gerundive and dependent clause; however, they offer great examples that helped me understand the concepts without mastering the vocabulary.
The Gathering Storm (The Wheel of Time Book 12) - After a break, I was ready for more Wheel of Time. I read summaries for books 7-11 and jumped straight to the finale, which is written by Brandon Sanderson with the late Robert Jordan’s notes. I don’t know if it is Sanderson’s writing or the fact that the books are rushing towards the end, but I loved this story. I should finish the series in another month.
February’s focus was on finishing The Wheel of Time series, but I snuck in a couple other books.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman played a nice angle in this contrarian’s guide to happiness. He synthesized a fair amount of information and presented his path to happiness.
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. This book was almost like a scientific version of The Antidote: where The Antidote is a story, The Happiness Hypothesis is a pop science textbook. Haidt did a fantastic job combining psychology and philosophy along with history and his own story. His metaphor for your mind, the elephant and the rider, is amazing. Basically, your rational mind, the rider, isn’t really in control of your body, the elephant. For too long, people have thought of their mind and body like a car: you go left when you want to go left, right when you want to go right, and over a cliff if that’s what you desire. But Haidt points out that you reflexively jump when you see a snake and automatically recoil from a hot surface–your body acts before your mind can process the event. Haidt suggests this is because your body has evolved to survive for much longer than your brain has. You can drive a car off a cliff, but you can’t easily ride a horse off a cliff. Haidt extends the idea and suggests that we are emotional creatures who often wrap our feelings with rational alibis. The book covers a lot of neat studies and compares modern thought to historical perspectives.
Towers of Midnight (The Wheel of Time Book 13) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Book 12 fed nicely into 13 and I went into the finale with a full head of steam.
A Memory of Light (The Wheel of Time Book 14) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. How do you end an epic tale? Well, this is one way. I might have liked more information, but I didn’t want to read yet another book. I’m happy with Sanderson’s tradeoff between quality and time. I’m glad to have closure on the Rand al’Thor saga.
The books this month were fairly random; I finished a couple that I’ve had for too long in a sort of literary spring cleaning.
I also DM’d my first Pathfinder session this month. To prepare for the session, I read quite a bit about tabletop RPGs and how to tell a story. And I took some inspiration from a few good fantasy books.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This book is really highly rated, and I see why. It started off slow, but I stuck with it and was rewarded. This ended up being an awesome, interesting story with a lot of neat, novel fantasy ideas. I’ll finish off the second book soon, then wish the third was already out.
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. I’d describe this story as what happens when Superman is a villain.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Remind me not to take a boat to Antarctica. Especially not in the early 20th century. I see why this has been made into a movie or two–it is the classic “unbelievable but true” story.
The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training by Paul Owens and Norma Eckroate. Not that Dog Whisperer (Cesar Milan). Concrete training advice came after a bit of introductory advice that was a little too hippie for me (for example, the authors suggest you feed your dog 100% organic meat and veggies, which I can agree with only in theory). A few of my favorite lessons:
- there are three Ds of dog training: distance, duration, and distraction. Once your dog can reliably perform, add distance, duration, or distraction. The grad school version of sit requires that your dog sit and stay for minutes while you’re far away and all the dog’s favorite things run by.
- speak the command once and give your dog 45 seconds to react; right when your dog does the right thing, praise generously.
- when your dog naturally does something you want to train, immediately name the action and praise your dog. This is called the “Magnet Game” and it’s working well with my dog (we are trying to get her to show us her belly on command). Other examples are for barking (once it has been named you can encourage them to do it only on command) or incidental heeling (if your dog walks beside you, praise the dog and eventually she will learn that staying by you is best).
Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael Shea. This book is short and sweet with a lot of neat tips, like creating character backstories using Fiasco. I’m glad I read this book before the gaming session because it saved me a lot of time and helped me DM more gracefully, I think.
How to Tell a Story by Mark Twain. What a poor title. This book had no direct advice about how to tell a story, and the two stories it contained were less than stellar. At least it was short.
How to be a Programmer: A Short, Comprehensive, and Personal Summary by Robert L. Read. This is a nice essay on how to be a programmer–there’s a lot more to the job than simply writing code. Read describes skills needed as a beginner, intermediate, and advanced programmer. I think this book could form the base of a class on software or be elaborated to create a nice book on the programming profession.
I barely hit my goal of four books a month! I continued on the Kingkiller Chronicles and finished a couple books from Lois McMaster Bujold, who I learned about when looking at Hugo Fantasy winners. I also fit in one non-fiction book that had been on my “to-read” list for a while.
The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. I loved this book, and now I’m ready for book three. Speaking of waiting for the conclusion of a story, George R. R. Martin said, “He’s bloody good, this Rothfuss guy.” May both Patrick Rothfuss and GRRM finish their series soon!
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. I liked this book, but it fell short of what I expected from a Hugo Award winner. The story could have been told with many fewer words, although I don’t claim to know which words needed to be cut. There were some neat concepts; e.g., in this universe there are five gods who visit mortals. The gods grant blessings and bestow curses. There are also demons that can jump into human hosts and corrupt the person from the inside out, while granting some supernatural abilities.
Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. I had already completed the first book (The Curse of Chalion), so I continued on to this book. I preferred this one, perhaps because the story was richer for building on the realm of Chalion, which I had read a whole book about.
Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax. I thought this book made some good points, but I was ultimately unconvinced. In the introduction, Sax says that on college campuses females outnumber males 2:1; however, he also says that college is now 58% female and 42% male. 58:42 is not 2:1–it’s 1.38:1. From this point on, I was much more skeptical of the information. Sax’ five factors are video games, teaching methods, prescription drugs, endocrine disruptors, and devaluation of masculinity; of those, each have some merit, but it felt a bit like listening to an old person railing on young people. You know, “back in my day, men were men!” The evidence felt like a collection of anecdotes and a lot of just-so stories. Some of the ideas came across as shamefully outdated opinions, which is unfortunate. Why is it so highly rated? I suspect because there’s a huge selection bias–people who do not believe boys are adrift simply will not read the book.
The Legacy: Legend of Drizzt, Book VII by R.A. Salvatore. It’s Drizzt–what’s not to like? I previously read books one and two; I mistakenly bought this one thinking it was three (it is actually 7). On the plus side, I can probably skip ahead in the story now that I know what happens after the books I missed!
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Andrea loved this series and wanted to know if I would like it too. I did not, but I cannot say why. There was a lot of sex, but plenty of books I like have sex; there was romance that did not resonate with me; there was a lot of history, which I must admit I don’t care about. I guess I would rather read about a badass Drow ranger defeating a golem than read about a woman lost in time.
The Dracula Chronicles: The Lamb of God by Shane KP Oneill. This was a very quick read that introduces Dracula. The first book published in this series takes place well after this prequel, but I thought it would be good to start at the beginning. It was good, so I plan to continue this series after I finish some other books.
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. An orphan assassin, sword-fighting, revenge and rebellion–I like it!
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I’ve heard a ton about this book, and I’d like to have a better grasp on economics. It started off well; Smith lays the foundation of economics and currency, and it is brilliant, logical stuff. That being said, I ultimately abandoned the book about 1/6th of the way in when the author stated how much tobacco you should expect a negro between sixteen and sixty years to pick. I know that in 1776 statements like that were not in poor taste–Smith was likely very progressive–but one too many outdated terms made me question how applicable the book truly is. I include the book in this list because I don’t plan to finish it.
Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I’m a little embarrassed that I took this long to read this book. It’s an iconic book in the startup world that I had skipped because I watched a few Lean Startup talks and read various blogs about it. A lot of the advice is very common sense; I’d boil it down to “build something people want.”
The Developers Guide to Debugging by Thorsten Grötker, Ulrich Holtmann, Holger Keding, and Markus Wloka. I was discussing what makes a good software developer with a friend and he was adamant than the best developers are the best debuggers. I read this book in hopes of filling in the knowledge that I might have learned from a debugging course in school–if one existed. The book was readable, but it was a bit too C-centric for me to fully appreciate.
Tipping Sacred Cows: Kicking the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden. The book was what you’d expect from a business book with a provocative title. There were some interesting insights; essentially, question your assumptions with respect to balance, collaboration, creativity, excellence, fairness, passion, and preparation.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons. This was a Hugo Award winner in 1990, but I wasn’t a huge fan. The writing is solid and the story is unique. But, you only meet the cast of characters in this book. I kept waiting for something to happen and it never did–the cliffhanger just wasn’t enough for me.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I read this based on a recommendation, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Locke Lamora is an orphan thief that we meet as a child and follow through young adulthood. I could see the book being made into a great heist movie.
Hard Magic by Larry Correa. I really liked this book. It’s set in a parallel universe circa 1940 where magic is real and several well known figures owe their success to their own inate magic. The characters were interesting and the story moved along nicely.
July was my most prolific month in a while because I resolved to finish three books that had been half-read for quite a while.
Practical Object Oriented Design in Ruby by Sandi Metz. This book is insanely highly rated online and came highly recommended by a friend. I agree with those positive reviews. While the examples are in Ruby, I think there’s enough generic information that everyone could learn something from this book. I really like how thorough and fair the book is in consistently describing advantages and disadvantages.
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. I’ve now read a few books about how to write well, and this one is my favorite. Classic writing advice is to “show, don’t tell” but this is the only book with examples at how to follow through with that advice. I was inspired by numerous before and after examples.
On Writing by Stephen King. Stephen King is such a good writer! There are a lot of good lessons in the book, although I’ve read most of them elsewhere. That said, it was good to get King’s perspective on each, including show don’t tell, keep dialogue realistic, and edit relentlessly. Plus, this book led me to Stein on Writing, which had more examples.
Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Law. There was a lot of good information here, but I preferred the Sly Flourish guide that I read a few months ago. There’s room for both, but Sly Flourish feels like an updated version of Robin’s Laws.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. A nice refresher on some things that I needed to relearn. The seven habits are (1) Be Proactive, (2) Begin with the End in Mind, (3) Put First Things First, (4) Think Win-Win, (5) Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood, (6) Synergize, and (7) Sharpen the Saw. I think 3 and 7 resonated most with the current me. Covey conveys a refreshing message of hope through his “abundance mentality” and suggests that you live a life of integrity. Here’s to being more effective!
Rich Dad Poor Dad. Interesting ideas and well written. I respect that a rich person is willing to reveal his secrets, like incorporating to avoid paying taxes. At times it was off-putting as he sounded like a heartless asshole (for example, saying that more money won’t help people so it’s okay to pay them low wages) but it is fascinating to read how a rich person views the situation.
The Warded Man by Peter Brett. In a world where demons attack at night, the world needs a hero–and they get him. This was an entertaining fantasy tale. The first book did not feel as deep as Wheel of Time or A Song of Fire and Ice or Kingkiller Chronicles, although I expect the characters would grow into their own as the story unfolds.
Quiet by Susan Cain. Introverts are taking over the world! Quiet is a good book that tells you it is okay to not go out every night.
The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni is a management consultant and business writer who teaches with entertaining fables. I gave this book a shot because I previously read and enjoyed The Five Temptations of a CEO, where management lessons unfold on a late-night train ride. It was a quick read that was overall worthwhile (though I would not spend $15 on it). The premise is simple: apply tried-and-true business tactics to your family and reap the rewards. Not to spoil it for you, but the three questions are (1) What makes us unique? (2) What’s our top priority right now? (3) How will we achieve our goals? Pretty easy in theory, though I suspect that answering these questions and keeping up to date with the priorities is challenging.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I loved the insight into the restaurant industry. Bourdain is a really good writer, which complements his crass, honest style. If you want to know what the people in the kitchen are up to, read this book.
The Forbidden Tower by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Apparently this is the worst of the Darkover series, so it’s unfortunate that it is where I started. I’m not sure I’ll continue the series.
Dragonquest (Dragonriders of Pern #2) by Anne McCaffrey. Meh. I liked this book when I read it, but I don’t have overwhelmingly positive memories now.
Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Sol Stein raved about Borges, and Borges sounded like an author worth reading. Short stories are really different for me because I normally read technical books or novels. That said, I found Borges’ stories to be interesting.
Street Smarts: An All-Purpose Tool Kit for Entrepreneurs by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham. Following Lean Startup I was feeling entrepreneurial and this book looked good. It was good. Lots of good lessons. I’ve noticed that a lot of business books rely on personal anecdotes from a single success; it’s not bad, and I understand that making millions of dollars over many years would certainly teach you a lot, but it is odd when every lesson takes you back to a story from a single company.
Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia. I’ve now started two Correia series (Grimnoir and Monster Hunters), and I really like both. He writes really fun, fast-paced books that remind me of action movies. I’ll be reading more of these as soon as I clear out my queue.
I have a lot of series started now, and I’m not sure which one I will continue next.
Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. This book is really well written and historically important–the amount of controversy around this novel is unreal! Unfortunately, I did not care for the book. I made it through about 2/3 before I decided I’d much rather be reading something else. Fear not! I’ve read the summary so I know how it ends ;-)
The Legend of Drizzt: The Collected Stories by R.A. Salvatore. I always like Drizzt stories. This is a sequence of vignettes that is less interesting than a complete story. It fills some gaps, but also spoils entire books; I’d say you should read it after you’ve read all the other books.
Hounded: The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book One by Kevin Hearne. I found this very entertaining; I found it to be an interesting, fresh take on Druidic magic.
Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1) by Jim Butcher. A couple years ago I tore through the Dresden Files series on Netflix, so this reading was a long time coming. Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the show, but I’d recommend both.
Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson. This is a very useful book that offers “tools for talking when the stakes are high.” Some of the biggest takeaways for me: focus on what you can do better and ‘start with heart,’ that is, be honest and heartfelt without blaming. I plan to re-read again sometime.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A short but powerful book–I see why it was made into a movie. Turns out the apocalypse is no fun.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut. I’m ashamed to admit that this is my first Vonnegut book. I’ve broken the seal, and I enjoyed it. The book has a socialist bent, so I’d love to hear what a strong capitalist thought of this book.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I finished this before seeing the movie. My overall reaction is, “wow.” I didn’t like it, then liked it, then loved it, then didn’t like it. It was original and well written, for what that’s worth.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I’ve now read a few Lencioni books, and I really enjoy them. I find his novel approach to business lessons is very accessible. This book says you need to first establish trust so that people will speak freely. Without trust, people cannot engage in productive arguments, so people do not buy in–they just quit arguing. Once you have trust, an open exchange of ideas, and commitment to a shared vision, you can start holding people accountable. Finally, you can focus on results. The five dysfunctions are presented as a pyramid, which highlights the need to achieve the previous level before moving up–I thought that was kind of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applied to business.
Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. I loved this book because it resonated with my hopes for the future of business. Sinek also brought in some of my favorite psychological ideas in a way that I found inspiring–I’ve read a lot of the same research and come across the same ideas, but I had not synthesized the data into a coherent worldview. I’d boil it down to the following: short-term profit maximization is proving unsustainable even harmful for society; instead, you should treat employees as people to enjoy sustained growth.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Based on numerous positive reviews I was really excited to read this book; unfortunately, I didn’t care much for it. In the preface Gaiman says that the book is long and meandering, and he hit the nail on the head. I thought the main plot was pretty interesting, but the tangents did not add anything for me. At times it felt like I was reading a book for English class because I just didn’t understand the message.
The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Stavely. I liked the book, but I’m not sure I’m ready for another series just yet.
Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. An accessible summary of research about poor people worldwide. I loved the realistic approach to helping people. Some of my favorite tidbits were that people donated significantly more money when the message focused on a single, identifiable person and that when given money, poor people tend to buy more interesting food rather than more of the same (in the studies people still ate around 1200 calories but they would incorporated more meat and indulgences like tea rather than eating another 500 calories of rice).
Language A to Z by John McWhorter. Great course by the Great Courses.
Customs of the World by David Livermore. Good course by the Great Courses.
It was a busy month for reading. Lots of good stuff!
Dracula Chronicles: Son of the Dragon by Victor Foia. An interesting retelling of the life of Dracula. This book, the first of three, tracks Dracula in his teenage years as he makes his first kill. The book was really good, but I was looking for more fantasy.
Spellbound by Larry Correia. Correia has the fantasy adventure story down. Very entertaining. I look forward to finishing the series (Grimnoir Chronicles) soon.
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. A slice of life in the alternate reality where the cold war ended with nuclear war. I could see this book as the precursor to The Road by McCarthy. I liked it.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. Beware the elder things buried in Antarctica.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams. Scott Adams is the creator of the workplace comic, Dilbert. In this book Adams lays out his lessons on life. Some of the high points: eat well, exercise, get into a routine, optimize your personal energy, learn as many different skills as you can (because success is likely to come from some combination of your skills), and passion is just a fancy way for successful people to say they got lucky. I really liked the book; I thought it was funny and informative, and I loved the humility with which the story was told. Where many books and life stories rewrite history and show how one success begot another, Adams instead talks about how his failures lead to success. The anecdotes were modest and on-point, which I found refreshing and brave.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. A Jewish psychiatrist’s Holocaust story helps explain his world view and motivate his psychotherapy approach, Logotherapy. I appreciated that the book was honest without dwelling too much on the atrocities: rather than recounting every terrible thing that happened, Frankl picks a few key events that provide a broad understanding. Remarkably, Frankl does something constructive with his grief. In the book he mentions that Logotherapy might ask a patient why that patient does not commit suicide because the answer reveals your meaning, which you can then work with to heal. One of the most disturbing parts of the book for me was Frankl’s account of returning home to a nation that ignored the concentration camps or downplayed their significance; he writes that for many survivors life after the camp was harder than life in the camp.
Futures and Frosting by Tara Sivec. Futures and Frosting tells the story of how a single-mother is reunited with the father of her child; after a lot of confusion, the couple gets married and has another kid, then lives happily ever after. Without the humor, it would read like an angsty young adult love story.
Apprenticeship Patterns by Dave Hoover and Ade Oshineye. This was probably the most accessible technical book I’ve read. The application of pattern language to a career is really clever and worked well. As with software patterns, it’s nice to see the path.
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