Books I’ve read in 2017
These are presented roughly in the order I read them. They include books with hard covers, paperbacks, and audio recordings.
1. A Thread Across the Ocean, by John Steele Gordon (2002)
A very enjoyable read. A history of the creating of the first trans-Atlantic cable. Fascinating glimpse into the past and the impact of electronic communication on world events. I’ve read other books by Gordon and I think he’s a good writer and historian. However, he’s politically way too right wing for me, and he occasionally makes some silly economic assertions, but that doesn’t detract from a good narrative.
2. Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything, by Peter Morville (2014)
Morville is an information architect, a skill similar to an interaction designer, but focused more on how large or complex collections of data are accessed. He’s a brilliant and critical thinker, and this book is filled with provocative ideas.
3. The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City — and Determined the Future of Cities, by Joe Flood (2011)
I’m a Californian so the saga of the destruction of the New York borough of Queens in the 1970s was unknown to me. This book lays it all out: the racism, the top-down planning, the raw ambition, and the hubris of those who treat a city like a petri dish in a lab. This is a remarkable book.
It’s tragic that so many ambitious young men seized on so many bogus ideas for “improving” the city. They talked themselves into ridiculous things like tearing down entire swaths of established neighborhoods to put in unwanted roads, and somehow justifying that fewer fire departments would make the borough safer for fires.
4. Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire, by Simon Winchester (1985)
Winchester is one of my favorite authors. In the mold of John McFee, Witold Rybczynski, and Paul Theroux, he choses obscure but fascinating topics to research and explore and present, especially if it involves travel. In this — mostly forgotten — volume, he really probes the esoteric. After World War two, the British Empire collapsed. All of their enormous colonies declared their independence and left nothing. Nothing except for a couple dozen tiny states, most of them on tiny rocks in the middle of giant oceans. Here, he explores these insignificant remnants of the British Empire in intriguing detail.
5. The Comedians, by Grahame Green (1966)
A dark exploration of Haiti in the 1960s, when it is ruled by the dictator, Duvalier. Interesting read looking into the decomposing lives of people tied to land convulsing with violence.
6. Sense & Respond: How Successful Organizations Listen to Customers and Create New Products Continuously, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden
Every few years the programming community is rocked by some new tool or technique. Around the turn of the century another innovation swept through the development community, but for the first time it was qualitatively different from all those that passed before. Agile was about people and process rather than tools and techniques. It was about valuing different aspects of the development process rather than just doing the same old thing with some new compiler or other.
I’ve always been bugged by the notion — held by a minority of agilistas — that rapid development cycles obviate the need for design, but beyond that, I’m a big fan of agile. It is a modern management method that recognizes that programming is not at all like an industrial process. Agile thinks about things in the right way.
But, as you might expect in the world of pragmatic, aimless business, executives don’t really give a rat’s ass about doing things in a superior way if that way takes the trappings of power and authority out of their hands. So agile has been a football, kicked around by virtually everybody in the world of tech. Its tenets have been altered, ignored, substituted, and maligned. Many of its strongest proponents have become frustrated and disillusioned.
One obscure practitioner put a name to his particular variant, Scrum, and invented some rather questionable quantitative practices. He gave classes, issued certifications, and didn’t disabuse any managers of the notion that agile means building software faster. It means nothing of the sort, but if executives want development to go faster, who’s to question consultants who sell them “faster?” So, agile languishes. There are zillions of programmers who stand-up and burn-down, led by gazillions of certified Scrum Masters. Nothing is much better. Software still takes the same amount of time it always did. Oh, sure, you can deploy shitty software in a hurry, but what does that get you?
The authors of this book, Jeff and Josh, are designers, not developers, but they have adopted the thinking, tools, and philosophy of agile, not for design, not for programming, but for business. Which, of course, includes design and programming. They present real world practical applications of the idea that you can’t go off and figure out what products or services your users might want. Instead you have to engage in a real-time dialog with your users — over working software — to figure that out. It’s agile, just moved up a notch, moved out of the developer’s cubicle into the managers office.
This is a very useful book that will help you create better products and a better business. Maybe someday, programmers will refer to it to change the way they program.
7. Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, by Emmanuel Guibert (1999)
Author and illustrator Guibert interviewed the American, Cope, then created this graphic memoir from his stories. Nothing about Cope’s short time in combat is remarkable. His stories are fascinating simply because they are so quotidian, but so revealing. Cope is talking many years after the events, so there is more than a little bittersweetness in his recollections. Guibert’s drawings are superb.
8. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)
I’m really pleased that this book is having such a success. It deserves its Hugo and Nebula Awards, as does its Nigerian author. That said, I never connected with this book, or its eponymous protagonist. Just personal taste, probably because fantasy has far less appeal for me than does science fiction. I’m sure Binti would appeal more to a teenage girl reader. I was, however, intrigued by Binti’s use of clay in her hair, and the role it played in the plot.
9. Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life, by Brian Brett (2009)
A very readable memoir of a life on a farm in British Columbia. Brett’s stories are interesting and revealing, both of his life and of the cycles of life on a farm. Very enjoyable book.
Our past was based on small family farms, and I believe that our future will be much the same. That’s a good reason in itself to read this book. We’ve been sold a lie, that working in an office is more mentally satisfying than working in the shops or fields with our hands. It isn’t true, and eventually things will find a better balance for life.
10. The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton (2010)
This is a very readable, plot-driven novel. I recommend it for your next plane ride or beach vacation. It tells the story of a young man who picks locks, but the twist is that he does not speak. Not that he can’t, but that he doesn’t. Read the book to find out why. Evidently the author is a prolific and well-known novelist, but this is the first I’ve heard of him. I would call it high end genre fiction. I suppose you’d call it “crime fiction.”
11. The Sellout: A Novel, by Paul Beatty (2015)
It’s a tired cliche, but I really had the sensation of being on some kind of roller coaster reading this excellent book. It’s a knife-edged satire of race and racism in America. It’s packed with word-play and visual jokes and stereotypes and over-the-top characters. It has won many awards including the Man Booker Prize and certainly deserves them. The book is funny and sad and holds a mirror up to life. I highly recommend this book.
12. The Fracture Zone: My Return to the Balkans, by Simon Winchester (1999)
Nothing I’ve read about the Balkans has made as much sense to me as this book did. Why did the Balkans break down into genocidal violence at the end of the century? There really isn’t a clear-cut answer, but the author at least shines enough light on the region to make clear that all the partisan finger-pointing is just that: partisan. As usual, Winchester’s writing is delightfully erudite, perceptive, and leisurely.
13. Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint (2009)
Jane Jacobs is a role model for any urban activist. Just a Greenwich Village housewife in the 1950s, she found herself on the battle lines facing the legendary power-broker and civic builder, Robert Moses. Jacobs fights Moses to a standstill, then writes her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, based largely on what she learned about urban living and urban design during those years of fighting. Jacobs book remains one of the most perceptive and important volumes on how cities really work, and how they relate to the role of the urban planner.
14. The Ardennes, 1944, The Battle of the Bulge, by Antony Beevor (2015)
In the winter of 1944–45, with the German army on the ropes in Europe, Hitler forced his generals to break through the Allied lines and make a mad dash for the English Channel. It was a suicide mission, as the generals had to scavenge their formations, particularly those on the Eastern Front, to get the resources for the assault, fatally weakening them, while never really having enough to sustain the attack. And, of course, many of the resources gathered were imaginary, particularly sufficient fuel for the armor. But the German army was so skillful that even pathetically handicapped, they still struck terror into the hearts of the civilians and opposing combatants alike.
The campaign made for great drama precisely because it was so unreasonable, unlikely and unexpected. Beevor has become one of my favorite author/historians for his clear writing and peerless research. Even after so many years and so many volumes about this battle, Beevor brings fascinating new insight to the story of the struggle. Particularly interesting is his brutally frank treatment of the Allied generals, revealing which of them were paper tigers and which were the real thing.
15. Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, by Judith Schwartz (2016)
A series of vignettes of farmers, activists, and ecologists that paints a picture of a world where water has been mistreated and abused, and where our dependence on it will likely not end well. I thought this book was weaker than Schwartz’s first effort, Cows Save the Planet, but still worth reading.
16. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan (2005)
I’ve never read anything about this episode in American history, and knew little about it despite its being a well-known story. Egan sets it all out in clear and readable prose, how a huge swath of land, formerly the home of vast herds of buffalo and tribes of nomadic Native Americans, was ruined by racist policy and raw greed. President Andrew Jackson wanted to wipe out Indians, and, in addition to outright genocide, he offered a bounty for killing buffalo. Millions and millions of buffalo were shot and left to rot by white outdoorsmen so the indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years would be starved out and forced to relocate. And after the tribal remnants had gone, unscrupulous promoters hyped the land as suitable for wheat farming. Thousands of unsuspecting farmers moved into the huge vacated area and proceeded to apply wholly inappropriate farming techniques on the very delicate grassland. Of course, disaster ensued. The ruination was so complete that the dust actually blew as far east as Washington DC, where congressmen eventually realized their mistake.
I found this book very revealing of the American character, and that’s not really such a good thing. I recommend this book.
17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig (1974)
I first read this book way back in the stoned ages when I was young and naive. It’s fun to flash back by re-reading the classic of alternative philosophy. I hope it’s still rocking the world for lots of young people today.
18. The Crack In the Edge of the World, by Simon Winchester (2005
Wow! This is the third book I’ve read this year by Simon Winchester! I must really like him! The real reason why I read three of his books is because I bought and read “The Fracture Zone” thinking it was this book about the Big One.
In this book Winchester focuses his awesome intellect and questing mind on the subject of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. He does a fabulous job!
I was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Bay Area hearing stories of the famous quake. Yet, I learned some remarkable facts about the tremor from this book that I had never heard before. One of the tropes repeated endlessly is that the ensuing fire was much more devastating than the actual quake was. It turns out that this was just marketing spin. The fire was bad, but mostly it just charred the rubble. The city fathers knew that people would regard a fire as a hazard that could strike in any city, but a quake was uniquely San Francisco’s problem. If they couldn’t spin this, the economic future of the City By the Bay would be stunted forever. They spun, and the fire story is still told, but the City’s economic and cultural trajectory never recovered.
19. The A — Z Guide to Black Oppression, by Elexus Jionde (2017)
Jionde is a self-described “Angry Black Woman.” She blogs and tweets and writes and speaks her mind. Believing that people don’t really know about the plight of black people in America, she has produced a fascinating series of two-minute long videos (that you can find on the Web) showcasing interesting facts about black history. This book contains 26 short essays in a similar vein, discussing some of the manifestations of institutional racism here.
She’s young and unrefined, and her writing is too, but the points she makes are good and her in-your-face attitude is a delight. I wish everyone would read this self-published book.
20. Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry, by Jeremy Blum (2013)
I’ve been playing around with the Arduino lately. It’s a tiny, open-source development platform based on a small, inexpensive, but very competent microprocessor. The breakout board it comes on is perfectly designed to support learning, experimentation, hacking, and interfacing to the real world. I can’t imagine a better way to learn about computer programming than to pick up an Arduino (about $25 is all you need) and start playing. You can find all of the example code and tutorials you need on the Web, and I soon discovered that that video tutorials by the youthful computer engineer Jeremy Blum were the best. Of course, I then bought his book, and I use both as I develop my projects.
There’s no little irony here that this accomplished programmer has to go back to the beginning to write a little code after a twenty-year hiatus.
21. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado (2014)
Linda Tirado got pissed off one day back in 2013 when someone challenged her about some lifestyle choice she had made. She responded with a vitriolic blog post entitled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts.” The post went viral and Tirado, who is known online as @KillerMartinis, turned it into this book a year later.
Tirado isn’t a welfare queen or a criminal or a drug dealer or some kind of ne’er-do-well, as the sanctimonious conservatives would like you to believe. She’s pretty much a normal person, with flaws and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, except that she doesn’t have any money. She works hard, very hard, probably harder than you, and certainly harder than me. Most clueless people treat Tirado badly because of this. But Tirado is not an outlier. She’s not someone living on the fringes of the demographics of America. She’s actually pretty representative of many millions of people. She’s what you might call a Poor-American. Here in the affluent high-tech bubble of Silicon Valley, it’s easy to misunderstand just how representative she is.
If you own your own home, and own a couple of late model cars, and don’t think it’s an extravagance to eat out two or three times a week, you should read this book. It will open your eyes. It opened mine.
22. Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren (2016)
Silly me, I thought this book was a novel when I picked it up, and I read it that way. It was fascinating and interesting and I kept reading, but it seemed so flat in its aspect that it bothered me. I was more than halfway through before I realized that it wasn’t a novel, and its flatness was just a reflection of my expectation. Novels are hyperbole, and memoirs are not. But the only thing any author has to do, is get the reader to want to read the next page, and Jahren does that very well with a great story well told.
The author is a genuine scientist but not one who has made some world-changing discovery. She counts leaves and bugs and writes learned papers with footnotes and big words. She begs for grant money. You don’t read this book to find how DNA was discovered or the atom was first split, but to see how a normal career in science might look, and how it might be rewarding even if it doesn’t change the world. Right now is a good time for a book written by a normal woman scientist to be published. Lots of young girls are in need of Hope Jahren’s true story. And so are men.
23. A Colony In a Nation, by Christopher Hayes (2017)
This is an excellent and important book. It reveals the state of institutionalized racism in America. How black people are treated differently from whites in just about every way, but mostly in the way they are policed. I highly recommend this book.
24. Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots, by John Markoff (2015)
Markoff is a veteran reporter on the Silicon Valley tech beat. In this book he tackles the history and evolution of artificial intelligence. I learned quite a bit in this book that I didn’t know, even though I know some of the players in the drama reasonably well. There have been widely differing philosophies over the years for how machines might be made to think. Various theories wax and wane over the years along with the reputations of their proponents.
I still harbor grave doubts about the idea that computers will be achieve what Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity,” where computers become smart enough to tell humans to piss up a rope, but that shouldn’t diminish the plethora of remarkable things they will learn to do along the way.
I would compare this book to those of Walter Isaacson, and favorably so.
25. Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, by Stephen Leacock (1914)
Leacock was born in 1869 and died in 1944 and was a big deal back in the day, writing more than 50 books, during the teens and twenties of the last century (just a hundred years ago) when he was regarded as one of the most successful humorists in English.
This book is a send-up of rich people. Leacock’s wit is dry but broad, taking the piss of the moneyed gentry. He paints rich people as dumb, lucky, foolish, prideful, and ridiculous. I’m not going to argue with him.
This is a very funny book, and more relevant today as rampant inequality creates a division between rich and poor reminiscent of the extravagance of the boom days of the gilded age.
26. Generative Design: Visualize, Program, and Create with Processing, by Hartmut Bohnacker et al (2012)
In my explorations of the Arduino, I have discovered lots of interesting techy things I never knew. In the quest for a lightweight programming language that would run on a Mac and talk to my programs running on the Arduino, I discovered “Processing,” a language developed to support the creation of dynamic visual art.
I just want to point out that a long-standing meme in the software industry is devising incredibly shitty names for programming languages, like “C,” “SQL,” and “C#,” and this one is no exception. In fact, I’m willing to nominate “Processing” for the worst programming language name evar!
The language, however, is very useful. It’s a simple, interpreted C-form language, but it has powerful and unique operators that make putting creative, colorful, active, dynamic images on a screen.
I’m pleased that I found this massive tome because it is a very useful cross between a tutorial and a reference. It’s big, hardbound, filled with beautiful color illustrations (expensive!), but it has everything the reader needs to become proficient creating visual computer art.
27. Annihilation: Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer
I grew up reading science fiction. Old school scifi like Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, and Sturgeon. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, as I began to do significant original work with software, I came to find scifi kind of…not as relevant as my day job. So I mostly stopped reading it for many years. In the past few years, though, I’ve been re-reading some of my old favorites and also searching for new books and new authors. It has not been a very fruitful search. Yes, there are some standout contemporary authors like Paolo Bacigalupi and John Scalzi, but some of the books that come highly recommended seem pretty bad to me. This book was one of them.
The prose here is an exercise in fuzzy, vague, hinting at something that might be happening. The sense of foreboding and inexplicable danger just outside of one’s peripheral vision is strong to the point of annoyance. That foreboding kept me reading, but it never really did pay off. This whole book — hundreds of pages — could have been covered in a chapter, and should have been covered in a chapter.
Evidently people love this style of writing, as there are sequels. Not for me.
28. Paris After the Liberation 1944–1949, by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper (1994)
Okay, here is a book to reckon with. This is a superbly researched, highly detailed examination of Paris after the Allies take it back from the Nazis in World War Two.
In the Twentieth Century, as in the preceding century, Paris was the cultural hub of the world. Even Hitler, who bombed everything out of spite, and the Americans and British, who bombed cities in order to liberate them, didn’t bomb Paris. It’s avenues, monuments, and buildings remained intact, but the humanity of Paris seethed under the German boot, and all of that tension and emotion boiled over when the city was liberated in 1944.
Capturing Paris was arguably Hitler’s biggest triumph. During the four-year-long occupation by the Germans, Paris endured, but many of its residents were forced into terrible moral compromises. War, as we all know, kills soldiers but devastates the lives of many millions of civilians.
When Paris was liberated, it was a bubbling cauldron of politics. The communists were a big deal in Paris in the years before the war, and they fully expected to be the dominant party after it. There were spies and madams and fascists and collaborationists, diplomats and freebooters. The British and the Americans swaggered into town in much the same way that the Germans had a few years earlier. There were factions of the French Resistance, some still fighting, others looking for political gain, and some just wanting peace. All of these sides found the tendrils of the Cold War starting up.
The various groups fought for power, influence, money, respect, recognition, and revenge, and it’s all here in this marvelous book. One chapter might cover the humiliating battle between two different resistance groups, and then the next chapter takes us to socialite parties with the rich and famous, then the next chapter visits the runways of Parisian Haute Couture, detailing the resurgence of fashion as the fighting stops. We meet Yves St Laurent and Ernest Hemingway, Charles de Gaulle and Eisenhower, Camus, Sartre, Philby, Picasso, and Simone de Beauvoir.
I know this book will not be for everyone, and some of the exhaustive passages about infighting between the Maquis and the communists were a bit much for me, but overall this is a fantastic book. Beevor is my current favorite historian. His scholarship is incredible, and his far ranging interests are endlessly intriguing. This book reveals a side of the war you’ve never seen before.
29. Maker Cities: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities, by Peter Hirschberg, Dale Dougherty, Marcia Kadanoff (2016)
This book is a commercial, but a good one, and an appropriate one. It sells the notion that the “maker movement” is a really good thing for cities. As such, you should buy a copy and give it to your mayor. It will make a perfect introduction.
The authors make the case that people making things is as powerful a tool for economic development as having a prestigious university in your backyard. As a maker, I agree with this assertion.
30. River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (2017)
Science fiction often gets confused with fantasy. Star Wars, for example, is fantasy, because things that take place in the Star Wars universe violate the laws of physics. In genuine science fiction, the author takes a single leap of faith, a plausible leap, and then, adhering strictly to reality in everything else, tells us a revealing story. This book is science fiction.
Late in the 19th century and early in the twentieth, powerful men were learning they could reshape the world with their steam engines and rifles. They hatched many schemes, like damming the Colorado, spanning the continent with rails, and killing all the buffalo. A few of these schemes prospered, but many came to misery and failure. The Dust Bowl is a case in point.
In the 1890s, well-intentioned entrepreneurs (there’s the trouble right there!) thought up the wild idea of importing hippopotami from Africa. This was seriously considered in the American Congress, but ultimately fizzled out before anyone could take action. This is where author Gailey takes over. The one leap of faith you are asked to make is that the scheme went through and the lower Mississippi is packed with clever, brutish, ill-tempered amphibious mammals that can eat a human whole. After that, the book is basically a western drama, with hippos instead of horses and cows.
Gailey has appeared on the scifi scene only recently and has been making quite a stir, becoming a finalist for the prestigious Hugo Award. Personally, I’m tickled at her success because Sarah used to work at Cooper.
31. Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop, by Nick Offerman (2016)
It’s unclear whether Offerman’s Hollywood career pre- or post-dated the creation of his commercial wood working shop, not that it really matters. He’s down to earth enough for this book to not be about stars-in-your-eyes.
Offerman understands the value of collaboration, and his workshop is a group endeavor. In this large format book he showcases his co-workers, mentors, and fellow travelers. He also shows off the products they create. Actually, he presents step-by-step instructions showing how you can create versions of these products in your own shop.
His quirky metaphors, jokes, and insider tales make this a fun and easy read, but the details of joinery give it some heft.
32. The Cuban Affair: A Novel, by Nelson DeMille (2017)
Evidently DeMille is a very accomplished novelist with dozens of titles in his oeuvre. This is the first of them I’ve read, and odds are good it will be the last. He’s a very workmanlike novelist, but there is little here that reflects reality. It was good enough to keep me turning the pages, but not much more beyond that.
It’s a caper novel involving a veteran, a hot babe, lots of money, displaced Cubans, guns, and bad guys that fall like bowling pins. Take it on a plane with you, or to the beach.
33. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)
People have been telling me to read this book and I’m very glad that I finally did. Harari is an excellent storyteller, and he tells the story of Homo sapiens starting with the creation of the universe. The way he sees the progression of human culture is unlike anything I’ve heard of before. He provides a lot of startling insight into why humans behave the way they do.
I highly recommend this book to everyone, and particularly those in the tech business, as we need to know more about how people behave. Although it’s scholarly and long, it’s easy to read.
34. Autumn In the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt (2012)
I recently visited China for the first time. Before I departed, I walked upstairs to my library to find a suitable book to read on the long plane ride. Fortuitously, I found this one, purchased a few years ago and languishing on the shelf. It seemed just perfect for this trip.
China has been a cipher to me all of my life. I’ve read some books, but without having been there, my knowledge of the geography is useless. I never left the city of Nanjing, but, as it happens, a lot of the action in this book centers on that city in the 1860s.
The rise of the Taiping coincided with the collapse of the ancient dynasties in China. It was a horrific war with casualties in the millions. While I was there, I mentioned the Taiping Rebellion to a few natives, and none of them knew much about it. China’s subsequent history has included several upheavals that were just as horrible so I guess I understand their ignorance.
To a westerner, the most fascinating aspect of the story is the participation of the English and Americans. There was an enormous amount of trade with England, and the English economy, at the time, was ridiculously dependent on China. They claimed neutrality, but their behavior exhibited quite a bit of meddling. The book makes clear, though, that the English meddling was chaotic, confused, and conflicted. There were entrepreneurs, generals, admirals, politicians, and missionaries, all with a personal axe to grind. This was in a far less enlightened time, when many of the English considered the Chinese to be a separate race of less-than-human beings.
This book is not an easy read. it’s exhaustive, and I’m still plodding through it a few pages every night. Eventually I’ll finish it. Or not. But it has given me a glimpse into Chinese history, combined with my glimpse into modern Chinese culture and geography, that really helps me to understand China’s role in the world.
35. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Until I read this book, I had never read anything by Hemingway before. I’ll probably read more. He’s an excellent writer. He shows, instead of telling, his truth. It is fascinating that his vocabulary is so simple and limited, but he makes it work.
This novel tells the story of an American farm boy fighting with the partisans against the fascists in the hills of Spain in the late 1930s. If you step back and look at the plot, it’s pretty macho and straightforward, but if you look closely, the complex and multi-faceted characters give the story depth and emotion. You really feel for these people, even when they misbehave.
The conditions in the mountains are brutal. The partisan band lives in a cave and has to dodge fascist patrols and bombs from airplanes. Stealing a horse is a big step forward for the band. Even more brutal than the partisan life is the vicious internecine warfare in the villages. Hemingway, in a long passage of dialog, relates a fictionalized account of a real event, where Republicans — the good guys — throw their fascist neighbors off a cliff after beating them with rakes and hoes.
Ultimately, the book is a tragedy because of what happens to the protagonist, but it’s a reflection of the larger tragedy of the war itself being lost.
Overall, this novel has aged very well. Yes, there are a few quirky things that seem…old, but it’s still a real page-turner. I’ll be reading more Hemingway in the future.
36. China In Ten Words, by Yu Hua (2010)
On my recent first trip to China I made a new friend, Randy Finch. He’s an American filmmaker living and teaching in Taipei. His knowledge of cinema is encyclopedic, and it was lots of fun discussing and recommending films with him. He’s been doing good work in VR and AR, and that’s what he was speaking about in Nanjing. He was the only other westerner on the roster, and we became good friends over the course of our visit. Randy is a Sinophile. He loves the land, the people, and the language of China. It was so much fun walking the backstreets of Nanjing with him as he fearlessly approached strangers on the street to engage them in conversation with his pidgin Mandarin.
I asked Randy to recommend a book that would enlighten me about China and Chinese culture. He immediately recommended China in Ten Words.
The author, Yu Hua, has constructed ten chapters around ten words that are important in China. Some of them seem pretty straightforward, like reading and writing. Others, though address the unique Chinese experience, like grassroots, revolution, and influential Chinese poet, Lu Xun. Of course, these are the English translations of the Chinese words.
Yu grew up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when the entire society was turned on its ear. Some of the stories he relates are harrowing and could only happen in a revolutionary communist dictatorship. China is past that, and has turned towards a controlled-capitalist economy. In particular, the words bamboozle and copycat provide intriguing insight into how the manufacturing juggernaut of contemporary China has grown.
It will probably take a hundred books to understand China, but this one is an excellent start. Thanks, Randy.
Six of the books I read this year were by women.