Vacation reading potluck

2016 edition

When I first started as an independent ebook consultant, I went to big publishing conferences like Book Expo America to try to drum up work. I had no clients and no contacts, which meant I had a lot of time to wander around feeling like a failure and consoling myself with free books from the expo hall. I’d get too many to carry home so I’d ship them, at a fairly absurd expense given that most of them weren’t very good.

But there were lots of great finds too. Some I probably would’ve read eventually, like Anathem, The Magicians, and The City & the City, but most would’ve just passed me by: The Solitude of Prime Numbers, The Toss of a Lemon, and City of Thieves (which I only just now realized is by that David Benioff.)

I make most purchases in the 21st century style: micromanaging my decision-making by reading too many contradictory reviews and, in the absence of universal acclaim, usually deciding to pass. That’s good for reducing mindless consumerism—I have far fewer cases of buyer’s remorse than I used to—but it’s lousy for serendipity.

For books, at least, I’ve settled on a solution which provides an element of surprise but with a much better hit rate than conference freebies: just before my summer vacation, I ask for book recommendations on Twitter, and I buy whatever people suggest — any genre, sight unseen. (It can be kind of expensive, but the books I don’t finish on vacation become the bulk of my reading for the rest of the year.)

I’ve been doing this for about five years and it’s totally great.

I tweet a short review and thank whoever recommended it, but a couple people requested longer reviews, so here’s this year’s roundup:

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

I’d read and enjoyed his first novel, The Intuitionist, and I have Zone One waiting for a day when I’m not tired of zombies. The speculative fiction angle might lead you to file it next to Miéville; the Oprah endorsement and the female protagonist might lead you to see it as a Serious Lady Literary Novel. It’s really neither and also both. The unique conceit—that the Underground Railroad was a literal train — appears in some key scenes but is not central to the story, and while this is a character-driven book, Whitehead will bend dialogue or personality in a way that’s not always believable. I don’t see either of these issues as flaws; they feel deliberate and intentional. I loved it.

Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

I expected this to be the computer science equivalent of neurotrash, but I was happy to be wrong. The authors cover about a half-dozen algorithms, some fundamental and some quite new, and purport to demonstrate how they can inform everyday decision-making. Often the application is direct and easily implemented: optimal stopping can help anyone find a decent apartment or a parking place with minimal regret. In other chapters they hand-wave around the practical applications, since you probably don’t need to solve many O(n!) problems in your daily life. But the explanations of the algorithms are clear, lucid, and highly readable. If, like me, you’re a programmer without a CS background for whom classic algorithms can be a source of mystery or frustration, the book comes highly recommended.

Speak, Louisa Hall

This meditative and thoughtful novel about chatbots can feel a little David Mitchell Lite at times, but the writing is lovely and the topic of algorithmic bias is timely. Hall bases one character very loosely on Joseph Weizenbaum, creator of ELIZA, and I wish she’d done the same with Alan Turing (I’m not a fan of cameos in historical novels). Minor complaints aside, it’s no mean feat to write a novel about an evolving technical topic that feels substantive rather than exploitative, and I throughly enjoyed it overall.

Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall

This is a short and opinionated book about geopolitics. If you know about geopolitics, there probably isn’t much for you to learn and likely a lot to complain about. I know squat-all about geopolitics and I read it on vacation, so I appreciated the For Dummies level of detail while recognizing the absurdity of covering Africa in a single chapter. Marshall is a tough guy war correspondent who has maybe a little too much admiration for despots and war criminals, but I learned a lot about the origins of long-standing territorial disputes and their likely futures (spoiler: more of the same).

The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin

This year’s most-recommended-to-me book. I run very hot and cold on fantasy: sometimes I love it and sometimes I completely bounce off the maps in the front matter and apostrophes in everyone’s names. The Fifth Season worked for me: I admired the writing, the world-building, and the diversity of race/gender/sexuality. I’ll read the sequel when I finish the remaining 200 books on this list.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, Joshua Hammer

This is a cutesy book title for a very serious subject: the 2012 coup that led regions of Mali to fall under the control of Islamic fascists, and the heroic efforts of curators and archivists (and many many volunteers) to save historically valuable manuscripts from a religious purge. I knew nothing about this part of the world (despite having just read an entire chapter on “Africa”) but the story was riveting and important.

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart

I don’t read YA often so this is a perfect justification of my process (though I read the first The Hunger Games title thanks to a freebie from a conference before the series really blew up). The story is set on a moody private island off Cape Cod, and I was staying in Cape Cod during a tropical storm, so I experienced some nice synergy. This is one of those stories you can’t meaningfully talk about without spoiling, so I won’t, but I’d recommend it if you like amped-up family drama and a serious amount of mystery.

The Billionnaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

I thought I had read a New Yorker article about this epic wine fraud, but it turned out I’d read a New Yorker article about a different epic wine fraud (though by the same author). Both are great! I thought the book was a page-turner, though plenty of Amazon reviewers found it slow to get started. That’s true, but I found the extensive backstories on Thomas Jefferson, wine auctions, and idiosyncratic wine collectors to be fascinating. I also enjoyed this 2008 TED talk by Wallace about whether the world’s most expensive things actually bring pleasure, from back when TED talks were just normal presentations given by interesting people who made their own slides.

All the rest

Titles I didn’t yet finish that I will enjoy in the comfort of my own home:

An Unclean Legacy by Jenna Katerin Moran (in progress)

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (in progress, though I’m struggling with following it and may pause to go read the earlier novel in the same world)

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

Champion of the World by Chad Dundas

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’, 3rd Ed. by @sidneydekkercom

Rupetta by N. A. Sulway

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

A Deeper Sea by Alexander Jablokov

The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander (not from the last 5 years, but the guy who recommended it used to be my boss and I’m still in the habit of doing what he tells me)

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (apparently I bought this in a previous year and forgot about it, so I rolled over this and its sequel)

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (a gargantuan door-stopper that will require a second vacation to get through)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Thank you to everyone who recommended titles to me (and a special shout-out to those who’ve done it multiple years).