Mini book reviews

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.

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Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Notes on three books I've had a chance to read recently:

Sevenevesby Neal Stephenson

I've noted here before how much I enjoy Neal Stephenson's writing and storytelling, and Seveneves did not depart from that trend. It mixes together a few of my favorite things: science fiction with attention to realism, thought-provoking end-of-the-world scenarios, and a witty narrative that makes the reader work a bit to put all the pieces together. And while mostly plot-driven, Seveneves manages to do quite a bit of philosophizing about the nature of humanity and what we hold dear, not to mention the lengths we'll go to to preserve that. I will say that I enjoyed reading the first part of the book more than the second, but several days after finishing when the whole story had had a chance to marinate a bit, I was grateful for the completeness of two together, different as they were. Seveneves imagines a universe worth spending some time in. Continue reading Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Zero to One

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

It's one of the few "business books" I've read recently that incorporates anything resembling a coherent global ethic into thinking about what it means to create and grow a business. Beyond that, he gets into some great reflections on human creativity, optimism and pessimism about the future, and investing.

I didn't always agree with Thiel's views or counsel, but I found his thinking to be clear and his insights helpful, especially on what it takes to build something that makes a substantial and/or lasting difference in the world. Read through the lens of my past experience creating a startup tech business and my current thinking about what I can do for the world in the future, there were some lovely and/or cringe-worthy "ah-ha" moments.

I highlighted many passages as I read, here are a few that stand out:

Continue reading Zero to One

The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It was one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I've read recently, and so I can't help but recommend it here.

The story is a kind of Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away extreme survival adventure that happens in space, and will especially appeal to fans of MacGyver-style resourcefulness with some realistic science and geeky tech explanations thrown in. It's also pretty funny at times, and strangely moving at others. Check it out.

Interview with author David Ebenbach

davidebenbachOne of the things I appreciate most about living near a small, excellent liberal arts college is that it brings amazing people with amazing talents into my community, even if for just a short while. Sometimes I only get to encounter them for a single lecture, presentation or performance, but other times I'm fortunate to make deeper connections that continue on.

I'm glad that when author David Ebenbach was teaching at Earlham College a few years ago, there were opportunities to become friends with him and his family, and to start to get a sense of his love of (and gift for) the craft of writing. David now teaches at Georgetown University and he has published a number of books including Into the Wilderness, a collection of short fiction, and The Artists Torah, a guide to the creative process. David's written many different stories, poems and essays that appear in print and online.

As someone who enjoys good writing, aspires to do more writing myself, and who follows some of the "behind the scenes" in the world of authors and publishing, I was excited for the opportunity to interview David. We got to talk about his experiences as a writer, his take on modern publishing, and his own creative process: Continue reading Interview with author David Ebenbach

Always and never: America's nuclear weapons

There are lots of things to be worried about. War, climate change, plaque buildup, unsanitized user inputs. But somewhere near the top of your list should probably be the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world that are one miscommunication or faulty electronics part away from unexpectedly killing many, many people.

I don't usually go looking for such perturbations, I promise, but when I happened upon this recent NPR interview with Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, I was captivated:

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Why Activism is Failing

millennium-curse-coverI suspect that reading Tony Saghbiny's book The Millennium Curse: Why Activism is Failing might be a disturbing experience for you. It was for me.

If you consider yourself an activist in any form, there's a good chance that the book will challenge some aspect of the way you think about what kinds of activism are useful and effective. If you're proud of the successful Facebook or Twitter campaigns you've orchestrated to raise awareness about a certain issue, you'll probably be made uncomfortable. If you have invested heavily in becoming the change you wish to see in the world, you might feel insulted or deflated. If you think of yourself as a pacifist, you might feel like hitting something. And if you're pretty content with the status quo, or if you're not someone who appreciates activism in any form, it might be upsetting to think about the very existence of such a book, let alone some of its implications.

The Millennium Curse tackles head on the question of why much of modern activism is proving itself to be largely ineffective.

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