Tag Archives: William Gibson

My Five Books of 2019

I did this last year and it seemed to go well enough, so here I am again.  I try to read, or when unable to find the time, listen to audio books.  Trips are usually good for reading time.  I do not read… or listen… as much as I would like… or as much as I used to back when my time was more free and my eyesight was able to focus on something as close as the printed page… but I do what I can.

I also log my reading over at Good Reads, which serves the same purpose for books as this blog does for gaming.  It is a record and a memory.  They even gave me a little end of year summary.

Good Reads Summary

According to Good Reads I managed to make my way through about two dozen books this year.  You can see my whole Good Reads list for 2019 if you want.  I’ve actually finished a book since then, and will likely finish at least one more, so the up to date tally is available at that link.

Out of those, these are the five that felt the most meaningful I suppose.

The covers, if you prefer visual representation

The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg is remembered as the RAND Corporation employee who smuggled out the Pentagon Papers, the detailed study of US involvement in Vietnam commissioned by SecDef Robert McNamara who wanted to figure out how we got in that mess.  It was a big deal and changed the outlook on the war for many.

However, Ellsberg actually smuggled two sets of documents out of RAND, the other being related to the work he had done as a nuclear war planner to support the US in determining its strategy for nuclear weapons use.  He didn’t want to dilute the Vietnam report, so he hid those documents while the government tore his life apart.

And he ended up losing them.  The story of how is in the book.

But he has been able to recreate much of what he had worked on from declassified government documents and his own recollections, which became this book.

It covers US policy on nuclear weapons, the level of command which felt it could authorize a nuclear strike (the movie Dr. Strangelove seemed very possible), and how the US has used nuclear weapons, if not actively, as a constant and ongoing threat, both implied and explicit, as part of its foreign policy.

It makes you wonder how we got through the cold war.

Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer

This is a long, detailed, and somewhat dry book, and could easily be dismissed as so much trivia about four groups of colonists who came from England to the new world.  But buried in all of that are a series of attitudes and traditions and behaviors that still influence the US and its politics and regional divides.  It is no coincidence of history that partisans of the English Civil War, the Puritans and Royalists, settled in the regions of the colonies that would later end up as opposing sides in our own civil war.

The book lays out attitudes and traditions that persist through today that make up much of the current Red/Blue political divide in the country.  The book is uncanny in tracing lines from the 1600s through to today.  Also, a bunch of regional words that are often associated with southern or African American culture originated in rural England, where they have since fallen out of use.  Hat tip to The Mittani who mentioned this book on Twitter.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

Some times you just need something new in a science fiction tale.  William Gibson managed that back in the 80s with Neuromancer, which was on my list last year as a re-read.  While not as ground breaking as that tale, it does take what was a new tack for me on what might otherwise be seen as tropes of the science fiction genre.  A good palette cleanser in the midst of some deeper reads.

Shattered Sword by Jonathan Parshall

When I was growing up the generation of leaders from WWII was passing and the mid-to-high level commanders were getting very old.  All of them seemed keen to write their memoirs which created a base of myth about the war, feeding off of and supporting each other.  I hit a point in my 20s where I refused to ready anything about the “big” battles of WWII like Midway, D-Day, Stalingrad, and so on because they were all telling the same story with only minor variations in detail.

It has only been since maybe the late 90s, when the higher ranks of the commanders began to dwindle and so those with a stake in telling a tale that put them in the best light stopped being an influence.  Historians like Anthony Beevor began taking a harder look things and reworking the myths to either discard them or at least make them align to the facts available.

For the Battle of Midway, Shattered Sword has become something of a definitive source.  Focused on the Japanese side of the battle, it dispels myths that have lingered for decades.  My only regret is that it took me about a decade to finally get to it, though the fact that they found two of the Japanese carries lost at the battle while I was reading about them sinking was kind of a nifty coincidence.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Something of a latter day Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden tells the tale of his life.  This is his biography, covering his youth, desire to serve his country, time with the CIA and NSA, and eventually how he went about telling the world about the dubious and illegal activities of the US intelligence community.  In a parallel to Ellsberg’s book, it is surprising how much access and control was being handed to young and not well supervised employees and contractors.  Whether you think he is a hero or a traitor, this is the story of his life and the string of events that ended up with him in exile.  It also lined up well because the book I read next was Legacy of Ashes, which was about how the CIA ended up in the state it was when Snowden was there.

Picking

That is a lot of non-fiction there.  Picking five wasn’t a huge effort, but there were clearly some other contenders in my mix.  As the Good Reads banner indicates, I read Margret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I enjoyed.  However, I wasn’t for a minute unable to guess how things would turn out.  It felt like something cranked out as fan service to support the popular video adaption of the original book on Hulu.  I also disdain the re-used “academics discuss things” ending.

Good Reads also tells me that the book with the highest review score I read this year was How to Hide an Empire.  But that didn’t get high marks from me largely due to its tone, which was of the hysterical making mountains out of mole hills variety.  Also, I literally knew every talking point in the book before I picked it up, so this alleged attempt to hide an empire hasn’t exactly been a huge success.  I might not have been the target audience here.

I might have put Legacy of Ashes on the list if it had mentioned my great uncle who worked for the CIA in the 50s and 60s and who carried some of those briefcases of cash used to support or overthrow governments in the middle-east.  He also worked with Kermit Roosevelt in Egypt.  But he wasn’t high enough level to get a mention.  When it comes down to it, I wouldn’t kick any of the five titles I have to inject this.

And then there is William L. Shirer.  I have half a post written about his two huge tomes about Nazi Germany and the fall of France in 1940.  It basically sums up to what he wrote aligns up almost exactly to the views of my grandparents generation, who served in the war.  I heard many of the things he wrote come straight from the mouths of my grandparents and their siblings and friends.  His work, while not well loved by historians, captures that amazingly well.

I did read a lot more fiction than my picks might indicate.  Some of it was re-reading that didn’t spark much interest after I was done.  I did start on C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, but after two books I couldn’t stand the ratio of introspection to action.  We read about Bren over-thinking things for about ten pages for every page where something actually happens.  I found that wearisome and declined to go further in the series.

I also went into the Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu due to it featuring as an alleged motivator for CCP for their summer of the Chaos Era.  Like the Chaos Era in New Eden, I found it interesting but tiresome.  I declined to pick up the third book.  I read a spoiler instead, so I know how it ends, so I don’t feel like I missed out.

I did just knock out the first book in a new series from Marko Kloos, who wrote the Frontlines series I mentioned in a post a few years back.  He’s done with that and while I liked the new book, Aftershocks, and I’ll read the next in the series when it comes out, it wasn’t epic.  Good, solid science fiction, but I want to see where it goes.

And then there is the curious case of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, of Zero Punctuation fame.  I’ve read two of his books this year… one and a half as I write this, but I’ll be done with the second before we get to 2020.  His style has developed since Mogworld and makes me feel like he is about 20 degrees off course towards becoming the next Douglas Adams. (Also, he makes video games, which is something else Douglas Adams dabbled in.)  I like his work, I’ll read whatever he writes, but he isn’t quite there yet and I cannot put my finger on why.

Honorable Mention

I write these posts in advance which, given that they can go up whenever I have a slow day in December, which means they are done with enough time left in the year to knock out another book or two.  And so it was last year where I was able devour a book that might have made the list.  I thought I would mention it

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Scalzi at his page turning best, creating a universe of lives and politics.  I read this and then the second book in the series and felt thwarted by the fact the third installment was more than a year away.  Such is the life of a reader.  You binge through a hot new title and then there is a year or more wait until the next one.  Odd how television has adopted that model these days, where we get 10 episodes and then wait a year… or nearly two in the case of Rick and Morty… for the next installment.  Anyway, the next installment was due in April last I checked, so I’ll be there.

And so it goes, another year of reading has passed by.  Was there anything great that you read in 2019?

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.