Mirrors (Naguib Mahfouz): This is a collection of character sketches that were serialized in a magazine that Mahfouz wrote for. Each chapter is a different person — they are related, living through the same era in Cairo, but there is not a story here. Collectively they evoke a sense of how much Egypt changed between independence and 1970, and I found myself having to look up a lot of things, like the history of the Wafd party. If you already like Mahfouz or you’re interested in literary takes on mid-20th century Egypt, then it’s worth reading.

Rebetiko (David Prudhomme): Set in 1936 Athens, this graphic novel is about a day in the life of a group of rebetiko musicians. The dictatorship is on the rise, and fascism has no room for degenerate music like rebetiko. There is a slight arc to the story and links to specific historical figures, but it’s more about the time and the place and the music. My quondam co-blogger and co-author Alex is in a rebetiko band down in Austin.

Odysseus Abroad (Amit Chaudhuri): A recasting of Ulysses, a bit, starring Ananda, a poetry student from India going to university in London, and his uncle, who lives in a bedsit in Belsize Village after years of working in the accounting end of a maritime shipping business. They wander, eat, and talk. Ananda confronts his own sense of out-of-place-ness. He cares deeply for his uncle, who is still a bit frustrating. Both are alienated and the similarities and differences, carefully observed, are what make this novel worth reading.

Oreo (Fran Ross): I was on a Greek-inpsired modern fiction kick, apparently. Oreo is a satire starting a half-black half-Jewish kid named Oreo who goes on a Thesus-like journey to find her father. The book is full of allusions to the myth (there’s a helpful gloss in the back) and is sprinkled with many Yiddishisms. It’s received a bit of a resurgence in interest because it confronts these issues of hybridity and identity, although the aesthetic is rooted in a 70s broad farcical style that reminded me of Ishmael Reed. I want more people to read it so that I can talk to them about it — so much to discuss!

The Philosopher Kings (Jo Walton): a sequel to Walton’s The Just City, set several years later. If you liked the first book you might like this one too, but it’s definitely more of a “more adventures in the land of.” While it addresses some more weighty topics such as revenge and power/divinity and other knotty philosophical issues, I didn’t find it as “surprising” as the first book. There are some lovely scenes in there and Walton’s deftness at switching between different first-person narrators is really a delight. The structure of the story feels almost… architectural (but not in a David Mitchell way). Recommended if you liked the first.


WordPress ate 90% of this in an editing problem, so here is an abbreviated version.

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie): A really powerful book set during the Biafran War in Nigeria. I had read Americanah first, and this book could not be more different. In reading I kept thinking that the Biafran War occupies the same place as Partition only the outcome was very different and it was much more recent. I put it up there with the must-read books of postcolonial literature.

The Annihilation Score (Charles Stross): This is a Laundry novel, and the n-th in the series, so if you haven’t read the rest it won’t be the right place to start. I liked this bits about government bureaucracy and coverups and shell games, but somehow it was less engaging than some of the previous novels. One of the strong points to me is the change in narrator — this one is from the perspective of Dominique O’Brien, as opposed to her husband Bob. Definitely some good bits in there about women in positions of authority and so on. Recommended if you’re a Laundry fan already.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie): This novel is about a teenage kid growing up on the Rez. It’s definitely pitched for the YA crowd, but it doesn’t really pull that many punches. I think he captures with some lightness the early high school anxieties, despite the really grim reality of the situation. I wonder what students reading it think versus adults. Highly recommended.

Anya’s Ghost (Vera Brosgol): a lovely YA graphic novel about a teenage girl who becomes friends with a ghost who seems to have… other plans.

Range of Ghosts / Shattered Pillars / Steles of the Sky (Elizabeth Bear): Really great high-fantasy series set in a fictionalized Central Asia (plus China plus Russia). Distances are vast, and communication is poor as Henry Farrell noted, so the book has very different themes than most. There’s some nods to this being a post-apocalyptic Earth but those are not pursued, which was the right tactic I think.

The Just City (Jo Walton): Have you ever wondered what would happen if people tried to actually create Plato’s Republic in real life? In this book, Athina (the goddess) tries to just that, and Apollo decides to become mortal to see what “volition” and “equal significance” are all about. The Masters are Plato fans from across the ages, snapped up out of time. The students are Greek slave children, rescued from markets to live in the Just City and become their best selves. Socrates makes an appearance. There are robots. Do they have free will? Lots of philosophy here, but there’s a story too, and character development, and all that. Really a great read, but you have to like talking about Ideas. Unlike other fictionalized philosophies, this one is actually a novel first, which makes it a delight.


I had a rough semester this Spring, but I did manage to read some books, mostly thanks to an over-aggressive travel schedule.

Dead Ringers: How Outsourcing is Changing How Indians Understand Themselves (Shehzad Nadeem). Published a few years ago, this book is a study of how two kinds of outsourcing — business process (BPO) and information processing outsourcing (IPO) — have changed attitudes of Indians towards work in a globalized economy. Nadeem first lays out the context for outsourcing and tries to dig behind the numbers to see where and to whom the benefits are going. The concept of time arbitrage was a new way of thinking about the 24-hour work cycle that outsourcing enables — this results in a slew of deleterious health effects for workers as well as knock-on effects for family structures and the social fabric. This sets the stage for a discussion of whether or not outsourcing has really brought a different “corporate culture” to India (a topic on which I have heard a lot from friends/relatives). The book brings a critical perspective that complicates the simplified “cyber-coolies” versus “global agents” discussion that we often hear.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille (Steven Brust). Mind-candy, a somewhat slight novel that was a birthday gift back in high school. Science fiction of a certain era, and with a certain lightness.

Hawk (Steven Brust). Part n in a series, also mind-candy at this point. If you haven’t read the whole series up to this point, there’s little use in starting here.

Saga Volumes I-IV (Brian K. Vaughan / Fiona Staples). This series was recommended by several people and since I hadn’t read a graphic novel in a while I figured I’d pick it up. Definitely an interesting world, angels vs. demons in space with androids who have TV heads thrown in for good measure, it’s got a sort of visual freedom that text-based fiction can’t really match up to. Why not have a king with a giant HDTV for a head? Makes total sense to me, if that’s the visual world you live in. Unfortunately, the series is at a cliff-hanger so I have to wait for more issues to come out.

This Earth of Mankind (Pramoedya Ananta Toer): A coming-of-age story set in 1898 Indonesia, which is a place and time about which I knew almost nothing. Toer orally dictated a quartet of novels while imprisoned in Indonesia, of which this is the first. The mélange of ideas around colonialism, independence, cultural stratification in Java, and the benefits and perils of “Western education” echo things I know from reading about India, but are very particular to Indonesia. In particular, the bupati system and relative decentralization of Dutch authority in Indonesia created complex social hierarchies that are hard to understand. The book follows Minke, the only Native (full Javanese) to attend his Dutch-medium school, and his relationship with Annelise, the Indo (half-Native, half Dutch) daughter of a Dutch businessman and his concubine Nyai Ontosoroh. Despite their education and accomplishments, Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh are quite powerless in the face of the racist hierarchies of Dutch law that do not allow Natives a voice. This novel sets the stage for the rest of the quartet, which I am quite looking forward to reading.

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell): The latest novel from David Mitchell is not as chronologically sprawling as Cloud Atlas. I don’t want to give too much away, but there is an epic behind-the-scenes struggle going on, some sort of mystic cult stuff, and a whole lot of “coincidences” that Mitchell is so good at sprinkling throughout his book. There are also some nice references to his other books, including Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I liked the latter novel better than this one, despite its gruesomeness, because it felt a bit more grounded. I think fans of Mitchell’s work will like the Bone Clocks, but of his novels, I don’t think I would recommend starting with this one.


The Magician’s Land [Lev Grossman] : The finale of Grossman’s series. In a sense it had all the right pieces, but somehow it felt less specific and grounded to me, perhaps because the world was no longer “new” or because I felt like there was a need to “finish things up.” Of course, if you read the first two you have to read this one, so it’s not like I could not-recommend it. I was still quite enjoyable.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage [Haruki Murakami]: This also felt a bit slight with respect to other books of Murakami, but also “clean” in a way that I appreciated. I also now have to listen to more Liszt. Tsukuru Tazaki feels “colorless” and empty, shunned by his old childhood friends. He finally tries to seek out why, which turns out to be more surprising than he thought. As with much of Murakami’s work, the “mysteriousness” of women has this negative tint that makes me uncomfortable. This book, unlike 1Q84 or others, has very little magical realism going on, so it could be a good recommendation for someone who is less of a fan of that aspect of Murakami’s work.

Soy Sauce For Beginners [Kirstin Chen]: The story of Gretchen Lin, a 30-year old who has moved back to Singapore from SF to work at the family soy sauce factory after her marriage fell apart, this novel is part Gretchen’s painful journey towards self-discovery and resolution with her family, and partly an introduction to Singapore for the non-familiar reader. The latter part will appeal to some but at times I wanted less explanation and to be forced into trying to make sense of cultural elements myself. In this sense it’s a sort of novel of cultural translation. That being said, the best part of this book is how true and messy the story really felt. The family (and business) are dysfunctional, and Gretchen has a lot to come to terms with regarding herself, her marriage, and her relationship to this family.

The Name of The Wind / The Wise Man’s Fear [Patrick Rothfuss] : I should make myself promise to not read epic fantasy series that are not completed. Told in a kind of story-within-a-story, these books were a great way to unwind over the vacation. If you like those bards plus wizards coming of age stories, this one is for you. Also: plenty of unrequited love.

The Lowland [Jhumpa Lahiri] : I had read the opening of this book as a short story, but the novel is another beast entirely. Two brothers in Kolkata, one a Naxalite, the other looking to go to grad school in the US, and a torn apart and stitched together family in the US. While reading this I kept thinking of the movie Boyhood, which rather abruptly jumped years into the future to catch the family’s story at another time. This book does the same, but the shifts felt more jarring to me; I did not understand who there characters were quite as well. I think I had to suspend my disbelief a few times for some of the narrative choices. However, in retrospect it is because I think I didn’t quite get the characters, or I had misconceptions. Regardless, I think this is a story that helps complicate the story of middle-class Indian immigrant families, and is worth giving a read.

House of Suns [Alastair Reynolds] : Space opera, on a grand scale, but still grounded in our galaxy with humans, rather than the more distant and alien Culture novels of Banks. As Cosma would put it, mind candy, and a nice beach read.


Inverted World [Christopher Priest]. A science-fiction novel, but of a piece with a writer like M. John Harrison — there’s a kind of disconnect and a focus on the conceptual world building rather than the nitty-gritty you get with Iain M. Banks. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say it’s set in a city which moves through the world, always trying to be at a place called optimum. The city is on rails — it constantly builds fresh tracks ahead of it and winches itself forward a tenth of a mile per day. The city is run by a guild system of track layers, traction experts, bridge builders, surveyors, and the like. The protagonist, Helward Mann, takes an oath and joins a guild as an apprentice. The book follows his progress as he learns, and we learn, more about the strange world through which the city moves. Recommended if you like heady, somewhat retro, post-apocalyptic conceptual fiction.

Luka and the Fire of Life [Salman Rushdie]. A re-read for me, this didn’t hold up as well the second time around. I much prefer Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I can read over and over again.

Boxers and Saints [Gene Luen Yang]. A great two-part graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion in China. Chances are you don’t know much about this history. You won’t necessarily get a history lesson from this book, but you will want to learn more about it.

The Adventures of Augie March [Saul Bellow]. After leaving Chicago I have decided to read more books set in Chicago so that I can miss it more. I had read this book before but it was a rushed job. This time I let myself longer a bit more over Bellow’s language. It’s epic and scope and gave me a view of Chicago and the Great Depression that I hadn’t had before. Indeed, given our current economic woes, it was an interesting comparison to see the similarities (the rich are still pretty rich, and if you can get employed by them, you may do ok) and the dissimilarities.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation [John Gertner]. A history of Bell Labs and a must-read for researchers who work on anything related to computing, communications, or applied physics and chemistry. It’s not all rah-rah, and while Gertner takes the “profiles of the personalities” approaches to writing about the place, I am sure there will be things in there that would surprise even the die-hard Shannonistas who may read this blog…


My first semester on a “real job” was sufficiently busy to prevent me from reading as much as I would have wanted. I also blame the driving commute.

Hidden History of New Jersey [Joseph G. Bilby, James M. Madden, and Harry Ziegler]. This was a gift from Erin, who apparently has not written up her analysis of the Twins’ crushing of the Yankees yet. This is a collection of short essays about New Jersey and some of the quirkier characters who provide local color. There’s a heavy focus on military history, which was less interesting to me, but later chapters delve into the immigration history and politics in Jersey City and elsewhere that provide a useful context and analogy for our current situation. There’s a wealth of references, although as the authors point out, no book on the history of the Klan in New Jersey. Apparently they had some sort of summer resort there.

Husband of a Fanatic [Amitava Kumar]. Kumar looks at Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan relations after the Babri Masjid riots through the lens of his own marriage to a Pakistani Muslim woman. A fascinating and harrowing book which did not leave me particularly optimistic about the new Modi government.

The Pun Also Rises [John Pollack]. A present from my brother, this book is a delightful (or if you are No Fun, painful) tour through the history and variety of puns and joking wordplay. Pollack waxes poetic a bit, but this is fun read.

Carpe Jugulum [Terry Pratchett]. A Discworld novel with the witches and vampires. Brain candy.

Your Republic Is Calling You [Young-Ha Kim]. This is a novel about a North Korean “sleeper agent” in Seoul who thinks he’s been forgotten but after years of no instructions is given a day to rendezvous with a pickup that will take him back to the North. He’s grown comfortable in his new life though, and things are difficult. The back of the book compares Kim’s writing to Murakami’s (hard to tell because it’s all in translation). I initially felt that poisoned my reading of the book, but in the end I think that they are similar in tone/affect. I rather enjoyed this book, and it made me want to investigate more contemporary Korean literature.


A map of racial segregation in the US.

Vi Hart explains serial music (h/t Jim CaJacob).

More adventures in trolling scam journals with bogus papers (h/t my father).

Brighten does some number crunching on his research notebook.

Jerry takes “disruptive innovation” to task.

Vladimir Horowitz plays a concert at the Carter White House. Also Jim Lehrer looks very young. The program (as cribbed from YouTube)

  • The Star-Spangled Banner
  • Chopin: Sonata in B-flat minor, opus 35, n°2
  • Chopin: Waltz in a minor, opus 34, n°2
  • Chopin: Waltz in C-sharp minor, opus 64, n° 2
  • Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat major, opus 53 ,Héroïque
  • Schumann: Träumerei, Kinderszene n°7
  • Rachmaninoff: Polka de W.R
  • Horowitz: Variations on a theme from Bizet’s Carmen

The Simons Institute is going strong at Berkeley now. Moritz Hardt has some opinions about what CS theory should say about “big data,” and how it might be require some adjustments to ways of thinking. Suresh responds in part by pointing out some of the successes of the past.

John Holbo is reading Appiah and makes me want to read Appiah. My book queue is already a bit long though…

An important thing to realize about performance art that makes a splash is that it can be often exploitative.

Mimosa shows us what she sees.