Books Reviews 2021
The Magicians Trilogy
By Lev Grossman
I have previously read Lev Grossman's The Magicians. It ends on a cliffhanger that stuck with me so I decided to finish the trilogy. To briefly recap, the first book is about Quentin Coldwater, a boy who enrolls in a magical college. This sounds like a rip-off of Harry Potter but both the book and Quentin himself are aware of this. The Magicians is what Harry Potter would be like if Harry Potter had read Harry Potter.
In the sequels, the book's transition from a Hogwarts-esque world to a Narnia-esque world. The story has lost a bit of the wonder -- you can only explore a world for the first time once -- but the books flesh out some elements and add a bit more color. The most interesting part of the sequels is how Quentin chooses to give his life purpose, how other characters perceive Quentin compared to how he perceives himself, and the magic present in the mundane world. I was a little disappointed with the overarching plot, at times the story seems to be building to a confrontation before turning to other unrelated matters, but overall it was satisfactory.
The sequels felt like when they make a tv show out of a popular movie: you'll enjoy it if you liked the movie. And I did enjoy the original, so I give these two books 5/7 and the series as a whole 6/7.
The Elephant on the Brain
By Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
This is a book that argues that we are much more selfish than we admit; that everything we do is for our own narrow interests. The book can be divided into two parts. In the first half, Simler and Hanson lay out there thesis: that we are more selfish than we admit, that we hide this fact from ourselves, and that this selfishness can produce seemingly unselfish behaviors. In the second half, Simler and Hanson apply their theory to a variety of fields like healthcare, charity, and religion. They admit that here you might disagree with them on particular points, but that if they convince you of seventy-five percent of their theory, they will have succeeded.
I think Simler and Hanson's theory is incredibly coherent. I would like to read a response from someone who disagrees. This type of essay can be one sided. But for now the authors have convinced me that I am more selfish than I will admit and that Humans are all quite political animals.
I give this book 6/7. Thanks to Justin for recommending it.
By David Sinclair
In Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don't Have To David Sinclair, a Professor of Genetics at Harvard explains exciting developments in his field, aging research. The book is divided into roughly three parts: an exploration of why we age; an overview of emerging anti-aging developments, and an exploration of what the affects of a world with a longer average human lifespan would look like.
According to Sinclair, we age because of accumulated epigenetic damage. Epigenetics is DNA agent mechanisms that change the way the DNA is read. The damage comes from a multitude of sources and causes DNA to be read improperly. To reduce aging we need to reduce epigenetic damage and activate our bodies natural defenses.
The last part of the book, where Sinclair talks about what the world would look like, is the most speculative. It's hard to predict the future, but Sinclair makes a good point about having a responsibility to try, to think through the implications of his work.
Lastly, Sinclair claims to not be providing advice, but it's hard not to take some of his statements as advice especially because Sinclair outlines the anti-aging routine he follows personally. A longer, healthier life is such a universal goal that it is impossible not to want what the research promises. In truth, I have adopted some (but not all) of Sinclair's habits. The book is optimistic, detailed, and well-researched but something just seems off about it. Maybe just that Sinclair's world seems too good to be true.
I give this book 6/7. Thanks to Josh for recommending it.
by Diana Gabaldon
Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall, a WWII nurse mysteriously sent two centuries back in time to Jacobean Scotland. There she becomes embroiled in British politics and befriends the charming rogue, Jamie Fraiser. In her new time locale, Claire has to make tough decisions about her identity, participating in the past, and attempting to return to her own time period.
This book is two-thirds adventure story, one-third romance. The time travel elements take a surprisingly small role. Although there are hints of a broader mythology (perhaps explored in the sequels), this is more historic fiction than fantasy. The time travel mostly functions as a way to import contemporary attitudes into a historic setting. The adventure takes some time to get going — initially slowed by Claire's disorientation and abortive attempts at returning to the future — but once it transitions to Scottish politics and clan war the narrative strengthens considerably. The romance cycles through several classic romantic tropes — the love triangle, the evil relative, rescuing the princess — but always entertains.
It is worth noting that this book is quite sexually explicit. Sex and sexual violence are omnipresent. While at times is is essential to the plot, sometimes Outlander read like mild erotica.
I give this book 5/7. Thanks to Tempe for recommending it.
A quotation: "I think that respect has maybe room for secrets, but not for lies. Do ye agree?”
Thinking Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman
Thinking fast and Slow walks through some of the ideas that the author, Daniel Kahneman, has developed over his long career. Most of Kahneman's ideas address how the behavior of humans diverges from that predicted by economists, scientists, and other thinkers. Broadly Kahneman has three points:
We have two systems for thinking. They are both useful but each has their drawbacks. The first system, the eponymous fast system, makes quick judgements and is subject to a wide range of biases.
Economists tend to imagine that humans are perfectly rational choice makers whose only concern is maximizing value. This is not true.
The experiencing self and the remembering self have different perspectives. Balancing their sometimes competing interests is a challenge.
Kahneman does an excellent job making his ideas clear by simply describing the experiments that led him to his conclusions and then illustrating them with anecdotes. His inclusion of anecdotes where he is behaving irrationally helps humanize Kahneman and counterintuitively lends him authority as a speaker.
One difficulty I had with the book is that it covers so many ideas. At any point in the book I could understand exactly what Kahneman was saying but retaining his ideas will be a challenge and implementing them even more so. Still, if only a few of the ideas stick with me, I will consider myself bettered.
I give this book 7/7. Thanks to Tommy for recommending it.
A quotation: "Success = talent + luck; Great Success = a little more talent + a lot of luck"
The Color of Law
by Richard Rothstein
Recommended by Antwon, this book advances a three part argument: First, that American housing segregation is primarily the result of government action, not private action. Second, because the Constitution — through the Civil War amendments — prohibits racial discrimination, the government behaved unconstitutionally. And third, because the government behaved unconstitutionally, it has an obligation to repair the damages.
The bulk of Rothstien's book is spent illustrating the first part of his argument. He has dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of how government action led to segregated housing. While it is fair to critically say that his evidence is mostly anecdotes, the breadth of his anecdotes makes it compelling cases.
Interestedly, he spends very little time on the second and third parts of his argument. Towards the constitutionality of segregation, rather than focusing on Supreme Court jurisprudence, he states that he has his own interpretation and it speaks for itself. My time in law school has trained my to revere judicial decisions, but perhaps this is a fair criticism of the Supreme Court's monopoly on interpretive powers. His solutions are, by his own admission, not yet actionable until his arguments are accepted.
I give this book 5/7. It relies heavily on anecdote and is somewhat repetitive, but through this repetition it effectively drives its point home.
by Cornac McCarthey
Recommended by my friend Colin, this book was my first interactions with the lauded Cormac McCarthey. This story follows "The Kid," a young man born into the American West, as he falls in with the Glanton Gang. The Gang start as government-sponsored Indian hunters but quickly devolve into indiscriminate killers. Accompanying the gang is the judge — a man of preternatural abilities, unusual physical characteristics, and sinister motives. Through the actions of the gang and diatribes delivered by the judge, human nature is explored.
To be honest, I don't know what to make of this book. At times it was difficult to read because of vast stretches of untranslated Spanish, at other times it was difficult because of graphic descriptions of violence and mutilation. Grammatically it is written like nothing else, with the possible exception of the bible. It is not as if the author was unaware of how to write conventional sentences, but as if he choose to ignore all the rules in favor of his own. In some sections I found McCarthey's deep and profound while at other times I found McCarthey gratuitous and unnecessarily complicated.
I hesitatingly give this book 5/7. I feel as if it may need a second read at some point.
by Stephen King
A Lorena recommendation, this book is the first Stephen King I have read since The Gunslinger last year. It follows a time traveler, Jake, attempting to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But before he can confront Oswald, he must live in a time gone by and content the obstinate past.
The mechanics of time travel are pretty unique: rather than traveling anywhen, the protagonist can only travel to 1958 (although he can travel there as much as he likes). This forces a long residency in the past and it is there that the book shines. The majority of the book is spent just living life in the 50s and 60s — adjusting to the culture, working as a teacher, and falling in love — but the character is frequently burdened by his knowledge of the future and his false identity. While no one can know for certain, King really seems to capture the experience of a modern man to live sixty years ago..
I found the ending predictable and rushed, and this soured my experience a little but did not ruin it. Long time fans of King will enjoy references to his other works — significant portions of the story take place in Derry, Maine and several members of the Loser's club make cameos. This is a book that is more fun to read than to remember reading. In a way its plot reflects its own nature: the book itself acts a gateway to a world past, any by reading it you can be transported there.
I give this book 5/7.
At one point, while in Texas Jake remarks about seeing a "Don't Mess with Texas" sign. The phrase "Don't Mess with Texas" originated as a 1985 anti-litering campaign. For all the research King did, I'm surprised he made such a mistake.
by Daphne du Maurier
This book is another recommendation from my friend Erin, who previously recommended A Passage to India. The book follows the unnamed protagonist through her scandalously brief courtship and tumultuous marriage to a wealthy widower, Maximilian. As she struggles to adapt to her new home, the palatial Manderly, she must content with the legacy of Maximilian's late wife, Rebecca.
I've never read a book where so much of the plot is so controlled by a character who is never present. While I initially found Rebecca a little hard to get into, perhaps because I have little in common with the protagonist, I ended up loving it. And any book that can bridge that experiential gap deserves high marks. By the end of the book I was dreaming of visiting Manderly, but I'd give the place a wide berth if Rebecca is around. For anyone who loves victorian romantic intrigue, I'd recommend this book. And for anyone who has no interest in victorian romantic intrigue, maybe this is the book to start with.
I give this book 6/7.
by Neal Stephenson
This book was recommended to me by an old teacher, Mr. Cheeseman. This is my second attempt at reading it, the first being perhaps ten years ago. In the intervening time, I read Snow Crash, another Stephenson book. Snow Crash is best described as science fiction, but Cryptonomicon is a more grounded blend of historical and contemporary fiction.
Split between two time periods, Cryptonomicon tells one story about a group of Allied code breakers and their paramilitary arm, and another story about their descendants trying to build the world's first digital currency. (With the rise of Bitcoin 10 years after the publication of this book, this plot seemed prescient.) While the two stories initially seem connected only by familial descent, they end up dealing entwined; Unraveling the connections between the two stories is part of the fun.
As in Snow Crash much of the joy of reading this work comes from Stephenson's tangents, asides, and monologues. I might describe Cryptonomicon as a series of lectures bound together by a framing story. These lectures range from Philippine family dynamics, academic publishing practices, the mechanics of buzzsaws, organ music, card based encryption schemes, the New Jersey pine barrens, and (my favorite lecture) archetypes in Greek mythology. Perhaps the first time I attempted this book, I was alienated by the sometimes advanced mathematics and cryptography. However this time, armed with a degree in engineering, the book flew by.
I give this book 6/7.
by Fredrik Backman
This book was recommended to me by Eliese. I thought it was going to be about a small town hockey team — their drive and determination, their sense of fraternity, and their quest for a championship — and it is, but it is also about sexual assault. Unlike some works, this book neither oversimplifies nor minimizes. The bad guys have sympathetic qualities and the good guys have flaws. Many characters are neither good nor bad, just individuals behaving in understandable, human ways. However, this book is not apologizing for or minimizing the severity of sexual assault. Good and evil are unambiguously present in the eponymous town.
As someone who has spent the majority of his life in competitive men's sports, I thought this was an honest look into the dangers of toxic masculinity. At the same time, this book highlights that not all masculinity is toxic and that masculinity can manifest in bravery, sacrifice, integrity, and camaraderie.
I give this book 7/7.
On a side note, from the culture and description of the town, I spent the first quarter of this book assuming it took place somewhere in the American Midwest, I was surprised by the references to Krona to realize it actually takes place in Sweden. The book was originally published in Swedish under the title "Björnstad."
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
by John le Carré
I decided to read a spy novel, and I figured I should start with the best. A quick perusal of "best of" lists pointed me towards this book. There were certain elements of this story that have not aged but on the whole it has fared well. The titular spy, Alex Leamas, oscillates between patriotic and bitter, the main plot was full of twists and turns that kept me guessing, and the setting of (then contemporary) iron curtain Europe remains perfect. My biggest gripe was the lackluster romantic plot: the novel was too short to spend significant time developing Leamas' paramour, resulting in a some bathos in the finale, but such sins can be forgiven in this strong exploration of the moral ambiguity of espionage.
I give this novel 6/7.
by Neil Gaiman
In short, this collection was delightful. Each story is distinct but so perfectly Gaiman. One thing I love about a Neil Gaiman collection is how medium tolerant he is: Gaiman has no problem including poetic, literary criticism, and matrix fan-fiction in the same collection. However, through each story is Gaiman's indescribably but persistent tone. Of special note in this collection, I got to hear from our old friend Shadow and I finally know how to talk to girls at parties. These stories didn't feel like the type of thing you would encounter in a book, but more like the story a grandfather might tell a young child well past their bedtime.
I give this collection 5/7.
Also, whenever I read Gaiman, I try and get the audiobook. He reads them himself and as a narrator he is unmatched.
by Tara Westover
My dear friend EJ recommended this book to me. It is the autobiographical story of Tara Westover, who grew up within, but separated from modern America. Her father, a Mormon survivalist, trusted neither schools nor medicine, chose to homeschool her (and her numerous siblings). Eventually Westover breaks into modern society, first through Brigham Young University then Cambridge. As a result of her education, she is forced to make difficult choices about familial relationships. I think this book personalizes a rising problem in American society and underscores that individual liberty affects more than just the individual.
I give this book 5/7.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig
An American classic featuring a man and his son riding across the American West while the man thinks deep thoughts. this book is the quintessential hippy-dippy philosophy book. However, it never crosses the line into absurdity. It presents a coherent view of philosophy that acknowledges traditional thought without being bound to it. Pirsig pays special attention to humanities relationship with technology, how we perceive the world, and the essence of quality. I think this is the perfect example of a book that a school would find nearly impossible to teach: any attempt to force someone to read it would be met by a hard rejection of its core ideas.
I give this book 5/7.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon
My friend Brandon recommended this book to me. I had previously encountered Michael Chabon through his novel "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" and was excited to embark on another Chabon adventure. This book tells the story of two Jewish cousins trying to break into the nascent world of comics. Meanwhile they deal with family tragedy, US immigration policy, homosexuality and homophobia, Nazis, Antarctic winters, escape artistry, and the immortal New York City. At every stage, this book was entertaining:Just as the boys solve problems, new ones challenge them. I did feel like the final fifth of the book was a little superfluous. The adventures became more disconnected and their goals less clear, but perhaps that is a message about life.
I give this book 6/7.
The Three Body Problem
by Cixin Liu
In our quest to create a more perfect union, we are often encouraged to listen to unconventional perspectives because diversity in itself is a virtue. I can think of no better justification for that position than this book. A science-fiction masterpiece, this story stands not in the shadow of the greats but politely waves to them from a distance. Set in two time period — the near future and cultural revolution China — the bifurcated story follows a man untangling the mystery of a secret sino-military project, a dangerous global conspiracy, and the world's strangest video game. In the hands of a less competent author these plot points might a hockey, campey, or cartoonish story, but Liu is anything but incompetent.
I give this book 6/7.
The Rehnquist Choice
by John Dean
This book is an inside look into the story of how a minor U.S. Department of Justice figure accidentally became one of the most powerful men in America. It was recommended to me by Alan Morrison. It covers a lot of the nastier elements of politics: 1970s race relationships, backroom deals, and the manufacturer of scandals. While the central character is the narrator John Dean and his evolving perception of his one-time workmate Rehnquist, looming over the whole story is Richard Nixon — who simultaneously comes across as a master politician and a paranoid, racist maniac. As a window into how the sausage is made, this is a worth entry.
I give this book 5/7.
Rhythms of War & Arcanum Unbounded
by Brandon Sanderson
At this point, diving into the Cosmere has become a yearly ritual. It is hard to review either of these books without being influenced by my heavy investment in the bibilographic universe (I've now read 12 Cosmere books). Each time though, I enjoy re-learning all that I forgot (with frequent trips to Sanderson's wiki, the Copermind) and resuming a narrative that I love. Reading one of these books is a lot like catching up with an old friend.
In brief, Rhythms of War, while not his best, is great Sanderson. It mixes well-defined magic with fantastic heroes and perfectly engineered plots. It is a good penultimate book in the series and hopefully teed up a phenomenal finish.
Arcanum Unbound is a collection of short stories. I liked this set because of its variety. At times, it took me to corners of the Cosmere I had visited long ago, and at other times, it took me to new places. The contrast between some of the old and new stories illustrated Sanderson's growth as an author.
I give Rhythms of War 5/7 and Arcanum Unbound 6/7.
by Ken Whyte
What a man, what a story. Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times is a detailed biography of the United States' thirty-first President, Herbert Hoover. Like an early twentieth century Forrest Gump, Hoover kept popping up in the strange places — from unpretentious middle America to the early days of Stanford, from the desolation of the Australian outback to the chaos of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, from the trenches of World War I to the White House. Hoover possessed extraordinary gifts which let him address so many crisis and major blind spots which destroyed his reputation. This book takes an appreciative look at one of history's least appreciated figures. As a biography, this is as good as they come.
I give this book 6/7.
If Your Tell
by Gregg Olson
This book was recommended by Tempe. It is the true story of the Knotek family. Led by matriarch Shelly Knotek, a manipulative, abusive psychopath, the family descends into unimaginable depravity and eventually murder. As a case study into abusive behaviors, indoctrination, and survival mechanisms. This book is excellent. While not particularly deep, it takes a simple, albeit horrifying, tale and enthralls you.
I give this 5/7.
In the Heart of the Sea
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Unlike the previous entry, this book is actually about whales, i.e. the marine animals. Specifically, it recounts the story of the Essex, a whaling ship attacked by a sperm whale, and the crews subsequent journey to South America across thousands of miles of open water. Meticulously researched, this book explorers the nature of men pushed to their limits through the lens of tedium, catastrophe, deprivation, and cannibalism while simultaneously educating the reader on such subjects as the payout structure in whaling ships, female empowerment in nineteenth century Nantucket, human starvation experiments conducted during WWII, and xenophobia. The final section — detailing research methods, problems, and assumptions —can probably be safely skipped by all but the most academic readers.
I give this book 6/7.
Billion Dollar Whales
by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright
This book was recommended by my friend Connor. An interesting case study into how pliable our most vaunted institutions are to the rich, it tells the true story of Jho Low: Malaysian businessman, Hollywood big-shot, and international fugitive.
Low is the epitome of what is wrong with the modern global financial and judicial systems: He brazenly stole billions of dollars from an impoverished country; He used the money for lavish parties, gambling sprees, and opulent gifts; And he was enabled at every step by a complicit banking system.
This book was compelling for the same reason "The Wolf of Wall Street" (which Low funded) was engrossing: a combination of voyeurism, cynicism, and catharsis.
I give this book 5/7.