Tag Archives: books

2018 Reads

This year, I did a bit of catching up. No thanks to Nintendo and the Switch, 2017 was largely spent scavenging Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom. In 2018, I leapt back into books — many of which I’d been meaning to read for a few years.

Needless to say, I quite possibly read more in 2018 than any other year of my life. Honestly, I can’t say any of these reads were horrible (though I’m one to find good in anything). Some certainly better than others. All a bit scattered amongst genre.

Without further adieu, here are my 2018 reads, ordered from most favorite to least.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood

Horribly chilling in light of the US today. The extreme justifications of Law and Government’s Will as God’s own feel too real and terrible. Published in 1985, no less.

My god, what a read.

Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Shortly after we moved to San Francisco, I found a copy of Americanah in our building’s shared laundry room — in the communal stack of books and magazines. I had heard great things on The New York Times Book Review Podcast and swooped it up immediately. (Truthfully, nothing stands between me and a beautifully formatted hardcover.)

A gut-wrenching love story, relatable and not. A story of America, relatable and not. A bare truth of race in this country that’s all so evident, yet can never be reinforced enough — now more than ever. A perspective unlike any other.

“Love was a kind of grief. This was what the novelists meant by suffering.”

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

What is seemingly a 2-star novel warps and wraps itself into a top-shelf, lovely comedic, and heartfelt story by a 5-star genius. So many “I’ve been there” moments and callbacks to “insignificant” details that the heartfelt and hilarious pangs resound with gut-wrenching timbre.

The story of Arthur Less is a comedic one, filled with the kind of silly anxieties, ghosts of the past, self-deprecation, self-destruction, and self-loathing we all find familiar. Best of all, a story of itself and meta and multiple levels. A protagonist no one should feel sorry for and that’s just the point.

We are all more or less Less.

Creative Selection

Ken Kocienda

A superb look inside software development at Apple and what it means to create team culture. Hard to put down.

I came to this book by way of John Gruber’s Daring Fireball. As a manager leading a cross-functional publishing and platform development team, this is a critical peek at what makes Apple quality software.

I’m thankful to have a team staffed with creatives, designers, developers, editors, producers, and writers. Truly the intersection of technology and liberal arts. But success goes beyond the right mix of people. It takes direction and focus. I shared the seven elements Kocienda identifies with my team, asking them which element stood out most to them. Unsurprisingly, we had a healthy mix of craft, taste, inspiration, diligence, and empathy. I’ve since gone on to outfit my team with Kocienda’s book as an artifact of what it takes to get to where Apple is today and to never forget what can be accomplished with a small team.

I advise everyone to read this book.

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley

How did I miss this in high school? A chilling premonition of Today from 1932. Truth vs happiness. No sweet without the sour.

God in the safe and Ford on the shelves.

A masterpiece.

Annihilation

Jeff Vandermeer

As dreamlike, entrancing, and lush as Area X. Vibes like Sunshine, LOST, The Abyss, and Dear Esther. Extremely my jam.

The movie is way different, but just as awesome.

The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu

How do you even begin to write something this vast, imaginative, complex, and yet entertaining? Such a fun, big read. Awesome first act to a trilogy, but I’m going to need a breather before diving into book two.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

Imaginative. Mystifying. Infuriating. Poetic. Vivid. Captures an uninhibited train of thought perfectly.

A lonesome and dooming dusk.

The Boys in the Boat

Daniel James Brown

Layers upon layers. Part bio, part sports rivalry, part pre-war omen. Paces like a race: quick off the line, measured through the middle, blasts-off at the end. The descriptions of the competitions had me gripped. Maybe could have been 50-100 pages shorter, but likely meant to portray the weight of perseverance.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This book came as a recommendation from my wife. She’d become insistent on me finishing so we could watch the Netflix film.

While fluffy, it’s a fascinating look at the German Occupation in the Channel Islands during WWII — a story not often told, and in the format of letters no less. An easy read full of wonderful characters and whimsy. An easy holiday read.

Deep Work

Cal Newport

I came to this book via The Ezra Klein Show podcast. Cal and Ezra discussed some interesting tips about maximizing productivity during large chunks of the workday. I found the idea of leaving my mornings free and scheduling meetings on the back half of my day compelling. It quickly fell apart as a manager, but the idea is beginning to help some of my employees.

For knowledge workers — engineers, academics, etc — large chunks of uninterrupted time can be critical for working deeply and making large strides in productivity, innovation, and creativity. If you can’t always be out of the shallows, find ways to minimize its impact: use a to-do list to track big items/projects; clear your inbox to remove the nagging distraction of something beckoning you; send clear correspondence with precise action items and expectations. If you have a project, find 1–4 hours to focus on it.

The one I’m working on: sign-off by 5:30 and stop thinking about work!

You’ll Grow Out of It

Jessi Klein

I’d heard about this book from (once again) The New York Times Book Review Podcast. They deemed it something like the better Amy Schumer biography.

With only a blip of a mention of Schumer, I get it. An honest, humbling, and humiliatingly hilarious look into the female experience — womanhood, comedy, writing, aging, and sexuality.

Klein shows that it’s truly impossible to empathize with everything everyone goes through. As a male, I’ll never understand the twists and turns of womanhood, no matter how many women I have in my life. On the other hand, there’s a shocking amount of humiliating and shitty situations we all share.

A light, fun, funny read that will shine a light on experiences you have had, may have, and never will have.

S. / Ship of Theseus

J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

If not entirely satisfying, a wholly original work and impressive feat. Glad to have given it a go.

I learned about this book while posting an Event at the Apple Store to the iTunes Store during my time on Apple Podcasts — an interview with J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I couldn’t resist the complexity and mystery of the book. My inner-LOST nerd needed it. It only took me five years to get to it.

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini

“It was only a smile, nothing more… but I’ll take it.”

A gauntlet and another solid recommendation from my sister, Megan Starr.

A Wrinkle in Time

Madeleine L’Engle

Alice in Wonderland meets The Little Prince. A wild, snappy adventure filled with witches, aliens, and — of course — space and time travel.

Wonderland

Steven Johnson

I came across this book from its companion (and clever marketing vehicle) podcast Wonderland.

We are all wired with natural instincts: hunger, thirst, sex. (Hypothalamus keeping us right!) Yet, we crave and are fascinated by surprise. “When the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention.” Even without any seemingly productive ends, we explore and yearn for new experiences. We play. “The pleasure of play is understandable. The productivity of play is harder to explain.” Play propels our creativity and innovation.

“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” Humans are funny space creatures. If only we would all just play a little more.

Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters

Gripping, thrilling, tight. Cinematic and easy to envision. A take on the reality of fending for oneself in the direst of situations. Sympathy for an antihero. Ego vs Id. Battle of conscience. Complexities unraveling themselves hours after finishing.

Power-Up

Chris Kohler

Great historical reference and a fun look back on video game history. Made even better by reading during a trip to Tokyo! Ended a bit misty-eyed at the Iwata remembrance. Thanks to Pavan Rajam for the recommendation.

Play Anything

Ian Bogost

I picked this up after reading a triple-review of Death by Video Game (ultra fav!), The Tetris Effect (fascinating), and Play Anything. I tweeted a photo of the review — proud I had read two of three books in an NYT Book Review. With permission, Mr. Bogost used the photo for his own tweet. Photo credit would have been cool, but it was still a neat moment.

Play Anything reads like an academic paper on how we define “fun”. There are plenty of choice quotes and great insights. However, they are mired in thick sets of highbrow, like diamonds in tons of rough of proof and reference. As much as Bogost preaches the ability to find fun in challenge, I couldn’t find much fun here. Bogost would call this “hardship”. At the very least, amongst bits of beautiful insight, Bogost’s writing has a musical quality. It’s easy to wade around in it, even if you’re not taking it all in.

Maybe my expectations were initially misaligned by a NYT review of books about games. I’d also argue Bogost’s title doesn’t help. Rather than “Play Anything”, this should have been titled “The Paradox of Fun”, “Fun Theory”, “The Power of Limits”, or simply “Read David Foster Wallace”.

Bogost proves to be an incredibly smart philosopher, but his philosophy of fun may be better as a longform feature rather than an entire book.

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance

I’m a firm believer of education, but nothing benefits like a happy home. The Rust Belt is under a microscope, but these problems affect California, too.

Into the Water

Paula Hawkins

Fun first 2/3. Tedious final act. Illuminating epilogue. Unlikeable characters. Can’t say I’d recommend it, but suffices as a page-turner.

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Hot Wheels don’t teach auto mechanics

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The complex reality of the technologies that real companies leverage to get ahead emphasizes the absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products—especially in schools—somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.

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Books Are My New Albums

The perfect song is “Have You Forgotten” by The Red House Painters.

Not the official album version on “Songs for a Blue Guitar”, but the version that only appears on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 2001 film Vanilla Sky, of which the song only appears for a brief moment during the film: six minutes in, lasting only 20 seconds, and tucked into the background under banter between Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise. Easily missed if you’re not paying attention.

So, how did I find it?

Some time around 2003, I was on a family trip to Oregon. My brother and I were driving through Oregon’s lush mountains, trailing my parents and grandparents who were navigating. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful space. Tired of the CDs we had been spinning, I decided to pop in the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. It was my favorite film at the time.

I came to own the CD after hearing a song at the end of the film that moved me profoundly. The lyrics were foreign and I never heard sonics like it. Certain it must be on the soundtrack, I tracked a copy down and scoured. Not Radiohead. Not Peter Gabriel. Not Afrika Bambaataa. Of those artists I’d never heard of: not two seconds into the Red House Painters track it sounded too structured — skip — but Sigur Rós sounded close. It was not quite right, but I was tracking the right scent.

Fumbling around the early-‘00s internet, Sigur Rós’s website listed a slew of live recordings, one of which was the track used for Vanilla Sky’s finale; what would become known as “Untitled 4” or “Njósnavélin” or “The Nothing Song”.

Needless to say, I had never listened to the full Vanilla Sky soundtrack before. I had only purchased it on the chance of obtaining “The Nothing Song”.

So, a time came during our trek to Oregon that I was sick of the other albums I’d brought, and decided to give the Vanilla Sky soundtrack a spin.

“Have You Forgotten” came on and the world became a painting. After the first listen, I listened again. And again. And again. It was perfect. Lyrically, sonically perfect.

This version is not available via traditional streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify. I could — maybe should — encourage you to purchase the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, but I’ve done the leg work to discover this gem, so I’ll save you the trouble. Just this once:

The perfect song. Full stop.

Music discovery as we knew it is a thing of the past. Radio is still a powerful tool to promote Top 40 and the latest singles. Deep cuts are just a click away. A playlist will introduce you to bands and tracks of particular themes or influence. But the archeological process of obtaining limited releases, a band’s first EP, or a compilation for a single track have been fast removed in the day and age of streaming. Albums can be thrown away after a track or two in instead of considered an investment; not pilfered or appreciated for their concept or the one magic gem hidden before Track 1, tucked away at Track 7, or 10 minutes after the last song. It‘s free to listen and time is money.

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. Quite the contrary. I would have killed to have all of this music at my disposal as a teenager. Money was tight but my craving for new music was not. $5 would score me a new Punk-O-Rama compilation with 20 tracks. $10 would buy an album at Best Buy — maybe not the one I was looking for, but anything was better than nothing. $20 for something more desirable but a little harder to find at Tower Records. I recall finding The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl: Vols 1 and 2 at two different stores in Berkeley — my crowning music discovery bounty.

For better or worse, those days are long gone. Even a local punk band can release music on Apple Music for $20 and a few clicks. It’s (virtually) all there.

If the music discovery itch has been scratched, what is the next frontier? Truth be told, it’s quite possibly the oldest form of media discovery out there: Books.

Amongst the centuries of tomes, the mountains of paper and ink, books are ripe with treasure. One that speaks to me may not speak to you. Chapter 4 is not Track 4. Jumping to the good part is not an option. Short of a collection, books must be taken in as a whole. And that whole is an investment up front. Choose wisely. And if you’re short on dough, hopefully your choice nets out a sentence or two that you can hang your hat on. Something meaty. A compass. An inspiration. A goal.

It’s all very obvious, but for someone who lived and breathed music and didn’t take up reading until age 29, it feels like rediscovering an old me. I’ve read 16 books this year. 12 in 2017 and 24 in 2016. Some are good. Some are bad. I finish all of them. Even a bad book hones my hunt for something perfect. All wash over you. All are an experience. All cost money and time and patience.

I’m still searching for the perfect book; the perfect passage; the perfect sentence. Hear you me, it will be done. (It won’t.) But until then, discovery is back in my life. The hunt is on. Thankful, I have not forgotten.

Oh, and the perfect album is Elliott’s “Song in the Air”.

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The paradox of fun

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

The paradox of fun is this: we think fun is enjoyment, but in practice it often feels like quite the opposite. On the one hand, we’d never think to describe uncomfortable or distressing experience as fun ones, but on the other hand, discomfort or distress often characterize the experiences we later describe as fun. A fun match of soccer might involve physical and emotional injury; a fun trip to the zoo might entail heat exhaustion and stained overalls. And yet fun doesn’t feel like suffering either, exactly, even when it literally involves suffering. Otherwise we’d not call it fun, but hardship.

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We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

What does it mean for something to be fun? If you wanted to design a fun toaster, or lead a fun classroom, or advertise a fun job, or write a fun book, how would you go about it? If you wanted to find a fun appliance to buy, or a fun course to take, or a fun career to pursue, or a fun book to read, what heuristic would you choose to select one? Most of us have no idea. We don’t even know what fun is, even though we claim to want it in everything. We’ve misunderstood fun to mean enjoyment without effort. Nothing has been spared the cursed attempt to “make it fun”; everything whatsoever hopes to transform itself into a delightful little morsel of sugar in your mouth.

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Under the sail of generosity rather than selfishness

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

My daughter’s mall game illustrates these principles. She saw and acknowledged the tiles, which are separately laid and grouted for the ease of manufacture, transport, installation, and maintenance. But rather than allowing that material distinction to recede into the background, to become mere substrate for our far more urgent pursuit of retail commerce, she made the tile / grout pairing the focus of her attention. She added to them the speed of her gait as pulled along by me, my hand and body as it attached to and pulled her to and fro erratically, the shape and size of her feet, the traction or slipperiness of her shoes, the vectors along which runs counter to our ordinary conception of play as a release of tension and responsibility.

Then, even though I was merely an accessory to her game rather than a party to it, she forced me to recognize and acknowledge the space she’d created. The tiles, the grout, her shoes, and so on—I became newly aware of these things simply by virtue of attending to her indirectly. We must seek to capture that magic everywhere; in everything. Not the pleasure of realizing our own goals—as if we even know that they are or ought to be—but the gratification of meeting the world more than halfway, almost all the way, and reaping the spoils of our new discoveries made under the sail of generosity rather than selfishness.

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The limitations make games fun

Play Anything by Ian Bogost

The lesson that games can teach us is simple. Games aren’t appealing because they are fun, but because they are limited. Because they erect boundaries. Because we must accept their structures in order to play them. Soccer sees two teams of eleven players attempting to use their feet, torsos, and heads to put a ball into a goal. Tetris asks you to position falling arrangements of four orthogonally-connected squares in order to produce and remove horizontal lines. And yet the experiences games like soccer and Tetris create are far larger than those boundaries convey on their own. That bounty results from the deliberate, if absurd, pursuit of soccer and Tetris on their own terms, within the limitations they erect. The limitations make games fun.

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The television equivalent of the novel

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Art is the aftershock of technological plates shifting. Sometimes the aftershock is slow in arriving. It took the novel about three hundred years to evolve into its modern form after the invention of the printing press. The television equivalent of the novel—the complex serialized drama of The Wire or Breaking Bad—took as long as seventy years to develop, depending on where you date its origins.

I’ve often thought about today’s serialized, bingeable, Golden Age of Television as the visual equivalent of the novel. Rich worlds. Deep investment in characters. Time to marinate with relationships and stakes.

Before the Golden Age of Television, I was captivated by trilogies — hell, I still am — namely Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (Extended Editions!) I hadn’t read the books, but I felt an attachment to the characters. Its cohesive production, year-over-year release schedule, and follow-through of Tolkien’s parallel stories and stakes built a world I was able to immerse myself in.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings runs 9 hours in total, the extended editions running 11 hours — not dissimilar from a Golden Age television series.

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Music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

One premise unites both sides in this debate: that music “presses our pleasure buttons,” as Pinker describes it. Yet there is something too simple in describing our appetite for music in this way. Sugar and opiates, to give just two examples, press pleasure buttons in the brain in a relatively straightforward fashion. Given a taste of one, we instinctively return for more of the same, like those legendary lab rats endlessly pressing the lever for more stimulants. And we put our ingenuity to work concocting ever-more-efficient delivery mechanisms for these forms of pleasure: we refine opium into heroin; we start selling soda in Big Gulp containers. But music—like the patterns and colors unleashed by the fashion revolution—appears to resonate with our pleasure centers at more of an oblique angle. The pleasure in hearing those captivating sounds doesn’t just establish a demand for more of the same. Instead, music seems to send us out on a quest for new experiences: more of the same, but different.

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Modern life itself could make you sick

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Visible in these perplexed diagnoses is a new way of thinking about the psyche. Diseases of the mind did not have to be rooted in some biological deformity, as the phrenologists had contended; nor was it attributable to some abstract “lesion of the will”; nor was it tied to basic biological realities like menstruation or masturbation. Instead, the root cause of the disorder was to be found somewhere else: in the lived history of social and economic change. Modern life itself could make you sick.

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