This month I abandoned a book. I started reading it, I thought it was not too interesting but I insisted until I got to 40%. Then I gave up. Life is too short. It was actually one of my local Book Club picks. It was the first time I attended a book club meeting without having finished a book. And it was fine! A couple of other participants couldn't finish it either, so I didn't feel that bad. That being said, I read three books this month. And all of them were exactly what I needed: fun!
Fool Moon (The Dresden Files #2) by Jim Butcher: This book is extremely fast-paced. It's non-stop and Harry Dresden shows himself as a guy with extreme endurance. He really gets beat up on this one, but he always gets up in the end. It has the two best potion recipes of all times: the Stimulant “Pick me up” potion (base liquid is coffee) and the Blending potion, to make him imperceptible to a werewolf. I had fun!
The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1) by John Scalzi, 336p: I love a space opera, especially when it's character-driven. Lots of snarky dialogues, great characters and worldbuilding that is not boring. I was pleasantly surprised by all the strong female characters. Kiva Lagos is awesome if you don't mind all the swearing. I could see lots of parallels from the Interdependency world with ours. It's that same old story: one family or group of people creates some myth/prophecy about the world in which skewed power relations are defined to justify the maintenance of the said world/society. This book is rich with political intrigue, commercial embargoes, power succession and environmental changes. I enjoyed the ride and I want to spend more time with the characters, so I'll read the next one.
Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz, 304p: Fascinating to know how data archeology is helping us understand a little bit more about our ancient history. This book explores four sites: Çatalhöyük in Central Turkey, the Roman town of Pompeii in Italy, Angkor in Cambodia and the indigenous metropolis Cahokia in the U.S. The book brings history to life by trying to imagine what was it like to be a regular citizen of these places: labourers, women, immigrants, slaves. Super entertaining and informative.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, 464p: I didn't need to be convinced that God is a delusion, but it was interesting to follow scientific logic to analyze religion and its inconsistencies. Dawkins builds up the God Hypothesis and my favourite part of the book is then he presents the spectrum of probabilities about the existence of God, ranging from 1 to 7, including for example “Strong Theist”, “Impartial Agnostic” all the way to “Strong Atheist”. I considered myself an agnostic but after reading this book I realized I am “De-facto Atheist ” according to the Dawkins spectrum: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” It is an extremely provoking read. But worth the ride.
Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt, #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky, 625p: After I understood that the “bug people” were actually humanoid and not animal-like, everything made more sense. They are men and women belonging to different groups like ants, beetles, wasps, butterflies, mantis, dragonflies, etc... Each of these groups has different abilities and characteristics. It's exceptional world-building with that good-old Dungeons and Dragons feel. I couldn't put this book down. It's very engaging and I cared about all the characters, even the evil ones. Strong female characters, cool fight scenes, perfect rhythm. I loved it! I will continue reading the series.
A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload by Cal Newport, 320p: The concept of the hyperactive hive mind workflow makes sense. It gave me some awareness of this workflow and I can probably adopt one or two minor strategies to deal with it. I don't think any of the major strategies, like office hours or having shared boards at work would work for me, it would require an upper management radical shift at my workplace.
Also, it has become clear to me the importance of having clear defined workflows. Cal Newport defines that knowledge work as the combination of two components: work execution and workflow. So workflows that require us to be constantly checking a feed or inbox is inefficient and make us miserable. A better way of working is to have fewer ad hoc, unscheduled, asynchronous conversations. In summary, the book brings suggestions on how to use email very strategically if not at all. It's an interesting discussion. I loved the first part of the book about the history of email.
The Fold (Threshold #2) by Peter Clines, 386p: This was an enjoyable read. It starts with a mystery, the main character has to uncover what is going on with this secret DARPA project involving a teleportation device. But nobody tells him how it works so we follow along with his exceptional visual memory skills trying to find patterns and explanations for some odd phenomena. [It's all very sci-fi/mystery and then the book turns into a sort of horror tale with monsters from other dimensions. Entertaining!
It was a difficult month for reading for me! I had to actively remind myself: “Hey, you have books to read, why don't you let go of that shiny screen and grab your e-reader”?
I just felt I was reading slower than I used to. That knee jerk reaction to stop reading and check something on my phone instead showed up a lot. I'll keep on working on my reading focus.
The Outside (The Outside #1) by Ada Hoffmann, 401p: I enjoyed the word building. I wanted to keep reading to find out what the Outside was. And I wanted to know more about the AI Gods. I realized in the middle of the book that it had inspiration from Lovecraft with all the Outside creatures and the “outside madness” condition. It was creepy to think that Artificial Intelligent quantum computers, that were created by humans, came up with a technological religious authoritarian system to control humans.
A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan #1) by Arkady Martine, 454p: This one had a Dune feel to it. Planets, Space Stations, alien threats, Artificial Intelligence running an entire City, neurological implants, a murder mystery and political intrigues. The pace was slower than I'm used to but it managed to keep me interested enough to pick up the book at every opportunity I had. It's heavy on world building but it is executed in a very clever way through the eyes of the protagonist Mahit Dzmare. She goes to the City at the heart of the Empire of Teixcalaan as an Ambassador to her original home, the Lsel Station. Teixcalaan's culture and language is heavily influenced by poetry being a sophisticated place with lots of social norms. This book has that intellectual appeal without being boring.
How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow, 146p. This a free book available on Medium. Interesting discussion on the status of Big Tech disputing the assumption that tech companies can and will regulate themselves to fix the Internet. Can we fix Big Tech companies that dominate our Internet or can we fix it by ourselves, free of the Big Tech influence? One of the main points discussed by the author is monopoly. His point is: Monopoly enables mass scale surveillance. Food for thought.
“Surveillance capitalism is the result of monopoly. Monopoly is the cause, and surveillance capitalism and its negative outcomes are the effects of monopoly”. — Cory Doctorow
Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries, #5) by Martha Wells, 346p: Such a delight to be back inside the mind of this cyborg. Sarcastic but righteous, Murderbot is a fantastic character and we get to experience its thought process all the time. Status updates, Simultaneous parallel dialogues with humans and AI's, Performance Reliability Ratings. And also, how not to like ART, the transport ship AI that loves talking to human teenagers?
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, 260p: Dystopian YA with Indigenous people protagonists in the area where today is Canada. It is a climate change dystopia focusing on this group of Indigenous people who are being hunted. After the climate change cataclysm people lost their ability to dream, but Indigenous people were still able to do it, so they are chased for it. It uses real world facts like the atrocities committed against the Indigenous population to basically remove children form their culture to make them assimilate the “Canadian” one (from around 1876 to 1970's). With this horrifying background and a devastated world the book is extremely emotional. It was a hard read at times with dark moments. But it is also hopeful showing the power of resilience and community.
Every year I like to list books I plan on reading. It's a starting point, a list that I look at every month to pick what to read next. It's not meant to be a “must read” list, just suggestions for my future me.
This year I'm not being too ambitious. I want to slow down and savour the moment. No big goals really, just sailing in cruise control.
I mainly want to keep on reading the books I already own, so I will try to pick from the following list:
I was happy to have finished “The Innovators”. I started listening to this book back in April and I stopped several times to take notes. It's an encyclopedia of our digital technology development. Then I wanted light reads, the types you have fun and are not expecting grandiose conflicts. I'm more and more interested in reading about the art of writing. I started with “Writing down the bones”. Lighthearted and inspiring!
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson, 542p: Excellent compilation of the history of digital technology. It starts in the 1800's, which Ada Lovelace and Babbage, going through Vacuum Tubes, Capacitors, Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, John von Neumann, the breakthrough invention of transistors, Bell Labs, Intel, Texas Instruments, Hacker culture, Video Games, Xerox, ARPANet, BBS, the Altair 8800 computer, Internet, Blogs, Wikipedia, Microsoft, Apple, Google. It is a detailed exploration of how innovation is driven by collaboration and all advances are built on top of the past experiences. There is no one genius creator, innovation is most vibrant where there is room for idea sharing between communities. And the Internet allowed for a new level of collaborative process, the author calls it “the collective wisdom of crowds”. I loved that he closes with a reflection on Ada Lovelace's ideas of integrating Arts and Humanities with Math and Physics, resulting in what she called “Poetical Science”. A must read to understand where we are and how we got here.
Kenobi (Star Wars) by John Jackson Miller, 401p: A look into how Obi-Wan Kenobi was known as Ben in Tatooine. He only wants to be left alone (so that nobody realises he's a Jedi) but he keeps getting tangled into local affairs. It was interesting to get know a little bit about the sand people and the constant tension with the farmers. It covers a short period of his time there when he basically helps dissolve local grievances. Kinda like “A day in the life” of Ben Kenobi.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, 225p: I heard about this book when I was researching about a technique called free writing. This author developed this “writing practice” method in which you set a timer and free write whatever is in your mind, nonstop, flow-of-consciousness style. The book is a compilation of fun small essays about writing and how to develop a writing practice. It's light and amusing!
Finder (Finder Chronicles, #1) by Suzanne Palmer, 400p: Space adventures of Fergus Ferguson, a finder. He just wants to find a ship and bring it back to the owner, but he ends up entangled in local affairs. Fun, light space adventure. Excellent to sit back and relax.
This was a non-fiction month. Although I started reading a fiction book (Kenobi by John Jackson Miller), all the books I finished were non-fiction. I was into productivity and delighted with Scott Adams writings during the first weeks then got to this awesome commentary from the 80's about our current cultural moment with “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. We just have to replace “TV” with “anything we consume on the Internet right now” to make this book 100% relevant!
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, 248p: Such an enjoyable read! I love the Dilbert comics and it was interesting to get into the head of Scott Adams. He talks about his failures and also his recipe to live well. So it's part memoir part recommendations on how to live a good life. And we get to know that he had to overcome significant obstacles to success in his life. But he persisted and that makes for an inspiring story. He makes good points, summarizing the main areas of focus to succeed, even if you are failing miserably. Like the importance of having a system, not goals. And taking care of our personal energy: exercise, diet, and sleep are essential. Not all his recommendations are applicable to everybody (and he makes it very clear in the book) but reading about his struggles and his plans to live better got me thinking about my own habits. Savvy and fun read.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, 208p: Yeah, Huxley was right. I thought this book would feel totally outdated because it was written in the 80's. Quite the contrary! We just have to replace “TV” with “anything we consume on the Internet right now” to make this book current. It is a thought provoking analysis of our Information Age and how media formats can shape our culture. It gives a clear distinction between the typographic era, when information was written, and the “show business” model we have today with lots of images, short messages and barely no reflection. Highly recommended!
The end a long fantasy saga, some Scottish historical fiction and an average productivity book.
The Pride of Lions (Scotland Trilogy Book 1) by Marsha Canham, 212p: It's a rich historical fiction set in Scotland in the 18th century. Kinda like Outlander but without time travel. It's well done in terms of world building with lots of historical references regarding the Jacobite rising of 1745. It's an exciting book and the rhythm is good. There was one thing that caused me uneasiness in this book: the prevalence of a raping theme. I know it's historical and you can argue that that's how things were back then, but it's a fictional romance novel and I expected less of it. For example, even though it's not explicit, the “male hero” (Alexander) clearly uses the implicit idea of rape to frighten the heroine (Catherine). Every men on the road that encounters Catherine (or any women for that matter) thinks about “taking advantage” of her. So maybe the setting was too historical/realistic for me?
The Lady of the Lake (The Witcher, #5) by Andrzej Sapkowski, 560p: The last book of The Witcher saga! I loved the first half of the book with its parallel universes and the fact that the story of The Witcher is viewed as a type of “distant land fairy tale”. One thing that this author can do is create complex characters, meaning, no one is ever lawful good, everybody is chaotic (neutral, good or evil). Themes like misogyny, slavery and racial discrimination are all present in the story. Everybody is looking for Ciri because of her extraordinary powers. Elves can be as evil as humans and sorceresses. Ciri is on her own quest to escape what everybody think is her destiny. I think the story is brilliantly written, with varying points of view, snippets of Dandelion's memoir “Half a Century of Poetry”, a huge battle being described through its actual combatants suffering and the healers in a war field hospital. But people die. Lots of characters die. And that's what makes this series “dark fantasy” in my opinion. It has the feel of a fairy tale without the happy ending. Or maybe the ending is happy depending on how you interpret it. Excellent series overall with rich world building and interesting characters. It was a nice ride!
Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less by Michael Hyatt , 256p: I was curious to read this book to know a little a bit more about focus. I already use GTD as my productivity system and it's clear that some sections are a GTD derivative with a different name. I was a little bit annoyed that I had to go to the author's website to take the initial assessment, leave my e-mail and then I started receiving all these promotional e-mails to buy his planner. That threw me off a little bit. But the message in the book is not unlike any other good productivity system: eliminate non essentials, group similar tasks for efficiency, eliminate distractions and use time blocking to focus.