The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann
Some books are hard to put down, this one was hard to abandon. It took me most of 2019 to read it, and although it’s long (~600 pages), the slowness was mostly because some of the ideas had to be digested.
The Wizard and the Prophet was a strange book for me. It’s the typical show-off book to causally mention you’re reading, but I struggled with it silently. It’s surprisingly, or even purposely, not an opinionated book. Even though it deals with many of topics I’d argue loudly with my uncle. It’s a extremely factual book, with the only preaching it hints at being: to always look for some unseen impact in all the simplifications that are required to arrive at these facts.
Above all it’s a calming book. It has a soft cadence that would make me read, stop, think, and picture many of the ideas. Lastly at least for me, it’s a humbling book. Many concepts that I attributed to recent fads, or corporate marketing are shown to have origins decades, and even centuries, in the past. It shows people that died not being rich, even though their work has improved my life even more than a smartphone or an app even could.
I can’t recommended it enough. I even bought a copy for my uncle — not to argue, but because I’m curious if given the facts, we can have a more intelligent argument.
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
It amazes me how Asimov writes about people set in science fiction worlds. His description of sci-fi is so clear, it makes the human drama taking place in it never look out of place.
I had never heard of this novel before my friend Mauricio recommended it last December — and it was a great holiday quick read.
One of Exhalation’s short stories reminded me of it, and I had forgotten how many ideas were causally in it: para-universes, lunar colonies, alien civilization and culture. While it’s a 70’s book, it holds extremely well, with many sensitivities like the role of gender and the cost of clean energy that could have been written today.
If you haven’t read Asimov before, this isn’t the best book to start — it get a bit slow with long dialogs in the middle. But if you like his other books, or hard Sci-Fi; it’s a must read.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
I’m not usually into short stories, but this science-fiction book was a pleasure to read. On most of them I was hoping they would go on a full book length, that’s how good they were.
While they’re not Three Body Problem level mind blowing, they’re appropriately close for the shorter format — anything more would have felt forced.
Absolutely recommend this book, and I’ll be checking out other from the author.
Children of Ruin (Children of Time, #2) by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This is a self-contained kind of sequel. It helps if you read the first book, but you don’t have to remember any specific details to understand Children of Ruin.
Overall Tchaikovsky continues to provide the most classical sci-fi book feeling I’ve in recent years. The themes are big and he doesn’t shy away ideas that slow things down while they’re described — not explained.
These slow parts mostly pay off, because they are not there to make you study a topic 1, but rather it’s as if Tchaikovsky has more experience than you on the subject, but he’s as baffled as you of how alien the concept is. Which makes perfect sense in a future universe where aliens are present.
While I did stayed up a few nights with Children of Ruin, I enjoyed Children of Time more. However, they’re both excellent and if you liked the first one, this is a worthy read.
Unlike with Neal Stephenson long tangents.↩
Books of Winter 2016
Here are the books I read over the past 6 months. As usual, the fiction ones were on Kindle, and the non-fiction as audiobooks.
Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle. |
I was in the mood for a disaster book that dealt with the aftermath, and on that it delivers. The book is from the 70’s, which is fun for the prehistoric tech enviroment, but not so much for some flat (and sexualized) female characters.
Killfile by Christopher Farnsworth. |
Fun action-thriller page turner with believable superpower (as in good balance of superpower versus its downside). This is a perfect weekend vacation book.
Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past) by Cixin Liu, Ken Liu |
The final book in The Three-Body Problem trilogy. Among the best Sci-Fi I’ve read. I don’t think it is my favorite of the three, but that’s not saying much given how I love the first two. If you enjoy mind-stretching Sci-Fi, read these books.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. |
☆ skip it
Great premise, powerful start, but it lost me in the second half. Maybe I was expecting more Sci-Fi, and it ends up being more action thriller. If you like do-over books give it a try, but I just went through the motions in the end.
- The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty) by Ken Liu |
Borderline fantasy — or as much fantasy as Game of Thrones is. This feels more of an early Roman or Japanese empire story set in a fantasy geography. Fun story with very strong characters.
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) by N. K. Jemisin. |
Fascinating fantasy world. Actually, the world itself is a character, which in a novel with very strong characters says a lot. I’m likely in for the whole series.
The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth Book 2) by N. K. Jemisin |
Suffers a bit as a sequel, but still a great read. It advances the story nicely to the next book, which I’ll read for sure.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky |
A new classic hard Sci-Fi about humans leaving earth for the stars… without much of the usual cliches involved. While never dense, it gets a bit slow sometimes, but it’s for good reasons and you get rewarded for it. Among my favorite books of 2016/2017.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. |
Not my typical fiction book, it’s basically a combination of deeply studied viking folklore stories put together, which makes a somewhat coherent book — as much of folklore does. I read it because I love Gaiman and was somewhat intrigued by the topic. I enjoyed it a lot more than expected.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise by Chris Taylor |
Rogue One was coming and I wanted a Star Wars fix. It’s a journalist view of the Star Wars property, written by a fan. It worked really well for me, since it steps back and look at the big holes in the universe, without loosing the love for it.
A Little History of Philosophy (Little Histories) by Nigel Warburton. |
I thought this was going to be a copycat of A Little History of the World1, but was gladly disappointed. If you struggle like me to put historic characters in context — or in a timeline — this is a great book. Complex concepts are explained as simply as possible, and very dense ones are highlighted enough so you can look for more if interested.
Just realized I didn’t review that book, will add soon.↩
Books of Summer 2016
Summers in Miami are fairly long — or at least that’s the excuse I’m using for procrastinating on so many reviews. Rather than wait until next year to catch up with them, here are some quick notes from the books I read/heard from July to October:
Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (★★★★☆)
A great example of Sci-Fi as an unobtrusive setting where a story takes place. Some interesting gender roles topics and religious discussions. A denser than normal book that made me think after closing it on many days.
Ringworld by Larry Niven (★★★★☆)
Classic Sci-Fi, which while enjoyable seemed a bit banal after reading Grass. Still, a fun ride in an amazing universe. Not sure I’ll come back for the sequels, but I may re-read it at some point.
Abomination by Gary Whitta (★★★★★)
Excellent. A page turner, but with a different twist on many fantasy stories. I felt for a few of the characters and will love to return to this world if follow-up books are published.
Red Rising (Book 1) by Pierce Brown (★★★☆☆)
If you like The Hunger Games as a genre, then you may really like this. It felt too similar for me, and I found myself struggling to finish it. It did leave me curious with the setup for the next book in the series, so I’ll likely read one more.
Steelheart (Book 1) by Brandon Sanderson (★★★★☆)
Not a great story, but a fantastic world. Some cliché conflicts as a result of the its young adult target. I love the rules and restrictions the characters have, so I’ll read the next book for sure.
The Fold: A Novel by Peter Clines (★★★☆☆) A solid book with a very intriguing main character in a different setting. This could make a great movie. The story gets weird for the resolution, but it’s a good page-turner.
Changer (Book 1) by Matt Gemmell (★★☆☆☆)
I’m glad most reviewers don’t agree with me. I really wanted to love this book — since I’m a fan of @mattgemmell tech writing, but it was predictable without any strong characters.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (★★★☆☆)
This books has a very important message, but it suffers from booktitis. What could have been a short and to-the-point (essential?) booklet, gets inflated with stories that don’t add much and get repetitive. But if you’re interested in the topic, I’d still recommend it.
The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday (★★★☆☆)
I thought this book could go two directions: either summarizing stoic principles or bring up some insights from stoicism for today’s age. It rather goes somewhere in between, and it didn’t work that well for me. Still, if the topic is new for somebody, I’ll probably consider this book as a good gift.
Scrum by Jeff Sutherland, JJ Sutherland. (★★★★☆)
Sprints, backlog, scrum meetings — if you’ve heard any of these words a few times, I recommend this book. You won’t become a scrum master, or have to do exercises, but it’s a great overview of the reasoning behind the scrum process. Even you don’t practice it religiously, it has some good stories.
Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish, Sean Silcoff (★★★★★)
Very surprised how much I enjoyed this book. I thought I knew the RIM story, and how they messed up. But as usual with every topic, the more you dig in, the more you realize the complexity. It’s also a fun reminder of the last 20 years of gadgets.
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes, Joe Layden, Rob Reiner (★★★★★)
This is a total feel good book. If you like the Princess Bride movie, and wanted to hear entertaining stories of how it was made, then have fun storming the castle. For even more fun, listen to the audiobook, is narrated by Cary Elwes, so it feels and an audio commentary.
If you’re curious of what I’m currently reading and plan to read, visit my Book List Trello board, which I keep up-to-date.fiction non-fiction
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
I stayed late every night this weekend finishing the last third of Seveneves. Although being tired on a Monday is not a great productivity plan, it was worth it.
Neal Stephenson books have been hit and miss for me. I loved Cryptonomicon 1, enjoyed Snow Crash, and have abandoned Quicksilver twice. So his sometimes dense writing is not an instant win with me. I think he may have dialed down in Seveneves, or maybe I was thirsty for some complex sci-fi.
Seveneves is basically three books in one — or more accurately, a trilogy in one book. This is not only in length (it’s 881 pages long) but in structure: you get 3 good sci-fi books that together make a great one. There’s 1) a disaster sci-fi, 2) near-future space sci-fi, and 3) far-future space sci-fi.
As usual with Stephenson, his sci-fi is heavy on the Science. But unlike some of his recent books, you can skim a little if you get bored with the engineering advanced course, and not miss a critical plot point. I was surprised of how few times I took shortcuts on Seveneves — maybe like Cryptonomicon and cryptography, my interest in Seveneves space travel backdrop helped me not loose my attention. YMMV.
If you liked Cryptonomicon and enjoy sci-fi, read Seveneves. It has all the ingredients of classical sci-fi I love: epic story, characters with dimension, open questions that force you to think a bit, and wonders of technology that seem like magic but are explained.
Among the few books I’ve re-read↩
Abomination by Gary Whitta
Very surprised how much I enjoyed this book. Unlike Sci-Fi, fantasy is very hit-or-miss with me, but Abomination was a page turner.
I was skeptical about gruesomeness some mentioned on the reviews, but it played its part and didn’t distract from the story.
If you like fantasy and want a fun summer weekend read, you won’t get bored with Abomination by Gary Whittafiction fantasy
Bossypants by Tina Fey
As expected, this was a fun, quick book. The fact that it’s read by Tina Fey herself gives it an additional conversational tone.
I enjoyed the SNL and 30 Rock insider stories, and I had to bookmark a breastfeeding section to share with Ana. She laughed out laud with it.
Not a life-changing book, but a solid series of stories told by a successful, smart and very smart writer.Audiobook Non-Fiction
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Aurora is one of those slow burning Sci-Fi novels that never actually explodes into a plot point, but it doesn’t become boring because of it.
It is a slow story, but it packs enough elements that it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride. It also throws a few philosophical questions up in the air, without anyone in the book having the answer. If you enjoy putting the book down and pondering a bit about what just happened in what you read, you can expect a few of those moments.
In the end the book does have an agenda. It’s a going far away from home to realize what you had all along kind of story. But it doesn’t bend backwards to try to fit the resolution into it.
I did feel some disappointed with the Artificial Intelligence story arc. Without spoiling it, through the book the AI (rightly) becomes one of the main characters. The way this happens is a very interesting technical and psychological twist. However, there’s no epilogue about some of the events that took place. This which doesn’t quite fit into my understanding of the rest of the characters.
You don’t have to run and read this book. But if you enjoyed Red Mars, like deep space travel sci-fi, and have some reading time, it’s not a waste of time.Sci-Fi
We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
I heard a chapter of this book in Tim Ferriss website (who’s also a producer), and really enjoyed it. Given the free chapter, I believed book had a more productivity/self-help/improvement angle… and I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
Tim Kreider is your cooler hipster friend that you openly judge — and are equally fascinated by — because he can’t enjoy a normal live. And at the same time you secretly envy him, since you’re aware he sees through your normalcy as well.
The book is a series of essays/stories with a minimal thread of relation to each other. Not all of them captured my attention equally — I abandoned the book a few times for a week or so. But it never was about quality of the story, in many cases it was an overload of sincerity that made me cringe because how close it resonated. You might not agree with his opinions and choices, but his ability to share his thoughts and emotions make it imposible not to relate somehow every few pages.
And this is where I enjoyed the book the most. It’s one of the best written books I’ve read. At least it’s the book I’ve said to myself the most times: I wish I’ve written this.
If you enjoy hearing the stories of a friend who’s life is (and has always been) a mess over a few drinks — and concede s/he does make some good points, I highly recommend this book.non-fiction essays memoir
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
A week after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about some of the chapters. I will listen to it again for sure.
Don’t have goals, have systems, Fail forward, Happiness = health + freedom. Some of the self-help mantras Scott Adams shares on this book make sense in hindsight, but at least for me, the angle was new and refreshing.
However, I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. You need to be OK with hearing advice based on lots of anecdotes. On Scott Adams defense, he’s upfront about this and has no problem with the idea that you’re just going to laugh at him through each chapter.
But as I said in the beginning, I’m very likely to listen to it again soon. I cherry picked some of the concepts and I’m planning to put them in practice, and I’m looking forward to calmer reread. Which is about the best recommendation you can give a book I guess.non-fiction self-help productivity
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
Finally finished listening to Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull this week.
Took me longer than expected because I kept abandoning it every few days. I’d heard going things about the book, but it wasn’t until Nav recommend that I pushed it up the queue.
I think the book is a bit slow because of how sincere it is. Unlike many other Business/Leadership books which always have some sort of recipe for being as successful as X — Ed Catmull is upfront about how hard having a continuously creative company is.
Sometimes the book felt bittersweet in how removed the problems are from my daily work experience but YMMV. But these cases were more than compensated by relatable and detailed accounts of issues encountered by Pixar and how they addressed them. In some cases even unsuccessfully.
Finally there’s the whole Steve Jobs angle. Listening how Jobs intersected the Pixar story from the point of view of a colleague and (later) a friend, was interesting for the fanboi in me.
I have no problem recommending this book. My only asterisk would be that: it is not a book to find out what you need to do. Rather, it gives the proper mindset to figure out what you should do.non-fiction management
On my favorite audiobooks
Top 10 lists are typically linkbait, but my friend Lesley asked me for my recommended list of audiobooks and it seemed like the easiest way to rate my favorite ones:
- Narrated by: Simon Prebble
- Length: 10 hrs and 23 mins
Without a doubt my favorite audiobook. The story is so amazing you forget it was an actual event. This is the only audiobook that I’ve been able to listen while jogging — so intense was my attention.
- Narrated by: Steve Martin
- Length: 4 hrs and 3 mins
The combination of a great autobiography, with Martin himself reading makes this another a close second. It makes a superficial understanding of that funny actor into a life story told by your favorite uncle.
3. Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick, William L. Simon
- Narrated by: Ray Porter
- Length: 13 hrs and 59 mins
A catch me if you can story that it’s hard to believe is real. Also an inside tour to the world of computers and networks from the late 70’s to the early 90’s.
- Narrated by: Wil Wheaton
- Length: 12 hrs and 43 mins
Great example of how a good reader matters in an audiobook. Wheaton is as excited about reading this book as you are listening. If you grew up with PCs and video games in the 90’s, you’ll love this book. If you didn’t, it’s still an amazing story about technology and brilliant characters.
- Narrated by: Charles Kahlenberg
- Length: 8 hrs and 37 mins
I listened to this book on my walk to BU 9 years ago. I probably quote more things from it than from any class I took during the MBA.
- Narrated by: Max Brooks, Alan Alda, John Turturro, Rob Reiner
- Length: 6 hrs and 3 mins
Only fiction book I’ve enjoyed. I’m not much of a zombie fan, but the documentary style of this book makes for a very fun ride. I hope they don’t make a movie and ruin it ;).
- Narrated by: Marc Vietor
- Length: 14 hrs and 10 mins
More than any other book I’ve listened (or even read), Wu’s walkthrough in the history of networks has given me a much deeper understanding and context in an industry I thought I knew. Every geek and policy maker should read this book.
- Narrated by: Fred Berman
- Length: 20 hrs and 41 mins
Be ready for flashbacks. If you ever went to bed hoping Santa brought you a Nintendo, Sega Genesis or Sony Playstation — this is the behind the curtain story. Also has some interesting business cases nuggets.
- Narrated by: Martin Short
- Length: 8 hrs and 40 mins
The other guy in the Three Amigos movie. Famous, but not star famous. An extremely sincere book with many relatable stories.
- Narrated by: Sean Runnette
- Length: 7 hrs and 38 mins
Fun listen that will make you appreciate your drinks a lot more — and probably become a little annoying at dinners.audiobook non-fiction
Reading Along the Way
Before moving to Norway, my pal @FedericoA gave me a book called Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson. Although hardly my style of novel, it was surprisingly enlightening in helping me grok aspects of norwegians that I would most likely have missed otherwise.
Since then I have always tried to read something about places I’m visiting. While I’d love for this to be an intellectual exercise, I have realized that if the book is not entertaining in some way, I never finish it. As as result most of the books are historical fictions or plain novels, but they usually still reach their objective: giving me a different perspective of the place before/during my visit.
Below the books that fit this description that I read on my recent trip, a passage I highlighted, and some minor notes:
A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa by Dominique Lapierre
As is often the case in Africa, the confrontation turned into a joyous celebration.
The apartheid and the history of South Africa (all Africa for that matter), have always been nebulous concepts for me. I enjoyed this book immensely. If more history books were written like it, the world would be a more understanding place. Without picking sides, you get an interesting overview of the history of the country, with special attention to important events.
Visiting museums and landmarks during my stay was more enjoyable thanks to this book.
A Different Sky by Meira Chand
The day’s experiences settled uncomfortably in Mei Lan like an over-rich meal.
In itself, not a great book. However, it does manage to give a good introduction to the history of Singapore by mixing three characters from different backgrounds through its time as a British colony, WWII and ending up with independence.
The Beaten Track by Sarah Menkedick
Slow travel operates largely on the gimmick of time just as backpacker travel operates largely on the gimmick of authenticity.
Not so much a book rather combination of very long articles, but still interesting. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to get into travel mode. If you’re scared about arriving into a city without a hostel reservation, or not being able to understand what the food is, these real stories of will remind you it could be so much worse.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
His last days were not his only days.
Sadly I didn’t get to visit the Kingdom of Thailand because of the rains, but this Sci-Fi novel was still worth it by itself. It would probably have not helped much in recognizing the country, but the proudness of the people seems to be accurately represented from what other travellers told me.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Civilisation, after all, is defined by what we forbid, more than what we permit.
I read this a few years ago and loved it. While I really don’t believe it’s based on a true story, it does capture the essence of India’s personality. When rereading I remembered something from the first time: the book is divided in 5 parts, forget the last one, ruins the whole experience.
Tai-Pan by James Clavell
Empires are built by young men, Culum. They’re lost by old men.
Excellent book. The historical aspects are true enough that you can walk around Hong Kong and know a little of everything. The fictional characters are so great, you also put an extra effort trying to understand how it really happened.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr. Ibis in his perfect copperplate handwriting. That is the tale; the rest is detail.
Since I’ve been traveling to the US for most of my life, reading this book to get a different perspective seemed ridiculous. Was I wrong. There is something very weird about this book that helps you understand the US a little better. And even if you don’t care about that, reading it was still one of the most enjoyable experience with words I’ve ever had.travel fiction non-fiction