Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Big Book Post

It's the most wonderful time of the year: time to reflect on the books I've read in 2015! I always end the year with a Big Book Post (see previous Big Book Posts).

I finished my reading challenge, completing my sixteenth of sixteen books yesterday, and just in the nick of time.

Books read, in order
Dec-Jan: The Mathematician's Shiva, by Stuart Rojstaczer
Jan: Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler
Feb: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
Feb: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
Mar: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
2013-Apr: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR), by Eliezer Yudkowsky
Apr: Gulp, by Mary Roach
Apr: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
May: Rats, by Robert Sullivan
Jun: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Jul-Aug: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Sep: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Oct: The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Nov: Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Dec: Paper Towns, by John Green
Dec: The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut

The best and the worst
I read a bunch of books I really loved this year, but it's not hard to choose a favorite. Poisonwood stands out above the rest. It was a fascinating story and well-told. A close second was HPMOR, which I've been reading since 2013 but the final 21 chapters were only published this year, so I'm counting it as a 2015 book. It's brilliant what Yudkowsky's done with the Harry Potter story, and if you can bear the length (over 2,000 pages) and the stigma of fan fiction, I highly recommend it.

It pains me to say it, but Rats was the book I liked the least this year. The topic was interesting, but the writing wasn't really flowing smoothly into my brain. Interestingly, Poisonwood and Rats were loaned to me by the same friend.

By the authors
I read ten books by men and six by women.
I read three Brits (Lahiri, Gaiman, and Pratchett) and one Canadian (Atwood). Everyone else was born in the USA.
The oldest (and deadest) author I read was Vonnegut (b. 1922), followed by Atwood (b. 1939, and very much alive), and then Pratchett (b. 1948) who died WHILE I was reading Good Omens. Sorry guys. All other authors are younger, and living. I couldn't find ages for the authors of Welcome to Night Vale, which I suppose is appropriate, since time is weird there. I am assuming they are the youngest of the authors I read this year.
This was my fourth time reading Atwood, my third and fourth times reading Gaiman, and my fifth time reading Roach. The rest were new to me.

By genre
1 memoir
2 non-fiction (biology and nature)
13 fiction
 - 3 YA
 - 4 Sci-fi
 - 4 Fantasy

Ender's Game is the first in a series I will probably not continue.
The Year of the Flood is the second in a trilogy I probably will finish.

By publication date
The oldest book I read was Sirens of Titan, published in 1959. Everything else was published in the 90s or later, including two books published this year: Welcome to Night Vale and HPMOR (sort of).

By setting
Settings include New York, Newport (RI), Boston, Columbus, Chicago, Orlando, Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin, Georgia, Night Vale (California?), Atwood's vague concept of the future North America, London and the English countryside, Yudowsky's alternate Hogwarts, the Belgian Congo, USSR, Calcutta, Mars, Mercury, Titan (moon of Saturn), elsewhere in space, and the human digestive tract. Specific time settings range from WWII to 2044, but Ender's Game certainly goes beyond that (if it takes place in our reality), and as was previously mentioned, time is meaningless in Night Vale (and out of it).

I watched the movie of Gone Girl. I started watching the movie of Ender's Game but didn't finish it, and I have yet to see The Namesake movie. I'm very much looking forward to the movie of Ready Player One and the HBO miniseries being made of Atwood's MaddAddam series (of which Flood is a part).

Book clubs
I didn't read any of these as part of a book club, but I was inspired to read The Namesake because my college fraternity chapter selected it for their book club. I tried to read along with them and participate, but I ended up zipping through it. Plus, I'm sure I read Welcome to Night Vale at the same time as many (tens of? hundreds of?) thousands of fellow fans worldwide.

Reading in interesting places
I read Ender's Game on a cruise ship.
I saw many subway rats while reading Rats (although the book focuses on rats in alleys).
I read The Sirens of Titan on Titan.

Where I got them
Borrowed: Yes Please and Paper Towns (Sara), Neverwhere (Scott), Ender's Game (dyAnne), Gone Girl (Talia), Rats and Poisonwood Bible (Charlene), Ready Player One (Matthew)
Gifts: Mathematician's Shiva (Bethany), Sirens of Titan (Sara)
Bought: Flood (The Word in Greenpoint), Good Omens (The Word in Jersey City), Gulp (Strand), Night Vale (Amazon)
Read online for free: HPMOR
Just had it: Namesake

Looking ahead

  • My first priority for 2016 is to tackle the pile of books I got for the holidays, which will achieve several goals: reading books within a year of being given them, feeding my Sarah Vowell obsession (Lafayette in the Somewhat United States), and reading more non-fiction (the stack is almost entirely non-fiction).
  • Reading the books Lindsay got me for my birthday will intersect with the gift goal, the non-fiction goal (David Byrne's How Music Works) and the Neil Gaiman obsession (Trigger Warning).
  • I would like to complete the MaddAddam trilogy by reading Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam.
  • I've recently discovered Vonnegut and I've taken a year off from Murakami which is too long.
  • I have a shopping bag full of books from the shelves of a friend who was purging before a move, and I plan to delve into it starting with Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series.
  • The first two bullets in this list contain plenty of non-fiction to choose from, but in case I need more, I'd like to prioritize Guns, Germs, and Steel and A People's History of the United States.
Happy new reading year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


When I was a kid in summer camp, I had a friend who would do his summer reading on the bus. Since we were kids and didn't yet know all the words (spoiler: we still don't), he kept a dictionary with him, and would look things up as needed.

Flash forward to now, and like my camp friend, I occasionally find an unfamiliar word while reading on the subway. Carrying a dictionary with me is preposterous, and Google can't always hear my requests from deep underground, so I've started keeping a list of words to look up later. Here are the new words I learned from reading Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

rakehell: A person of questionable morals (to put it blandly), used in the book to describe the protagonist.
parvenu: Essentially "new money," derogatory, again describing the main character but in the eyes of an aristocratic woman.
treed: This one was easy to figure out from context but I loved it so much I wrote it down. In this context it means trapped in a high place, such as up a tree. In the book, someone speculates being "treed on the fountain," and I thought this was a very colorful way of describing that.
quondam: Former, although in the book it seems to mean "absent" or "intermittent," as it describes a man who blinks in and out of existence, in contrast with his very solid and permanent house.
glancing: Brief and indirect, referring to a question asked by a character who wasn't entirely interested in hearing the answer.
desiderata: Things desired. "Healthy, charming wise children were the desiderata."
phlegmatic: Not prone to action or emotion. This word has been knocking around in my brain for many years and I'm glad to finally have the excuse to look it up. It is used to describe mountains in contrast with people.
peyotl: This appears to just be an alternate or foreign spelling of peyote. He seemed to be using it as an adjectival form of peyote (peyotal?), but I guess not.
concupiscence: Sexual desire, referring to the Sirens of Titan themselves.
incipient: in the beginning stages, describing a character's baldness.
scalplock: I can only find this as a two-word phrase: "scalp lock" referring to a tuft of hair on an otherwise shaven head.
brummagem: Showy but inferior and worthless, describing souvenirs.
noblesse oblige: From Google: "the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged." In the book, the human is privileged and the machine/robotic life form is less.
skylarking: Playing a game or doing something just for the fun of it. In the book, an action is described as not skylarking, but rather a strategic move.
sepulchrally: In a manner relating to a tomb or burial (knowing the definition of sepulcher would have helped). This referred to an apparently gravely ill character's speech.
salubrious: Promoting health, referring in the book to the climate.

Monday, December 21, 2015

That's not an apple; that's a cloud.

About a month ago, I downloaded an OS update to my very old iMac. I knew it was risky business, but the specs said my computer could support it. Although the user reviews were all pretty bad, none of their complaints were things that mattered to me, and I figured if they're offering an update, I may as well get it, rather than letting my computer plunge deeper into the stone age (2008).

Speaking of outdated things, I'd been using the Address Book app (represented by a beige book icon with an "@" emblazoned on it) to keep my holiday card list. Address Book is a disconnected, local app that you can't access from anywhere but your computer, but that suited me fine.

Old: bad.New: good!

Apple disagreed. I downloaded the upgrade and installed it, and then days later it was time to start my holiday cards. I went to the dock and discovered that the beige book was gone and in its place was a slightly browner one with an encircled portrait silhouette called "Contacts." I opened it and it was empty. The upgrade had apparently wiped out my address book.

My concern deepened when I couldn't find the physical notebook in which I'd kept the list of people I'd sent cards to last year. It didn't have addresses, but at least it would have been a starting point. I'll leave that aside, since Apple isn't to blame for it.

Some googling revealed that iCloud might be the solution, although no one reported my exact problem. I attempted to log into iCloud but it did not accept my password. After resetting my password I tried again, but now there was "a problem logging into your iCloud account."

After some screaming and swearing I gave up, and began the process of rebuilding my address book, entering information into Google Contacts as it came to me (so THERE).

Fast forward to today, when my iMac gently suggested I download some software upgrades, because that had worked so well LAST time. I complied, and after a restart, my computer asked me to enter my iCloud password. It took several minutes, but the login seemed to be working. After I'd accepted some terms and conditions and agreed to a few other things, ultimately the login failed. I was too jaded by this point to scream or cry.

Then it occurred to me to try logging into iCloud via my laptop. Envision a video montage with silly background music as I dig through piles of things in my apartment looking for my laptop. The laptop is brand new. I got it a few months ago after my iMac did something that made me very nervous. Since then my iMac has been working fine, and I'm too lazy to move things over, so I'm still using it as my primary computer. Anyway, I logged into iCloud successfully from my laptop.

Now imagine the Legend of Zelda secret sound (or if you can't, click here) as I turn to see a dialog box pop up on my iMac telling me that I've logged into iCloud from another computer. "How do YOU know?" I wondered, since my iMac was ostensibly not connected to iCloud, however all signs now pointed to connected. I opened Contacts optimistically, and at first there was nothing in there, but seconds later it populated with all of my entries from my old address book. HAPPY ENDING! iCloud had indeed sucked up my info, and was just holding on to it until I pushed the right boulder out of the way causing the secret passageway to appear.

Next stop, Ganondorf
The notebook remains at large.