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.
30. “Provenance,” sci-fi, Ann Leckie, finished November 18.
Ann Leckie writes sci-fi that departs from the usual space opera tropes of things blowing up and moving faster than light. Instead her characters are richly nuanced, have deep histories revealed through literary archaeology, and aren’t binary about anything, including gender. Her first book since the “Ancillary” trilogy that made me seriously consider my use of pronouns and naming conventions, “Provenance” challenges your notion of legacy and value created through forced scarcity. As a collector of all manner of memorabilia – sports cards, sports autographs, casino chips – I adored the concept of “vestiges” that represent the combined social capital and accrued family wealth, tied to the notion of literally passing on a family name in legacy. Leckie runs headlong into canonical hierarchy and structure, eschewing gender pronouns and relation names, replacing them with neutral terms that force your attention to names, artifacts and power positions rather than gender or family roles. The story is fabulous, drawing on a few elements of the Ancillary trilogy – alien races, galactic scale diplomacy, and non-binary gender expression – but remixing them in a standalone sci-fi story in which nothing has to explode to reach a logical conclusion. Leckie is a new favorite author, and I hope to read more set in this world
29. “Necessity,” sci-fi, Jo Walton, trilogy finished November 4.
28. “The Philosopher Kings,” sci-fi Jo Walton
27. “The Just City,” sci-fi, Jo Walton
Incredibly dense, historically rich and full of layered characters in both diminutive and normal forms, Jo Walton’s “Thessaly” trilogy is worth reading to its just conclusion. Based on the theoretical ideal that you could build Plato’s Republic and live by its ideals, Walton draws human characters from two millennia in the first two books, then nearly four millennia in the last one (including an alien race) and freely mixes them with Greek gods, historical figures, and slathers on her own unique perspective on time travel and paradoxes. It took me nearly six weeks to make it through all three books, with the last one posing the greatest challenge — but I’m glad I finished it in that the ending is superb. Walton writes historical alternative fiction better than anyone, and this was a daunting task — to take a variety of historical references and place them in the context of the Greek pantheon, all the while modulating the story with issues of freedom, sentience, and a rationalization of the world’s religions. Sound complex? It is, but like a dinner made with a dozen finely measured spices the end result is worth the effort.
26. “The Music Lesson,” music/philosophy, Victor Wooten, finished November 2.
Tony Levin inscribes the cover of Wooten’s “Music Lesson” with the quip that “Wooten is music’s Carlos Castenada”. It was precisely those moods equal in parts spiritual, self-aware, overly pointed and mildly funny that made this a quick and good read. Wooten doesn’t share the secrets of life the universe and everything, but if the music is held together by a funky groove he may come close. It certainly made me think a few times, and I’ve already bought copies for holiday gifts (sorry if that’s a stocking spoiler for anyone).
25. “Somebody to Love?”, music/biography, Grace Slick, finished September 18
I saw Grace Slick with Jefferson Starship exactly once, in the summer of 1983 after I had been DJing at WPRB and had my musical interests not only broadened by stretched over acres of genres and histories. While I was familiar with Starship and Airplane, they were definitely on my list of Woodstock era bands to see with some semblance of the original members. What I remember most from the night — September 1, 1983, the night that a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down by Russian interceptors after it had veered off course — was that Grace Slick wasted no time lambasting the Cold War politics that made such a tragedy possible. “Somebody to Love?” is an intriguing mix of Jefferson Airplane/Starship history (I now have an appreciation for “Ride The Tiger”), the emerging San Francisco band scene of the early 1960s, and a smattering of kiss and tell all conveyed in the in-your-face Grace Slick style. Written nearly 20 years ago, it feels a bit dated (especially with Paul Kantner’s recent death) and the chapters on animal rights and her interest in medical research read like a rebel in search of a cause. Nothing in the book is shocking nor was it meant to be, and understanding a few of the band and song dynamics was a nice complement to a show nearly 35 years ago.
24. “A Closed and Common Orbit”, sci-fi, Becky Chambers, finished (both) September 1.
23. “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”
The first two of what should be a short series of books set in a wonderful universe where humans are the least dominant species rather than the conquering force unleashed on the cosmos. What I loved about both books is that they explore key issues of person-hood — not just humanity, but existence across multiple species, and what rights each species may or may not carry across planetary, cultural or social lines. Chambers’ writing is fun, fast and focused; while “Angry Planet” may feel like a quilt of short stories stitched together around a relatively non-violent space opera, the characters are far from the edging and are front and center. Many books in the “spaceships touring the universe” genre involve way too many things going boom; in these two volumes you’re more eager to see who the characters turn out to be rather than who they turn into interstellar dust. “Common Orbit” goes even a step further with an examination of some of the issues around how we view AI, and it got me with a Scalzi-caliber heart punch at the end. The postscript to “Angry Planet” shows you just how close we were to not having these outstanding books, and how Kickstarter (used wisely) brings great art into the limelight.
22. “The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun,” music, Robert Greenfield, finished August 19.
I picked this up at the intersection of three other books – Greenfield’s biography of Bill Graham, and the autobiographies of Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins. Greenfield’s writing is historically precise, full of footnotes and details extruded through hundreds of pages of interviews and notes. While it can make for a sometimes dry story (which was the case with the first third of the Graham story) the Ertegun epic covers multiple continents and lifestyles with ease and speed. I wanted to learn more about the man responsible for Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Genesis, some of the most profound musical influences in my teenage life. What comes out feels like it went through the Rolling Stone “We Hate Prog Rock” filter: Ertegun had more side references in the Genesis biographies than their entire band (or Yes) did in Greenfield’s book. While centering somewhat on how Ertegun chased the deals and signings that drove music labels in the later half of the 20th century, it elides a possibly deeper connection between Ertegun’s love of art and those bands painted with the “art rock” label – he had an ear for the less popular, obscure yet fiercely loved music. And that gets almost no ink in the book, which was disappointing. That feeling was somewhat ameliorated by anecdotes about Val Azzoli (who managed Rush, and features in an embarrassing David Crosby story) and the likely source material for Metalocalypse’s “Rock and Roll Clown” motif (Ertegun using coke to smear Keith Richards’ fact, telling the local heat that “they were clowns and used makeup”).
21. “The Living Years,” music, Mike Rutherford, finished August 6.
A nice pairing with Phil Collins’ autobiography and a warm up for Ahmet Ertegun’s biography, Rutherford runs a nice bass line between the staves. It’s not a tell-all book; it’s not a deep history of how Genesis recorded their albums or where the songs sprang forth from Peter Gabriel’s mind, wholly formed yet devoid of theatrics; it’s more of a wistful look back at how Rutherford and his father never quite spent enough time being father and son. In that vein, it reminded me of a musical version of Buzz Bissenger’s “Father’s Day,” sprinkled with musical grace notes (like the invention of the Vari-Lux stage light). It’s a good read if you’re a Genesis fan, and I think it captured the beauty of their music very well: Genesis tells stories, redolent with British humour and phrases, wrapped around haunting melodies. After the top level explanation I found myself re-listening to “Selling England” and “Nursery Crime” and hearing them as Rutherford intended. Rutherford’s carefully penned young person’s guide to Genesis mapped the music quite well, without any excess drama or mud, only a nice story wrapped in British sensibility.
20. “The Delirium Brief,” sci-fi, Charles Stross, finished July 22.
I eagerly anticipated the latest “Laundry Files” installment from Charles Stross as the last two took darker, less Benny Hill-meets-James Bond takes on mathematically inducted takes on HP Lovecraft. “Delirium Brief” was not only a fun read but also gave me confidence that Stross has a closet full of ideas to sustain the series – no supernatural shark jumping here. Deeper insights into Bob Howard’s emotional state were a nice touch, seeing him mentally take over the role he inherited a few books earlier. Side note: Stross is one of the few authors who still gives me nightmares, something that hasn’t happened much since I stayed up half the night reading “The Shining” in 1980.
19. “Not Dead Yet: The Memoir,” music, Phil Collins, finished July 15.
What you’d expect from a Phil Collins behind the scenes look at Genesis and his solo career, but also an illuminating and frank accounting of the life of a workaholic. From the mid-80s until the mid-90s, you couldn’t get away from Phil Collins – I remember the feeding frenzy of the music press around Live Aid when his jet setting, multiple concerts in multiple continents “day in the life” almost turned to caricature, and yet the backstory is more revealing, more mildly terrifying and more context for the dissolution of his marriages. Collins comes across as humble, and his candor about his alcohol issues is at times poignant but also a bit hollow – while he was making millions, he was also insanely unhappy, and that tinge of sadness comes through in so many of the stories, but he doesn’t actually dig for root causes other than to indulge in a bit of self-pity. It’s refreshing to see someone so accomplished talk about the difficult sides of fame and fortune, in terms of family, relationships and friendships (both good and bad).
18. “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O,” sci-fi, Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, finished July 9.
The marks of a Neal Stephenson book are heft, plotlines researched to doctorate level accuracy, and a set of turns that leave you wondering why you didn’t see them coming. “Rise and Fall” delivers in all three areas, with a twist – rather than churning out another “time travel creates paradoxes” pseudo-warning, this one looks at the practicalities of time travel in a multiverse — you’re dealing in probabilities, not certainties; information may travel forward and backward in time; and things that would produce “paradoxes” are throw the equivalent of a Java exception. As usual, it took me nearly a month to make it through, mostly because I didn’t want to miss any of the subtle sub plots or character details that are so deftly woven into the story. This is right up there with “Seveneves”.
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
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.