Book Reviews

  • Station Eleven

    Emily St. John Mandel

    Highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I heard of the book via Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations with Tyler.  It’s a great read; I couldn’t put it down.    I  noticed the craftwork, with the changing perspectives, narration, time shifting and tiebacks.  Not sure if that’s an endorsement or criticism.  I hadn’t noticed it that strongly in other books I’ve read.
    The plot involves an airborne disease that wipes out most of humanity and launches the world (we think) into a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Reading this in the spring of 2020 gives the story extra weight.  St. John Mandel include a lot of typical post-apocalyptic elements, but with a unique twist. Groups wander around this ravaged world and encounter danger and violence; but the travelers are a troupe of actors and musicians that perform in each town, called the Traveling Symphony.  When they find untouched houses, they look for costumes for their plays and parts for their instruments, besides cans of beans.  A great riff on the traditional post-apocalyptic story.  Everything gets tied back, and rewards the reader for learning extraneous details.  Recommended.

  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

    David Mitchell

    TLDR; Great read.  An immersive books, requiring fifty pages to settle into this world and the Dutch names.
    I picked up “The Thousand Autumns..” after Hugh Howey referred to it here.  Howey’s recommendation focused on Mitchell’s use of sound and smell to set a scene.   Based in Dejima, a Dutch trading settlement outside of Nagasaki at the turn of the nineteenth century, “The Thousand Autumns” features an immersive plot, remarkable characters and brilliant descriptions.  One can imagine the streets and buildings of Dejima and the formalized Japanese settings.  The first chapters of the book require patience, between the Dutch and Japanese names and customs. This is only the second Mitchell book I’ve read.  The other was Ghostwritten, also excellent.  
    Highly recommended, immersive, memorable. 

  • A Little Life

    Hanya Yanagihara

    TLDR: beautiful story, engrossing, haunting. Long read.  Frustrating characters.  Recommended for patient readers.

    A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, or the causal reader looking for a quick page or two before going to bed.  Over 800 pages with long non-linear chapters make A Little Life a bit of a slog.  The hardy reader enjoys an engrossing, haunting story of friendship between 4 college friends and, especially, the remarkable Jude.  Yanagihara creates a narrative that explores the relationship between young friends through success, failure and dealing with the past.  I had a love-hate relationship with most of this book; the writing is beautiful; the characters are engrossing and I reflected on the book long after putting it down for the day.  The topics covered are not light, the narrative gets dark, and I got very frustrated with the limitations of Jude.  This is a book that demands time and reflection while reading and is recommended.  4.5/5. 

  • Pretty Much Everything

    by Aaron James Draplin

    TLDR: Fantastic coffee-table style book with excellent narration.  Recommended.

    Pretty Much Everything is a coffee table book that covers the career of Aaron James Draplin, a famous artist responsible for several notable designs and for creating Field Notes (the notebook line).  Draplin provides ample narration and examples in his journey as an artist and professional.  He includes sketches from his youth, influences and a healthy dose of his punk ethos.  Besides copious examples of his finished work, Draplin explains the process behind many of his commissions.  This is the most interesting content.  The explanations and drafts show how a professional artist develops an idea.  Draplin has a distinct style that is both repetitive and unique for each campaign.  The book itself is fun and written in an easy to read, conversational manner.  4.5/5. 

  • Ulysses S. Grant Triumph Over Adversity 1822-1865

    Brooks Simpson

    TLDR; An in-depth account of Grant’s life from childhood through the end of the Civil War.  Filled with quotes from letters and newspapers which makes it a slow read.  Great content.  Recommended.

    Grant has been a favorite historical figure of mine since writing a report on him in sixth grade.  I wrote he was a brilliant general, a drunk and a respected president.  At least 2 of those assertions may be false.  In Ulysses S. Grant Triumph Over Adversity 1822-1865, Brooks Simpson follows the life and career of Grant though the end of the Civil War.  We get an in-depth treatment of his life, including his tough relationship with his father, wife, press, the military, etc.  I selected this book about Grant by recommendations from the Stoic community.  I consider Grant a Stoic figure for the way he overcame obstacles (multiple failures early in his military career and business ventures) and remained calm (facing enemy fire, dealing with the pressures of the press or military officials).  Simpson does a great job in presenting Grant’s challenges and his will to overcome them.  To show the obstacles, Simpson provides ample quotes from letters, and newspaper accounts. These quotes lengthen the text considerably and, most times, belabor the point.  Simpson also examines whether Grant was actually a drunk or if the press and jealous colleagues used it active propaganda against him.  We don’t find a definitive answer but we get a great look at Grant and his remarkable career.  3.5/5.