Reading Lists: 2019 in Review

Hal Stern
Hal Stern
Feb 2 · 21 min read

Year seven, and the last of the historical retrospectives of my reading proclivities. 2019 was a light year reading wise as I changed jobs, was on the road quite a bit, and switched to the Kindle to save trees (but also induce sleep more quickly in slower moving books). I’ve mostly kept the original content with a bit of 2020 commentary [so noted]. I provide author and title only; find these at your favorite bookseller (online or real world) as there are no advertising or commissionable links below. 2019 commentary: more music books, my introduction to Israeli writer Lavie Tidhar, the batting cycle of Jane Leavy, Colson Whitehead’s “Nickel Boys” and David Epstein’s “Range” which are now required reading along with Doctorow’s “Radicalized,” sandwiching some truly awful books. If you like these, support your local book stores, buy them new to support great authors, and tell the world.

36. “When Giants Walked The Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin,” music, Mick Wall, finished December 1.

Yeah, it took me over a month to finish this (it’s about 500 pages of text). It’s dense, and it drags at times through the post-Bonzo pre-Celebration Day Zeppelin trough, but it’s a great biography of the band and I learned bucket loads about the relationship between the Yardbirds (and the half of the Yardbirds that became Renaissance) and Zeppelin, as well as the full expose of various blues songs appropriated and interpreted.

35. “Lent: A Novel of Many Returns,” historical fiction, Jo Walton, finished October 24.

I normally adore Jo Walton’s alternative histories, especially the “Small Change” series that takes place in a UK that lost WWII. “Lent” time transfers you back to the artistic and architectural heydey of Florence, immediately after the completion of the Duomo, when Michaelangelo and the Medicis were the social forces seen and not yet seen. It takes a while to understand what’s going on (at least the first quarter of the book), and then slowly the plot accelerates. I was tempted to put this down, as I loved the Florentine setting and characters but found the central theme of Lenten repentance somewhat difficult. I’m glad I finished it; it races toward an ending you can guess but not fully appreciate until you turn the last page; saying more spoils the careful craft Walton uses to polish this Renaissance artwork.

34. “The Spawning Run,” non-fiction, William Humphrey, finished September 20.

Got the Kindle version based on an aside in a talk by a classmate who acclaimed William Humphrey as one of the strongest influences on his writing and journalistic career. This is a pure joy of fishing book, with multiple interpretations of “spawning” woven cheekily through the narrative. It’s quick, it’s wonderfully written, and it was entirely new space for me.

33. “Asia: Time and Time Again,” music, Matt Herring, finished September 15.

Matt Herring writes about comics and music and has a knack for following the threads of obscure but influential bands to their origins. His book about the supergroup Asia is more of a paen to the late John Wetton, and intersperses insights about the band with set lists, track listings from albums and show observations. Continuing the transitive closure of books about Yes members, I found parts of this interesting (especially the Steve Howe commentary), equal parts remarkably dense. The book has the feel (and visuals) of a vanity imprint, which it largely is, but it’s important to support independent authors and their wildest dreams.

32. “The Fated Sky,” sci-fi/alternate history, Mary Robinette Kowal, finished September 3.

31. “The Calculating Stars,” sci-fi/alternate history, Mary Robinette Kowal, finished August 29.

Read these during a return flight from India, in two sittings, and it’s that good. I believe alternate histories get poor recognition as perhaps not including as much world-building as pure speculative fiction, but the richness of this book is at once very immediate (anti-science, climate change denial, and gender disparity) and very distant (the Earth is hit by a meteorite of extinction level scale, and using 1950s computing and mechanical engineering capabilities, we need to get out of here). The evolution of the “Lady Astronaut” moniker that is developed hits hard at current issues — why we feel the need to put adjectives in front of things like marriage, engineer, or executive to create artificial divisions. While Robinette Kowal isn’t Jewish, she captures the secular Jewish spiritual feelings that awoke in some of us after 9/11 or other major losses. The Kindle didn’t even power off before I started the sequel, “The Fated Sky,” and enjoyed it equally.

30. “Atmosphaera Incognita,” sci-fi, Neal Stephenson, finished August 29.

It’s a novella released as a limited edition hardcover and very cheap Kindle book. At roughly 100 pages, it’s a tenth the heft of a typical Stephenson tome, and the copyrights in the front matter are confusing — this may have been a short story that was re-released as a standalone (the initial and print copyrights are years apart) or just a publisher’s decision to generate some short-term revenue with a trial of a digital-mostly release. Like “Fall” this was disappointing, but for different reasons — you have a tech billionaire and gay real estate agent as lead characters (and narrator), yet those details don’t seem impactful to the story. There are a half dozen ideas in here that could be developed — the risks of cascading failures in a highly networked world, the desire to open up near space to rekindle an interest in science and curiosity, the challenges of the next generation of literal skyscrapers but once again, Stephenson races past the potential hooks to capture your interest. Rather than diverting into Bible analogy, this one just putters out. I’m hoping he finds his mojo again.

29. “Range,” business/sports/science, David Epstein, finished August 28.

If Colson Whitehead’s “Nickel Boys” is the best fiction I’ve read this year, then “Range” is the best non-fiction I’ve read this year (or maybe in the last few years). It’s the first book that explains, in my highly stilted personal view, the way I approach problems (and not just my jokes about using “Turing Hard” in a sentence). But it also explains my fondness for new hobbies and interests (numismatics, bass guitar, amplifiers, languages, and now, Indian music) and why I find science fiction a stimulant for work problems. I discovered the book when recommended by Jason Garrett (yeah, the [former] coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but he was wearing a Princeton Tiger Football hat at the time) on a panel about specialization in youth sports, and Epstein’s opening example will become the core mantra of my “let your kids play a lot of sports and have fun” recommendations to my hockey parents each year. Going on my required business reading list.

28. “To Be Taught, If Fortunate,” sci-fi, Becky Chambers, finished August 20.

Becky Chambers is one of the most refreshing, most creative and certainly most fun voices in science fiction. As usual, she explores what it means to be human in a purely alien world (or worlds), and in “To Be Taught” compresses that world view down into a small exploratory ship with a crew of four. It’s “The Martian” meets “Star Trek Voyager” meets “Omega Man/I Am Legend” where the cross-product is both hopeful and fateful; Chambers goes deep into the joys of scientific discovery tinged with the realization that some of those insights may outrun the headlights of the world, culture and people left “back home.” As usual, nothing blows up except expectations.

27. “Cowboys Full,” poker, James McManus, finished August 17.

McManus writes about poker the way John Feinstein writes about college basketball — attention to detail so fine that you can visualize the pips on the cards, but a narrative that covers several hundred years of poker history without making you feel you’re reading Wikipedia in Logan Airport while waiting for a delayed United flight (yeah, I’ve done that). He explores how poker became America’s game, and how the simple acts of bluffing, sussing out information, acting on imperfect and incorrect data and playing from strength show up in business, politics, warfare and of course, high limit poker games. A nice bookend to “The Banker, The Professor and the Suicide King” (as it covers that material in about three chapters), a well reasoned analysis of the rise of ESPN’s poker coverage, and just the right blend knob setting for entertainment and educational material.

26. “The Nickel Boys,” fiction, Colson Whitehead, finished July 27.

Possibly my favorite book of the year. It’s terrifying and introspective, and [spoiler alert] a reflection on the life of Martin Luther King Jr, told through the narrative of a reform school in Florida. I read it thinking it was based in fact, and that the names of the very guilty had been changed, only to find it’s based on significant research but fabricated boys. Whitehead’s details are so shocking they literally make your skin crawl, and to do so without infringing on the privacy of any person dead or alive is an art form he has mastered. It’s required reading in America in 2019, it’s an eye opening account of corruption and racism and simple lawlessness that modulates the story-within-a-story of civil rights, their neglect and defense, and survival because of and despite both actions.

25. “Fall, or Dodge In Hell,” sci-fi, Neal Stephenson, finished July 20.

Picking up a Stephenson volume I know I’m in for a long haul, typically a challenging read, and usually a thought provoking week or three. “Fall” was all of them, but none of them. Despite taking me nearly six weeks to finish, I didn’t like it after the first 100 pages, and kept waiting for it to race to a conclusion or tie the multiple threads together in some insightful, tectonic mental plate shifting way. Didn’t happen. The opening of the book in which fake news, religious fundamentalism and gun rights are taken to a possible but even more illogical extreme would have been a tremendous foundation for a free standing book. The middle third, in which Stephenson explores the ramifications of uploading consciousness and rebooting the world view, had potential — there were Biblical analogies and religious echos of “Seveneves” that I so wished exploded and reverberated. Instead what I got was the anti-”Rapture of the Nerds” (the Stross/Doctorow book that examines the digital rapture with the wit and irreverence you’d expect). Finally, there was an heroic quest, a bit of Bored Of The Rings remixed with “The Guild” but minus the glamour conveyed by Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. In short, this was about 1,000 pages of my life I don’t get back. After “Seveneves” I felt that Stephenson was on the upswing, but those who posit he’s become so popular as to be impossible to edit are onto something.

24. “Permafrost,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished June 2.

Clocking in at novella length, Reynolds departs from deep space to look at an Earth rendered a food desert after a series of ecological disasters. Facing extinction, human beings experiment with time travel in an attempt to subtly alter the past and avoid the biological dead end into which they’re painted. There are quite a few neat ideas introduced — that time travel doesn’t create paradoxes so much as “noise” in the present which is eventually forgotten; the way in which the time travel targets are introduced into the past, and how the ever-helpful AIs play out in the very long game. Just as well written as anything else Reynolds does, I would have enjoyed this at full book or book series length, but in the shorter form it leaves just enough to the imagination to extrapolate even worse ending positions.

23. “Better Git It In Your Soul: An Interpretive Biography of Charles Mingus,” music, Krin Gabbard, finished May 26.

Like most jazz superheroes, Mingus has an array of biographical and autobiographical material that would fill a self respecting fake book. Gabbard takes four views of the bassist — a focused factual biography, an examination of Mingus through literature in which he appears and which he wrote, his noted sidemen and bandmates, and his life in and on film. He was a notoriously difficult yet talented musician, and his song titles reflect both his arcane sense of humor and the historically accurate lens through which it is projected. There’s a lot to like here, because it doesn’t descend into endless choruses of road trips and band stands, instead showing Mingus from as many angles as could be captured. Famous for firing musicans, one of the anecdotes captured is when Mingus fired a bandmate after a proficient solo that didn’t, in his word “Say Mingus I love you.” That demand — that a solo be so heartfelt that the composer would feel loved — certainly informed my bass recital the next weekend. Not sure Mingus would have loved it, but it provided inspiration.

22. “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” fiction, Akil Sharma, finished May 19

When David Sedaris played NY’s Town Hall on May 10, he brought Akil Sharma on stage to read part of the opening story in this book. With his inflection and vocal intent, it was both moving and funny; reading the same stories without voicing made them melancholy, insightful and bits of a modern day Malraux. I finished the stories with a deeper appreciation for Indian culture, but didn’t find anything as funny as Sharma presented his own work.

21. “Central Station,” sci-fi/fantasy, Lavie Tidhar, finished May 12

Fresh on the last page heels of “Unholy Land” I picked up (electronically) Lavie’s collection of related stories about the world within a world that springs up around a space station planted quite figuratively in the Tel Aviv of the future present. The characters range from remaindered robots who beg for parts to gene and brain hackers to mysterious beings. At times it echoed Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” the Jawas of the first Star Wars movie, the wait for the Messiah and tales of immigrants and those granted rights of return. There are some centrally Israeli themes in the book, from places you recognize the the changing demographics of “the others” to the immutability of Jewish mothers across millennia and trade genres. The stories are held together by location and world setting, which makes this both fun and a bit challenging.

20. “Uhholy Land,” sci-fi/fantasy, Lavie Tidhar, finished April 29.

On more than a few lists, including the Locus award nominee roster, Tidhar constructs a set of parallel universes in which there was no Holocaust, there is no State of Israel, there is a Jewish homeland in East Africa (as had been proposed in the early 20th century, long before WWII), and multiple points between, some seen only as brief references. The two closest parallels are China Mieville’s “The City and the City” and Chabon’s “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” yet this book is much more; it’s an exploration of displaced people and the rights of settlers and fights for independence, it’s about what constitutes a home land and a holy land, and it’s chock full of little Hebrew and Israeli references that had me alternately laughing and pausing to think. Up there with the alternate histories of Jo Walton in terms of world building and richness.

19. “Tiamet’s Wrath,” sci-fi, James SA Corey, finished April 26.

Maybe the best of the latter half of the “Expanse” series, the latest installment follows the crew of the Rocinante as they are variously involved in rebellion and sedition. It’s full of nuance, action, and sincere character development; you can feel the long saga coming to a close. As the natural lifetimes of the heroes unwind, the various themes of inter-human conflict, human-vs-universe conflict and what freedom means in those contexts are explored in a great penultimate addition to the series.

18. “Thank you Mr. Kibblewhite: My Story”, music, Roger Daltrey, finished April 8.

The finale of the Who biographies, and definitely the most “meh” of the bunch. Daltrey covers much of the same material in Pete Townsend’s and Keith Moon’s biographies, but it’s delivered with a sort of diffidence to audience and material. Daltrey comes across as the “good one” in the group, either oblivious or uncaring to the plights of his bandmates, and certainly focused on his regular feelings of exclusion (perhaps related to the first bit). I really wanted to like Daltrey after this, but finished it thinking it was light on content and heavy on ego.

17. “The Phoenix Project,” business, Gene Kim, finished April 1.

Technically a homework assignment for an offsite meeting, an amalgam of technology war stories (some of which I had experience first-hand) that outline how a brownfield company can adopt more agile practices, devops methodologies, and get out of the mantra that “IT is late and expensive” which seems all too familiar. Highly recommended for anyone who is looking at a project that has a deliverable more than 6 months out — you’ll be late and blamed for something, so start reframing your priorities using the ideas in the book.

16. “Blackfish City,” sci-fi, Sam Miller, finished March 30.

At once a sci-fi Sopranos, an exploration of fundamentalism, a dystopian eco-thriller and a study in family and loyalty, “Blackfish City” was Locus nominated for good reasons. It’s not for the strong-of-science heart (genetic and behavioral science is key to the plot but light on extrapolation from current state) but the story itself moves as it shifts through a variety of viewpoints. There is a lot to unpack here; whispers of the neodog K9 troops from Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” echo faintly, and the social context around a floating city (language, slang, entertainment) is superb.

15. “Collective Genius,” business, Linda Hill, finished March 28.

The case study generated book by Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill that started with an examination of how Pixar was able to consistently generate high quality, high grossing movies. It’s a good corollary to companies looking at agile development or other methods to “unleash” productivity, because it delves into how you deal with creative differences, tension and generative meetings. Took an executive leadership course under her instruction a few years ago and finally read the full book — useful and quick.

13. “Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon,” music, Tony Fletcher, finished March 27 (Kindle)

Fletcher’s biography of Moon is detailed, dedicated and a work of love. In the conclusion, you understand the relationship between author and artist, shorter and more tightly bound than the typical fan boy radius, but that does nothing to detract from the care with which the story is assembled. Rock and roll biographies can easily descend into endless descriptions of parties and who vomited upon whom, but here the motivations for the behavior, the context and the very human issues that shaped Moon are laid bare. It is a long book, weighing in at over 600 pages in print, but it never drags or feels repetitive. My personal Who experience, like most of my other classic rock knowledge, started late (middle school through high school), and by then the Who were well into their various states of constant disarray. I distinctly being remembered, likely in the winter of 1976 around the lunch table, if the Who were still popular — a strange question as I was hardly the arbiter of musical taste, and it was just after the release of “Who By Numbers” (that I had likely seen in the local Two Guys LP department). Personally, the book filled in the gaps in my knowledge of the band, Mod culture, and British slang (more and more references, from Genesis songs to “This is Spinal Tap” passing jokes, make sense the more I learn about the UK of the 1960s).

12. “Radicalized,” socio-political novel, Cory Doctorow, finished March 22 (Kindle)

I’m a true Cory Doctorow fan boy, and each of novels have made me think and re-think them several times. During the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, “Makers” helped me think about the power of individual expression; while I’ve wrestled with aging and memory and memorabilia, I’ve read and re-read “Craphound” at least half a dozen times. “Radicalized” is four stories that are something past science fiction — this is William Gibson’s future, arriving in a form that we see foreshadowed in the news. The book basically terrified me, because any of those stories could play out in 3 weeks or 3 months or 3 years. No sooner had I finished it than the EU passed a copyright protection act that makes “Unauthorized Bread” very near-term possible, as “copyrights” could be extended “fixed” in some form — bread, drugs, soap or other basics. This is my new mandatory reading for friends and co-workers.

11. “The Raven Tower,” fantasy, Ann Leckie, finished March 18 (Kindle)

I find Ann Leckie’s exploration of beliefs and gender to be some of the best new science fiction and fantasy I’ve read. She makes the reader turn over ideas, looking for subtle hints and context in the way a Talmudic scholar would dissect word order and placement in the ancient texts. “Raven Tower” is Neil Gaiman “American Gods” caliber good, even more remarkable in that it’s Leckie’s first foray into fantasy (if you truly call this fantasy). And like NK Jemisin’s Stone Sky trilogy, once you determine the narrator’s identity, the story screams along to a satisfying conclusion. There may be a sequel coming, but this book stands well on its own.

10. “Red Moon,” sci-fi, Kim Stanley Robinson, finished March 2 (Kindle)

I find Kim Stanley Robinson’s views of the near future fascinating, whether it’s moon colonization or rising sea levels that submerge lower Manhattan. “Red Moon” is good but not great; it’s clearly the first book in a series (which you don’t realize until you’re at the end, in a “Han is sealed in carbonite” moment); and the dialogue between characters who are non native English speakers feels very stilted. There are a few leaps of narrative arc and confidence here — an AI that becomes sentient and political; multiple literal jumps from Earth to Moon and back; secret hideaways that have their own ecosystems. What I took away was a deeper appreciation for how Chinese nationals view the Chinese government, an eye opening view that filled in a number of gaps in my understanding. At the same time, the plot moves an a very uneven speed with long exposition interspersed with tangential mentions of critical character motivations.

9. “Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” sports, Jane Leavy, finished February 25.

With “Last Boy” I feel I’ve completed author Jane Leavy’s baseball book cycle. “Squeeze Play” is the single, brings a smile and is a fast and fun romp around the diamond. “Koufax” is the stand up double, an exploration of integrity and mechanics. “The Big Fella,” the Babe Ruth childhood story examined through the days of a barnstorming tour is the home run in every way — it’s clear how Leavy grew to love the boyish man as the book progressed, scraping away the myth to reveal the true patina of the man. And so “Last Boy,” the story of Mickey Mantle, is the elusive triple, the book that’s more than a double but not the simplicity of a home run; on the diamond it’s a confluence of hard hitting and equally hard base running acumen. “Last Boy” is just that — Leavy dissects the common worship of her boyhood hero, the mannish boy who never quite grew out of adolescence even when improperly touching her in the interview vignettes that function as section dividers of Mantle’s timeline.

“Big Fella” and “Last Boy” go in opposite directions — “Big Fella” goes from the specific “facts” bandied about Babe Ruth’s childhood — an orphan, a mixed race child, a truant — and lands in the abstract — he was a truly a kid at heart, who wanted to be loved. “Last Boy” starts with the abstractions — the true All-American boy, the ideal on the diamond — and devolves into the specifics of an angry man who really didn’t care what people thought, particularly the author. Leavy explores the dual nature of her relationship with Mantle: it’s a wave, a continuous adulation of hero, bent around gravity wells of bad behavior but never deterred, always propagating forward. And yet the specifics are particles, pin pricks of sensation that bore holes in the surfaces of our long held views. Based on Leavy’s interludes with Mantle, in a nascent Atlantic City reborn but not yet decrepit again, the “end of America’s childhood” is welcome.

[2020 comment: The cool thing about following favorite authors on Twitter is that sometimes they answer your mournful bleating with wisdom. Jane Leavy weighs in on Mickey Mantle moving from “hero” to “just a guy.”] Read all four of her books, in the cyclic order above, even though they were written in the natural cycle of baseball hits.

8. “Shadow Captain,” sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds, finished February 4

Part two of the “Revenger” world, this installment picks up the threads of the first (deep) book set in this world of the post-deconstructed Solar System. There are the usual twists and turns, and the science is quite believable while conveyed in a style that is equal parts steampunk, pirate, and introductory astrophysics text. Various questions arise — are the Crawlies the Medicis of this universe? What exactly is the coin of the realm? Are the Occupations really that or epochs of human dispersement through the old Solar System? I’m eager to find out in the next book(s).

7. “One Way Out,” Alan Paul, music, finished January January 24

The definitive history of the Allman Brothers Band, told through their final show at the Beacon Theater. The story evokes memories of the Grateful Dead and Phish with a healthy vein of American blues music running throughout. The Allmans were a band I wished I’d seen live at least once as so much of their music set mile markers in my personal history (“Ramblin Man” was 7th grade when I was discovering rock music; “Eat A Peach” was an “ah ha” moment in the stacks at WPRB; Gregg Allman’s “I’m No Angel” was early adulthood). The book is structured as a sequence of interview snippets, centered around a theme or time period, and it succeeds in making you feel like you’re sitting with the band members and those who were on the road and stage with the various incarnations of the ABB. No music story is complete without joy, bitterness, break ups, a financial battle over royalties and songwriting credits, and some chance encounters with legal and near death experiences (the analogies to high school parties are both sad and fitting). Without resorting to the maudlin or accusations, Paul walks you through the history of the band and their music with the even ear and pen of someone who literally rode the bus with the band.

6. “Fried Peaches,” Paul McGuire, music/fiction, finished January 19 (Kindle)

Paul McGuire, writer, Phish phan, and poker aficionado, takes an extended jam with “Fried Peaches.” Much of the exposition is given in cardinality-five lists, so here goes: (1) The demure Phish references are wonderful (b) He captures life on the road in the way that “Roadies” (Cameron Crowe) did © It’s a book about joy and creativity, although you might not see it that way (d) At various times I thought that the first person narrator was a projection and melange of Trey Anastasio, Robbie Krieger, half of the guitar players not named Hendrix hailing from Seattle, and maybe Keith Richards. And yet the voice is unique and the message is, at the end, powerful (e) “Sausage Ambulance” is the funniest band name ever and if Paul doesn’t make up shirts I’m going to do it myself.

5. “Bad Blood,” John Carreyrou, business/technology, finished January 11

An outstanding work of investigative journalism by an author who wasn’t afraid to challenge the common wisdom, power structures and youth fascination of Silicon Valley. His story about the multiple layers of fraud and deception surrounding Theranos, and the bully tactics used to keep them secret for a period of years, is a must-read for anyone in the technology, finance, or biological sciences spaces.

3. “The Killing Moon”

4. “The Shadowed Sun” both in “The Dreamblood Duology,” NK Jemisin, fantasy, finished January 10

Jemisin excels at researching civilization, culture, religion, and science and then gently pours them into the world building blender, creating multi-layered complex settings where characters can develop and grow and test the boundaries of her foundations. I was alternately thinking “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Inception,” and “2010” while reading, because her conveyance of deep rooted culture and clash of cultures is so vivid. I binge read these — finished all 900+ pages in a little over two straight days, and at the conclusion felt as mentally drained and challenged as having watched the entire last season of the “The Sopranos.”

2. “The Big Fella,” Jane Leavy, sports, finished January 8

Jane Leavy’s sports biographies tell stories the way museums present and protect our heritage and inform our future — from the middle out. She takes a chronology of Ruth and Gehrig’s 1928 barnstorming tour and connects it to seminal moments from Ruth’s childhood as well as attaching it to the forward stories with the Yankees, his outsized life as a pitchman, showman and public figure, and his (similar to Charlie Parker) succumbing to food, drink and frolic. I didn’t intend to read stories of Runyon-esque characters back to back but the pairing was delightful (including cameos by Runyon himself, as well as Grantland Rice). Despite his bright largeness in all aspects of life, Leavy fills in the shadows — his childhood in what was effectively an orphanage school, his ability (and perhaps need) to indulge, his frequent failings and yet his endearing nature, a big man deserving of a diminutive nickname.

1. “Bird Lives,” Ross Russell, music, finished January 6

I started reading this Parker biography, written by one of his former label executives, just after Christmas. However I didn’t finish it until I had thoroughly chewed over two of its central tenets — Charlie Parker was a once in a century talent, and he was so full of musical idea he never, ever played the same solo or even solo phrase twice. Getting the somewhat inside view of his life — from childhood and musical start in Kansas City to his “Scrapple from the Apple” days, tinged with racism, classism and vagaries of the music business — made for a dense but insightful read. I dusted off my Charlie Parker nostalgia after a disappointing visit to the Jazz Museum in Kansas City (one exhibit is the plastic also sax Parker played at Massey Hall in Toronto, supporting cast and facts in the book) and finishing the book slaked the musical knowledge thirst. What I thought of over the New Year’s break, however is how much Charlie Parker and Trey Anastasio (Phish) are alike — distinguished talents, improvisational skills that humble the industry, music that is played the way it was intended (for Parker, bebop that raged along at over 300 beats per minute; for Anastasio a goofy/bluesy/progressive pastiche that lets him have fun at every show). The author makes several cameos as himself, so the stories are rooted in first hand experience and show the excesses — heroin, booze, and food — that claimed one of the bebop giants way before his time.

Hal Stern

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By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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