31 December 2013

What I've been reading lately (2013)


Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo. Unmistakably the voice of White Noise, but not quite as amusing this time when the target of its attention is the ridiculousness of capitalist excess.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. As wonderful as it was the first time I read it, perhaps more so. It is one of those rare books where every element that is there is essential in some way.

Freedom (TM) by Daniel Suarez. I have to admit I was skeptical about where Suarez was going at the end of Daemon, but Freedom, the sequel, is even better than the original. The Daemon is now the coordinator of a reputation-based economy, people are walking around with Google Glass HUD glasses to tap in to the darknet, and government contractors are trying to shut it all down. It touches on a lot of interesting ideas, everything from political decentralization to farm subsidies. A highly enjoyable and propelling read. Recommended.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. This parable about seagulls was was the #1 New York Times Bestseller for two years straight. And about half of the book is photographs of seagulls! The message is about self-improvement and transcendence. A little bit woo-woo for my taste but given that you can read it in one sitting it's hard to argue that it's not worth your time.

The Mirage by Matt Ruff. In the weird mirror world of The Mirage, on 11/9, Christian fundamentalists flew hijacked airplanes into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. Osama bin Laden is a senator of the United Arab States and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Saddam Hussein is a kooky mobster. And all these points are explained in part by occasional excerpts from the The Library of Alexandria, the pitch-perfect analogue of Wikipedia. But it's not just a perfunctory swap of America and Arabia: the mystery involves people and artifacts that keep showing up from a bizarre other world... very entertaining.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The less is said about the plot, the better. Ishiguro is a master of understatement. The narration is totally matter-of-fact, and despite what the characters have to endure, much of the plot is just about kids being kids. As a result an almost unbearable tension seems to pervade the entire book. I loved it. Forget looking at reviews (many of which have spoilers), just go read it. Recommended.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. Daniel Waterhouse plays assistant to some of the great minds of the 17th century, including Newton and Leibniz. It certainly has the Neal Stephenson quality of continuously amusing prose. The plot stalls a bit towards the end, but from what I gather the next two books are better in this respect.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke recounts her, um, unusual family life, and she's quite compelling especially as she peels back the onion layers of her recollections to unearth the truth. Recommended.

Wool by Hugh Howey. Due to toxicity of Earth's atmosphere, what remains of humanity lives in a creaky and cramped old "silo" that descends 144 stories underground. Of course, things are not quite as they seem, and murders ensue. A fun and light read, though Howey is a first-time author, and unfortunately the writing is distractingly bad at times.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It tries to answer the question, where does Quality come from? It has good bits, but at the end I didn't think I had gotten that much from it.


Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George. The subtitle is Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. After reading The Box, I really was captured by the notion of intermodal transportation and its effects, and started looking for more in that vein. Ninety Percent of Everything is about the human side of the industry, and the author spent a month and a half at sea on the Maersk Kendal while writing this book. If there is anything I took away from this book it's that the sea is a lawless place. Of course, pirates and weather are both unsympathetic. But additionally, sailors are often marginalized people and for various reasons they don't receive the legal protections most of us are accustomed to. A sailor involved in a shipwreck might be lucky to receive a formal investigation into the accident. (Compare this to the endless investigation that takes place anytime a passenger plane crashes anywhere.) As George puts it, "the sea dissolves paper." Ninety Percent of Everything is a decent read, but not really the successor to The Box that I was looking for.

Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson. A collection of a couple of short stories and (mostly) essays that have appeared in various places. Fully one third of this book is a surprisingly gripping overview of the planning, construction, and maintenance of the undersea fiberoptic cables that tie the internet together. And in "Locked In," Stephenson presents one of the most salient examples of technological path-dependence: of all the ways we could get to space, it's a self-perpetuating historical accident that we do it by strapping things to large tanks of flammables. Super interesting throughout; recommended.


This year I finished reading the rest of everything I can find by Murakami (in English, anyway). Now I just have to wait for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (release date: August 2014)!

After Dark. Interlinked stories that all take place on a single night in Tokyo, starting from just before midnight. This isn't Murakami at his most imaginative, but I did enjoy the dialogue and the dreamlike mood of the story. Also, it's a really quick read.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A collection of short stories. It's quite entertaining, but I thought that the stories, on the whole, are not nearly as memorable as those in The Elephant Vanishes (see below).

Dance Dance Dance. I suppose it's about the narrator's search for fulfillment in the modern world. It's really funny: there's Murakami's usual crazy cast of characters, but my favorites are the narrator's ward— a precocious teenage girl— and her parents: a spacey photographer mom, and a clueless writer dad named Hiraku Makimura (yes, really). I enjoyed it a lot, and I think it's one of Murakami's best. Recommended.

The Elephant Vanishes. A collection of short stories. This was the first of Murakami that I read, and I wanted to circle back to it. It's packed to the gills with whimsy. Some of my favorites: "The Dancing Dwarf," about a guy who works at an elephant factory (yes), and "Barn Burning," wherein the narrator meets a seemingly nice guy with an uh, unusual hobby. Recommended.

Sputnik Sweetheart. When his friend Sumire disappears into thin air, the unnamed narrator is summoned to a remote Greek island at the behest of Sumire's lover, an older woman named Miu. Rather melancholy.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. Murakami manages to interview many of the survivors, and some of the perpetrators, of Aum Shinrikyo's 1995 sarin gas attack on the Toyko subway system. He acts more like an editor than an interviewer, letting each interviewee tell his or her story. What I found particularly interesting is that Aum's members, though not the most social folks, were hardly what you would call marginalized people. Aum was able to recruit scientists and engineers, people who could have made a decent living in the "real world", and get them to build its chemical weapons! All in all, quite haunting.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami's meditations about training in Boston for the NYC marathon, and the relationship between the thankless task of running and the thankless task of writing. A bit long for its content, but it is a nice view into Murakami's mind.