Inspired once again by the influence of Aaron Swartz, I compile here a listing of books which I have read, and a simple review of them.
? Have a suggestion?
The Cuckoo’s Egg – Clifford Stoll
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Dune – Frank Herbert
Lovecraft Country: A Novel – Matt Ruff
Daemon and Freedom TM – Daniel Suarez
10 Days in a Madhouse – Nellie Bly
5/5 | Non-Fiction | 1887
I read this many months ago but just realized I did not write anything about it. A really great introduction to investigative journalism, you want to cringe at the descriptions that Nellie Bly depicts in this harrowing tale of committing one’s self to an insane asylum, Blackwell’s Island, at the request of editor Joseph Pulitzer. Her story invokes thoughts of those whose voices are suppressed, forced into ever more maddening situations with no will or way to fight back. “From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all….” The story sheds light on the corruption and mistreatment apparent in society’s social service accommodations even in the late 19th century.
Animal Farm – George Orwell
5/5 | Fiction | 1945
This timeless story fit in well with the current presidential campaign… EDIT January 2017: Along with 1984, this book is now pouring off the shelves again. Enter the age of deliberate misinformation, aka lying, aka alternative facts. Let us recognize a pig for a pig, and a lie for a lie.
The Alchemist – Paulo Coehlo
4/5 | Fiction | 1988
While a fair number of people (online, at least) have strong distaste for this ‘self-help’ book, I enjoyed it for what I think it was meant to be (a short and fun fictional narrative meant likely for a younger audience).
Wool (1-5) – Hugh Howey
4/5 | Science Fiction | 2012
Wool is a ‘post-apocalyptic’ scenario wherein humanity lives within an underground silo, with a political system and stratified class of workers keeping the place running for generations. There are some great metaphors and symbolism to the story, and it often feels an encapsulation of our present day society. For this reason, I gave it 4 of 5, but I nearly gave it a 3 because of how I felt it unraveled toward the end of the fifth section. As an engineer, I appreciated greatly the main protagonist in the story, but I found it hard to not question a number of decisions in the lines of communication, and the result left me questioning why certain characters did not take some seemingly prudent actions. In more ways than one, the story kind of collapses on itself, but it didn’t need to. I enjoyed the setup of the story, the comparisons to our capitalist and segregated communities, and the illustrative scenario, but I was only partially satisfied by the end of the story and the last section or so.
Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
5/5 | Non-Fiction | 1988/2002
I have to first admit, I haven’t finished reading this book – there is a lot to take in. In fact, I am not even half way. But I don’t need to be finished to know its a disturbingly enlightening narrative of US history and the manipulation by the political and mass media. The statistics on the control of media and ‘news’ are gut-wrenching even before you consider the book was last revised about 15 years ago – and the problems have only exacerbated since then. A combination of propaganda and control over the sources and the vast majority of major media platforms presents the US public with a narrowly biased ‘feed’ of rhetoric. Herman and Chomsky spell out the signs through case studies of past administrations from Reagan to Kennedy, and show how our political-media machine has created (‘manufactured’) peoples’ perspectives. The challenge is what to do about all of this…
Life, The Universe and Everything – Douglas Adams
5/5 | Science-Fiction | 2005
Douglas Adams is a great writer, who weaves a fun but intricate story through space and time, and gives us some uh..’perspective’.. about randomness in the universe. Take, for example, how mattresses, all named “Zem”, exist in this universe. “It was a large mattress, and probably one of quite high quality. Very few things actually get manufactured these days, because in an infinitely large Universe such as, for instance, the one in which we live, most things one could possibly imagine, and a lot of things one would rather not, grow somewhere. A forest was discovered recently in which most of the trees grew ratchet screwdrivers as fruit. The life cycle of ratchet screwdriver fruit it quite interesting. Once picked it needs a dark dusty drawer in which it can lie undisturbed for years. Then one night it suddenly hatches, discards its outer skin which crumbles into dust, and emerges as a totally unidentifiable little metal object with flanges at both ends and a sort of ridge and a sort of hole for a screw. This, when found, will get thrown away. No one knows what it is supposed to gain from this. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is presumably working on it. No one really knows what mattresses are meant to gain from their lives either. They are large, friendly, pocket-sprung creatures which live quiet private lives in the marshes of Squornshellous Zeta. Many of them get caught, slaughtered, dried out, shipped out and slept on. None of them seem to mind and all of them are called Zem.” This is generally how the book goes, and with some witty humor and fantastic imagination, Douglas Adams paints a delightfully fun story. Another favorite part, a concept repeated from the Hitchhikers Guide, discusses how one can learn to fly. “You must learn how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Pick a nice day and try it. The first part is easy. All it requires is the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt. That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. If you are really trying properly, the likelyhood is that you will fail to miss the ground fairly hard. One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else then you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.”
A Man Without a Country – Kurt Vonnegut
5/5 | Non-Fiction/Bio | 2005
Kurt Vonnegut has always been one of my favorite authors for his sarcastic humor and rich story-telling ability. Cats Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, Player Piano, and so many other stories of his are truly great pieces of (mostly) fictional writing. His book A Man Without a Country is often called his autobiography, a smattering of writings offering some description of Vonnegut’s past and his perspective on life in his older age. His ability to bring humor to dark situations, to provide a humanist perspective to our current state of being on this planet, is most compelling. I’ll offer a few passages as a taste of his style and messaging. “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious & charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful. If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The Only Proof He Needed For the Existence of God was Music”. And another passage reads: “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
5/5 | Fiction | 1971
Hunter S. Thompson is an incredibly vivid and dynamic writer, sharing hilarious stories with witty humor and creative verbiage. “We had several narrow escapes: at one point I tried to drive the Great Red Shark [their convertible] into the laundry room of the Landmark Hotel – but the door was too narrow and the people inside seemed dangerously excited.” If you enjoyed the movie but saw it some time ago, the book is a refreshing and highly enjoyable read. If you’ve never seen the movie, I highly recommend reading the book first, and then watching the movie, which is also quite satisfying and does the book justice (particularly when considering how poorly some books translate onto the ‘big screen’, generally due to a fault of the directors and producers, IMO – looking at you, Angelia Jolie and the “Unbroken” movie, which failed terribly to live up to the great narrative Laura Hillenbrand wrote). Fear and Loathing is great, and Hunter S Thompson is a great Louisville hero, much like the recently departed Muhammad Ali, another Louisville great.
The Trial – Franz Kafka
5/5 | Philosophy/Fiction | 1925
An interesting narrative about a protagonist, Joseph K, a well-respected young banker who finds he has been indicted on some charges which he knows nothing about and cannot seem to find out any details. A symbolic story which weaves its way through various relationships and experiences as K tries to define his future himself despite the enormous pressures he faces against the court and its numerous veiled actors. Trying to understand the predicament he faces, K embarks on countless expeditions to assess the charges he faces, his course of action to resolve the issues and prove his innocence, all the while becoming more frustrated and confused by the vague and complex inner workings of the ‘court’ and the bureaucratic process. This is a story which Aaron Swartz read in the year or so preceding his suicide, and this knowledge before reading gave me a different perspective throughout the story, with a jarring finale.
Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
5/5 | Science Fiction | 2011
A thoroughly interesting book about a virtual reality suit, the OASIS, which supplants most people’s day to day activities from education to gaming. The protagonist, Wade (“Parzival” in the OASIS), is among the great majority of this futuristic population who scarcely survive on life’s basic necessities in an incredibly dense urban shanty-town. Using the OASIS, the people of the planet Earth can escape their destitute human existence in quest for the “Easter Egg” awards hidden within the planets of the OASIS. An exciting and symbolic story of technological dependence, Ready Player One offers a fantastic journey into an eerily conceivable future.
Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
5/5 | Non-Fiction | 2010
The story of Louis Zamperini before, during and after WWII in Unbroken is intensely awe-inspiring. With great detail and clarity, Laura Hillenbrand details the history of Louis Zamerini and his family throughout the war, an iconic representation of the great triumphs and tragedies experienced during warfare. The narrative illustrates the lengths to which humanity was willing to go to achieve ‘peace’ throughout WWII. A chilling lesson in history, and a powerful tale of personal endurance and fortitude – great read. (If you read the book, don’t watch the movie. And if you don’t read the book – though I recommend you do – still don’t watch the movie. Sorry, Angelina, I just did not like it).
Prelude to Foundation – Isaac Asimov
5/5 | Science Fiction | 1988
I’ve never read any of the Foundation series, so I started with the first in the series with respect to the story timeline, but the last that Asimov published. The Prelude story is highly engaging, and while some facets of the story don’t always align perfectly, the narrative of “psychohistory” and the prediction of future events by the protagonist Hari Seldon is colorful and intriguing. The story of his travels throughout the planet of Trantor, and his development of the “psychohistory” mathematical theory are quite creative, the story following Asimov’s apparently traditional style of skipping over periods of time with only small details of the missed events. Asimov creates a uniquely symbolic future which illustrates his perspective on history, power, free will and human nature.
Foundation – Isaac Asimov
4/5 | Science Fiction | 1951
The first of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, this book creatively depicts an inter-stellar humanity far into the future where even the origins of the human race are just legend, beyond historical knowledge. In this existence, creativity is decaying and people have succumb to an intellectual paralysis – the eventual peace of the galaxy depends on the potential to carry out Hari Seldon’s plan which sees 1000 years of turmoil and turnover in advance of another many centuries of peace and coexistence. I wish I’d read the other prequel, Forward the Foundation, before reading the original book in the series, Foundation. None the less, I enjoyed Asimov’s writing style again, this time 35+ years earlier in his career than Prelude to Foundation.