Now that 2016 has ended, I’d like to recommend a few books that I especially enjoyed reading in the past year. Links are to Amazon. I hope you’ll share your own recommendations in the comments!
The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford
This book is a parable about a fictional IT organization that escapes from a malaise of missed deadlines and broken software releases by adopting the standards and practices of a manufacturing shop. The organizational problems described in The Phoenix Project will have you groaning and laughing in recognition if you have ever worked in a large technology company. The solutions to those problems are perhaps a bit too pat – there’s no way a company of the size and complexity described here could transform its entire corporate culture so quickly – but in some ways that’s the best thing about the book. It’s escapist wish-fulfillment fantasy for people whose deepest desire is once, just once to have a sane change control review meeting. Highly recommended for the professional computer nerd on your Christmas list.
The Practice of Cloud System Administration: Designing and Operating Large Distributed Systems by Thomas Limoncelli, et al.
A fairly broad, surprisingly deep overview of cloud distributed system design best practices. A good combination of classic theory and real-world case studies. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you are like me and should read this book.
On Writing by Stephen King
Whatever your opinion of Stephen King’s literary talents, the man is one of the more prolific and successful authors of our time, so he knows a thing or two about sitting down at the keyboard and forcing himself to write. His advice on the mechanics of writing isn’t earthshaking (his go-to suggestion is to internalize Strunk & White), but the real merits of this book are more personal. King ruthlessly de-mythologizes his literary origins – he started from nothing and worked a succession of miserable jobs while writing at night in his double-wide trailer – and de-mystifies his process for generating such consistent output, from the number of pages he writes each day to the way he sets up his home office. As someone who wouldn’t mind getting paid to write words someday, I think this is one of the most weirdly encouraging books I’ve ever read.
Honorable Mention – How to Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big by Scott Adams
Scott Adams (the Dilbert cartoonist) absolutely fascinates me. His blog and Twitter feed are an endlessly entertaining source of contrarian Donald Trump apologetics, dubious persuasion techniques and assertions that we are all living in Steve Jobs-ian reality distortion fields. His latest book is not exactly free from these ideas, but I found it useful if only for his short list of things that every successful person should know. “Basic human psychology” is the one that most resonated with me, followed closely by “another language.”
I highly recommend not just reading this book, but reading it the way I did: while traveling through the battlegrounds of the American West. Seeing the Bighorn Mountains or the Black Hills up close makes you think: “How was there not room enough out here for everybody?” Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has no answers to that question. It doesn’t even have a moralizing conclusion. It just assigns one chapter to the degradation and obliteration of each Western Indian tribe, and when the last tribe is broken, the story is over. You won’t be able to associate a shred of romanticism with the Indian Wars after reading this relentlessly powerful book.
D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II by Stephen Ambrose
Ambrose has apparently fallen out of favor among pop historians due to some questionable citation practices in his other works. Doesn’t matter. This is one of maybe five non-fiction books I’ve read in my life that I truly couldn’t put down until finishing. Ambrose, who spent decades of his life collecting oral histories from what must have been thousands of participants in the D-Day offensive, weaves their stories into a single omniscient narrative that is utterly, immersively mesmerizing. You will see the gliders crashing into the hedgerows and hear the bullets in the sand. It’s a better book than Saving Private Ryan is a movie. Read it.
Honorable Mention – One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Bryson casts his eye for historical trivia and goofy whimsy on the quintessentially American summer of 1927, when Lindbergh flew and Coolidge hid out in the Black Hills and Italian anarchists mailed bombs to everybody in the phone book. You’ll find yourself fighting the urge to read parts of this one out loud.
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith
Twelve men walked on the moon during the Apollo years. After their return, some astronauts fell into depression and addiction, several had spiritual epiphanies, but none remained the same. Nine of the moonwalkers still lived when Andrew Smith started interviewing them — and a host of other NASA functionaries — in the early 2000s. The result of these interviews is “Moondust”, a spellbinding aggregate biography that asks not what it was like to walk on the moon, but what it is like to walk afterwards on the earth. Smith’s style is imaginative and probing; he knows when to ask the illuminating questions, and of whom to ask them. This book is my overall top recommendation of 2016.
Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle
The beloved novelist’s account of love and loss at the end of her forty-year marriage is, in the profoundest sense, #relationshipgoals.
Honorable Mention – I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson
This book collects Bryson’s newspaper columns about his rediscovery of America after several decades abroad. Hilarious and insightful.
Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
Ms. Shell is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and this book does kind of read like a feature-length Atlantic article, so if that’s not your thing, be advised. I personally thought it was fascinating. Cheap asks questions that pick at an itchy place in our cultural subconscious: why are certain things (clothes, food, disposable items) available at such insanely low prices in this country even as housing and healthcare costs go up, what is the fetishization of “cheap” doing to our appreciation for intrinsic value, and who is paying the hidden costs for all this stuff anyway? (Spoiler alert: it might be you.) You will not look at consumer culture the same way again after reading this book.
What Hedge Funds Really Do: An Introduction to Portfolio Management by Philip J. Romero and Tucker Balch
This book was assigned reading in Dr. Balch’s Machine Learning for Trading course that I took this fall, one of the best pure learning experiences I’ve ever had. By a “pure learning experience” I mean that I started the semester with little to no knowledge of the two huge topics in the course (machine learning and stock trading) and finished it by feeling like I could start making trades with a reinforcement learner on the open market tomorrow. (I also learned enough to be aware that this would probably be a REALLY bad idea!) I guess what I’m really recommending here is Balch’s class, but his book is good too, especially if you do not know much about portfolio management theory. Like the class, it’s a quick, high-level overview, and a pure learning experience.
Random Works of Nonfiction
The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy
One of the best in a weird genre invented by the dry British history spoof “1066 And All That” and perfected by humorist Richard Armour: mangled retellings of historical events accompanied by wry line drawings and non sequitur footnotes, explicitly intended as a passive-aggressive retaliation against boring Western Civ professors everywhere. Cuppy’s book may be the driest and most passive-aggressive of all its kind. Its dirty secret, concealed beneath exquisite malapropisms and nonsensical chapter review questions, is that it’s actually a pretty great review of world history.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell’s books sometimes strive to appear smarter than they really are. But this paean to the power of the gut instinct is almost anti-intellectual, which ironically makes it one of the more thought-provoking things you’ll read.
Best Novel: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
One of the first, and still maybe the best, in the tricky “nuclear holocaust” genre. This book will make you want to become a survivalist and head for Montana with a tractor trailer full of canned beans. If you do that, though, you’ll have missed Frank’s central message: ultimately, nobody can survive a civilization-destroying disaster on their own. Sooner or later you will need something (medical care, physical protection, a tool or skill) that you can’t provide for yourself. Community, not isolation, is the key to survival after Frank’s apocalypse. (Also, lest you think that a book about nuclear winter published in 1959 wouldn’t have much immediacy today, the US sets off the final conflict by accidentally bombing Russian forces in an occupied Syrian city. So, yeah.)
Best Short Story: The Hugo Winners, 1955-1970, ed. by Isaac Asimov
I guess it’s cheating to include this anthology, since it contains about forty short stories and novellas, but they’re all SO GOOD: the very best of the Golden Age of science fiction, edited and with delightful author profiles by Mr. Robot himself, Isaac Asimov. Here are a few of my favorite stories from the collection:
- The Darfsteller (1955) by Walter M. Miller, Jr
A prescient look at what happens when automation takes over a human-centric industry – in this case, the live theater. Bonus points to Mr. Miller for predicting the Roomba.
- Flowers for Algernon (1959) by Daniel Keyes
I’ve now read both the novel and short story versions of this classic tearjerker. I always thought that the story’s central gimmick didn’t hold up under the weight of the novel format. Turns out that the original short story delivers a much more concentrated, devastating punch.
- Soldier, Ask Not (1964) by Gordon R. Dickson
A loopy sci-fi premise (humans have congregated on different planets according to personality type) that turns up insightful applications about the way people relate to each other in the age of social media “bubbles”.
- Neutron Star (1966) by Larry Niven
Maybe the best “hard science fiction” story I’ve ever read. Niven turns a question of theoretical physics into a suspenseful ticking-clock thriller.
- Honorable Mention – The Big Front Yard (1959) by Clifford D. Simak
No deep thoughts here, just one of the most metaphysically fun concepts you’ll find, as a New England farmhouse takes on the properties of a Narnian wardrobe.
(Yeah, I read and collect a lot of classic children’s literature. It’s definitely because I’m building a library for my kids. Also it’s the best.)
Best YA Novel – Jexium Island by Madeline Grattan
I’d been looking out for this rare 1950s title for awhile because it is illustrated, though not written, by the legendary children’s author William Pene du Bois. So I was thrilled to find a copy this summer at the local Goodwill. As it turns out, du Bois’ illustrations amount to little more than a title page and a couple of maps. What makes this book special is its outstandingly original story, translated by Grattan’s husband from her original French. As I understand it, she got the idea for the book after seeing trainloads of British schoolchildren shipped off to the countryside for their protection during World War II. Where are these children really going, she wondered, and what would happen if they fell into the custody of nefarious people? The story resulting from this idea is part Children’s Crusade, part atomic age paranoia thriller and part fever dream from your own childhood. I have no idea why this book is so obscure. It would make a better movie than most of the thinly-disguised screenplays that pass for YA novels today.
Best Middle Reader – The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
This is the first in a series of books that Fitzgerald loosely based on his childhood in Mormon-majority Utah at the turn of the twentieth century. I haven’t read the others, but if they have the same blend of compassionate morals and hard-edged frontier realism, they’re probably worth a look too.
Honorable Mention – The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Another first book in a series otherwise unfamiliar to me. This story about four motherless sisters is created for people who love classic children’s literature, a studious pastiche on Alcott, E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Enright, Edward Eager and who knows what else. At times its reliance on those books’ tropes gets a bit rote (child gets chased by a bull…check), but the characters are winsome and it’s hard not to love Birdsall’s unfettered sincerity. I have a feeling this series will be around for a long time.
Random Works of Fiction
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
This adult novel has echoes of Smith’s later, better-known children’s work “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians” – a penchant for devilish allusions and a key plot point involving a fur coat – but it stands on its own as a literate, richly atmospheric English country house story. A BBC movie, unseen by me, is based on this book.
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
The archetypical fantasy novel. It’s a quick read. You’ll like it.
Bonus Category: Baseball
(The only sport worth reading about!)
Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein
Rather than writing about up-and-coming youngsters, Feinstein concerns himself with Triple-A – the twilight zone just below the major leagues, where fading veterans and rehabbing former stars struggle for position alongside guys who were never quite good enough to reach the big show. It’s a frequently sad, strangely moving story that effortlessly humanizes its subjects: Feinstein even takes time to probe the motivations and miseries of Triple-A umpires. Highly recommended, even if you aren’t a baseball fan.
The Summer Game by Roger Angell
I’ve actually read this one before, but I found a first edition at a library sale this summer and couldn’t resist dipping back in. Angell, still writing today at age 96, is the longtime baseball columnist for the New Yorker (plus, he’s E. B. White’s stepson!) His baseball essays are always beautifully worded and filled with appreciation for the narrative power of the game. The Summer Game, the first book collection of his work, is my favorite.
Honorable Mention – D–n Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World’s Most Loved (and Hated) Team, ed. by Rob Fleder
Two dozen essays, each by a different well-known author (most are not sportswriters, despite the book’s potentially misleading subtitle), each concerned in some way with baseball’s most enjoyably evil institution: the New York Yankees. Whatever your feelings about NYY — and I would not mind if they experienced several consecutive decades of 0-162 seasons — you’ll relish the stories in this off-kilter collection.