books/2017

Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon

Assembling California, by John McPhee (1993)

Part of a series on geology of the USA, covering the California section, as well as some history of plate tectonics in the 20th century.

Good intro to the history and current geography of California on human timescales as well: the 1989 earthquake, gold mining in the Sierras, Napa valley wine country, the story of the Davis campus, etc.

The last chapter, about earthquakes in the SF bay area, was as powerful as the July 2015 New Yorker article (“The Really Big One”) about tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest.

The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, by Victor Pelevin (2011)

I think it’s decent? Mako totally spoilered this entire (very short book) ahead of time.

Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

Dark Sun, by Richard Rhodes

Curve of Binding Energy, by John McPhee

Read this as a compliment to Making of the Atmoic Bomb, partially because I had described Making to a friend as being “well written as McPhee” and wanted to cross check. McPhee is more polished and doesn’t drop the beat as much, while Rhodes is a much longer and deeper ride. This particular book seems to have had a huge impact when it was published, but as a victim of that success it’s a little dated now for a general reader. I enjoyed reading it as a complement and second source for Rhodes (though they do end up cross-referencing each other), but wouldn’t recommend it to others today.

True Believer, by Eric Hoffer

Empire Star, by Samuel Delany (1966)

Babel-17, by Samuel Delany (1966)

Nova, by Samuel Delany (1968)

Several people recommended Sam Delany to me in the course of a couple weeks, and I couldn’t be happier that they did! All of his books have been great, but I particularly enjoyed the (short) Empire Star as a crisp self-contained nugget.

Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow (2017)

I liked this book, in the context of 2017 political nihilism. Doctorow’s tropes are getting a little long in tooth (raves! 3D printers!), to the point that even while reading I started confusing this book with previous ones (Makers, Little Brother, etc), which is forgivable, but makes me less excited to read whatever his next book is.

Library: An Unquiet History (2015)

Really enjoyed learning about ancient ‘Genizas’ in religious scribe workspaces: an abyss to toss unwanted or draft pieces of paper instead of destroying them.

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee (2007)

I was uncertain at points if I had already read this: still not sure if i’d read sections, had others told me the stories, was strongly reminded of other McPhee works, or if the writing is just so wonderful than I couldn’t imagine having not read it already.

A couple slow bits in this one (the Walden/canoe trip was close to childhood memories, but not super compelling given all that), but I loved the trucks, coal trains, river barges, etc. Also the the interweaving of super-human infrastructure with individual human lives, like Tuckle’s “Workering” or the food industry documentary “Our Daily Bread”.

On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder (2017)

I guess I was enthusiastic enough to finish this pamphlet-sized volume, but can’t remember much specific about it after the fact. Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy” remains, to me, a much more specific and useful “how to resist tyranny” work.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (1938)

Tropic of Kansas (TODO: author) (2017)

Read on the recommendation of Rudy Rucker. Sort of meh, easy reading level, lots of near-future distopian cyberpunk and “thriller” tropes. Felt like it was checking all the contemporary political checkboxes, but there wasn’t really anything here that hadn’t already been said in the 90s.

A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn (2001 ed)

In the afterward, Zinn notes that he has been alive for about a quarter of USA history; individuals of my generation can expect to see (over their full course of life) a similar fraction of American history. I find this framing remarkable and empowering.

One critique I have of this book is it’s inconsistent attitude towards voting, democracy, and electoral politics. On the one hand the author consistently refers to elections as a mechanism for dissipating political organization and movements, and dismisses pro-establishment electoral results as being meaningless and due to manipulation or low turn-out. On the other hand, he frequently cites polling numbers and anti-establishment electoral results as strong meaningful signals. Which is it? Certainly particular elections can be higher-or-lower signal (eg, referenda on a specific policy or issue vs. national two candidate presidential elections), but this sort of argument isn’t considered by the author in most cases.

I had not learned (or remembered) the full story and degree of native peoples’ betrayal by the US government: not only negotiating unfair treaties under duress and military pressure, and then breaking the terms of those treaties later, but in many cases breaking the treaties immediately, and using violence to move and renegotiate the same people over and over.

The wobblies (IWW) or portrayed as a small (hundreds of poeple?) but extremely influential group as organizers and public figures. I’d like to learn more about them. The stories of rural farmer organization in the late 1800s was also pretty interesting.

I felt there was relatively little specific coverage of the political pressures resulting in important social programs like medicare and social security coming out of WWII. Also no coverage (that I remember) over popular feelings about international governance (eg, League of Nations, United Nations), or international organization and labor organizing in general.

The Vietnam War and Watergate crises in the 1970s are well contextualized and given a coherent arc.