It's been a good year of reading so far. Here are some mini-reviews of what I've been taking in. As always I’ve linked to an online purchase option (with a small referral fee coming to me if you actually buy), but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.
Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen
I hadn't read any of Franzen's work before picking this up, but I'm planning to now. Purity's storyline takes on several generations of culture, world events and political-technological evolution while remaining a very personal and rich study of a few particular relationships. I enjoyed the way journalism, social media and other tools of the digital age were woven into the plot without becoming perfunctory. Some parts of the book felt a bit rambling or under-developed, but overall I found the writing to be really compelling and the book as a whole a moving and rewarding read.
Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons
I have to pace myself when it comes to reading "insider looks at life in Silicon Valley" books. Partly because I spend my professional life working in tech and I don't always want to read about the tech industry for fun, and partly because it seems like too many of those books are thrown together to create a quick payday and/or ego boost for the author, without a lot of substance to make them worthwhile.
When I saw Dan Lyons` book I thought the concept sounded interesting and fun: "old media" journalist tries to join in the "new media" tech world, hilarity ensues. I also thought it would be interesting to learn more about HubSpot; I've been hearing about the company years now but I could never quite understand why what they did was of any value. So I dived in.
What I found was pretty awful stuff. Yes, there are some amusing anecdotes about startup office culture and yes, there is a good amount of piercing commentary about how people with half-formed business ideas can extract way too much money from naive consumers and investors. And while I did learn what HubSpot is and does, I still can't say that I see it as having any real value.
But worse than all of that is Lyons` childish, mean-spirited and vaguely misogynistic narrative as he tears down almost everyone and everything is his professional life under the guise of some kind of research experiment where he is the all-knowing arbiter of good and evil. Over the course of the book it went from slightly uncomfortable to downright problematic, and any real point the book had to make (or story it had to tell) fell apart as a result. Perhaps it was the most disappointing because somewhere in there are the seeds of a really insightful book about modern tech and business culture, and I finished Disrupted all too aware of the missed opportunities.
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Stories by Stephen King
I've certainly enjoyed some of King's longer novels of late (Mr. Mercedes and Revival among them), but it's his short stories that impress me the most these days. I especially appreciate his ability to quickly set up a tale and its characters with authenticity and just the right amount of detail, and then reel the reader in with strange and/or funny twists. Bazaar is no different, and it's a great collection of his scary, mysterious and wonderful explorations of human nature. "Under the Weather" was particularly lovely and haunting.
The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons
A political thriller with a perfectly digestible plot and some appropriately two-dimensional characters, this was a fun summer read that accompanied me through some days at the beach, long plane rides and sleepless nights.
The twists and turns were above average, even if some of the motivations were unclear and some of the sub-plots unnecessary.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Another fun mystery-thriller with a fairly simple plot that was somewhat unrewarding in itself, but with such crisp and expressive writing that it could have been a description of a routine medical procedure and I probably would have enjoyed it just as much. The side-explorations of mortality, loneliness, media culture, wealth and celebrity were often more meaningful and rewarding than the main points of action. I enjoyed every page.
Company Town by Madeline Ashby
I enjoy stories that incorporate "science fiction" elements without making them the central focus, imagining versions of our world that are different enough from of the influence of technology and/or being set in the future, but that are still recognizable as a reflection of the life and culture we know.
Company Town does a wonderful job of imagining a city that can exist atop of a futuristic oil platform at sea, the technology and economics that make such a thing possible, and the lives of the people who inhabit the place (along with those who seek to rule over it). I also appreciate that the main character is a complex, intelligent, strong female who is not defined by a love interest, and any preoccupation with appearance is within a nuanced exploration of how humans both with and without bio-engineered enhancements coexist. A great read.
Dark Matter: A Novel by Blake Crouch
In contrast to what I said about Company Town, the science fiction elements of Dark Matter are front and center in almost every part of the story -- but in Crouch's hands it really, really works. The book has its share of mind-bending science moments and mini-expositions on essential principles of quantum physics, but in the end it's mostly a story of the self-identity we try to find and protect in the midst of love, relationships and family. I often couldn't put this book down, and though I was almost sure the ending would disappoint me given the complexity of the set-up, it was ultimately very rewarding.
Those are some of the books I've worked my way through in recent months. I'm currently reading The Hike: A Novel, Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead and The Myth of Human Supremacy.
What are you reading?