Thanks to a move, I have to live a couple days without an internet connection. I may not get to see the Dodgers win the World Series or do meaningful work on a few topics I have in mind, but at least it gave me time to finish one book and start another.
Here are a few I’ve recently read and would recommend to anybody needing something to dig into. (Book links go to an affiliate page on Bookshop.org, proceeds from which benefit independent bookstores and Sox Machine.)
The 99% Invisible City, Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt
99% Invisible is one of my favorite podcasts, and although its most recent episode centers on the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, it’s largely about how the things we take for granted in everyday life came to be.
You don’t need to have heard of the podcast to enjoy The 99% Invisible City, because it condenses a lot of the episodes into a something resembling a guide for the city you’re in right now, even if the examples for the topic come from all over the world. Chicago does come up a couple of times, once for its flag design, and another for reversing the flow of the river.
If you’re a regular listener of the podcast, there’s some overlap between the chapters and podcast episodes but not an unwelcome amount. Passages on curb cuts, hostile architecture and guerrilla citizen action are familiar, but instead of 30-40 minutes on the topic, it’s only a couple pages. This treatment keeps the chapters working like refreshers, rather than redundancies.
Like Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, it’s the kind of book that explains why things you might never think about are the way they are. It might inspire you to be more curious about the world around you, but even if it doesn’t, sometimes it’s nice to let people do the digging for you.
For instance, moving into the house this week, I saw orange lines spray-painted on the driveway. Early on in The 99% Invisible City, it delves into the history and meaning of these lines. According to the American National Standards Institute, orange denotes telecommunication lines. So why isn’t my internet working?
The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson
Larson takes the formula that worked for best sellers like The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake and applies it to the German bombings of London and Great Britain from 1940 through 1941. If you’ve never read a Larson book, he alternates quick-hitting chapters on parallel timelines, this time shifting between Winston Churchill, his administration and his family on the British side, and Adolf Hitler’s high-ranking officers on the other. The template works because even if you don’t find all of the figures compelling, it might only be a few pages before the focus turns to a more active participant.
It’s a book that’s strangely relevant when living in a compromised fashion thanks to a persistent, indiscriminate threat. On one hand, it’s reassuring, knowing people have sacrificed more to live through worse. On the other hand, such shared sacrifice is a lot easier to pull off when the leaders are direct and honest about the threat, and unwavering in their conviction for combating it.
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
I’d read something like six consecutive non-fiction books in a row, so I needed a novel to break out of my habits. I’d seen Patchett’s name a ton, partially because her most recent novel The Dutch House was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and partially because she owns the most notable independent bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books.
Keith Law reviewed The Dutch House on his blog, but when I asked him if it was a good first Patchett novel to read, he suggested Bel Canto instead, saying it’s her best novel. The story opens with a private concert in South America, with an unnamed country attempting to lure a Japanese technology company to open a factory on the continent by bringing in the president’s favorite opera singer. Revolutionary forces crash the mansion and take hostages, and as weeks pass, the original context for their confluence evaporates, and new purposes are discovered.
I can’t say it’s her best book, because I haven’t yet read a second of hers. There’s incentive to do so, because when you buy even a paperback version of a book released 19 years ago from the author’s store, the copy is a signed one.
I’m thinking about starting Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I’m open to other recommendations if you have them.
“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs. 450 of her justifiably telling cities planners that they’re doing it wrong. ????
“Theodore Rex” by Edmund Burke. Biography of Roosevelt’s presidency. ????
“The Evening and the Morning” by Ken Follett. Historical fiction of turn of the millennia feudal Britain set against a backdrop of Viking invasions. Prequel to “Pillars of the Earth.” ????♂️
Including a well-justified shot at the University of Chicago for walling itself off from the rest of the South Side.
Speaking of the University of Chicago, its press published Hanna Rose Shell’s Shoddy: From Devil’s Dust to the Renaissance of Rags this year. It’s a trans-Atlantic history of rags since the eighteenth century, which makes it a good proxy history of industrial society and public health.
Set designer Ming Cho Lee just died at the age of 90, prompting me to crack open Arnold Aronson’s Ming Cho Lee: A Life in Design.. Lee emigrated from China in 1949 and his career serves as a good history of off-Broadway productions over the past half century.
I’m very interested in the 99% Invisible book. It’s a great podcast! While on the subject of podcasts, I recommend Reply All (start with “The Case of the Missing Hit”).
I’m reading some oldies currently: A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens) and, slowly, Purgatorio (Dante), but I’d highly recommend two books I’ve finished recently:
– Breaking Bread with the Dead (Alan Jacobs). Jacobs navigates the tricky of waters of reading old (i.e. dead) writers with a different, sometimes drastically so, moral framework than us.
– The End of Liberalism (Patrick Deneen). Only if you’re into political theory… Deneen writes about the end of Liberalism—not modern kind, but the kind assumed by both parties. Although written by a conservative Catholic, it comes recommended by President Obama.
The 99% Invisible City sounds super interesting. Jim or HallofFrank, have either of you read any of the Freakonomics (or related) books? Is it kind of similar in structure / execution? I enjoyed the setup of those as the topics were varied and it was easy to kind of knock it out in chunks rather than trying to come back and remember where I left off (my reading tends to be spaced out depending on when I have time).
I haven’t read Freakonomics, but the 99PI book can be read out of order, irregularly, etc. The chapters all fit together in the context of a city, but most of the chapters are discrete concepts, and the ones that are intertwined are usually adjacent.
-Labyrinth of Ice, by Buddy Levy. It’s a recounting of the Greely Arctic expedition. Interesting read, and makes me confident I wouldn’t want to explore the Arctic in the late-19th century.
-The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel. Sequel to Station Eleven, which I enjoyed several years back.
I’m on chapter 3 of The Glass Hotel. Didn’t immediately hook me, but I loved Station Eleven.
After reading The Terror I got really into that era of Arctic Exploration. Sounds extremely not fun!
Yup, The Terror made me read that.
Did you watch the AMC series of The Terror? I found it to be a really good interpretation of the book. Diverges from the book at points but felt pretty true to the source material.
I didn’t know they made a series of it! I’ll have to see if I can find it streaming somewhere. Thanks for the heads-up!
I am having issues with Sox Machine. Site logs me off randomly (this is not new, but it is happening a lot lately). I can’t post my offseason plan. Very unimpressed with WordPress.
Sorry… I know this is not the right place to complain. But it is the most recent post, and I wanted to voice out my frustration.
I am currently not reading any book. Well, I am, but it’s not an interesting book. In the last two years, I have been replacing my reading habits with Youtube serious content. In the past, I mostly read when I go to bed. Sometimes 5 mins before I fall sleep, sometimes 1 hour. Lately I have taken this habit of listening Youtube videos of philosophy and science, and some of them can be really interesting like Brian Greene‘s videos. I know it is not like reading a book, but it is fascinating me for the moment. And like a book, when my attention wanes, I put the video on pause (like I do when putting a book down), and continue watching next night. Some of these videos can go for more than 2 hours.
About 75% of the way through The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s an interesting take on the common Whodunit mystery thriller. So far, well worth the read.
Just picked up Don DeLillo’s newest, “The Silence”. I was expecting a 700 page monster, but it’s only like 120 pages. Just started it, but it’s DeLillo, so it’s good.
Also just finished an old children’s book, “Moccasin Trail”. It was fantastic, stacks up with any western you want to name IMO.
About 25% of the way through Antkind. It’s Charlie Kaufman’s first novel that came out earlier this year. If you’re familiar with his films, its about what you would expect.
I flipped through my journal to see what I’ve read in 2020. Best of the bunch –
1) Magpie Murders (recommended by Keith Law). A book-within-a-book mystery novel. There’s a sequel coming out next month that I’m excited to read.
2) I read a lot of YA. The Aurora Rising series is fantastic and the second came out this summer.
3) Right now I’m reading dare to lead by Brene Brown. It came recommended from a fellow teacher and I’m thinking about what I can incorporate into my teaching whenever I return to my classroom.
Longtime lurker and first-time poster. Thanks to all for making this community so enjoyable and to Jim for bringing together two of the best things in life, Baseball and Books.
In the YA vein, I recently read The Wizard of Earthsea and Kindred. Both are great (if very different).
Always here for Le Guin talk. Tales from Earthsea is a nice coda of that series.
I read Magpie Murders a few years ago and didn’t really care for it, but it did lead to a fun story. I was home on paternity leave, so I decided to join the Mystery Book Club at my local library. The book for that month was Magpie Murders, so I read it and then showed up for my first meeting. The club consisted of me (in my late 30’s at the time), and about a dozen ladies in their 70’s. It was hilarious. Most of them admitted to not reading the book, and those that did were more interested in showing pictures of their grandkids. I ended up on their email list, which apparently doubles as the list for my town’s “Retired Women’s Club”. So I think I’m now an honorary member.
Highly recommend The City We Became by NK Jemisin. A very timely and unique contemporary fantasy/magical realism novel. Her Broken Earth Trilogy is also excellent.
Reading The City We Became as my neighborhood’s mutual aid society organized to feed and get cleaning supplies/PPE to our more vulnerable community members this spring was affecting.
Finished Michener’s Texas, read all the Witcher books in like 3 weeks, and will be getting around to my 8th reading of Three Kingdoms soon. Probably going to read B.H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy at some point in honor of a real war happening.
I’ve been binging music biographies this year – not sure why, other than I don’t feel like reading anything about the current state of the world. I really enjoyed “The searing light, the sun, and everything else”, which is Jon Savage’s oral history of Joy Division. Currently reading “All I Ever Wanted”, by Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s, which is excellent so far. For sports fans, Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ “The Victory Machine” is an interesting inside look at the Golden State Warriors (and makes Kevin Durant sound like a seriously odd guy). On heavier topics, “One Mighty and Irresistible Tide” by Jia Lynn Yang is a comprehensive history of immigration policy from the 1920’s to the 1970’s – very topical and I learned a lot, but focused more on legislative inside baseball.
The Joy Division book sounds interesting. I’ll check that one out.
For my baseball effort, I finished”The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife” by Brad Balukjian. Interesting concept, effort and read. Re-read “Dune” by Frank Herbert. Also recently completed “Leadership in Turbulent Times” by Godwin and “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. Both are excellent if you are in need of a non-fiction read. Now reading “The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson.
The idea for “The Wax Pack” was right in my wheelhouse, and it was overall enjoyable just for the concept itself. I thought the author came across as kind of a d-bag though, and I could have done without any of his personal life stuff.
Goodwin made an appearance at UAlbany as “Leadership in Turbulent Times” came out, so I have a signed copy on my bookshelf. I haven’t had the urge to read it yet, partially because I’d recently read books about Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson and needed to branch out, and partially because I’m afraid the current situation will make me nostalgic for quainter brands of terribleness.
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami was probably the best novel I’ve read this year.
I love these posts. The diversity in interests across Sox Machine readers is lovely.
A weird genre I stumbled into is modern French Canadian literature. So far the section of it I’ve stumbled into is…pretty grim. It’s a blend of existentialism and horror, both of supernatural sources and the reality of modern humanity.
Atavisms by Raymond Bock
A group of short stories about the trials and tribulations of modern day Quebecois.
The Country Will Bring Us No Peace by Matthieu Simard
A couple moves from Montreal to a rural Quebec town to get away from the stresses of modern urban life but the town is dying in more ways than one.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
The fictionalized history of the legacy of two French habitants and their ancestors and the influence they have on the environment in New England, Canada, and beyond. It’s now a series on Nat Geo and I wanted to read the book before watching the series.
Outside of Quebec:
The Only Good Indians… by Stephen Graham Jones
A group of guys from a reservation of Montana begin to suffer the consequences of their actions 10 years prior. A great spooky read for Halloween season
Here Goes Nothing by Eamon McGrath
A not so fictionalized version about the experiences of a touring independent musician and the lengths people are will to go for fame. Also check out his music.
interesting coincidence. I’m starting a book on the Acadiens, who are originally from the area of France where my wife is from and where I’m at now for a couple of weeks. I love the idea that this farming village in the middle of France has a link, not only with Quebec (though that ended tragically), but also New Orleans.
I mostly read fiction. Recently I read and can highly recommend Driftless by David Rhodes. It’s a character-driven look at a small town in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin. Rhodes published 3 novels in the ’70s and then was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. This 2009 novel was his first in 30 years.
I felt as though I was gaining an insight into the people who propelled Trump to victory in the Midwest.
I’m in the phase of semester where I’m too busy to read anything for myself but have just enough time to daydream about all the books I’m going to read over winter break.
On my short list are:
Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?. Sandel’s an interesting thinker who communicates complex ideas very clearly.
Jim Gavin’s collection of short stories, Middle Men. The last series I got hooked on was Hulu’s Lodge 49, and I learned that it was based on Gavin’s stories (he was the writer).
This next book isn’t one that I’m planning on reading, since I’m re-reading it for a class I’m teaching, but I’m re-realizing how good it is: James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk.
I too am very happy for all these book suggestions. I made note of a couple of these suggestions and hope to check them out over break. And I’m glad to know that Delillo has another (thankfully shorter) novel out! I hadn’t really thought of him since I read Underworld years ago, when it was all the rage.
My 2020 has included a bit of a pseudo-BLM reading list, mostly by accident, including:
– The above-mentioned Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I liked quite a bit. A quick read that is worth your while.
– The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, another novel, like Kindred, taking place partly in the time of slavery and partly in the 1970s/80s and featuring an interracial couple, but without the time travel/dislocation. Also recommended.
– The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I thought this satire about the modern day African-American experience was an amazing, highly-entertaining read.
– The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. I hear there is now a Showtime series based on this novel about abolitionist John Brown. An easy read, but I didn’t really care for it.
– A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. I’m sure I’m in the minority on this one, but I found it a chore to get through this 700-page novel about Bob Marley, the Jamaican drug/crime scene, and more.
– Unisputed Truth by Mike Tyson. Even in his own telling, he’s a jerk. Surprising dull given all of the salacious stories.
– I also read a novel about the US President who has done the most (maybe 2nd most) for African Americans: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Written in a unique style featuring quotes pulled from many other historical records/books, in between segments set in an imagined netherworld populated by deceased who cannot let go of life, that took me a little while to appreciate, but it ultimately worked well to create a nuanced, moving story that humanizes an often lionized President.
Assuming the “second most” comment is a reference to Grant, I’d also recommend Chernow’s biography. Never realized how completely my formal education skipped Reconstruction until then.
And I assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Trump.
Currently reading “All the Light We Cannot See.” It’s well written and every chapter is short and an easy read even though it 500+ pages long. I have about 100 pages left and am enjoying it. It’s based on 4 characters and their everyday lives during WW2 in France. There’s a story of a diamond that’s cursed in that the possessor is free from harm, but everyone close to them suffers. It’s appears to be heading towards some (if not all) of the characters coming to a head eventually.
I’ve recommended this before, but since you’ve mentioned Churchill, if anyone wants to know about Churchill’s racist views towards the people of India, read “Churchill’s Secret War.” It gets into his direct involvement in India in WW2 and the famine that claimed an estimated 5 million lives. I learned about this from a Malcolm Gladwell podcast. I really enjoy his Revisionist History Podcasts.
I’m currently reading ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert Heinlein. I just finished reading ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Very interesting book, and a quick read. If you want to feel more terror about the state of the world right now, I also read ‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia Butler recently. Excellent novel. Thanks for this thread Jim! Definitely added a few things to my list.