My Five Books of 2018

A couple of years back I signed up over at GoodReads, a site devoted to books and reading.  I did so less to find new books or interact with others as I did to be able to track what I have read.  As with many other things, I often know that I have read a given book but I can be a bit hazy on when I did.

Anyway, now that I have a timeline of my reading I can now abuse the end of the year summary season here at the blog to recall the better books read.  If you want to see everything I read you can find me over at GoodReads under the usual name of Wilhelm Arcturus.

I used to read a lot more, knocking out a book a week easily at one point.  Life, family, TV, and video games have conspired to drop that number, and I have to make up some of the missing time with audio books in the car.

An odd aside, I had to look back and check which of these books I read on the Kindle and which I listened to as audio books.  One I read on the Kindle I could have sworn I listened to instead.  I suppose there is something to be said when, once done, the impression left by the book seems to be free of the media.

Anyway, I still think I get through a decent number of titles over the course of a given year, even if my taste can be somewhat questionable.  There are some dubious titles on my GoodReads page.

And, because we’re at the end of the year I thought I would pick out my five favorite reads from 2018.

The picks, if you just can’t wait

Five is a good number for such a list.  Three is too few, but when you try to stretch to ten there tends to be a couple of filler items in there that don’t really stand up to their peers.

These are not all new books.  Two are a bit long in the tooth, one is a book that I re-read every so often, and another actually got me to re-read an old title in anticipation.

Why Baseball Matters by Susan Jacoby

Picked up on a whim for a trip back in June and I pretty much finished it at the airport and on the plane out.

I grew up as a baseball fan and somewhere in my drafts folder is an unfinished post about the cultural importance and impact of baseball in the US.  It is the grandfather of sports in the US and had professional leagues back when basketball and football were intramural oddities at a few universities.

But it is also a product of its time, a game with no time limit played too often for many games to feel special. (A baseball season is 162 games and teams can easily play daily for a month at a stretch, while basketball and ice hockey have 82 game seasons and football a mere 16.)  This reflects it coming of age in an era of few competing entertainments and no mass media faster than the telegraph or the daily paper.

The slowness of play, the abundance of options and distractions, the expense of equipment and coaching needed for kids to advance towards serious play, and the 90s, where the big strike and the doping scandals made a mockery of the game, has all sent the baseball into clear decline.

Susan Jacboy has a plan to fix that.  It is a forlorn hope born of the connoisseur (my favorite over-used reason to link to this comic) who believes if you just got into baseball you would appreciate its subtleties and interesting choices, that if you just looked hard enough you would find a world to explore in every pitch.

I appreciated her walk through the history of baseball and felt a kinship with her feelings.  And I agree that some of the things Major League Baseball is trying or has proposed to solve the games problems in the modern age barely add up to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But since the 90s I have lost my faith in the game and cannot see its decline being halted without radical change.  Baseball needs a new era.  Still, I quite enjoyed the exploring the game and my own feelings for it through this book.  Her passion for the game is genuine and I wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) do anything to derail it.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

This one is from the same trip as Why Baseball Matters.

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was fresh in the news that week and I realized that, while I sort of knew who he was and recognized his face when it passed by on TV, I didn’t really know anything about him.  So I picked up his first book, which is pretty much the story of his life up to the late 90s.

While some seem to be critical of the fact that it includes sections that were initially done as magazine articles, which does lead to a change in style at times, it is still a good collection that holds together very well.

Restaurants are also an interesting business, as so many people seem to think it ought to be easy, but then so many restaurants fail.  But it still seems to be a thing that people do after they achieve fame and fortune elsewhere.  So people from Scott Adams of Dilbert fame to Willie McCovey, baseball star of my youth, end up in entwined in the business.

I also enjoy reading what goes on behind the scenes in various industries, how things really get done.  I’d read Waiter Rant some years back, a blog cum book, but that focused on the dining room.  Anthony Bourdain brings you into the belly of the beast, where the food gets made, who is likely making your food (Spanish makes up much of the lingua franca in most kitchens), how things go, and how to get a table’s food to all show up at once.

There is a lot off putting in the mix, but that is largely because, as with any human endeavor, it involves people with their own egos sometimes working at cross purposes.

In the end though I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.  I ended feeling I understood just a bit of the mania and demons and passion for food that drove Anthony Bourdain.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read this back in the 80s, maybe a year after it came out.  The name Wintermute was already on my brain when I started playing Stellar Emperor back in 1986.  I had an alt with that name for a bit.

Back then, as I used my Apple II and its 1200bps modem to log into an online service, the book seemed like a look into an amazing future.  And, as time moved along, I have been impressed with how prophetic the book was with each re-read.

There are bits that haven’t aged well.  Somehow the Soviet Union was still around and the fate of the US was a bit of a mystery.   But those things blow past in the vision of a gritty future that feels all too real and a tale told well.  I will be back to re-read it again I am sure.

Grant by Ron Chernow

I bought this for my father after hearing it reviewed, Grant is a hefty tome ringing in at over four times the length of Neuromancer.  But that is the way Ron Chernow rolls.  And before my dad had dug into it I picked up a copy for myself and dove into an exploration of all things Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant is a strange mix of traits who was lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time.  Grant born 20 years earlier or 20 years later would have likely never been heard of.  Instead, despite multiple character flaws, including a social awkwardness that made things like his job as a debt collector nearly impossible to a trusting nature that marked him as a sucker to some and came back to bite him multiple times to his binge alcoholism that haunted his career and forced him to abstain, he rose to lead the Army of the Potomac to victory in the Civil War and was twice president of the United States.

He was a complicated man and the book spends much time exploring his life, behavior, and the stories around him, sorting out the fact from the speculation and the rumors spread by those seeking to rise by bringing him down.

The expanse of the book is almost exhausting, but like a day of hard work and accomplishment, you feel better for having put in the effort.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre

I can be something of a lukewarm fan of Le Carre, and all the more so if we get into the film and television adaptations of his books.  I just made it through the AMC mini-series based on The Little Drummer Girl thinking mostly that it was at least an hour too long and that Michael Shannon could really play a good middle age to older Kurt Vonnegut if somebody wants to do a biopic.

But A Legacy of Spies is something special.  It drags up the events of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and runs it through the post Cold War wringer as loose threads from the original Operation Windfall arise and Peter Guillam is summoned to MI6 as investigators try and tease out what really happened in Berlin some 50 years before.

Knowing the basis of the novel, I read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold first, just to have that set in my mind before I started off on A Legacy of Spies.  I was not disappointed as the new novel explores and brings to light much of what was left out or only hinted at in the original.  The duplicity and hard choices of an older time seem silly and wasteful when trotted out decades after the Berlin Wall has fallen, an not only because the meat of the operation had been hidden all of this time.  Definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of the original book or even the film version, a Richard Burton classic that is an excellent adaptation of the material.

8 thoughts on “My Five Books of 2018

  1. Bhagpuss

    We’re encouraged to use Good Reads at work but I rarely do. I would be hard put to explain why but I found it offputting from the first time I visited. I get an odd sense of being lectured rather than encouraged when I do look something up there. Don’t think it’s possible to see your reading list there without making an account, which I imagine is why you didn’t provide a link in the post.

    Leaving Good Reads itself out of it, the idea of a website that tracks your reading is an excellent one. I read constantly and because of my work I’m asked pretty much on a daily basis what I’m reading…and I generally have no idea. I’m not exaggerating if I say that I literally cannot remember the title or author of most books even when I have them open in front of me. What’s more, a day or two after I finish most books I have about a 50-50 chance of recognizing them if you showed them to me and maybe a 10% chance of being able to tell you what they might be about.

    Consequently, even though I’ve probably read about 40 or 50 books this year, without going to my study and looking through them I would have absolutely no chance of coming up with a list of the five (or ten) I’d enjoyed the most. It certainly would be handy to have all that tabulated and recorded online somewhere.

    Of your choice, the only one I’ve read is – unsurprisingly – Neuromancer, which I can remember quite well, not least because I work with someone who re-reads it every year and frequently talks about it. I read it in the 1980s, but for some reason I read the sequel, Count Zero first and went back to Neuromancer afterwards. That meant my impression of Neuromancer was muted and I remember thinking it wasn’t as good as Count Zero. I didn’t think enough of either of them to re-read them and I only read about one or two more William Gibson titles after that. I think he’s important but there are any number of writers who were influenced by him that I prefer. Often the way with genre or sub-genre originators.

    Anthony Bourdain I mostly know from hearing him interviewed. He was quite offputting then as well. He certainly put me off reading anything by him although I wouldn’t be likely to read a book about the catering industry anyway.

    Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve never read any le Carre. I’m not big on espionage and I grew up with him almost emblematizing the kind of book the generation above me took seriously, which meant I wasn’t going to go near it. Len Deighton is another example, also taken a lot more seriously now than he was then.

    The Ron Chernow I’ve seen at work but never even thought about reading. Not sure I’ve ever read a historical biography in my life and probably never will.

    The Susan Jacoby, though, looks really interesting. I would definitely read that if I happened across a copy. The only sports I really have any interest in involve bat striking ball and I’ve always been fascinated by the position of baseball in American culture. It clearly suffers from very similar issues, trying to survive in the modern world, as cricket. Cricket’s response has mostly been to try and make everything shorter and faster to the point that we now have entire games that take less than a tenth as long as a traditional match used to. It would be very interesting to see how what has often been thought of as the sped-up version of our national game is handling the same pressures – surely it can’t be by speeding things up by a factor of ten?

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  2. zaphod6502

    My Audible list for 2018:
    – The Expanse series by James SA Corey
    – The Helldiver series by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
    – The Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson

    And on Kindle
    – The Metro series by Dmitry Glukhovsky
    – Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future
    – A Daughter’s Deadly Deception: The Jennifer Pan Story

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  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Le Carre is always fun to hear interviewed because he remains at a simmer about people taking his books the wrong way. In his telling he wrote The Spy Who Came in from The Cold as a rebuke of the secret services basically using people and making their own problems. But people thought it was the most wonderful tale of heroic sacrifice for Queen and country. So he wrote The Looking Glass War to make his point even more obvious, but people still didn’t get it. However, he made a lot of money at it so he kept on going. I find him a bit tiresome at times. I couldn’t read more than a couple of his books in a row. But I do love the film version of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold with Richard Burton.

    Bourdain’s life was definitely a very different world than my own, and he did seem reflective on his past in admitting that he was probably a horrible person a lot of the time. It was more a peek behind the curtain, and I appreciate hearing about somebody’s passion for something even if it isn’t something I am all that into.

    Major League Baseball is stuck in a vise between the overwrought sense of history and tradition that the most hard core fans cling to (more than 40 years later people are still angry that the American League has the designated hitter rule) and the dueling factions of rich owners and rich players who are more interested in their entrenched positions than the declining state of the game. The result is that there is no possible way that any radical change can me made, so MLB is fiddling with things that might shave five minutes off a 3+ hour game. Some teams are going to have to go bankrupt to change anything, but the move in the 80s and onward was to get into smaller stadiums and jack up the prices in order to insulate themselves. But for now all the principals are making money, so there isn’t any pressure for change.

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  4. Archey

    It sounds like Le Carre is in a similar situation to the writers of Archie Bunker. Satire is really hard to pull off; I’ve nevwr attempted it largely because it seems like someone will always identify with the opposite side that I intend.

    I somehow managed to miss Neuromancer till relatively recently (2017 I think). It reminded me a lot of Snow Crash, another seemingly prescient book, if a little dated.

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  5. Redbeard

    I second Kitchen Confidential; it’s a good read, and if nothing else it taught me to avoid fish early in the week. I may have to go back and reread the book to see if there were any clues I’d missed as to the demons that drove Bourdain to his death.

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  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Archey – The problem with satire is that not everybody will get it, so you have to trust that the right people will get it. If you do it well, it works. If not… you’re stuck. Or, if you’re like me and feel unsure, you go ahead and explain it immediately afterwards, which sort of ruins it for some people.

    @Redbeard – I’d actually heard some of the things from his magazine articles about the fish and being wary of the specials. But the book definitely dove deeper into his own mania about food and running a kitchen and all that.

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  7. fatherofdaughters

    Neuromancer and other works of 1980’s speculative fiction instilled me with a deep desire to experience fully immersive virtual worlds for myself. I know that the fictional worlds they appeared in were usually quite dystopian but the idea that we might one day be able to create virtual worlds which were not bounded by the rules of reality and actually go and live in them was just mind blowing. When MMORPGs came along in the early 00’s I assumed this was just a stepping stone along the way and I was hugely disappointing when they turned ou tot be just another type of game and not an alternative to the real world. I was further disappointed when I got an extended loan of an Occulus Rift about a year ago. The feeling of immersion in a virtual 3D world was impressive but the physical limitations of the interface became quickly apparent not to mention the risk of awful motion sickness.

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  8. Nogamara

    @Bhagpuss – I use librarything instead of goodreads. What you described was not the original motive (I guess I chose it because it solved my problem and I didnt know goodreads?), but everytime I stumble over goodreads, I think I agree with what you wrote :P

    I love Neuromancer and the following books – but I grew up more with Shadowrun, heavily inspired by this.

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