2017 Book List

Here’s my current reading list, now in year five, updated roughly as frequently as I can both finish books and finish thoughts about them. While it seems very elementary school in nature, keeping a list has made it easier to share my current literary adventures with friends, and more important, it’s made me think about what I read. Echoes of a former band director’s admonishment to “listen to one X for every three Y” as a way of broadening our tastes ring through to commingling sci-fi, music, history, science, and fiction tomes. As before, the list is in reverse chronological order, based on completion dates (sometimes I’ll read a short story collection, a technical book, and a novel in parallel, depending upon what media and time slices I have at my disposal). Via embedded Amazon links and images, I earn a microeconomic commission if you actually buy something after clicking through from this list.


17. “Beartown,” fiction, Frederik Backman, finished June 18.

Latest from the best-selling author of “A Man Called Ove,” this is a hockey book and a coming of age story that is simultaneously neither. It is, at its heart, a story about a small town deep in the Swedish woods that has been shrouded in fear – of decline, of identity, of family secrets, of personal values, of the past and of the future. It builds slowly, and as you think you know where the characters have been or are going, the fears are revealed and dealt with. Some of the details seemed a bit out of place, and at times the writing suffered from translation (I have to believe Backman used a subtle phrase in Swedish that translated into many more words in English for a similar size and shape of intent, but it can get repetitive). A few days later, I’m still not sure I liked it; perhaps I’m trying to impose a ’10s set of moral imperatives on a book that could easily have been written about the locker rooms of the 70s or 80s; or perhaps I want the moral and social dynamics to have progressed so much further than some of the characters seem capable of carrying them.


16. “Revenger,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished June 11.

Yes, it was a one day marathon read because it was that good. Reynolds build worlds that you desperately, deeply feel you want to experience personally, and in the first of what I hope are multiple books set in this semi steam punk semi post-Sol supernova world he delivers with a galactic sized punch. The characters are multi faceted, the story moves without any burdensome plot devices or overly long exposition, and it’s a nice revitalization of the space opera with a chorus of aliens, alien technology that is left just obscure enough, and pirates.


15. “M Train,” non-fiction, Patti Smith, finished June 10.

My friend Amar liberally applies the adjective “Slav” to anything that rides the rail between the stations of sadness, despair and futility. While critically acclaimed, “M Train” could be a Slav work of non-fiction, a trance like wavering between loved ones lost and dream like states where they are reinterpreted. It is a book about nothing, an intentionally non-humorous Seinfeld, and yet a book about the life of an artist and her relationship to other artists.


14. “Experiencing Rush: A Listener’s Companion,” music, Durrell Bowman, finished May 31.

This is the longest-running book on any of my reading lists — I read it over the course of a year, in short bursts, typically as an interlude in the midst of something more dense. It starts out richly, covering the band and the progressive rock scene at a time when the genre was emerging and perhaps overly tinted by Led Zeppelin. Bowman then proceeds to deconstruct every Rush release through their entire discography, offering notes on composition, lyrical interpretation, cultural context and in some cases purely technical observations. The format works fine until “Moving Pictures” (the central and focal point for many fans), and the second half of the book feels forced, like he had chosen a format and then was forced to retain it despite wanting to explore the music, the band and what it means to “listen” in a post-CD, post-record age, when the artwork, song sequencing and visual cover puns get less attention.


13. “Walkaway,” sci-fi, Cory Doctorow, finished May 30.

Each of Doctorow’s novels increases in thought-provoking idea density to the point where reading requires a nearly Talmudic scholar intensity to unpack, turn over, and examine each word grouping, hunting for meaning. And it is so, so worth it. Normally I’d finish his latest offering in days, but “Walkaway” (especially on the back cover heels of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which dealt with some of the same societal themes) takes the near future, magnifies through the lens of current events, collimates it via just enough social and computer science to make it frightening, and then zaps it, laser-like, into immediate term focus. What are the existential crises of an uploaded consciousness (something teased in “Rapture of the Nerds” but central to this story)? What happens when test-heavy, fee-for-content education runs rampant? (as I was reading I was thinking “I should support Wikipedia, Curriki and the EFF to a greater extent”) What if the ultra-rich run out of ways to grow more rich? And most scary, what happens when there is immense value locked up in physical plants, raw materials, and intellectual property that isn’t being used, is in crumbling ruin, but can’t be made into a public trust simply because of variously divergent views of “ownership”? “Walkaway” tells the story of those who simply reject the ultra-rich ultra-constrained social contrant, and write a new one, and the conflicts that result. It is, after an eight year hiatus in adult novels, well worth the wait. There are vintage Doctorow-isms: tribes, family and friends as the strong, weak and gravitational forces of personal relationships; a bit of fun-poking at names and how they convey and develop their own contexts over time (perhaps beating out the ABCD brothers in “Someone Comes to Town”); instant transmutation of noun to verb (“John Henry” as a verb) and by the last page, not necessarily a happy smiling ending but one that points to a more stable future for all involved.


12. “New York 2140,” sci-fi, Kim Stanley Robinson, finished May 16.

A tremendous tee-up and raucous start lead to a somewhat mild conclusion. Global warming has caused two major sea level rises, and New York now resembles Venice. Implications for public transportation (and the equivalent of the black car service for the 1%) to housing density form a watertight foundation for the book, layered with characters ranging from “native undocumented” to the meta-1% who find their places in every stratification of that world. While there are any number of strong plot lines and themes – the motivations of the new 1%, market forces in a regularly disrupted economy, emergent standards of social services, and a few subtle love stories – I made it through nearly 400 pages waiting for some over-arching message to emerge from the myriad thought provoking ideas. Maybe that’s the point – that the “new normal” is embracing the near constant change and amplified unpredictability, but on the whole this felt less directed than a lot of Robinson’s other books. Still a great read, and still one of the better “near future present” think-throughs of what happens if our major cities are submerged for periods longer than a hurricane transit.


11. “Roadie,” fiction/music, Howard Massey, finished April 21.

First saw this on a tiered display at the Sam Ash store in Midtown, decided to check it out (anything getting valuable counter space must have some hook) – and I’m glad I did. It’s a fun read inspired by the life of Ian Stewart (original Rolling Stones member) with a bit of “local bar band” scene, big time arena rock, back stage pass and thriller/mystery threads woven through it. The dichotomy in story-telling (transcribed interviews with a secondary character who provides all of the exposition and first-person narrative of the present storyline) keeps the book moving without diversions while also adding humorous color commentary on the proceedings. A nice pairing with Bill Graham’s autobiography, making the right-of-center characters seem all the more real.

10. “The Collapsing Empire,” sci-fi, John Scalzi, finished April 10.

Scalzi is back with in oh so many ways. I was a bit disappointed with “The End Of All Things” because it felt hurried and not up to his usual standards, and perhaps a bit of that was saying farewell to the story lines. “Collapsing Empire” is vintage Scalzi snark and pacing and political intrigue mixed with new Scalzi worlds and characters and just flat out awesome plot lines. Finished this one in just a few days (modulo Passover prep) and now I’m eagerly awaiting the next installments in this 10 year deal with Tor. An A+ for the man who likes pie.


9. “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out,” music/biography, Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield, finished April 5.

Bill Graham’s life story from the time of his birth in central Europe until his untimely death, assembled from interviews with Graham and those around him in each life stage. The first quarter of the book is dense and took much more concentration than I would have thought, and reading the first-hand accounts of how Graham and his siblings escaped the Holocaust and then found each other again makes the literary journey worthwhile. Once you get into the Fillmore and Winterland era, his time with the Stones, and his behind-the-scenes view of the Who and Dead, it’s a fast romp through the rock and roll promoter life style. What you get is a view of a hard charging, perfectionist promoter, likely one of the major influences in how live music came to be a staple of the industry (and is certainly the only money maker in today’s music economy). I picked up the book based on an aside that explained how William Graham came from his reading of the Bronx phone book, looking for someone who had the same initials as “Wolfgang Granojca”, his given name as a Jewish boy (who knew), and I was hooked on the story of the literal father of rock shows.


8. “Fields of Fire,” sci-fi, Marko Kloos, finished March 10.

A very quick read and shorter than the first five books in the “Frontlines” series. Kloos writes military fiction with the specificity and pacing of someone who has served in the military. While this is a solid story in the continued Earth-vs-golem like aliens saga, and Kloos opens up a few new storyline arcs, it felt intentionally short and a bit incomplete. There are loose plot threads to be picked up in a future book and the characters developed to the point where the fighting got intense, and then it was straight up battlefield narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed it – this was one of the few books I sat on the couch and read while icing my injured knee – but it felt like there was a bit of publisher’s pacing competing with the author’s story craft. Either way: looking forward to the next installment to see exactly how those open questions get answered.


7. “Empire Games,” sci-fi, Charles Stross, finished March 5th.

The first book in a new trilogy set in parallel timelines of parallel universes of alternative histories, departing from Stross’ usual severely British humor wrapped around a James Bond trope. I feel like I should have read the first trilogy in the heavily constructed world, because the quantum science is just this side of tractable and the characters have deep back stories. Clearly the first segment of a long story arc, “Empire Games” sets a solid stage.


6. “Good Omens,” fantasy, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, finished February 14.

If Monty Python did a treatment of Armageddon with a hilariously written chorus, you’d get something approaching “Good Omens.” I picked it up at the suggestion of a good friend who knows my reading predilictions and saw the upcoming movie treatment of the material. It’s equally funny, morbid, uniquely British, and heavily footnoted. It’s a bit of “Stand By Me” meets Stross and Doctorow’s “Rapture of the Nerds” and it made me appropriately (I think) laugh out loud.


5. “2113,” sci-fi collection (mostly), edited by Kevin J Anderson, finished January 26.

Presented as a set of short stories inspired by the music of Rush, and edited by the author of the “Clockwork Angels” adaptation (and “Dune” prequel co-author with Frank Herbert’s son), this held promise from the first measure. The best way to describe the overall reading experience, if you are a Rush fan, is that of walking into a small restaurant absent a famous chef, almost overwhelmed by the olfactory sense of being home, and finding the menu calling out the same colloquial dish names you and your best friends – some of whom you met at shows – have used for years. The Rush themes and Easter Eggs are both subtle and strongly worded; the inspirations range from adaptation to self-reflective “Total Recall” memetic echo; as a bonus Neil Peart’s source for “Red Barchetta” is included, after some editor research, as the jammy filling of this multi layered delightful cake. Anderson’s story, based on “Spirit of Radio,” reflects both how I discovered Rush as well as why we should always turn to music when it seems the world is ending.


4. “Suck and Blow,” music/biography, Dean Budnick and John Popper, finished January 13.

I had no idea what to expect from the Blues Traveller front man’s biography, except that (a) I adore Dean Budnick’s writing (b) Popper sat in with Phish and (c) some of the story necessarily takes place in and around Princeton. That hat trick of arcana stands up remarkably well through a story that meanders into the political, social, musical and romantic (!!) with an honesty that is neither scalding nor lukewarm. Along the voyage I learned a few things about the harmonica (which make inordinate sense now, like the fact that a harmonica is keyed so you can play the notes of one scale on it).


3. “Kraken,” sci-fi/fantasy, China Mieville, finished January 5.

What you’d expect from China Mieville, with flourishes of Charles Stross and Neil Gaiman. While this starts out as a religious fantasy turned whodunnit with layers of implication and exposition, the real story slowly emerges from the deep, and it’s wonderfully crafted, ending right where it began. While some of Mieville’s work is dark and downright frightening, this richly constructed plot and gentle head shakes to the fantasy canon move a great story forward to a head fake conclusion that left me — gasp — smiling.


2. “Dark Matter,” sci-fi, Blake Crouch, finished January 2.

Picked up on a number of recommendations, this was a fun melange of “Quantum Leap” and faint hints of Heinlein’s “Number of the Beast”. Alternately moving, philosophical, action-packed and fast-paced, the main scientific principle is mildly outlandish (but not impossible). So B for scientific realism, A- for emotional impact and a nice book to read on a day off (yes, it’s a one-day read if you are the type to spend the day relaxing with a book).


1. “Moonglow,” fiction, Michael Chabon, finished January 1.

I have this strange attraction to Chabon’s writing: I find his prose dense and textured and likely paired well with a dictionary, almost to the point of pretension, but he tells a good story in a timeline and mode that makes TCP/IP packet re-assembly seem simple by comparison. While being thoroughly non-plussed by his last two, I found this in an amazon.com box a few weeks ago, thinking someone had ordered it for me as a gift, only to realize that I had pre-ordered it late one night (that strange attraction thing again). Cut to the chase: This is a good read, and now my favorite work of his. There’s an archaeological aspect to the writing, as Chabon sweeps away layers of bravado, family history re-telling and dusty silence to truly understand his late grandfather’s life. The story is poignant and carries a small but discernible albedo when held up to any of our European Jewish immigrant family tales.