Books Reviews 2019

Catch 22

by Joseph Heller

This is my second attempt at reading Catch 22. It's the story of a WWII bomber, Yossarian, trying to stay alive despite a world determined to make as little sense as possible. While I enjoyed it the first time, I didn't finish it because it becomes a little repetitive. While I encountered the same repetitive slump, I pushed through and found the final act poignant and a worthy conclusion. This book earns its lofty reputation and remains one of the best, funniest criticisms of war and bureaucracy. Anyone who has dealt with an unreasonable boss or slightly mad co-worker will probably relate in part.

I give this book 6/7.

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

by Hunter S. Thompson

Previously, I have read Thompson's other book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Compared to that one, Hell's Angels was much more straightforward journalism. I think this is an excellent look into a micro-culture of the 1960s. I was fascinated by the ways the Angels intentionally distanced and distinguished themselves from the mainstream. How they formed a tribe in the modern world and how the contemporary media choose to portray them.

I give this book 5/7.

The Republic of Thieves

by Scott Lynch

This is the third book I have read in the Locke Lamore series. Like its predecessors, this entry follows Locke as he schemes and swindles his way into and then out of trouble. While it was a decent read, it's the weakest of the trio: Locke's backstory is fleshed out and the con — fixing an election — is interesting but Locke's schemes just don't hold up, and the world building was far better in the previous entries.

I give this book 4/7.

The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka

This book's reputation looms large. I'm not going to waste time giving an interpretation as smarter people have spent more time pondering this tale. However, I think this book challenged and unsettled me.

I give this book 5/7.


by Dan Simmons

This book was recommended to me by my friend Colin. It is a sci-fi Canterbury tales set in the backwaters of a planet spanning empire. The main narrative tells the story of seven pilgrims journeying to the legendary time tombs: the home of the mysterious Shrike. Along the journey, each pilgrim tells their story. These stories are some of the finest soft science fiction I've encountered; any of them could have been an outstanding novel in their own right.

The setting, the Hyperion cantos, is captivating. It's a world filled with mystery and wonder but also with criticism and dread. The setting begs many questions and it is as good for the ones it answers as the ones it does not: What is the nature of the labyrinth? What are the machines up to? How does the farcaster work? Who or what is the Shrike?

My one complaint was the abruptness of the ending. Only upon later reflection, did I realize this ending paralleled the unfinished Canterbury tales. Simmons has placed so many literary references throughout this masterpiece that I'm surprised I missed this obvious homage.

I give this books 7/7

The Children's House of Belsen

by Hetty Verolme

This autobiography follows Hetty Verolme as she is captured in Denmark, imprisoned in the Belsen concentration camp, and liberated by the Allies. This was a striking look at the dual nature of humanity: its resilience and its depravity. I was particularly interested in the behavior of the guards. Sometimes, the guards would behave cruelly and masochisticly but sometimes they would behave strangely humanely. While the market may be filled with the stories of holocaust survivors, I don't think there are any like this.

I give this book 5/7.

Earth Abides

by George R. Stewart

This book was recommended by a former professor. It tells the story of Ish, a man who inexplicably survived the end of the world. Initially, Ish aimlessly wanders across the wastelands of America. Later, he establishes a community which becomes a civilization. Then finally, he retreats to irrelevancy as the civilization becomes self-sufficient. Despite its age, this book holds up pretty well. The main themes of biology equilibrium, preservation vs. adaptation, and finding purpose are still relevant. Some elements have not aged, Ish's attitudes on race are particularly jarring. Earth Abides justifies its revered position in the post-apocalyptic genre.

I give this book 5/7.

The Magicians

by Lev Grossman

The simplest way I can describe this book is like Harry Potter but for a slightly older audience: magic makes a little more sense and drugs and sex are not scrubbed out. My biggest gripe is the story felt incomplete. Most of the book follows Quentin Coldwater as he enters the magical world of Brakebills College and explores the magical world. However, the last act sees Quentin and friends set out on a grand adventure. The ending felt rushed but I may update this judgement if I ever read the sequels (Update, I did read the sequels in 2021).

Overall I give this book 6/7.


by Andy Weir

This book was recommenced by my friend Mariya. I was very excited because Andy Weir's first book, The Martian, was one of my all time favorites. The protagonist, Jade, is a resident on the moon's only city. The plot was serviceable and featured Weir's trademark hard science but Jade is no mark Whatney.

I give this book 6/7.

Underground Airlines

by Ben H. Winters

This alternate history features a twenty first century America where slavery was never outlawed. The central character, a former slave turned reluctant slave catcher, becomes involved in an abolitionist conspiracy. While the economic and social realities of the modern world make this premise ridiculous, it is a surprisingly grounded book: the most interesting tidbits are the logistics and structures of modern slavery. Through this paradigm, the book raises interesting questions about structural racism in the real world.

I give this book 5/7.

Kafka on the Shore

by Haruki Murakami

I do not know what was going on in this book, but I think I enjoyed it. I struggle to even classify it — maybe sci-fi, maybe magical-realism, maybe mystery. This books asks a lot of questions but answers almost none. I usually find the use of such mystery boxes cheap, but in this case I think part of the books message is to not seek meaning in everything. But perhaps that interpretation is self-contradictory.

A minor point, I am not too familiar with Japanese culture and society so this was an interesting primer.

I give this book 6/7.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's autobiographic tale was recommended to me by a girl on a bus. Despite how little Angelou's story related to my own life, I found deeply interested in her struggle I was a bit thrown off by Angelou's race narrative: white people were always this looming presence in the background but they rarely directly interacted with Angelou. When they did, they usually treated her and other black people poorly, but Maya also endured horrific treatment at the hands of other black people. Perhaps this is my own ignorance of the realities of segregation. Overall, this was a worthwhile read.

I give this book 5/7.


by Neil Gaiman

I cannot explain why but I am always hesitant to read things by Neil Gaiman. Every time I end up adoring them. To my great regret, I loved this book too. It's a charming and magical romp through a parallel world set beneath London. There are so many interesting details to London Below that you could fill a dozen books set in this world. The villains are top notch —simultaneously terrifying and funny. Neil, you got me again.

On a side note, I got the Audiobook. Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

I give this book 6/7.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini

This book was recommended to me by my friend Laura. I was pretty excited because I loved Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner. I agree with Hosseini's own assessment, this was a story about mothers and daughters, not — like the first book — fathers and sons. Consequently, I related to this book a little less than the first one. Still, it paints a fascinating portrait of oppressed women, motherhood, and resilience through adversity. Mariam, one of a pair of protagonists, tells a story is that so painful but strangely optimistic.

I give this book 5/7.

The Moon and Sixpence

by William Somerset Maugham

I do not think I have ever read a book like this before, so it is hard to measure against anything else. What makes this book so unique is the main character, Charles Strickland. He is a man who does not care and just wants to paint. Unless you understand this phrase literally, you cannot understand how terrible he is, and he is absolutely terrible. He makes everyone around him suffer: not intentionally but through his indifference. And yet he is chasing something beautiful. Were I transported to Strickland's world — even knowing I would receive nothing but misery in return — I would throw away everything to help him.

I give this book 6/7.

Station 11

by Emily St. John Mandel

Station 11 tells several interwoven stories of the lives of acquaintance of Arthur Leander, a famous actor. These stories take place before and after the Georgia Flu arrives and destroys civilization. The portion of the book that deals with the outbreak is genuinely terrifying and could stand alone as a short horror story. Despite this, the stories are very grounded. No one is a CDC member of working on a cure; the characters are just ordinary people living their lives. St. John Mandel tells a very grounded story in an exceptionally strange setting.

I give this book 6/7.

The Man Who Was Thursday

by G. K. Chesterton

I tried to read this book a long time ago but did not finish it until now. It's quite a strange read but funny and magical. The main plot follows a member of a victorian police squad as he infiltrates a group of anarchists and as he attempts to thwart their mysterious leader, Thursday. As the plot advances, it becomes increasingly surreal and allegorical.

I give this book 5/7.

The Yiddish Policeman's Uniion

by Michael Chabon

I do love a good alternate history, and this one is as good as they come. The main plot follows a detective as he winds his solves the murder of a Chess prodigy in Sitka Alaska. In this world, 50 years previously, Sitka had been established as a save haven for Jews prior to World War II. The world beyond Jewish Alaska is only referenced, but it features a third Russian Republic, an irradiated Berlin, and some type of war in Cuba. The murder plot is interesting and serves as a great vehicle to explore elements of Jewish culture and cultural clashes.

I give this book 6/7.

The Lightning Tree

by Patrick Rothfuss

Anyone who knows my literary tastes knows that I am a fan of The Kingkiller Chronicles. I was a little thrown off by Rothfuss's other novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, not because it was terrible but because it was so different from the main series. This story was a return to style. It follows Bast, a minor character in the main series, as he goes about his day. His routine is surprisingly mundane yet fascinating; it is entertaining and a great fleshing out of Kvothe's world.

I give this novella 6/7.

The Supremes' Greatest Hits

by Michael G. Trachtman

I read this book because I planned on going to law school in a few months. It summarizes — for non-lawyers, some of the Supreme Court's most consequential decisions. While I did not find it particularly useful in preparing for law school. It was an interesting read and a good introduction to some important elements of our democracy.

I give this book 5/7.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics & Reality is Not What it Seems

by Carlo Rovelli

These two books essentially cover the same ground but at different levels of detail. I picked up these books because I was looking for an introduction to general relativity. Among the titular seven brief lessons was such an introduction. The fact that I moved from the shorter Seven Brief Lessons in Physics to the longer Reality is Not What is Seems is something of an endorsement, but I can go further: these are great non-mathematical overviews of physics that have substantially affected my understanding of the historic development of science. I take some issue with some of Rovelli's non-scientific generalizations and there is an odd flair of Italian nationalism but I am not a firm believer in loop quantum gravity.

Also, after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it was nice to return to the real world.

I give these books 6/7.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

by Hunter S. Thompson

Buy the ticket, take the ride; so says Hunter S. Thompson as he goes looking for America in the heart of Las Vegas. Thompson dive into the sixties counter culture showcased the dark side of the free love: hedonism, rape, and flagrant disregard for consequences are all present.

I find reading this book physical discomforting. This was my second attempt at reading Fear and Loathing, last time I gave up after feeling sick.

I give this book 5/7.

Meditations of Marcus Aurilius

by Marcus Aurilius

This book was recommended by my friend Diogo. In it Marcus Aurilius, the philosopher rule of the Roman Empire contemplates life. Honestly, I was underwhelmed by this book. Aurilius seems to have two main ideas:

  1. Approach life stoically, don't complain.

  2. All of life can be found in each instant

He seems to repeat these ideas ad nauseam. Towards the former I say, what business does the Emperor of Rome, the most privileged individual on the planet, have telling me to be content with my station. Towards the latter I say, you are wrong Marcus; the world is changing.

I give this book 4/7.