Category Archives: Books

Spring Reading, 2017

Wow, who knew it would be so difficult to sit down and write a few words about the books I have read? I am trying to stick with it, though…

Here are the books I have read over the past couple months. No four-star ratings this time, but I am a harsh grader. Some very fun and interesting books, though!

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J. M. Coetzee

IMG_0080Why I Picked Up This Book: I read an interview in The Atlantic with David Gelerntner, an unusual, very intelligent guy who has some views I agree with and some I don’t. Anyhow, he mentioned Coetzee, and that reminded me that I have wanted to read something of his. I have had good luck with Booker prize winners, and I had heard Coetzee’s name mentioned along with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, etc. I chose Waiting for the Barbarians because it had the best reviews on Amazon.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The magistrate of a colonial frontier town responds to the real or possibly imagined conflict with the tribal Barbarians.


  • Entertainment:  star1star1star1  At 150 pages, this was a pretty quick read. The character of the Magistrate and of his antagonists  could easily be envisioned as corollaries to modern-day politicians and military men. The Magistrate was a man with a conscience, and it was interesting to see how determinedly he was willing to stand for what he believed in and against what he opposed.
  • Insight: star1star1 Interesting portrayal of nonviolent resistance. I will also note here that I read like an engineer, taking things pretty literally. So I am sure that there are likely to be subtle insights that I missed!
  • Knowledge: star1 I did not really gain any new knowledge from this book, nor did I expect to.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo

IMG_0081Why I Picked Up This Book: I recently read a book by Garry Kasparov where he described the Putin regime as operating essentially the same as the Corleone operation in The Godfather. I thought reading The Godfather might be fun, so I picked up a copy.

One sentence describing what this book is about: A young man enters the family business and discovers his true self.


  • Entertainment: star1star1star1 The Godfather is a very entertaining book to read; the type of book where one feels inclined to cruise through 150 pages or more in a single day. It is by no means a work of art; but it is not quite a “guilty pleasure” either. Somewhere in between. Since of course I have seen the movie, it was easy to visualize the story, as the movie sticks very close to the book.
  • Insight: star1  I did not get any significant insights from the book.
  • Knowledge:  star1  I did not really gain any new knowledge from this book, nor did I expect to.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

Three Stones Make A Wall, by Eric H. Cline

IMG_0110Why I Picked Up This Book: I saw a brief review of this book in the Wall Street Journal. Archaeology is a subject I know almost nothing about, but I have always found it somewhat awe-inspiring to view objects that were made thousands of years ago. It sounded interesting , so I picked up a copy.

One sentence describing what this book is about: This book is a history of key archaeological sites and practices told by a leading professor of archaeology.


  • Entertainment: star1star1star1 This book presents fascinating stories about key archaeological sites such as Troy, Masada, Megiddo, Herculaneum, Mayan cities, and others – how the site was discovered, who discovered it, and how they explored it. It is written as a series of stories, and Cline’s style is conversational rather than academic.
  • Insight: star1star1 Helped develop my sense growing sense of just how advanced the Ancients were politically and philosophically, and how fundamentally things have not changed all that much since ancient Greece.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1 I really gained a better understanding of early civilization and how it evolved, not to mention how ancient sites are discovered and investigated. Made me want to sign up for an archaeological dig!

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

Anatomy of a Song, by Marc Myers


Why I Picked Up This Book: I saw a few excerpts in the paper, discussing how certain songs were conceived of, developed, and produced. They were interesting and fun to read, so I figured I’d get the book.

One sentence describing what this book is about: This book is an oral history of 45 iconic hits that changed rock, r&b, and pop (just like the cover says!).


  • Entertainment: star1star1star1 I find it really interesting to hear how these songs came about. It is always interesting to me to hear how serious many (not all) of these artists were in the pursuit of their craft. It was fun to read about the songs and then listen to them, hearing many of them in a new light.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 It is surprising to see how educated and serious all these artists were. It is really difficult to picture Jim Morrison discussing chord trasnsitions from A minor to B minor a la John Coltrane, for instance!
  • Knowledge: star1star1 Interesting stuff to learn, but not really life changing!

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom

IMG_0132Why I Picked Up This Book: I had seen a few interviews with Harold Bloom, and he seemed like a smart, interesting guy. I saw the title of the book, and was intrigued.

One sentence describing what this book is about: An erudite professor of English discussed how and why to read his favorite plays, poems, and novels.


  • Entertainment: star1 Listening Bloom talk about English is like listening to Einstein talk about Physics. I forced myself, with difficulty, to finish this book.
  • Insight: star1star1 The main insight I got from reading this book is that I made the right decision NOT to major in English
  • Knowledge: star1 When I selected this book I was hoping to learn how to read a book to gain more insight and understanding. I did not realize that what the title really meant was “how and why to read certain important works”.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

TIDES: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, by Jonathan White


Why I Picked Up This Book: I saw an advertisement for this book in Wooden Boat magazine, and decided to check it out.

One sentence describing what this book is about: This book contains everything you could possibly wish to know about the tides, including the science, history, geography, spirit, and amazing facts, all told by a surfer dude science journalist.


  • Entertainment: star1star1 Some of the chapters were extremely interesting to read, though I think in many cases it would have helped to have more photos. However, at some points the scientific background and discussions got a bit tedious, tempting me to skip ahead.
  • Insight: star1star1 The effect of the tides on human thought and the emergence of society was pretty dramatic, and not something that I have thought much about. And in these days of rising sea levels, it certainly merits some serious thought!
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1 It was really cool to read about some of the amazing tides around the world – for instance, the tide that roars up a river in China as a 25 foot wall of water, or the tribe in Canada that climbs through the ice in the Hudson Bay to forage in the caverns left behind by the receding tide. I will never look at the beach in quite the same way.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

INGREDIENT: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food, by Ali Bouzari


Why I Picked Up This Book: Karen and I attended a lecture/demonstration by Ali Bouzari, and the lecture was sufficiently interesting (and the food sufficiently delicious) to cause me to purchase the book.

One sentence describing what this book is about: Useful, comprehensive facts and techniques regarding food chemistry, written for the non-scientist.


  • Entertainment: star1star1 As I enjoy food and cooking, I am quite happy to read books about food cover-to-cover. Even cookbooks! While this book contains no recipes, it has lots of useful information on how to take advantage of the interactions between water, sugars, lipids, minerals, etc.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 Very thought-provoking. Makes it easy to understand why some recipes work and why some don’t. Will be very useful for troubleshooting things that don’t quite work out the way I planned.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1 Packed full of interesting and useful information regarding food interactions. It is scrupulously written without using scientific jargon of any kind – a bit excessively so in my opinion.

Reminder: in a particular ratings category, four stars is mind-blowing, one star is meh, or in some cases NA. And I do not believe in grade inflation.

My Reading List

I have been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember. Even as a young child, my TV time was severely limited, so my nose was almost always in a book. Sounds almost quaint these days!

In the process of tidying our empty nest a bit this weekend, I decided to relieve my bookshelves of any books I did not think I was likely to read or refer to again. You see, while I used to believe that owning an interesting library was the sign of an educated person, I have recently come around to the idea that having stacks and stacks of books  may actually be the trademark of the pack rat. So, deciding that traveling light was the way to go, I pulled the books from their various shelves and set them on the floor in preparation for boxing.

I decided to take a picture of the books prior to putting them in boxes so that I could send it to places and/or people I would potentially donate the books to. Way easier than writing up a list! Here’s the picture:


Two or three years worth of books, ready to go into boxes and off to the Danville Library

Looking at this pile, I came to the realization that while I had read all of these books, there were several that I could barely recall, if at all. There were also many of them that had informed, illuminated, or entertained me quite profoundly. But, I’ll have to say, my primary feeling was one of regret and perhaps slight embarrassment about all this information that I had ingested, but to a large degree had forgotten.

This feeling got me to thinking about my younger days, when my brain did not seem to be such a sieve. Of course, back in those days of college and before, there was often a lot at stake, such as upcoming exams, papers, classroom discussions, and the like. And, back then, I would usually take notes, use a highlighter, or write a quick summary so as to jog my memory later when wanted or required. So, I’ve decided that perhaps I should start using those techniques again!

I’m afraid that I don’t have the patience these days to read with a highlighter or pen in my hand all the time. So I have decided to do a quick summary of each book I read. I will do that here, on, as it just seems like the easiest and most accessible place to put it. That way, years later, if I am trying to remember what book it was that I liked so much about, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, I will have a shot at finding it!

When I choose a book, I am generally looking for one of three things, or some combination of the three. In no particular order, I am seeking some combination of [1] entertainment, [2] insight, or [3] knowledge. So I am going to record how the book did in each of these three areas, then jot down a few notes. We’ll see how it goes!

Regarding Entertainment, I will grade each book as follows, from high to low:

  • star1star1star1star1 Exhilarating: This is a book that is such a pleasure to read that it is difficult to put down. It is so fun, so deeply moving, or so well written that I hate to see it end. It might make me laugh out loud or pause to allow tears to clear from my eyes.
  • star1star1star1 Engaging: I very much enjoyed reading the book and am likely to recommend it to others. It usually has a great story or great characters to separate it from the pack. It is good enough that it makes me set aside other things to spend extra time reading it.
  • star1star1 Pleasant: A good book, but not a great read. A nice story. On the nonfiction side, a book that gets boring from time to time. I might find myself dozing off from time to time, or watching The Voice instead of reading.
  • star1 Challenging: A book that is tough to get through, takes real effort to stick with it. On the nonfiction side it usually compensates by tackling material I am very eager to understand, so am willing to tough it out. On the fiction side, it is Faulkner, or Joyce. Often I just can’t make myself finish, even though I know I should.

Regarding Insight, here are the grades, again from high to low:

  • star1star1star1star1 Life Altering: This is a book that made me change the way I think about the world. Its impact hangs in my consciousness for weeks, months or years.
  • star1star1star1 Eye Opening: This provided insights that made me see things in a different way. It may have helped me understand the views of other, or understand why things are the way they are.
  • star1star1 Astute: The insight or insights provided by this book are significant and non-obvious. These are insights that are worth considering but are unlikely to change my view of the world.
  • star1 Incidental: I did not get any significant insights from the book.

Finally, on Knowledge, I will assign one of the following:

  • star1star1star1star1 Revelatory: This book provided me with knowledge that I found profoundly interesting, extremely useful, or intensely edifying.
  • star1star1star1 Enlightening: I learned lots of new interesting or useful things reading this book.
  • star1star1 Supplementary: This book provided nuggets of new knowledge that helped round out my knowledge of a subject with which I am already somewhat familiar.
  • star1 Incidental: I really did not gain any significant knowledge from this book.

You can assume that any book that does not merit even one-star in any category (i.e. impossible to read, trivial and obvious, full of misinformation) will get abandoned rather than finished, so will not make be written up. And this does, in fact, happen!

To test my methodology I decided to write up three books which I have read recently, each of which is “five stars” in one of the categories: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon.

Click here to read about these books, all three of which I found to be exceptional. And, if you happen to have read any of these books, comment and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessment!

Three Great Books: Angle of Repose, The Cave and the Light, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.

Why I picked up this book: Over the past few years I have been working my way through a list of the 100 best novels as selected by Modern Library. Angle of Repose is number 82 on the list.

One sentence describing what this book is about: Angle of Repose is about a turn-of-the-century family making their way in the American West, as told by their grandson, who reveals his own story while telling theirs.


  • Entertainment: star1star1star1star1 Angle of Repose had many interesting stories wrapped around each other. It took place in locations with which I am very familiar, but which have changed quite dramatically since the story took place. The characters were all extremely vivid, complex, and believable.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 The angle of repose is the steepest angle that a granular material can be piled up before the pile collapses. The book used this metaphor very cleverly in the exploration of emotions and relationships.
  • Knowledge: star1star1 Among other things, learned some interesting things about civil engineering, specifically about mining mercury in the Almaden Valley (now part of Silicon Valley) in the late 1800’s.

Other notes: This is the first book by Wallace Stegner that I have read. The book is beautifully written, conveying almost photographic images of the setting and very tangible depictions of feelings and emotions.


The Cave and the Light, by Arthur Herman.

Why I picked up this book: Came across this book while browsing in a bookstore, and was intrigued by the subtitle: “Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the soul of Western Civilization”.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Cave and the Light presents a distilled view of the teachings of Plato and those of Aristotle, and discusses their impact on serious thinkers from antiquity to the present day.


  • Entertainment: star1star1 Perhaps leaning towards challenging, this was neither a quick nor easy read. The writing style was fairly engaging, but there is a lot information to process, and a lot to think about while reading.
  • Insight: star1star1star1star1 After reading The Cave and the Light I found I had a much greater understanding of how the basic principles of our society evolved. I find now that I often read articles and opinions more critically, subconsciously considering whether a Platonic or Aristotelian viewpoint is being espoused.
  • Knowledge: Enlightening. I learned a ton about great thinkers I had never heard of, and about the history of Western thought in general.

Other notes: None.


The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon.

Why I picked up this book: I read a short review of this book in either the Wall Street Journal or the San Francisco Chronicle (NOT the NY Times, because their reviews are NEVER short) and thought it sounded interesting.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Rise and Fall of American Growth describes the huge improvement in the American standard of living from roughly 1870 to 1970, and takes the position that this improvement has now largely stagnated.


  • Entertainment: star1star1 This book is 650+ pages long, and includes, tables and graphs. The writing style is engaging, however, and the material is so interesting that the book is both engaging and taxing
  • Insight: star1star1star1 We engineers often talk (or even gloat) about the current pace of technological change. However, this book really hammered home the fact that the capability to send disappearing messages containing funny movies really does not compare to things like running water, electrification, and the highway system when it comes to real impact on our living standard.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1star1 The Rise and Fall of American Growth paints a vivid and astounding picture of what life in America was like prior to the 1870-1970 growth century. It covers all aspects of our living standard incredibly comprehensively.

Other notes: None.