What I’ve been reading

Not as much as you’d think, given my unplanned 6-week blogging break. Buying a home and moving a family is… intense. As I become a homeowner for the first time (after renting for 22 years) most of my reading has been appliance and repair manuals, plus houseware reviews on Amazon. But Chicago is wonderful and Hyde Park is the perfect fit. In the meantime, I have read a little.

  1. The Nix, by Nathan Hill. Hyped as one of the best books of 2016, it’s another cynical novel about a frustrated English professor at a small US college. (“Write what you know” at work?) If you like over-the-top stereotypes for your book characters, this is the novel for you. I’m reminded of the question I’ve been asking myself ever since I immigrated: “Why is sarcasm wielded like a heavy and blunt instrument in America?” I prefer a more subtle wit.
  2. The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America by Barry Latzer. A no nonsense review of crime patterns since the 1930s. Informative but not particularly engaging. I’m helping launch an international crime lab with JPAL, and I expect the book to help me fake expertise.
  3. Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan. A graphic novel that has been perfectly described as the intersection of The Watchmen and The West Wing. A slightly inept superhero removes his mask to run for Mayor of New York, edging out Bloomberg in the post 9/11 election to run the city 2002-05. Vaughan also wrote We Stand On Guard, not as good as Ex Machina, but it’s about the US invasion of Canada and the resulting insurgency. For someone like me it’s like watching your parents fight.
  4. Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. The Crittenden Compromise of 1860 tried (unsuccessfully) to avoid the US Civil War by constitutionally enshrining slave holding in the South. What if it had been passed, say because Lincoln was assassinated before he could take office? That’s the premise of this alternate US history, telling the story of a black bounty hunter who returns escaped slaves to the industrial mills in the last four states to use slavery in the 21st century. The book is so good that it deserves a post of its own, and that is the main reason why months have gone by without me writing about it.
  5. The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. Various excellent essays by the author of The Gin Closet. Chapter 6 is about her brother, and my coauthor, running a truly insane ultrarun through the wilds of Tennessee. Not a single mention of working on our paper during the trip, I note to myself privately.
  6. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This would be a successful young adult book if it weren’t for the occasional raunchy sex scene. So think of it like Harry Potter for grownups, except Hogwarts is basically fighting MIT. If that sounds appealing to you then you will probably like this book.
  7. Please Like Me, Season 3. I was watching, not reading, what I still think is one of the best television shows out there, and perhaps my favorite comedy of all time. By and about a young Australian gay man, on romance, mental illness, and friendship. Subtle wit.