Friday, August 23, 2013

A Good Reading Year

This has been a difficult year for me physically (more about that another time), but I'm having a great year reading. I've been on a tear lately, thanks to my local library and my oldest daughter.

My dog is pretty smart. He knows Saturdays are different from any other day of the week. He follows me around the house, tail wagging, from the moment we get up. He comes running if I make a move towards my car keys on the table in the mud room: "Are you going out? In the car? Will you take me with you?" I leave him behind if conditions are too hot or cold to leave him unattended in the car, but on mild days I'm happy to take him with me. We go to the bank, the post office, the barber shop, Dunkin Donuts, or the town library. It amazes me to see how often I'll find something good.

I started this recent tear with "Going Clear" by Lawrence Wright. It's the history of Scientology, from L. Ron Hubbard's World War II record through to the present day. I didn't know the details before. I found them educational and amusing.

I enjoyed it so much that I picked up Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Towers". It's the riveting story of al Qaeda from Sayyid Qutb in the prisons of Egypt to the crashing of planes into the World Trade Center on 2001-Sep-11. The references to Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who investigated the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and interrogated captured al Qaeda, led me to "The Black Banners". This is a wonderfully written, but ultimately sad and frustrating book. You know how it ends. You can see how it might have been possible to connect the dots beforehand if the right people had been privy to certain facts, perhaps preventing disaster. Ali Soufan presents evidence for something that I suspected was true: harsh interrogation methods don't work. Zero Dark Thirty would lead us to believe that waterboarding turned up the information that led to Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, but all the actionable intelligence the U.S. got from captured al Qaeda came from Ali and traditional interrogation methods.

After all this serious stuff I was ready for some fun. I heard Gillian Flynn on NPR's "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me" on the way to the library one day. She was so smart and funny when talking about her book "Gone Girl" that I had to read it. One of the panelists said "After reading this book, I think you're one of those people who could murder someone and get away with it."

I agree.

The writing device was unusual. The book opens with a young husband and wife on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. They argue before the man leaves for work. When he comes home, he finds the front door open, the cat sitting on stoop, the house torn up, and his wife gone. What happened to her? Chapters alternate from the husband's point of view in the present to the wife's voice in flashback. Things get nuttier with each turn of the page. It was most entertaining!

My oldest daughter recommended Ellen Ullman's "By Blood". It's set in San Francisco in the 1970s. An academic who's struggling to finish a project decides to rent an office in a seedy part of town. He finds out that it's next door to a psychiatrist's office. He starts listening in on a young woman's weekly session and finds himself identifying closely with her. He becomes secretly involved in her thread. Terrific writing!

Wait, there's more. My oldest daughter also suggested that I take a look at a piece of non-fiction by Cheryl Strayed: "Wild". It's the true story of a 22-year-old woman who loses her not-even-fifty single mother to cancer in 1995. Her family and marriage fall apart over the next four years. When she hits rock bottom she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Think Appalachian Trail on the West Coast, except at 10,000 feet along the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It made me wish I was a hiker. I thought the author was incredibly brave to be so forthright and honest.

Amazon should just garnish my wages. I love the instant gratification of Kindle. When I finished "Wild" I couldn't wait to get back to the library. I downloaded Colum McCann's "Transatlantic". I'm only a little way into it, but it's a series of stories that all center on Ireland. The writing is wonderful.

All this is on top of the books on the technical pile. I picked up "Learn You A Haskell For Great Good!" to try and grok functional programming. And I have another Coursera course coming up in a month.

It's like bailing the ocean with a plastic bucket. I can't take it all in fast enough.

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