Category Archives: books

Another Good Review for Beyond the Sun edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Yesterday, I learned of another positive review for the Beyond the Sun anthology edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

Bryan put together a great lineup of stories in this anthology, and this review in True Review specifically calls out stories by Brad R. Torgersen (“The Bricks of Eta Cassiopeiae”), Alex Shvartsman (“The Far Side of the Wilderness,” a story I adored, by the way), Jason Sanford (“Rumspringa”), Robert Silverberg (“The Dybbyk of Mazel Tov IV”), and Mike Resnick (“Observation Post”).

Congrats to Bryan and all of the authors included in the anthology for its continued positive praise.

Retiring From My Book Review Column at IGMS

I recently retired from my book review column, “The Science of Wonder” over at InterGalactic Medicine Show. I wrote a bimonthly book review column there and my column ran for roughly 2 years. It was a lot of fun, but the reading for the column became increasingly too much for me to handle given the other things I am working on.

I am grateful to Edmund Schubert for giving me the opportunity to write a science fiction book review column. It was a good experience and I hope that readers found the reviews useful.

I will almost certainly continue to review an occasional book here on the blog, but I think I am done with formal book reviews for the duration.

Thoughts on A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George F. Will

I enjoyed George F. Will’s Men at Work when I read it a few years back, so I was excited to see his new book on baseball, entitled, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred. I finished the book this morning.

A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George F. Will

The book delighted me!

I describe this latest piece by Will as a book about the architecture of baseball, a theme he touches on from the very first quote in the book. What I mean by architecture is not the buildings or stadiums in which the game is played, but the superstructure of the game itself, the supporting components, in the context of the Chicago Cubs. The biggest of these supporting components is, of course, the fans themselves. The stadium is part of it, too, but there is much more. Concessions, radio, television, the lights in the stadium, everything that affects the game, but is not really the game itself.

The book contains the story of the Chicago Cubs, their triumphs (few) and struggles (many) over the last century. But it also wanders of the path to explore wonderful little trails often obscured by the game itself: for instance, the relationship between beer consumption and baseball.

Within the pages, Will provides plenty of humor, much of it at the Cubs expense (“Most teams call an 0-30 record terrible. The Cubs call it April.”), but without malice. Instead, he is attempting to communicate the frustration that generations of Cubs fans have experienced in their unfulfilled hopes of a world championship.

The book is much less about the action of the game of baseball and much more about what makes it the sport that it is, and has been, for over 150 years.  It is a delightful read and one of the best baseball books that I’ve come across, accessible to the casual fan and the true fanatic alike.

Long Books

I have somehow gotten into a cycle of reading particularly long books. I like long books. There is something particularly exciting about starting a book that seems almost endless, knowing that the pleasure of the book won’t be over in a day or two. There are, however, two downsides to long books:

  1. Reading one long book means I am forgoing the opportunity of reading two or three shorter books.
  2. If the long book is particularly good, the ending almost always strikes a bittersweet note with me.

The latter is true of the long book that I am about to finish today, George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. While not by any means the longest book I’ve read, it is still a long book by most standards. (It’s over 41 hours on Audible.) As I approach the end of Washington’s days, I look back to a couple of weeks ago when Washington was a young boy and wonder, where did the time go? I spend the last few weeks getting a very close picture of George Washington, and while there is always satisfaction in finishing a good book, I’m sad to say goodbye.

Looking through the list of books that I’ve read, I think the longest one is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burroughs, which I read back in 2006. The books from Will Durant’s Story of Civilization are also quite long, but the longest of these, The Age of Faith, I have yet to read.

Stephen King has written a few long books. The Stand is probably his longest, followed closely by It, the latter of which is my all-time favorite book at the moment.

In addition to being in a cycle of long books, I am in a cycle of nonfiction. Perhaps the two tend to go hand-in-hand. I used to get a fairly good balance between fiction and nonfiction books each year, back when I made an effort to do so. These days, I typically read whatever I feel like reading at the moment, and don’t force things on myself just because I think I’ve read too much fiction or nonfiction of late. The last three books I’ve read have been nonfiction, and I suspect that trend will continue for a while.

Having re-read John Adams by David McCullough recently, and followed that up with George Washington: A Life, I find myself once again enamored with the early history of the United States. I’ve always had a fascination for this time period. I don’t why others derive a fascination with the American Revolution (or if they hold such a fascination at all), but I can trace my fascination back to my 5th grade class in Warwick, Rhode Island. Learning about the American Revolution while living in New England, where the revolution started and where much of it took place, made an enormous impression upon me.

While I am very close to finishing up the Washington biography, I don’t want to lose the pleasure that I’ve been taking from immersing myself in that period of American history. Since I’ve read a biography of Washington and Adams, the next logical subject is Thomas Jefferson. Back in 2004, I read Thomas Jefferson: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall, and read at least part of it while on the campus of the college of William and Mary. I think I’m ready for some stronger stuff, and I’m leaning towards reading Dumas Malone’s 6-volume Pulitzer prize winning biography of Jefferson, written between 1948 and 1981. I already have the first volume, Jefferson the Virginian all queued up and ready to go.

However, in order to give myself a little breath and change of pace, I may slip in one lighter book before starting on the Jefferson biography, Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. Because the heavy stuff, as good as it is, can weigh you down.

I imagine that, at some point later this year, my heart will start to yearn for fiction again, and at that point, I’ll set aside the nonfiction. But for now, I’m having too much fun.

Read a Short Story Today

Twenty years ago, it seemed that the number of outlets producing good short science fiction, fantasy, and horror were few and far between. Today it is thriving. With attention spans growing shorter, short stories are the perfect ingredient for readers who want to fill those shrinking slots of time. And so, as a reminder, here are a baker’s dozen of great outlets for outstanding stories.

Happy reading!

The Mark of a Good History Book

I always enjoyed history as a kid, but was also underwhelmed with the way history is generally taught. While I understand that it makes for an easy grade measurement, memorizing names and dates gave me no real feel for the vast drama of human history. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to read history books that emphasized more than names and dates, and much like my experience with science, most of what I learned about history came after graduating from college.

A few weeks ago, I re-read David McCullough’s outstanding biography John Adams, and now I’m about halfway through George Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Until now, I’ve never read a biography of Washington before, and I am enjoying it immensely.

When I first read John Adams, back in the summer of 2001, part of my enjoyment stemmed from the fact that I knew so little about Adams to begin with. In school–and consider that I spent 2nd through 5th grades at a school in New England–the most I ever learned about the second president was that he defended the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre, and that he died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. To see what an incredible life Adams lives, in all of its richness and detail, was eye-opening.

Of course, George Washington, being the first president of the United States, gets a lot more attention in the history books. My 2-years daughter knows the name George Washington. “George Washington is the first president!” she says, firmly.

That said, even when you think you know a lot about a famous figure like Washington, there is always much more in the details. At times, reading Chernow’s biography of Washington, I’ve found myself, quite literally, on the edge of my seat.

And it was through this, that I realized what specific element makes for a good history book, at least for me.

It is one thing for a book to be thrilling when you are new to the events that take place within it. But when you read a history of something so famous as, say, Washington’s crossing the Delaware River, and his assault on Trenton, knowing full-well the outcome, and you still find yourself on the edge of your seat… That, my friends, is the mark of a very good history book, indeed.

My Reading List Short Code for WordPress is Available on GitHub

A while back, I posted about how I use a simple text file to track my reading list, and then use that as my authoritative source for tracking my reading. I showed, for instance, how I use a short code in WordPress to neatly format that text file so that I never have to update WordPress  when I add a new book to my list. It updates automatically.

A few people asked if I would share my code, and now that I’ve had a chance to write up some simple instructions, I’ve made the code available on GitHub.

As always, this code is use-at-your-own-risk. It has worked without a problem since I started using it last month. While you can use this code right in your main theme, I recommend using it as part of a child-theme, as it is much easier to maintain.

Feel free to use it, and modify it as you like!

Thoughts On My Re-Read of John Adams by David McCullough

While on my afternoon walk yesterday, I finished my re-read of John Adams by David McCullough. I read the book when it first came out in 2001, loved it, and decided to read it again, in part to see if it lived up to my memory of it. Here are some thoughts on the book, now that my re-read is complete.

1. I loved it again. In fact, I think I loved it more the second time around than the first. It is one of the best pieces of non-fiction I have ever read. The story is both engaging and fascinating.

2. When I read of the death of Abigail toward the end of the book, and later, of John Adams himself, I found myself in tears, even as I walked. McCullough brought them back to life and I was sad to see them go.

3. The re-read cemented in my mind John Adams as my favorite president. I don’t say he was the best president, just my favorite. Granted things were different back then, but I think that if politicians had the intelligence, honesty, and candor that Adams had in his day, and for which he was greatly respected (and loathed), things would be a lot different.

4. In some ways, however, things are remarkably similar today as they were 200+ years ago. After Washington, party politics emerged as more important (to party members) than the good of the law itself. People complained about political parties (John Adams and George Washington among the complainers) much as they do today.

5. I was particularly fascinated by the pace of life back in Adams time. It seems almost beyond imagination today to think that it could take mail weeks to go from Philadelphia to Boston, and months to cross the Atlantic. But I kept thinking that while that would seem strange to me, it would be business as usual for the people of late 18th and early 19th centuries.

6. Adams’ correspondence is truly remarkable and the most remarkable of all is his letters to Jefferson, and Jefferson’s in return. Some of what appears in those letters is so prescient as to border on precognition, but of course, what it really amounted to was the good judgement of intelligent people plotting out courses through potential future challenges. (Adams was emphatic that issue of slavery would ultimately result in civil war, for instance.)

Having read it twice, I’d rank John Adams among the finest pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever read. McCullough brings history to life with the same verve and detail that Will Durant accomplished with his histories. There is something about the tone he sets and the voice with which McCullough writes that, like Durant, brings the story to life and makes it much more than names and dates on the page.

(Re-) Reading John Adams

I am in the process of re-reading John Adams by David McCullough, which I read when it first came out back in 2001. At the time, I thought it was the best presidential biography ever written, and it made John Adams one of my favorite presidents and one of my favorite historical figures.

Re-reading it 13 years later, I am delighted to find that my esteem for the book, and for Adams, is growing with every page. You often hear that question, “If you could talk to one person in all of history, who would it be?” answered with a fairly consistent set of people. But if I gave it some careful thought, I think being able to converse with John Adams would be a highlight of my life.

Of course, I can’t read this book without steeping myself in the American Revolution. Plans are already afoot to read a biography of Washington (I’ve never read one). But I also love how reading takes you on expected journeys. In Adams day, a lot of information was passed through the mail, often across on ocean. A letter written in Christmas might not be received until the following summer. And yet, it would find its way to its recipient. It’s made me curious about the history of mail, and I’m looking for books on that subject as well.

John Adams is one of those books that I find very difficult to put down, even for a few minutes. I’m very busy these days, so I am delighting in the time I spend reading the book. It’s one I highly recommend.

3 Unconventional Books on Project Management

In my day job, I am an application developer, which, in the corporate world these days, involves a great degree of project management1. It wasn’t always like that. I can remember days in the mid-1990s when we were very light on project managements. The pendulum has shifted and these days, project management is all the rage. Having your PMP is to the twenty-teens what having your MCSE was in the 1990s.

Clinging to this project management wave like pilot fish to a great white shark, are dozens, even hundreds of books on project management. These vary in topic and quality, but as with any writing, Sturgeon’s Law applies. In my view, most of these books are heavy on theory and light on practice.

I recently shared with my team a list of three book that I thought were great practical examples of technical project management, but which are almost certainly overlooked as such because they aren’t shelved in that part of the bookstore, or categorized as project management books in Amazon. Here they are:

  1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by RIchard Rhodes.
  2. Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module by Thomas J. Kelly
  3. Lunar Prospector: Against All Odds by Alan Binder

The first book, of course, is a detailed history of the making of the atomic bomb. The book won the Pulitzer and is a fascinating read. After reading the book, I realized that I’d read what was probably unintentionally a book that described in considerable detail, how the largest project management exercise in human history was carried out.

Each of the books describe technical projects. The latter two are written by the people who managed the projects. And there is something additionally wonderful about Rhodes and Kelly’s books:

They described how large-scale (and I mean large) technical projects were designed and executed at time when Microsoft Project, Excel, CAD programs, and desktop computing in general did not exist. They are practical guides because they describe unconsciously and specifically how projects were carried out, rather than expose project management principles and selecting examples that best fit those principles.

One of the biggest lessons I took away from these books was that the tools you use don’t make or break a project. Good people and good leaders are what make projects successful.

If you’re looking for unconventional books on project management, I’d suggest taking a look at these books.

Notes

  1. I don’t see the same obsession with project management in the open source/GitHub world. In that world, the focus seems to be more on developing innovative, quality software.

What I am Reading, Early January Edition

I rarely read more than two things at a time, but right now, I’ve got four things I’m juggling. They include:

  1. Work Done for Hire by Joe Haldeman
  2. Raygun Chronicles edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
  3. Wild Cards I edited by George R. R. Martin
  4. Shogun by James Clavell

I think I’ll be finished with the first two by the end of this coming week. It might take me a little longer to get through the last two. We’ll see. What are you reading this month?

I Bought a Paper Book Today

This morning, I took the Little Miss over to the local Barnes & Noble, where I picked up a paperback copy of James Clavell’s Shogun. I read Shogun some 9 years ago, back in 2005, and I remember really loving it. I just had the urge to read it again. When I first read it, I read a paperback copy and I don’t know what happened to it. Likely it was part of a big book donation we made when we moved into our current house 4 years ago.

I have the e-book version, and I was tempted to get the audiobook version, but the reviews of the reading of the audio book were mixed. I decided to go totally tactile with this one, and read it as I did the first time around. Of course, then I had neither glasses nor children, but time waits for no one. I’ll read it when I’m not listening to the audiobook I’m finishing up (Christine by Stephen King). It might take longer. I listen to a lot of books while on my daily walks, which should return to normal tomorrow. But that’s okay. It’ll be a nice change of pace.

And speaking of changes of pace, my “to-read” list is looking somewhat different for 2014 than it did for 2013. In my experience, my “to-read” lists are very tentative and express more of a present mood than a future one, but the list is quite bare of what I’d call genre fiction (always setting aside the 12 books each year that I read for my book review column for IGMS). Among the authors on my list for 2014:  Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, etc.), Earnest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and, of course, James Clavell. We’ll see how this pans out. I’m certain that I’ll read more Stephen King in 2014 as well. And the list of genre books I have queued up for review all look promising.

For now, with the snow turning to slush, and the air still cold and the rain still wet outside, I’m looking forward to sitting by the fire today with my paperback version of Shogun, and leaving this world for the world of 17th century Japan–at least until the kids require my attention once more.