2017 books

Fifth in a series (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013), here’s what I read in 2017. Favorites are bolded.

I read more this year than last, likely because I quit Twitter (so recommended if your job allows it) and remained oblivious to TV and movies.

The Farnsworth Invention, Aaron Sorkin
A short play, lifted from Wikipedia, about the invention of the television. There’s some good dialog, but this isn’t the West Wing Sorkin I wanted.

The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey
A book ostensibly about playing tennis but really about getting out of your own way. Gallwey writes about a first self (logical, concerned about messing up) and a second self (intuitive, knows-more-than-first-self-expects) in a not-hokey way. I think this book improved my tennis serve, and I don’t play tennis.

Workers in a Labryinth, Robert Jackall
Dense anthropology about bank clerks in the 1960s — specifically about how they cope with monotonous, boring jobs. Kinda interesting for the way it talks about motivation but probably not worth wading through.

Dusk, James Salter
Short stories about New Yorkers, none of whom I found compelling. Eh.

The Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
Meditation on how we’ll process new information, published in 2000. The sort of book that was probably more striking when it was first published; now, it’s so seeped into common knowledge as to be unremarkable.

Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holliday
What you’d expect. I most remember the concepts of “alive time” (time during which you can explain what you were doing) and “dead time” (time that just passes, and for which you can’t explain what you were doing — like most phone-pawing time.)

Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen
Christensen’s Jobs to be Done article in book form. Maybe worth reading if you’re in the process of bringing something new into the world; skip otherwise.

Wired for Speech, Clifford Nass, Scott Brave
A guide to designing voice interfaces, published in 2001, and super relevant for our Alexa’d world. It feels oddly overlooked; some of its best design tips haven’t yet been implemented. If you’re designing for voice, read this.

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole
Teju Cole essays. Yes yes yes.

Le Bonheur des Petits Poissons, Simon Leys
On loan from a friend, and I’m very glad he encouraged me to read it; to start, it got me to read French again.

Powerhouse, James Andrew Miller
A loooooong oral history of the CAA. Decently interesting, though it needs an editor to synthesize and shorten the stories. Without one, all that hard work was left as an exercise to the reader, and this reader peeled out early.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
So human and funny; I went to work late a few mornings because I didn’t want to stop reading this one.

A Movable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
If I’d read this 10, maybe 15, years ago, it’d probably have felt less plodding.

Interviewing users, Steve Portigal
A very good handbook for design research / customer interviews / directed conversations / whatever you want to call the thing that’s so crucial to new product development. Here’s my notes.

Dune, Frank Herbert
I wanted to like this book, even felt somewhat obligated to — but I couldn’t get through it.

Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen
I’ve read MR for a decade, and parts of this “book” still surprised me.

Experimental Conversations, Timothy Ogden
Interviews with economics researchers and practitioners about randomized controlled trials, the latest methodological innovation in development economics. I loved this: great format, great content, great insights. Great great great.

L’arabe du Futur 1, Riad Sattouf
“You’re going to be an Arab of the Future,” Riad’s father told him, by way of explaining the family’s move from France to Syria in the early 1970s. This is the first in a five-book series of graphic novels from a French-Syrian comic who later drew for Charlie Hebdo.

The Glass House, Brian Alexander
Coastal-journalist-visits-now-depressed-industrial-heartland-and-rails-against-Wall-Street-and-Big-Finance. I’ve read that story elsewhere but still found this book upsetting; it’s set 45 minutes from my hometown (I am that coastal journalist); and I’d read chapters about opioid overdoses, get off the bus at SF’s Civic Center plaza, and pass prone people.

The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen
This book didn’t strike me — it’s arguments seem so obvious — until I realized: few others discuss complacency as directly as Tyler does, and his thesis is evident because it’s so well stated.

S’enfuir, Guy Delisle
I’ll read anything Delisle writes, even if it’s 300 pages about one guy captive in an empty room.

Cyber Portfolio Management, Adam Shostack
Read this if you want to learn how to apply techniques from asset management to running an information security program. (Uh-huh.)

La Belle au Bois Dormant, Charles Perrault
Getting my French-reading sea legs .. with a Disney edition of Sleeping Beauty.

L’arabe du Futur 2, Riad Sattouf
The second book in the series; this one’s set mostly in Syria. Riad goes to school, his father isn’t as harsh, and things go on.

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
In high school, I fell for Fitzgerald’s dramatic prose, and I’ve still a soft spot. Here, I loved the drama of Amory’s relationships and break-ups; I could have done without his lonesome meanders.

The Raven, Marquis James
A long, comprehensive biography of Sam Houston, the only person to be governor of two states (Tennessee and Texas) and president of a country (Republic of Texas.) Houston was a protege of Andrew Jackson, and I read this to better understand Jackson. I found the writing a little obtuse, but I learned loads about early-nineteenth century US.

The Idiot, Elif Batuman
One of those books I read quickly and constantly, carrying the hardcover (!) around Soma because “just five more minutes” while waiting on a meeting was worth it. I’d like to think I was Selin freshman year of college, but she’s more together than I was.

Ties, Domineco Stratone
Short novel about the unwinding and rebinding of a marriage; Jhumpa Lahiri, in her (very good) translator’s introduction, called this book a triptych in its three parts. Read Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment alongside it. (It took me most of undergrad to learn what “novels engaged in a dialog,” meant; these two, Ties and The Days of Abandonment, are jabbering.)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I last read Gatbsy in high school, and I liked it on re-read more than I’d expected.

La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert, Joël Dicker
I probably would’ve abandoned this book in English, but the French was simple enough (plus Kindle paw-for-dictionary) that I was sufficiently pleased with myself to solider through. I don’t understand why it was such a big deal in France though; are cheesy murder mysteries rarely written / translated?

Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge
“The clearest and most plausible extrapolation of modern technology trends forward to the year 2025 that you can imagine,” said Marc Andreessen. (Eh.) As I read this book on a San Francisco bus, the person next to me asked me out. (And they say swiping’s the only way to meet someone.)

The Golden Gate, Vikram Seth
A novel set in Palo Alto and San Francisco during the 1980s, told as a footnote’d poem. If that description appeals, you’ll enjoy it.

The Vegetarian, Han Kang
Weird story, told several times from different perspectives. I liked the format quite a bit, as it forced empathy for each character and re-iterated my favorite Teju Cole-ism, “we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as these stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.”

L’arabe du Futur 3, Riad Sattouf
Things are back to being difficult and sad for little Riad, who only sortof notices. Sattouf is good at locking the narrative to a child’s perspective.

Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
I thought I’d love this — lyrical fiction, too-pretty writing, a model in 1970s San Francisco — but didn’t finish it.

Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, Louis de Bernieres
I bought this book in 2008, and it’s sat on my shelf, accusing me of abandonment since. That was silly; 100 pages after starting it, I put it down. (A friend, when I mentioned picking it up: “You may need another book.”)

Fire in the Blood, Irene Nemirovsky
More stories of small-town France between the wars; this wasn’t Suite Française, but I liked it all the same.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
My best friend got married, and I hoped Didion would help me write a toast. She didn’t.

Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco
A graphic novel about war in the former Yugoslavia. Delisle-ish, without the charm.

Selected Stories, Lu Hsun
Read for a book club I didn’t attend (oof), these were fun, short stories.

A Happy Marriage (re-read), Rafael Yglesias
Obtained some toast advice? I first read it at 23, and it became a favorite; now, it’s a favorite that survived the re-read.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (re-read), Milan Kundera
Toast non-advice. We were into this book in college, because of course we were. Je ne regrette rien.

The Bell Jar (re-read), Sylvia Plath
Not much toast advice. I still love the lines about schemes (“Then plan after plan started leaping through my head, like a family of scatty rabbits”) and future hopes (“I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”)

The Invisibility Cloak, Ge Fei
A short, funny novel about contemporary China. I liked this one!

The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner
Matt Levine called this book terrific, so of course it must be wonderful? But no, give me any Money Stuff over this.

Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia
Cuban social history, told through several generations of a family. Eh.

Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire
I learned about Batista in the first half and an immigrant’s US experience in the second; the book never mentions Castro by name but eviscerates him.

Open for Business: Building the new Cuban economy (re-read), Richard Feinberg
Re-read while I did nothing but think about Cuba, and I liked it more this time. (I liked it the first time! It just felt like reading a think tank report.)

Island People, Joshua Jelly-Shapiro
Social history of the Caribbean, divided by country. Full of facts I didn’t know. Sufficiently readable that you could pick it up without knowing anything about the region.

Our Man in Havana (play), Graham Greene and Clive Francis
I was too impatient to wait for the physical book so ordered the Kindle edition –which turned out to be a play. It’s fiiiiiine but not worth the time.

Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy
I read this one July 4th weekend, during an outburst of spittle-flecked rocket man tweets, which made the carefully-considered Kennedy / Khrushchev letters all the more striking.

The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson
Another book I’d had on my shelf for years and finally pulled down. Undercover spies, a backdrop of eastern Congo, and a nihilistic narrator — I should have loved it. And yet.

Our Man in Havana (novel), Graham Greene
Short, fluffy, too cute for its own good. It had the kind of hapless Greene protagonist (“protagonist”) I don’t like; I waited the entire novel for him to give a damn about something, but he never came close.

Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
Somehow, I got through a university’s worth of international development without reading this book. Everyone else did, and now I understand why they all wanted to work in international public health.

Voodo: Search for the Spirit, Laennec Hurbon
An introduction to Haitian vodou. Good version of what it is.

The Kingdom of this World, Alejo Carpentier
A weird, kinda-magical-realism novel about Haiti’s slave revolt. I don’t love magical realism as a rule, but I liked this loads.

Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle, Kent Annan
A missionary’s story of living in Haiti (mostly Port-au-Prince) during the Aristide revolts in the early 2000s. Better than the median expat-in-poor-country book.

The Comedians, Graham Greene
A Graham Greene I truly liked! The vague paternalism here was so clearly misguided it didn’t grate, and the narrator wasn’t hapless so much as downtrodden.

Haiti: Aftershocks of History, Laurent Dubois
A really great history of Haiti; Dubois interprets the primary sources without obvious editorializing and tells stories as he goes. (This is my kind of history book.)

The Dew Breaker, Edwidge Danticat
More about an immigrant experience in New York than Duvalier’s Haiti. I remember this book being a big deal when it came out, and though I found it good, I don’t understand why.

The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James
The writing was a little obtuse, but there’s no history of Haiti like it.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, Kerry Borwn
Longer than it needed to be (this could’ve been edited into a longform article) but a reasonable way to pass a flight.

The Emperor Far Away (re-read parts), David Eimer
I re-read the Yunnan parts and was again struck by how Eimer kept inserting his exploits. (No I don’t care how young she was / how angelic her face was .. I care about the socio-economic forces that led her to the tryst you saw.)

China in Ten Words, Yu Hua
Hua picks ten words to describe his China, and the result’s lovely — funny, poignant, and insightful. I had an inexplicable bias against this book (for some reason I thought it’d be bad?) and it took me five years to read it. Silly. Read this one!

The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
Okay, so I don’t read (/finish) much scifi, and I really, really liked this series. Talking to friends who do read scifi makes me suspect those facts are related; many of Liu’s novel-to-me conceits aren’t so original, it turns out (“oh, everyone in scifi mixes English and Chinese into a single language?”)

Dark Forest, Cixin Liu
Best title but weakest book of the trilogy because the writing (English translation) is so poor. Made me wonder whether my writing snobbery drives my scifi distaste.

Death’s End, Cixin Liu
Back to the original translator, thank goodness. I stayed up late a few nights in a row to finish this one. The ending was .. an ending?

The Art of Charlie Hock Chye, Sonny Liew
Graphic novel about Singapore’s early years. I think I’d have enjoyed this more if I’d gone in better knowing Singaporean history. If you pick this up, Wikipedia first.

I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong
I want Siddhartha Mukherjee to write a book about the human microbiome. Until then, there’s this.

Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
Solving Agatha Christie’s whodunnits seems to require developing a mental model of what Christie thinks, rather than piecing together clues, which is .. disappointing.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed
A book written by a strong woman about times when she didn’t feel very strong. I didn’t understand Cheryl, only sort of empathized with her, and still liked her book.

Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner
My favorite subplot ended 50 pages in, and I was lost by page 150. It made me feel better about skipping Flamethrowers a few years back.

Monetizing Innovation (re-read), Madhavan Ramanujam
Super tactical, practical advice on pricing a new product. I found it so useful that I re-read it.

How to Measure Anything in Cybersecurity Risk, Douglas W. Hubbard, Richard Seiersen
My grad school decision analysis class applied to information security; useful if that’s your jam.

Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden
I binge watched my first TV series this fall (am I using those words correctly?), and when I wanted more Narcos, I read the book on which the series is based. Even if you’re also super into Javi, you probably don’t need this book.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The first 75 pages hooked me, and then .. eep. I felt I should’ve liked this book more than I did, but it so meandered. I had the anniversary edition, to which Gaiman added back 100 pages his editor had cut; maybe read the normal one.

The Arrangement, Sarah Dunn
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book to anyone.

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History, Chris Smith
I loved this: part management tome (how do you hire, retain, and send off talented people?), part media history (2017 was only “not normal” if you hadn’t paid attention), part technical innovation story (imagine the Daily Show pre transcribed TV .. now pre-Tivo), part paean to hard work (interpreting the news four days a week, every week, for nearly two decades) — and I laughed every ten pages beside.

La Belle Sauvage, Phillip Pullman
An action movie that went on too long, and the characters aren’t as complex as you’d like, but I still enjoyed re-immersing myself in Pullman’s world. (My daemon, by the way, would be a raccoon.)

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The Vietnam war,” told from the perspective of a South Vietnamese soldier-traitor. Too long and precious, though the scenes that hit (the parking lot drama, the squid dinner) were very good.

Tokyo Year Zero, David Peace
This is a book. About a policeman who solves crimes. Does he solve crimes? The crimes get more and more disturbing. Is it the crimes that are disturbed? Or is it .. the policeman? (Do not read this book.)

Underground, Haruki Murakami
More revealing of Tokyo’s norms than the 1993 sarin attack in the subway. Murakami “just let the victims talk,” and in doing so produced a minor classic of social science.

The Magic of Oz, L. Frank Baum
I read all the Oz books as a kid, pre-Amazon-used-books, when it was absurdly difficult to find copies; getting them all on Kindle for $3.99 felt magic. (Thanks Jeff.) They’re faster and simpler as an adult.

Focault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Finally read most of it after having it on my Kindle for years (and, um, previously starting it three times.) I prefer the real pendulum.

Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, Leslie Berlin
YASVH (Yet Another Silicon Valley History), this one covering people who aren’t often profiled in other Silicon Valley histories. I enjoyed it, even as someone who’s read ~all the other Silicon Valley histories.

Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry
This book details, but doesn’t explain, the deaths of an elementary school’s worth of students during the 2011 Japanese tsunami. I suspect I didn’t like it because it was so upsetting.

King Lear, William Shakespeare
“A play for the age of Trump,” except it’s too hopeful.

Origin, Dan Brown
I read my last Dan Brown half my lifetime ago and remember it making me curious; not so much with this one. Otherwise: surprisingly reasonable treatment of AI, surprisingly unreasonable treatment of a super wealthy person’s bank account.

Sartre on Cuba, Jean-Paul Sartre
This book will meet any preconceptions you have about it. (I wish Sartre had studied more economics.)

Petit Pays, Gaël Faye
A bildungsroman by a French-Rwandan about Burundi in the mid 1990s — so basically everything I enjoy.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
An aimless 1920s millennial fritters away most of his 20s in a Swiss “health chalet.” Much funnier than I expected an early twentieth century German novel to be. Honestly where was this book hiding in high school.