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.
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
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.