Category Archives: books

My 6 Best Reads of 2014

I thought about waiting until 2014 is actually over before posting about my best reads this year, but I figured if there is a late-comer in the next few weeks, nothing prevents me from revising my list. It would have to be a really fantastic late-comer, but anything is possible.

Note that I called this my best reads of 2014. I did this because many of the books I read this year were not published in 2014. I want it to be clear that these mark the books that I most enjoyed reading this year, even if they weren’t published this year. Call me quirky.

Indeed, calling these “reads” is a little disingenuous, too, as most of these were audio book, and I listened to them. I have come, reluctantly, to accept that reading and listening are two different activities, but for the sake of simplicity, they produce the same result within me, and so I use the phrases interchangeably, much to the dismay of many. Again, call me quirky.

To date, I have read 36 books so far this year. That is down from last year, but there were a couple of really long book this year and that makes up for some of it. 20 of those 36 books (56%) were nonfiction. 6 of the 36 books were re-reads of books I’d already read. Here then, are my best reads of 2014.

6. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

I’d never read anything by John Irving before, and wracking my brain, I can’t think of what it was that made me decide to tackle A Prayer for Owen Meany. But I thought it was fantastic, and this is one example where an audiobook almost certainly gives added dimension to the printed page, for Joe Barrett’s impression of Owen Meany’s unusual voice was pitch-perfect. Indeed, because of Joe Barrett’s excellent narration of this book, I sought out other books that Barrett has narrated.

5. The Martian by Andy Weir

This book was a hard science fiction-fan’s playground. What happens when an astronaut is accidentally left-behind on the Martian surface? How long can he survive? Turns out, a pretty long time. This novel was the exception to the rule that technical description in a science fiction novel can be boring and get the way. I listened to much of this book on the long drive home from our summer vacation in Maine, and that meant that Kelly–who is anything but a hard science fiction fan–listened to it a well. She got caught up in it for while. Eventually, she drifted to sleep, lulled by the highway, but when she awakened, the very first thing she asked me was, “Did he make off the planet?”

4. Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Fleder

If the human lifespan ever stretched out to the point where multiple careers were possible in a single lifetime, I think I’d turn my attention to becoming a sportswriter, and specifically, a baseball writer. The long pieces in this collection appeared throughout a 50-year span of Sports Illustrated, giving a picture of the game, and its participants (to say nothing of the times in which they played) in a way that only baseball sportswriters can capture

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Ignore That Last Post!

Earlier today I foolishly listed out the next three books I’d planned on reading. I even cautioned that such lists were foolish because what I desire to read changes quite rapidly, often affected by what I’ve just read in some way or another. I mentioned how I just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in probably 30 years; certainly the first time as an adult. And I said that up next was a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

What on earth made me think I could finish reading The Fellowship of the Ring and not want to continue on with The Two Towers.

Well, that’s just what I have done, and so please ignore that last post, and quite possibly, ignore me. I tend to be foolish in this regard, and let this stand as one of countless examples of such foolishness.

The Next 3 Books on My Reading List

I just finished reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It was my 32nd book of 2014, and marks the first time I’ve read the book since long before I was keeping track of my reading. Probably since I was 10 years old or so, I’d guess.

I’m particularly excited about the next three books I’m planning to read, so I thought I’d list them here.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

I recently read The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, and it has reinvigorated my passion for books on technology. I also remember Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb as one of the better nonfiction books I’ve ever read. I’ve been meaning to read this biography of Oppenheimer for some time now. I have about 10 days to kill before the next book on my list comes out, so it seemed like the perfect fit.

Revival by Stephen King

The rumor mill behind Stephen King’s latest book, Revival,  (his second this year) is that it is among the more terrifying books he has written since Pet Semetary. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, but it doesn’t come out until November 11th, which is which I have some time to fill between now and then.

Abominable by Dan Simmons

I’ve never read a Dan Simmons book before. During an SF Signal podcast that I participated in a while back, someone mentioned this book as a particularly good one. I’m not interested in starting a series, which is why I chose this one as opposed to one of Simmons’ more famous books, but with winter on its way, I’m looking forward to this one.

One things about listing out the books I plan to read. It is just that: a plan. I don’t always stick to it. Sometimes it’s because a book doesn’t hold my interest. More often, however, it is because I found a book so interesting, or so good that I want to read something similar to it right away. In any case, this is my plan, and given how much I read per day, I’d expect these 3 books to fill the month of November for me.

Revisiting Digital Magazines

Way back when I first got my iPad 2, I began the long-awaited transition from paper-to-digital magazines. At the time, the only magazine that I read that really had a decent digital edition was New Scientist. I used the Zinio app to access my magazine, and at first, Ioved it. Later, Scientific American became available in digital form and my subscription afforded me access to a PDF copy of the magazine each month. This, too, was pretty cool. Eventually, I read other magazines using Zinio as well. Over time, however, my excitement waned.

There were a few problems. Most notably, was the fact that my iPad screen was smaller than the typical magazine. Since both Zinio and the Scientific American PDF essentially rendered the magazine as-is, it meant a lot of zooming and moving around in order to read articles. In Zinio, I could change to “article” mode, but when I did that, it no longer felt like reading a magazine. Here, for instance, is what a page of the Scientific American PDF looks like on my iPad:

Sciam PDF
PDF version of the Scientific American article.

In order to be able to read it, I need to pinch-and-zoom, and then move the page around. The same was true of my subscriptions in Zinio. While the magazine looked exactly as it did in print, it was harder to read on the smaller screen. It seemed to me that the experience of reading the magazine was lost somewhat, and my magazine reading scaled back because of this.

A magazine interface for iPads

Recently, my desire to read magazines has increased, but when I thought about reading them on the iPad, I balked. I considered returning to paper subscriptions because for me, unlike with books, there is a certain interaction with magazines that was absent from the simple Zinio and PDF versions that I was looking at. With a book, I typically read straight through, and so e-books have never seemed any different to me than paper books. But with magazines, I jump around quite a bit, and the interfaces I’d encountered thus far, were not conducive to that.

I was almost ready to pull the trigger on paper magazine subscriptions, when I remembered that in the time since I started reading magazines electronically, Apple had introduced their Newsstand app. I’d never tried it out, and since many of my subscriptions were available electronically through the Newsstand, I figured I’d give it a try.

It was an eye-opening experience.

Unlike Zinio and PDF copies of magazines, which reproduce the magazine exactly as it appears on newsstands, the Newsstand versions are adapted for iPad use. Navigation of the magazine is easy. You swipe left or right to move from article to article. Within an article, you scroll up or down to read or move from page-to-page within the article. It’s very simple, easy to use, and best of all, the articles are rendered for an iPad screen. So no zooming is necessary. That same Scientific American article I illustrated above in its PDF incarnation looks like this on my iPad:

iPad Mag 1
iPad version of the Scientific American article. Scrolling up or down scrolls through the article.

What’s more, while the Newsstand version is designed for the iPad interface, it still maintains much of the look and feel of the magazine. Many Scientific American articles make use of sidebars, and those sidebars are carried over neatly into the iPad format:

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Thoughts on The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Yesterday, I finished read Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. I loved it. It is an excellent overview of the history of the digital age, from Ada Lovelace, right up through Google and Wikipedia.

The book took a logical progression through the history of computer hardware and software innovation, which was a great way to see how technology evolves over time, each big discovery informing the next one. Two things in particular stood out about the book.

First, there was a familiar feel to the style in which it was written. It didn’t take long for me to recognize it. The book reads like an Isaac Asimov science history book. There are clear descriptions of technology that make it accessible to the lay person. There are also gripping, inviting biographies of the players involved. These combine to make for a fascinating narrative that reminded me of books like Asimov’s Guide to Science.

Second, in reading the book, I was moved to want to do the kind of innovating things that the people in the book were doing. This often happens to me when reading nonfiction. Reading a book on, say, Richard Feynman, will draw out a desire in me to be a physicist. Reading a book on Winston Churchill draws out similar feelings on being a statesman. The Innovators was no different. Except that I have been living in the technology world since I first played with a computer at the age of 10 or 11 years old. And I’ve been working in that world as my profession for the last 20 years. That profession, like any, can grind on you after a while. But Isaacson’s book did something remarkable. It rekindled my joy in information technology. It made me realize that I am already working in this industry, and unlike the other biographies I’ve read whose subject I envy from afar, I live this one. It’s pretty rare for a book to do that.

The book covered the evolution of Windows and Mac, and also covered the birth of Linux. If it was light on any one area that I would have wanted to read more about, it was the birth and evolution of UNIX. UNIX wasn’t mentioned in the book until the chapter on Linux, in which casual mention was made that Linux was based on UNIX, an operating system developed in 1970. That was about it. But overall, the scope of the book was broad, and fascinating, and I raced through it, enjoying every minute of it.

This was my second Walter Isaacson book. I read Einstein: His Life and Universe back in 2008 and I really enjoyed that one as well. It’s difficult to say which one I enjoyed more, but I’ll give the edge to The Innovators since it helped rekindle my joy and fascination in information technology.

A Look at My Reading in 2014 (So Far, Not Much Science Fiction)

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t been reading much science fiction. Strictly speaking, I haven’t been writing much of it either. My more recent stories have been more along the lines of mainstream alternate histories, with a slightly (barely detectable) element of science fiction to them. This isn’t anything intentional. I just go where the stories take me, and lately, they haven’t been taking me into the galaxy. But I thought it was strange that I wasn’t reading much science fiction either, so I decided to look at what I’ve read so far in 2014.

To-date, I’ve read 30 books in 2014, and it has been a fairly eclectic year. Back when I was a kids and would check books out of the library, there was a requirement to check out nonfiction as well as fiction. Over time, that developed into a habit, and for the early years of my reading list, I kept a pretty good balance of fiction-to-nonfiction. Then, I drifted. Some years, I read a lot of fiction, other years, a lot of nonfiction. This year, the balance seems to have returned.

Type of books

16 out of 30 books to-date have been nonfiction. That comes out to about 53%. Drilling into the categories of books that I’ve read this year, things get more interesting.

Category of Books

Almost a third of all of the books I’ve read are biographies (which include memoirs as well). 9 biographies to-date. But that is more than half of the nonfiction reading that I’ve done this year. The next biggest category is “mainstream” fiction; that is, books that don’t fall into the usual genre categories. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one example. 13% of the books I’ve read this year (4) have been on baseball. Science fiction makes up only 10% (3) of the books that I have read in 2014.

The vast majority of my reading these days is via audio book. Indeed, a full 90% (27) of the books that I’ve read so far this year have been audio books.

Format of book

2 of the books have been e-books. And I read 1 paper book this year.

Finally, there are the re-reads. Occasionally, I re-read books that I particularly enjoy. This year was no exception.

Format of book

About 25% of the books that I’ve read have been re-reads. I can accept that ratio. Some years its lower and some years its higher. I sometimes think that with the limited time I have for reading, I should always read something I’ve never read before. But then I think, ah, what the heck, I read for fun, to learn, to relax, why not re-read something I really enjoy every now and then?

I don’t rate the books that I read. My list of books that I’ve read since 1996 has some bold titles, which indicates books that I would recommend to others. That’s about as close as I get to rating them. So far this year, I’ve marked 18 of the 30 books that I’ve read (60%) as “recommended.” That seemed pretty high to me, so I went to look at past years. Here is how they line up:

Recommended Books by Year

Why such an increase in the last 2 years? It goes coincide with when I started listening to audio books, so perhaps the voice actor’s performance changes my perception of the book. But I like to think I’ve just gotten better at selecting books I think I will enjoy reading.

With 12 weeks remaining in 2014, I’d estimate completing another 10 books before the year is out. It’s possible the number will be higher. Several of the books I’ve read this year have been very long, and that tends to skew things. Still, I don’t see an uptick in the fiction ration. It may hold the same, but I’m pretty content with nonfiction at the moment. I’ve learned to just go with the flow, and read whatever I feel like reading. It all works itself out in the end.

A Funny Thing About Jim Boulton’s Ball Four Audiobook

I am currently reading Jim Boulton’s 1970 baseball smash, Ball Four. I’m listening to the audio book. So far, it’s great. But there is something particularly funny about it that makes it even better.

Most audio books these days use professional voice actors or narrators to read the book. Occasionally, the author will read their own book, but with few exceptions (Neil Gaiman or Mary Robinette Kowal, for instance), authors aren’t always the best choice as readers.

Jim Boulton reads his own book, Ball Four. He is not a bad reader. In the context of the book, he’s actually pretty good, because it’s him telling stories about his days playing baseball. But for nonfiction books, voice actors typically play it straight. The funny thing about Boulton’s narration of Ball Four is that he sometimes cracks himself up with what he’s written. So he’s reading his book, gets to a funny part, starts laughing, and has to pause, or re-read a sentence after the laughing has stopped.

I love it! It comes across as so genuine that you can’t not laugh yourself. The genuine emotion that his impromptu laughter brings to the reading makes it that much better.

Great Baseball Writing

I recently finished reading Sports Illustrated collection Great Baseball Writing, which gathers about 60 articles from over the last 60 years, all on baseball. It was a fantastic book, and I loved every minute of it. Of course, with nearly 60 articles, some stand out more than others. Here are a list of my favorites, along with the header description included with each article.

“Spring Has Sprung” by Frank Deford (April 10, 1978)

It’s Opening Day, so buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, remember to hold the label up, and please, please tell me Who’s on First.

“The Ballad of Joe Moock” by Steve Rushin (June 29, 1998)

Sailors have the Bermuda Triangle; the Mets have third base. When the author composed this epic tribute, the New Yorkers had, in 36 years, employed 112 different men at the hot corner, none of them all that hot.

“The Transistor Kid” by Robert Creamer (May 4, 1964)

When Vin Scully came to Los Angeles with the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers, he was a stranger in alien corn. But he soon became as much a part of Southern California as the freeways.

“The Bird Fell to Earth” by Gary Smith (April 7, 1986)

For one fairy-tale year, Mark Fidrych was king of baseball, but the reign ended far too soon.

“The Left Arm of God” by Tom Verducci (July 12, 1999)

He was a consummate artist on the mound, the most dominant player of his time, yet he shunned fame and always put the team above self. On the field or off, Sandy Koufax was pitcher perfect.

“At the End of the Curse, a Blessing” by Tom Verducci (December 6, 2004)

The 2004 Boston Red Sox staged the most improbable comeback in baseball history and liberated their long-suffering nation of fans.

“Benching of a Legend” by Roger Kahn (September 12, 1960)

The prideful struggle of an aging Stan Musial to prolong his career–a painful experience for everyone involved–was poignantly recounted by one of the most astute observers of the game.

“Still a Grand Old Game” by Roger Kahn (August 16-30, 1976)

Touring the baseball world, the author of The Boys of Summer found that the national pastime retained all of its charms, whether played in suburbia, the Ozarks or at Chavez Ravine.

“It’s Gone! Goodbye!” by Tom Verducci (September 22, 2008)

Before a wrecking ball took its cuts at old Yankee Stadium, the walls of this American monument spoke and shared a few final secrets

I really enjoyed all of the long pieces, but these 9 were outstanding. So much so, that I am now a subscriber to Sports Illustrated. In a bit of serendipity, my niece was raising money for her girl scout troop selling magazine subscription. Sports Illustrated was one of them. So: two birds, one stone.

Upcoming Reading, 9/2/2014

Now that I have started the final volume of the Churchill biography, The Last Lion, I am starting to think about what to read next. The three volumes amount to something well over 2,000 pages of detailed history, and I think I can use a little break from that. So here is what is on my upcoming reading list, once I finish this final volume1.

  • Coming Home by Jack McDevitt, the newest Alex and Chase novel, which Jack was kind enough to send me an early copy (the book doesn’t come out until early November).
  • Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. I thought The Shining Girls was brilliant and I’ve looked forward to Lauren’s next book ever since.
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • Exo by Steven Gould, the next novel in the Jumper series. TOR was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of this one.
  • Killing Floor by Lee Child. Because I’ve never read a Jack Reacher book before.
  • Revival by Stephen King.

With those out of the way, I imagine I’ll feel refreshed. Then I plan on starting in on Winston Churchill’s 4-volume A History of the English Speaking Peoples.

The truth is, I make these lists and in practice, go with my gut at the time I’m ready to pick another book. But this gives you an idea of the book that I am eager to read in the near-term.

What’s on your reading list?


  1. Keep in mind, the final volume is the longest of the 3, some 53 hours in audiobook form, and 1,200 pages, so I’m probably 10 days-to-2 weeks from finishing.

How Churchill’s “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples” Got on My Reading List

If you’ve been following along, you know that among my latest obsessions is William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. As of tonight, I am very close to finishing the second volume (the Second World War has just begin with Germany’s invasion of Poland).

In the prelude to war, Churchill, in addition to doing his best to get Great Britain into the game, was busy working on his mammoth  A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Descriptions of his research for the book, the subject matter (including the various kings of England) and quoted passages fascinated me, to the point where I found myself wishing I could read that book, too.

And so, I’ve added all 4 volumes of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples and I’m looking forward to reading that. But maybe not immediately after finishing the Churchill biography. I think I deserve a little lighter fare. Possibilities include:

  • John Scalzi’s Lock In.
  • Steven Gould’s Exo.
  • And Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home, the next Alex Benedict . This doesn’t come out until November, but Jack, wonderful guy that he is, has sent a proof my way. I really can’t wait to read this one, as the Alex/Chase novels are among my favorites.

Bottom line, I have plenty to read, but my obsession with Churchill continues.

Halfway Through the Churchill Biography

At some point today, I passed the halfway mark in William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. The 3 volumes total 131 hours of listening time.  I am more than halfway through the second volume, and the pivotal year 1938 is rapidly approaching a close.

I’m sort of obsessed with the biography right now. A few nights ago, Michael J. Sullivan was telling me about the latest book he was reading, and asked what I was reading. “Second volume of the Churchill biography,” I told him. He gave me a strange look. “Still Churchill? Light reading, eh?” Or something like that. I’ve gotten that reaction a few times. But I can’t help it. I can’t seem to turn away. One reason is that the books, though long, are never dull. But there is another, more important reason.

I’ve said this before, but I’m always amazed at how much we gloss over history while in school. Understandably, this isn’t really the fault of the schools. History is a long, detailed interwoven story, and even with 16 years of schooling, you can only skim the surface. That said, there are event in 20th century history for which I knew nearly nothing. The First World War was one. I knew the very basics taught in 4th or 5th grade. Or maybe 7th or 8th grade, I can’t remember. The first volume of Churchill’s biography went into great detail on the first World War and it was fascinating.

Then, too, my understanding of British politics has been somewhat limited. I had an amazing professor in school who dove into some parliamentary politics, using Great Britain as a model, but that was more philosophical, instead of real history. It’s fascinating to read the behind-the-scenes political mechanics of Great Britain.

There is also something utterly frustrating about Britain’s role in Europe in the second half of the 1930s, with the appeasers giving Germany what they want. It’s like watching some riveting television drama unfold, in which you suspect (or even know) the outcome. I keep wanting to shout, “Get in the game, already!” and then remember that this has already happened.

But halfway through, I can say that so far it is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to climb into my time machine and get back to the events of 1938 so that I can see what happens. Of course, I know what happens. But the book is that good.

The Funniest Scene I’ve Ever Read

Today, I encountered the funniest fictional scene I’ve ever read. Prior to this, the funniest scene I’d ever encountered is a scene that took place in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, where Jake Epping is in Derry with a “a touch of the bug.” Today, a new scene overtook that as the funniest I’ve ever read.

While my computer was downloading patching and therefore, completely useless, I read more of A Prayer for Owen Meany, waiting for the patches to be installed. Those familiar with the book might guess the scene in question. Yes, it is the VW scene. The premise of the scene was amusing enough. But how rapidly things fell apart in that scene–I could see it playing out as though I was one of the students in the great hall, or near the marble staircase, seeing it unfold.

I laughed so hard that people walking passed my office had to stop to look in. I laughed so hard that it brought streams of tears to my eyes. I laughed so hard that, much like a nuclear chain reaction, it began a self-sustaining thing, a living, breathing thing. I fell off my chair and sat on the floor, laughing, crying, coughing, choking. I don’t know how much time passed before I finally settled down. The patches were still installing on my computer. But when I finally came out of it, I felt completely, and thoroughly revitalized. It was amazing.

And throughout the day, as I’ve played the scene over in mind, more laughter and snickers emerge. Had I seen that scene played out on the big screen, it would not have been as funny as it was in my imagination. It was the Platonic perfection of slapstick comedy barely disguised as literature. If you’ve never read the book, it is a fantastic read, but I would say that it is worth reading just for that scene.

My sides, my abdomen, my cheeks, and my lower back are all sore. That is how hard I was laughing.