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Reading List: Q2 2023
This list has evolved from pure cardinality (hey, look at my library backlog) to a graph of reading connections and referrals. Any time you promote content for a decade, it shifts from update and cadence to professed allegiance to content creators. With the increased competition for attention, content spend and the scarcity of proper marketing for books, my low-gain amplification of authors’ signals is my contribution to the cause. And if it helps those authors earn a living wage, or explore their next projects, it is rewarding in multiple aspects.
There are a lot of music books in this quarter’s list, concluding with Gerda Barker’s autobiography of life with Ministry and WaxTrax that is simply wonderful.
13 “This Band Has No Past,” Brian Kramp, music, finished April 9.
The story of how a collection of Chicago area bands and bandmates became the band Cheap Trick, told with interstitial quotes and interview snippets as well as fairly detailed historical reviews of shows including hyper-local gigs. I only discovered Cheap Trick once they hit the national stage, somewhere between glam rock and punk; there were other hyper-local bands that tried to imitate their mix of rock star personae and cartoon characters. The title of the book is taken from the completely fabricated liner notes of their first album, and reflects the very dual nature of the band – one part loud rock and roll and one part “well, how did we get here” Midwestern success story. I appreciated that Cheap Trick toiled in obscurity for so long, set against the timetable of headlining rock acts of the same vintage; the fact that “Live at Budokhan” was a happy accident that saved them from financial ruin parallels the story of “Kiss: Alive” that was a staple of roughly the same listening period for me.
14 “Unholy Land,” Lavie Tidhar, fantasy, finished April 16.
Tidhar’s books are creepy, out of this world but also maybe in this world, and often make you question multiple competing views and timelines that you might form (of the book or of reality). He takes the short-lived proposal for a Jewish homeland in Uganda and plays out the same geopolitical tensions that arose in Israel, interspersed with a number of multiverse timelines that make you question who the real hero or heroines might be, and what “homeland” can or should mean. He makes self deprecating self references and deals historical fictions with equal, fair projection of the facts and events into his invented timelines.
15 “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets,” Simon Singh, math, finished April 23
Equal parts homage to the Simpsons, to fun and funky math theory and the creative process that makes The Simpsons the longest-running show on television (!!), Singh’s book is as effectively a director’s cut of the most mathematically grounded and proven episodes. He captures in a few hundred pages the nerd bait appeal of the show, and the evolution of the freeze frame gag (where an equation or number appears in the background for only a few frames, to be picked up by fast-reflexed remote wielders who then dive into Google searches for the number theory, with almost Kabbalistic fervor). I’m an admitted Simpsons fan (what other show has had Peter Frampton, Phish, and a host of other celebrities I like in non-starring roles?) and an even bigger fan of Simon Singh, and this book formed a non-degenerate eigenvector basis for the entire space between.
16 “The Thousand Earths,” Stephen Baxter, sci-fi, finished April 29
This is the first novel of Baxter’s that I’ve read, after seeing it on the 2023 Locus Award nomination list. He’s quite prolific, and I may end up descending into another binge-reading fit this summer based on “Thousand Earths.” What if the answer to the Fermi Paradox is “well, kind of,” you used consciousness upload (or download) to preserve the entirety of human culture and knowledge, and then extrapolated that out to, literally, the end of the universe? There are parts that feel very Rapture-ish, and there are book-length musings on war, violence, exploration, colonization, hierarchical governance and the human needs (desires? default states?) for all of them. It’s the only book I’ve read that attempts to cover a trillion years of history, although the timelines tend to increase by three or four orders of magnitude in each section.
17. “Red Team Blues,” Cory Doctorow, financial thriller, finished May 1
When William Gibson said “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” he was making a forward reference to Docotorow’s ability to capture the next challenge to our zeitgeist; “C@ontent” laid out the preconditions this week’s Hollywood writer’s strike. In the wake of crypto meltdowns and high profile fraud causes, “Red Team Blues” is both timely and terrifying. Short form: I adored this book, and the fact that Doctorow is starting a series that continues his trend toward the future present. It’s a story of forensic accounting, three-card Monte money games, security, crypto and trust, all rolled in a few layers of affectionate romantic sub plots. Finished it in two days and haven’t stopped thinking about the subtleties and little affection facets that shine through a fast paced, somewhat dark melange of Ozark and Homeland. Just pre-ordered the second Martin Hench novel in the series.
18. “Rose/House,” Arkady Martine, sci-fi, finished May 9
I truly loved Arkady Martine’s palace intrigue space opera series, and picked up her latest novella for a new direction. This is a dark, AI-versus-person, psychological whodunnit that felt a bit more like “Silence of the Lambs” than hardcore sci-fi. It’s deeply rooted and I likely missed a few key but crucial details.
19. “The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi,” non-fiction, Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, finished May 21
Completed from Lou Reed’s notes, photographs and interviews with his crew and teachers, Laurie Anderson paints a picture of Reed that is unlike anything else I’ve read. Gone is the acerbic, biting New York wit and edgy wisdom; long past are addiction and rock and roll acoutrements. What emerges, gently, gracefully and with poise is a reluctantly aging rock star facing self care through Tai Chi as the antidote to those earlier lifestyle choices. This isn’t a book about Tai Chi and its forms; it’s a book about using Tai Chi to combat anger, create power and calm, and drive through the later years of life. It’s beautiful and perhaps a more fitting posthumous tribute to Lou Reed than any other eulogy.
20. “Season of Skulls,” fantasy, Charles Stross, finished June 4.
Stross admits (explains?) in his Author’s Note that this was a pandemic impacted work, and a serious shift of styles to be more romance-influenced. Remaining are the incredible cultural references (lots of Talking Heads, offering color commentary on a black and white recast of “The Prisoner”), the very snark characters and a matter-of-fact treatment of Eldrich horrors that would make you believe there are Springer-Verlag yellow spined books on the subjects. At the same time, I thought this continuation of the “Laundry Files” lacked a bit of the strategic punch at the end, or the self-folding and reflective trickery that has marked the insane cleverness of earlier books in the series. I continue to truly like the characters, including the new ones from the two volumes, and Stross again has you alternately chucking and gasping. You definitely had to read these in series.
21. “Death Watch,” fiction, Stona Fitch, finished June 9.
How do you market a watch so exclusive that it randomly kills its wearer? Performance art, nihilism, anti-branding, extra-branding, Madmen meets horror genre? Yes to all of those. Princeton and WPRB associate Stona Fitch turns out an exceptionally fast paced, questioning-reality novel that is a perfect lens into the zeitgeist, down to the secondary character who only communicates via text messages.
22. “Don’t Stand in Line,” biography/music, Gerda Barker, finished June 30
Discovered this through the closure-of-graph in a Facebook group of Regressive Aid (band, Princeton area, late 1980s) fans, due to a Billy Tucker reference. I picked this up exactly a year after reading Chris Connelly’s “Concrete Bulletproof Invisible and Fried” that tells some of the same stories from the band’s pharmaceutical-laden points of view. Baker’s book isn’t at all in the same class: There is no kiss and tell, no lurid drug use, just a very grounded view of the continuously interrupted life of a professional musician’s family. Her biography evolves from Polish immigrant parents in Chicago through the emergent world of punk and early metal/industrial/metalcore rock to law school (!!) to the life of a rock and roll spouse. Barker is married to Paul Barker, bass player for Ministry, and much of the book is devoted to how she balanced motherhood, touring, sustaining her marriage through the creative processes of multiple albums, and the side shows of substance abuse, infidelity, and the narrow lens of rock and roll fame. The very matter of fact nature of the memoir (just published in 2023, covering three to four decades of previous life) covering topics like finding a preschool coupled with the rock and roll lifestyle spotlight shining on them as they move into a pre-tech boom Austin made this, for me, a more compelling read than I would have thought. While it’s long (over 500 pages) there are cameos by people and places that I know from other contexts: Austin, Stubb’s BBQ, Bill Rieflin (late drummer for King Crimson, and his re-introduction to Robert Fripp foreshadows his inclusion in the double trio), Billy Tucker (Regressive Aid guitarist), Wax Trax Records (through radio station friends) and Trent Reznor in his early NIN touring days.