Book Reviews

  • Lost and Found
    Gibson Covers

    Like many homeowners, we’re renovating our kitchen, and, by extension, flooring for the main floor and re-doing our living room. New floor, paint, bookshelves, furniture, etc. As a result, we’re getting rid of four overstuffed bookcases.

    We have a few areas for books in the house; the living room shelves and the shelves in my office. The office shelves are well maintained and I can rattle off what books are here and when I got them, my impression of them, etc. Because of our changing use of the house, I rarely wander past the living room shelves; they became dusty and ornamental.

    I sorted through the shelves to decide which books stayed. Most stayed. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of a book. Some were easy; I had old textbooks from college (in the 90s!), falling apart and wildly dated (Principles of Management? Gantt charts?). Also parted with some below-average novels, especially tech-focused stories from the early aughts. Now I have two boxes full of books, and nowhere to put them.

    A few stood out; not just classics, but works I remember fondly and would love to read again. I placed them outside the box and they surround me as I write. So, so many excellent memories. Selected titles:

    A Confederacy of Dunces: O’Toole. I first saw this book as a junior-high school student in the East Brunswick Public Library, on a display. The cover and the title enticed me to check it out. I read it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it. A few years back, some famous actors were interested in making it a movie. And they referred to it as a comedy… and I didn’t remember it being funny at all. So I bought and re-read it; hysterical. Big difference between reading it as an adult compared to a teenager. On the short list to read again.

    Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, William Gibson. When I was first starting out in technology, in 1998, the noir world of hackers and techno music and people wearing shades typing in the command line seemed very cool… cyberpunk. Neuromancer isn’t the first cyberpunk novel, but is the best. I’ve read it three or four times. Pattern Recognition is a much later work, part of the trilogy. I only sorta liked these books when I read them the first time, but they are held in such high regard, I want to try them again. They need a careful, slow read, as Gibson purposely doesn’t reveal everything you need to know early in the book; the reader needs to puzzle through early scenes. Intentionally. My father would hate them. As a writer, I want to figure out how he does it.

  • 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.