New Hurling Equipment

hurley-unwrappedI do this thing where I develop an interest, pursue it for a little while, and then abandon it. I have an electric guitar in my office, for example. I spent a few months learning some basics but then got tired of being lousy at it and put it aside. A year or two later, I decided maybe the ukulele would be easier, as I’m not very dexterous and there are fewer strings. So now I’ve got a ukulele that I pick up every once in a while and plunk out a few chords on.

Every once in a while, I go on some kind of sporting jag. Several years ago, I played for a short season in a community tennis league, and a year or so after that, I joined a softball league (not a great experience, that). My current semi-obsessive interest is hurling, and today I took delivery of a new hurling stick and some balls.

These shipped over from Ireland. Apparently you can’t really get hurling equipment here in the U.S., which I suppose makes sense given that the reach of the sport in the U.S. is pretty short. I like the old hurley I’ve got, but I wanted to try one with a bigger striking surface, and I wanted to have a spare, as these things do break from time to time. So a little over a week ago, I placed an order for a new hurley and some balls. I was eager to see this stuff come in, and I had checked last night to see if enough time had passed that I should send in an inquiry, but I didn’t contact the company yet. Then, lo and behold, the mail carrier today brought me this bundle via registered mail.

It was very securely wrapped in plastic that it took me a knife and 5 – 10 minutes of focused time to rip away. The hurley is beautiful, a lovely pale plank of ash carved into the standard hurley shape but with a slightly enlarged head (or “bás”). It’s a fair bit lighter weight than my old one even with the bigger head, though whether that’s because the older one just has more moisture in it or something I’m not sure. I can hardly wait to get out there and hit around with this thing. Surely better equipment will make me a better player, right?

hurleys

The new hurley on the left and the old on the right, for comparison.

Easters Past

Easter was a fairly big deal when I was growing up. My family was a church-going family, and at least when I was very young, we had corsages and boutonnieres for Easter Sunday. The church usually did a Palm Sunday thing for which kids got to carry around palm (or I guess probably faux-palm) leaves. I think I recall that my sister and I usually got a new set of church clothes for Easter. And then of course there was the morning reveal of an Easter basket with chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, peeps, and assorted other candies that I would gorge myself on for a few days — plus the plastic grass that we’d find strands of for months to come. My parents would hide eggs overnight, so we’d start the morning with a little egg hunt, and I particularly remember that there was this one spot between the upper cushions of one of our love seats that they always hid an egg in. It was the perfect size and shape to hide an egg in. Usually we’d have a little stuffed animal or something to go along with our Easter basket.

My early Easters are fairly well documented in photographs, but the pictures taper off after my first few years. I don’t think we stopped doing the usual Easter routine after my very early years. Maybe the camera broke or we just lost photos at some point. At any rate, here are a few of my early Easter photos, presumably of interest only to any of my family who may run across this.

Easter 11 1977.jpg

1977 – my first Easter.

Easter 6 1978.jpg

Here I am in 1978. This is in the house I don’t remember — we built a new house when I was very young, some time after this year. I don’t remember the couch either, though I do remember the scuff-style slipper, which my mom wore many pairs of throughout her life. This is not the cutest or most flattering photo, but it’s surely the best of the batch of monstrous photos of me from this year.

Easter 10 1979.jpg

This is me in 1979, rocking a sweet gut and a Lou-Ferrigno-as-The-Incredible-Hulk mop of hair. I’m in casual attire (rather than church formal wear) here and the pampas grass at bottom right tells me that this was my grandmother’s yard.

Easter With Grandaddad 2 1981.jpg

Here I am at four years old in 1981 with my grandfather, who must have died in the year or two after this, as my memories of him are few and fleeting.

Easter 3 1982.jpg

I’m pretty dapper and maybe not a knock-out but also not entirely un-cute at five years old (if you discount the creepy teeth). This little stuffed bunny was a long-time favorite.

Hurling

A few years ago, a friend invited me to try a sport called hurling, a millennia-old Irish sport wherein you work with a bunch of stick-wielding teammates to get a little ball into a net or over a bar. It’s known as the fastest game on grass (not to be confused with a weed-smoking antelope). My friend grew up near Milwaukee, where there’s a pretty active hurling community. At the time, he seemed to be the only person around Knoxville who knew much about the game. I bought the pictured stick (called a hurley) off of him and we hit around a few times, and that was the end of it.

Some time in the last year or two, he mentioned that there was a group who he’d been playing with locally, composed largely of some Army reserve guys who were using the sport to help keep in shape. I wasn’t really interested at the time and wasn’t in the best of shape myself. Now, it turns out, there’s a Knoxville Gaelic Athletic Club (hurling being but one of several old Irish sports promoted by GACs around the world), and a couple of months ago, I decided to give hurling another try. I had put some effort into getting myself into better shape again but was tired of the same old exercise regimen. I thought playing a sport might be fun. I had had a not great experience with a community softball league a few years ago, so I wasn’t terribly optimistic, but when I contacted the group via Facebook to ask if an old out of shape guy with basically no experience would be way out of place, they were very nice, and I decided to risk leaving my bubble and going out into public to interact with human beings anyway.

And it’s great! The group is very welcoming, and I now very much look forward to training sessions. I’m a little skittish about actually playing in upcoming matches. For one, I’m not that good, and nobody wants to drag a team down. I also simply lack experience — I’ve watched a couple of televised hurling matches by now, but I haven’t absorbed a lot about strategy or game play beyond the basics, I’m bad with game strategy anyway, watching and playing are very different things, and I’m sure to make lots of stupid mistakes on my first few outings. It’s also a fairly physical team sport. You swing sticks around and body check one another, and this is a very different sort of play than I’m accustomed to from sports like softball or tennis in which you’re fundamentally playing the game either solo or as a somewhat isolated cog in a machine. I’m a little afraid of getting hurt, or of hurting somebody. I’m also… middle-aged and increasingly aware of it.

So the jury’s still out for me on playing confidently in any real matches, but I sure enjoy hitting around, and a little scrimmaging is fun, if, for me, also a bit nerve-wracking. I’m also not that in shape, so I wind up out of breath pretty quickly at scrimmage time.

hurling.png

Here I am lining up a shot that I likely swung and missed at. Photo by Vika Claytor via this post.

A few weeks ago, I injured myself, and not in one of the ways I had sort of expected to (broken collar bone or busted finger were on my short list, and I haven’t ruled these out yet after a few weeks of play). We were training in the rain, on a very muddy field. I had bought some cleats a week or two before, the first cleats I had worn since probably middle school. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was running with somebody and jockeying to get the ball, or about to be jockeying for it, and then my ankle rolled over really hard. Whether I hit a divot in the turf or whether my cleats dug in while my body kept its sideways momentum I don’t know, but my ankle sort of popped, and it hurt, and I went down and expected to lift my leg and find my foot dangling loosely from the end of it.

Thankfully, nothing was broken, but I had what the doctor classified vaguely as a severe sprain that has had me hobbling around ever since. I’m back to maybe 95% on the ankle for day-to-day use. I can still feel that something’s a little off about it, and it still looks a little funny and swells up if I do much with it, but I’m back to some light training with the team. I did a little scrimmaging yesterday, and it felt good to be back out there. (If you’re not squeamish about injury photos, you can click to see photos of the ankle at one hour after the injury and a few days later.)

If you live near Knoxville (you probably don’t — most of my friends and colleagues live on the internet alongside most of my drive-by readers) and are looking for a fun if not wholly safe sport, consider giving hurling a try. It’s been great fun for me, and I can vouch for the local group as a fun bunch to poc around with.

Bookshelves #13

Well, it’s been a while since I shared a bookshelf snapshot. For any newer readers, the idea here is that I’m trying not to keep books unless they’re meaningful to me or are things I’ll likely reread. Every once in a while, the books have a neat story. I’m slowly cataloguing them all, whether they have good stories or not. My shelves are organized roughly by color. Here we are in shelf cubby number 13 (of 20), transitioning from very dark covers to the more neutral tones.

Riding along the top there is a book I got for work and didn’t like very much. The author fancies himself a maverick but seemed to me to mostly just be kind of flakey and annoying.

My kids wore out the copy of The Hobbit we had had for years, so this is a newer copy. I read Bobbie Ann Mason’s Feather Crowns a long time ago in college and found it kind of so-so. Her In Country was much better, if with less of a carnival appeal to it.

Barth I have perpetual mixed feelings about. Giles Goat-Boy is hilarious and smart and never-ending and really uneven, like pretty much all of Barth’s long fiction that I’ve read. I’ll likely dip back into it someday.

I read the Baldwin essays and liked a couple of them but was less interested in the rest. I imagine I’ll give the ones I liked another read someday, so for now I’m hanging onto it. I recently read one of his novels and felt very meh about it.

Lethem is pretty consistently good, or at least aligned with my tastes. The Fortress of Solitude is one of my favorites of his.

The Southern literature anthology was the text of a class I took in college, and it’s chock full of good stuff, and of less good stuff. I revisit things in it from time to time and generally tend to hang onto anthologies. I’ll skip quickly to the next book, A Handbook to Literature, which is an earlier version of the copy that made an appearance in shelf #6. This copy happens to’ve been my mother’s. A professor of mine was the editor of the more recent edition that I used in college.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is magnificent and very much worth keeping to reread later.

I never finished Pierre, though I reckon I’ll read it one day. I also didn’t read A Whaler’s Dictionary all the way through. It’s more of a commonplace book than a thing you sit and read. It’s got some neat entries in it. I picked it up a few years ago when doing an in-depth read of Moby-Dick. It’s a nice book to own, and one that I’d be surprised to find in my local library.

I keep Pynchon, so V remains on the shelf. I haven’t read that one in many years and didn’t love it when I did read it. I can see myself trying it out again, though I’d be more interested, as I think about it just now, rereading one of his others.

I never finished The Savage Detectives. I’ve read Bolaño’s 2666 a couple of times and had been told that this one was also a really good book, but I lost interest maybe 2/3 of the way through and never got back into it. One day maybe I’ll try again. It’s that sort of negligent optimism that keeps me hanging onto this one.

BookNotes.blog

I read a fair bit, and increasingly, I’m kind of holding my nose and reading business-oriented books in hopes of leveling up my game as a worker who leads people. A couple of years ago, I might have struggled more with technology challenges in my work, as I was writing code and chiefly leading people who were writing code. About a year-and-a-half ago, I took on a split role in which I was still leading a team of developers but was also leading a handful of leads in our support division (the division under which my developer team worked). In the latter portion of 2017, I switched my full-time focus to leading leads, and at present I have 10 folks under my direct care and about 70 under my care directly or indirectly. This tightening of focus gives me more mental bandwidth to spend on learning how to improve as a leader than I had had previously, when I was also focusing on how to be a producer of software. Now I think a lot more about things like trying to help articulate and execute a vision for the departments I work with, helping navigate change more effectively, designing and implementing programs in the service of professional development for the folks in my overall department, and other abstract things I hadn’t had a lot of prior experience with.

So I’ve really ramped up my focus on reading business-oriented books. I don’t typically enjoy this kind of writing. I prefer to get lost in an imagined story or to think about the architecture and plumbing — the technique — that goes into making a piece of fiction resonant and innovative or just well put-together. I don’t generally like the tone that self-styled gurus can strike, and I think there’s a lot of this tone in the world of business books. I have tended to find these kinds of books kind of boring, or at any rate inapplicable to my life and thus not useful. Well, now, with a more intense focus on the kind of work these books tend to address, I’m finding the practice of reading them more useful.

For a couple of years now, I’ve kept very brief remind-myself sorts of reviews at GoodReads, but these aren’t comprehensive at all or really useful to anybody but me. Part of my goal in developing myself as a lead is to also help develop the leads I work with. One way of doing this is to act as a sort of — I forget where this colorful term came from, but it applies here — a shit umbrella for the things I’m reading. That is, I’d like to be able to tell people “it’s not worth your time to read this book; its salient points are A, B, and C, but you don’t need to kill time reading the whole book” or “this book is well worth a deeper read and will help you further develop your thoughts on X.” Because I’m forgetful, my path to providing this sort of service is to take better notes on the things I’m reading and to go ahead as soon as I finish something and determine whether I think it’s worth somebody else’s time or not.

To that end, I’ve started BookNotes.blog. I tend in general toward maximalism in my writing, but here I’m trying to offer brief summaries with in most cases a verdict about whether the book is worth a closer read or not. My hope is that this’ll help me preserve my verdicts and memories of these books in a way that’s useful to others.  I’m just one shit umbrella with one opinion, of course, so it’s worth only whatever the value of my specific opinion is. At some point, I may invite others to contribute to the blog as well. My summaries aren’t terribly incisive or consistent in rigor or tone. But there they are, for whatever they may be worth — if you’re thinking of reading a business-oriented book and have found conversations with me about books to be worthwhile, maybe these short articles will help you decide where to spend some of your reading attention, or where not to.

Books, 2017

I read more books and more pages this year than I’ve read in any year since I’ve been tracking fairly reliably, finishing the year with 89 books and about 30,000 pages (whatever that means, since I don’t always find the same edition I read, and sometimes I’m reading on a Kindle). My prior best (if we can call volume or quantity a superlative) was 75 books for 26k pages in 2015. This year I averaged about 340 pages per book, and in 2015, I averaged about 347, so I really did just read a lot more this year. My longest book this year was 1280 pages (took me five weeks to read that one) and my shortest was about 90.

I had a fair few four-star books this year, which makes me wonder whether I read better books or whether I lowered my standards somehow. A five-star book is a rarity for me in any case, and typically a four-star book is one I would recommend to somebody pretty enthusiastically, though not necessarily one I’d recommend to everybody. A three-star book is one I enjoyed and might recommend but wouldn’t recommend unreservedly. Anything lower than that I probably wouldn’t recommend.

Last year, I made an effort to read almost all things written not by straight white dudes after noticing a dearth of such authors in my 2015 reading list. I wasn’t as monomaniacal about it this year and wound up reading a little more than half straight white dudes. I did the bulk of my pleasure reading from the library this year, though I bought a few things. I intentionally read a bit more fantasy and sci-fi, which I’ve been a bit snobbish about in the past. This is partially due to my family’s selection of some fantasy stuff for our read-alouds (we read the first four of the Wheel of Time series and started the fifth this year), but I’ve gone out of my way to read some of this stuff on my own too, with varied results. Here at the end of the year, I’ve read a few mystery novels by Rex Stout, whom I remember reading as a kid. I may make mystery novels a bit of a theme in 2018 and generally continue to explore genre fiction a bit more. I read a few things for work and in general read a bit more nonfiction than I usually do (I’ve also reinstated my Harper’s subscription after a lapse of a few years).

Real standouts for me this year were Jerusalem by Alan Moore and We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. The former I think may be one of the great ambitious, important books written in my lifetime, and it is definitely not one I would recommend unreservedly for anybody and everybody. The latter seemed just ridiculously well written; even when it wasn’t the absolute most interesting thing to read, it was so well put together that it was a pleasure to spend time with. Whitehead, Le Guin, and Erdrich were also standouts this year.

Four star books included the following:

  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • Jerusalem by Alan Moore
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a reread)
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (a reluctant 4-star review; I’m embarrassed to have enjoyed it, but I did)
  • Doc by Mary Doria Russell
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath
  • The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
  • The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  • John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • The Best American Short Stories 2017 by various
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  • Postcards by Annie Proulx
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a reread)
  • A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Three star books include the following:

  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
  • Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan
  • The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time #2) by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time #3) by Robert Jordan (read aloud to the family)
  • The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time #4) by Robert Jordan (read aloud to the family)
  • Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1 and #2) by Gene Wolfe
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • Slade House by David Mitchell
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  • Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
  • Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  • Othello by Shakespeare
  • A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Best American Essays 2017
  • Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner (read aloud to the family)
  • Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone
  • Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
  • Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
  • Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Two-star books:

  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
  • Meaty by Samantha Irby
  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson (read aloud to the family)
  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
  • The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
  • Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath
  • You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun #3 and #4) by Gene Wolf
  • The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Some books I don’t rate, usually because I have some personal connection to it or its author in real life (which makes rating them feel weird), which is the case for each of these three:

  • We Were Once Here by Michael McFee
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
  • The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals by Robert Kloss

I’ve grouped many of the books listed above into categories below. Anything that appears below also appears above, so read on only if you’re curious about the groupings.

Dystopia

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (a reread)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a reread)
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner (read aloud to the family)
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Nonfiction

  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath
  • The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • The Best American Essays 2017
  • The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone
  • Meaty by Samantha Irby
  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Sci-fi

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  • Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1 and #2) by Gene Wolfe
  • Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun #3 and #4) by Gene Wolf
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Fantasy

  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
  • Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan
  • The Great Hunt (Wheel of Time #2) by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time #3) by Robert Jordan
  • The Shadow Rising (Wheel of Time #4) by Robert Jordan
  • The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson (read aloud to the family)
  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Not Straight White Dudes

  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Doc by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilak
  • The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
  • The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
  • The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  • John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
  • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
  • Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Postcards by Annie Proulx
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (a reread)
  • A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe
  • Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
  • Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • Local Souls by Allan Gurganus
  • Meaty by Samantha Irby
  • Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

For work

  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath
  • Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
  • Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone
  • Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie
  • Leading Change by John Kotter
  • The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Books, 2016

Oops, I apparently never published this post at the end of 2016. I discovered it only after writing up a draft of my book list for 2017. So I’ll post this now and my 2017 list once the year wraps up. These are books from 2016. When I mention “this year,” I mean 2016; when I mention “last year,” I mean 2015.


Last year, I recorded having read 74 books for a total of 25,500 pages. I fell a little behind this year, logging 67 books and 22,107 pages, which I suppose is still respectable enough. Last year I padded my book count some by reading the 13 books in the Series of Unfortunate Events series to my kids and participating as fully as I could in the Tournament of Books, which required a sort of mania to manage. Much of this year in reading to the kids was consumed by reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which contributed to the page count (these are 800+ pages apiece if I recall correctly) but added a paltry three books to the list. This year I read almost all things that were new to me (To Kill a Mockingbird was the exception, though I hadn’t read it in 25 years, so it was sort of new all over again), and I tried a different approach to picking what to read.

When writing last year’s summary of my reading, I noticed that I was reading mostly white American men. Since I am a white American man, I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense, but I figured it was time to broaden my horizons a bit, and the best way to do that is intentionally. So I made 2016 the year of reading people who weren’t white American/English/Canadian dudes. Brandon Sanderson and a late read of a Heinlin book (which gets logged on 2017 anyway) aside, I managed to avoid white guys. My failures were concessions to my family, who didn’t necessarily want to go along on my personal journey, though I dragged them along for some of it. The Sanderson at least featured a strong female protagonist; the Heinlein was a late break for my wife, who couldn’t bear another soporific read-aloud of Agatha Christie (who my children oddly really like).

So, how did I pick all these books by non-white men? Sometimes it was more or less at random. I actually browsed a little local bookstore a lot (enough that they got in the habit of thanking me not for my purchase but for my “contribution,” as if the sometimes not insignificant purchase was an act of charity) and read book covers to see what looked interesting. The store — Union Avenue Books —  has a small new paperback collection (I’m generally not charitable enough to buy in hardback) that rotates frequently enough that I could stop by and pick up a stack of six or eight books to last a month or two and find a fair few different books on my next stop. I basically profiled authors by looking for names that seemed unlikely to belong to white men, and when possible I would confirm by looking for an author photo or bio. It felt a little weird to physically profile people, and I consoled myself that it was ok since it was in the service of expanding my perspective to include the perspectives of people whose work I had not actively sought out before, but I’m still not sure it was actually ok. In any case, what’s done is done.

One thing I found was that when trying not to read white dudes, it’s very very easy to read white women. I read more white women than I really wanted to, to the extent that it felt a little cheaty, since though they do have a different experience of the world than white men, it seems very probable to me that overall, the experience these (I suspect largely entitled) women have of the world is probably very much more like the experience I have of the world than the experience of, say, a Nigerian Jesuit.

Now a word about my GoodReads rating system. First, I wish they allowed partial stars, as often I find five-star granularity to be insufficient for expressing how I feel about a book. Some books are better than three stars but not quite 4 stars, and it’s frustrating that I can’t express that in my quantifiable review. I tend to rate down, I guess because I’m a little snobbish and don’t want to elevate a book that didn’t really do it for me. So, a five-star book is basically transcendental for me; it changed my worldview or offered a perspective or a beauty of writing that made me really want to put it in a very small group of favorite books. A four-star book is very good and I liked it a lot (maybe even loved it a little) or found it exceedingly worthwhile even if not altogether enjoyable to get through. A three-star book I liked just fine. A two-star book I didn’t like much at all. A one-star book I pretty much hated. An abandoned book is very very rare for me, and I abandoned one this year (The Night Circus — irredeemable, and I wish I could bill the author for my time).

Of the books I read this year, I gave no books five stars but gave these 18 books four stars:

There were a few surprises here for me, notably the presence of some genre fiction in A Wizard of Earthsea (I wanted to continue the series but my daughter wasn’t digging it; I’ll likely revisit on my own later) and Epitaph, which is a loosely historical novel that isn’t at all the sort of thing I tend to pick up. Groff was a new find for me this year, and what a great find. The Vegetarian was more of a 3.5, but I rated it up rather than down because it was a bit of a puzzler for me, and I’m intrigued by puzzlers even if I don’t strictly like or enjoy them. I was glad to find Mason’s book so good, as I had read her Feather Crowns many years ago and found it merely ok. I would cheerfully recommend almost all of these books to just about anybody with the exception perhaps of The Vegetarian.

I gave three stars to these 37 books:

Lots of the family reads made this list. I hadn’t expected to like the Mistborn books as much as I did (and the third was kind of bad and thus got only two stars). Sri Lanka is well represented here in the books of Ondaatje and Cummings, thanks to recommendations from a colleague and friend. Africa makes a couple of appearances, largely because I so enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun (a rare five-star) last year and wanted to read a bit more from Africa (which, I know, is a very reductive thing to say). The Sellout was a big disappointment to me, enough so that I fear that the defect is in me as a reader and not in the book (it failed to connect for me in the way that a lot of Barth fails to connect; there’s something very smart about it but also something over-labored and thus tedious and annoying about it). Tartt delivers solid books consistently (two this year netted three stars for me and another four). I would recommend these books with less confidence. Some would surely land for some readers, but this cohort of books on the whole didn’t wow me.

I gave two stars to these eleven books:

The Erdrich was a real disappointment (I really liked The Round House), as was the Atwood, which I picked up randomly because it was on a table at a bookstore and I hadn’t read much Atwood and I was sort of feeling like maybe the U.S. was heading toward a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. My daughter liked Persepolis, and I was glad to learn more about Iran but didn’t really care for the book itself. The Stoddard and Wharton books were mostly just boring. Sanderson should have given up while he was ahead, and the Gratz was a real dud in my opinion after a more enjoyable first two books in that series.

I read but didn’t rate The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers because I’m very vaguely, tenuously acquainted with the author, and I feel weird about rating or commenting on books when I know the author (even though really I don’t — it’s a very very teensy, old connection, but enough of one that I feel weird about rating the book anyway).

Usually when I finish a book, I leave a very brief review on GoodReads, mostly just enough to tell a future forgetful me generally how I felt about a book or why I thought it was or wasn’t good. These micro-reviews aren’t really worth reading on the whole, but if you’re curious why a book landed in one pile or another and want to gamble on whether there’s useful context or not in my little review, click the link above and look for my review (easier to find if you friend me on GoodReads, I believe).

So, that’s 2016 in books for me. I’m glad I tried branching out. It was hard sometimes to avoid picking up a book by a white guy (there’s new Lethem, for example, and I got a book for my birthday that didn’t meet my criteria and has sat on my nightstand for 11 months), but I’m glad I mostly avoided it, and I’ll continue trying to keep an eye on how homogeneous my reading list is, and strive for heterogeneity. I think it’s probably more and more important to do so in a changing (or maybe merely acknowledged?) political climate in the U.S. that more than ever seems to favor the entitled and terrorize the rest.