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. 

goodbye, things on minimalist living

Fumio Sasaki

TLDR; A quick and fun read about one man’s journey and experiences with minimalism.  Inspirational, tied to other ideas and philosophies.  Recommended.

goodbye, things starts as a journey from Sasaki’s cluttered, standard Japanese life to one of an impressive minimalist.  This isn’t a book about how to throw things out.  Sasaki deftly ties other larger ideas into the basic concepts of minimalism.  He first examines the laundry list of negatives associated with today’s consumerist (or as he calls it, maximalist) society; stress, cost, lack of focus, lack of time, unhappiness, etc.  Many of these symptoms have a direct correlation to the constant cycle of buying and owning 300,000+ items.  By eliminating these things, Sasaki contends that we don’t give up anything.  In fact, we gain time, space, happiness, cleanliness and focus.  His themes are very reminiscent of the common threads that run through two recent subjects of study, Stoicism and Essentialism.  Both Stoicism and minimalism refer to similar goals, such as being present in the moment, don’t possessions own you (nod to Tyler D), only focus on the important and that material goods can never truly be owned (they can be taken/lost/destroyed at any moment).  Essentialism and minimalism share some values, namely reducing the noise that overwhelms most people, focusing on what is important and going big on very little.  A quick read, broken into short chapters.  One of the few negatives is repetition from the direct usage of earlier material (parts of the book came from his website).  Inspirational, light with smart connections to larger themes.  4.5/5. 

Intro to Book Reviews

I’ve been an avid reader all of my life.  The velocity of my reading has ebbed and flowed with time and circumstances. I didn’t read much for pleasure in college or while concentrating on a career pivot to programming in my mid-20’s.  I talk about books a lot and am often asked for recommendations.  Here is a list of books I’ve read, in no particular order or organization.  They skew toward books I’ve read recently although this exercise has inspired me to pick up some older books to reread and review.