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…
The Solitudes (John Crowley) – The first book in the Aegypt Cycle, as recommended by Max. This book really blew my mind. I don’t really see it as “fantasy” but an expansive meditation on memory and history. It’s the first book in a 4-part series, and I’m looking forward to finishing the rest of the cycle.
Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Mae M. Ngai) – a fascinating scholarly history of the idea of the “illegal immigrant” that provides a much needed context for our contemporary debate on the subject. Ngai shows how recent our notions of citizenship and immigration are vie the history of the debates and revisions of statues from the 19th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended.
The Toughest Indian in the World (Sherman Alexie) – a collection of short stories by one of the most famous contemporary Indian novelists. It surprised me and shocked me at times, but some of the stories and images really stuck with me. I haven’t read Alexie’s other collections so I don’t know how it compares.
The Human Use of Human Beings (Norbert Wiener) – Wiener’s general-audience book on cybernetics has lots of gems that I’ve been blogging here and there. I found it interesting because at the time his ideas were somewhat new, and now they either seem antiquated or have been absorbed into out “default” view of things.
Absurdistan (Gary Shteyngart) – A madcap farce involving a massively overweight and fabulously wealthy Russian Jew trying to muddle his way through a massively dysfunctional Central Asian nation. It’s over the top and some readers may not enjoy the narrator’s neuroses, but it was pretty funny, if raw.
Numbers Rule (George Szpiro) – This is another book on the history of voting and electoral apportioning schemes. Szpiro takes us chapter-by-chapter through famous figures in the history of voting — from Ramon Llull through the Marquis de Condorcet and Charles Dodgson to Kenneth Arrow. A very entertaining read, if less of a page-turner than Poundstone’s book. The sections on choosing the number of representatives for each state in the House is pretty fascinating.
We had two talks by here at UCSD on Tuesday. The first was Cell Phones: How Power Consumption Determines Functionality by Arvind, and the second was Software-Defined Networks by Nick McKeown. These talks had a lot in common: they were both about shifting paradigms for designers, and about approaching the architecture of hardware from a software point of view.