I usually set reading goals at the beginning of the year to counter the array of distractions that have dented my reading habit over the last few decades. goodreads is great for maintaining some accountability and I’m in awe of some of my friends who seem to knock out 80-100 books easily every year despite their hectic work lives. I tried to veer myself away from my usual mix of management/leadership books this year to reignite fiction reading. The results were mixed thanks to massive mood swings through the year and I ended up with a random mix of tech, biographies, music, non-fiction and horror/sci-fi tomes that helped distract me from a depressing year.
Complete list of books here.
Some notable ( and not so notable) reads this year:
Greetings from Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor: A Springsteen tribute along with an immigrant experience? Sign me up! After enjoying the Blinded by the night with my better half, I had to get my hands on Sarfraz Manzoor’s ode to the boss amidst the backdrop of immigrant life in 80s Luton. The book is set in a “non-linear” timeline mode which may put off some readers but I found it a wonderful read albeit with some cliched moments probably dramatized. It also took me to pilgrimage of the boss’ older catalog and some of his late 80s/early 90s work that I love.(Think Tunnel of Love/ Human Touch era). As a huge music fan and an immigrant who traveled halfway around the world to chase dreams built on the foundational goals of exposing myself to new cultures/thinking and seeing my favorite musicians in live arenas in the flesh,the book resonated with me on the universality of music across cultures.
The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age: India is a land of skewed levels of haves and have nots at an unprecedented scale. You don’t understand it till you see it and even when you see it, your understanding is peripheral at best when confronted with the magnitude of the problem and the inequality at scale. James Crabtree’s detailed tome on the lifestyles of the rich and famous in India helps decrypt the inequalities and the “crony capitalism” that ensures the system stays that way. The nexus between politics, Bollywood, business tycoons are all deciphered out and connected together to explain the irony of situations like a ~2 Billion dollar personal home in Mumbai towering over a squalor of a million people in a nearby slum.
Tesseract by Alex Garland : I’m a big fan of Alex Garland’s works – 28 Days Later, The Beach, Sunshine and Ex-machina. On top of it all, he slam dunked the best version of Dredd on us innocent fans and immortalized Keith Urban in that role. I had huge hopes for Tesseract but it ended up being a random story of disparate characters linked together by the thinnest of chances and a shallow plot. Not his finest hour and I could not wait to finish this as it felt as slow as drug-induced slow-motion sequences in Dredd which were way more enjoyable. Still a huge AG fan regardless.
Seven years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer: Heinrich Harrer’s discovery of Tibet deserves it own post.
Devolution by Max Brooks: Anyone who has read World War Z knows the doom-laden nightmarish scenarios that the author can generate and this one is no exception. Obnoxious characters dealing with first-world problems in their isolated eco-friendly community encounter an even more ominous situation with Mt.Rainier erupting and get blockaded. Hell breaks loose in the form of rampaging sasquatches who ( thankfully in some cases) start taking out the characters one by one. A personal journal left behind serves as the narrative and tons of interesting sasquatch legends abound including this one of Roosevelt’s own” encounter” with the sasquatch.
The Long Walk by Stephen King: Big fan of the king. The plot and premise was great here but it did slow down towards the end. On hindsight, this book is probably best enjoyed via an audio book while on the treadmill. Overall an OK read.
Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North: Travel log of Ibn Fadlan , a tenth-century diplomat who, in 922 AD, was sent on a mission from Baghdad to the far north by the caliph Muqtadir. His journal serves as an important account of life in mordern-day Russia/Middle east and the areas in between. Repetitive and slow moving in places , the book abounds with interesting details on the trading routes, strange customs, vikings raids, savage rituals, food habits, wealth management, religion and a disconnected world at a strange dark time.
Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft : Lovecraft (despite his controversial views) is the master of horror fiction and I’ve always enjoyed the predictable nature of a classic lovecraft pulp. More so for the constant reminders that much of what we know is unknown and we are all inconsequent specks of dust in the vastness of time ( To somewhat paraphrase Carl Sagan, if the entire history of earth was compressed into 365 days, humans would have existed for ~30 seconds.) Usually a Halloween ritual, this year was no different with Lovecraft to distract me from the horrors raging outside. This collection has all the usual ones including Call of Cthulhu, Dunwich Horror and the Shadow over Innsmouth.
Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People by Stephen Wolfram : Short biographies of giants in the filed of mathematics/computer science. Despite the authors inclination to insert the use of Mathematica tool into a “what-if” scenario into every biography, this was still an enjoyable read. The author is a giant in his field and I suppose some level of braggadocio is expected. The fascinating backstories into characters like Leibnz, Babbage, Feynman and Ramanujan is written powerfully and by someone with the grasp of minutiae of their research areas which is awe-inspiring. My highlights here.
The tech books followed a predictable pattern of excellent reads this year helping me keep abreast of work-related topics mostly focused on Spark, Databases and ML.
Database Internals: A deep-dive into how distributed data systems work by Alex Petrov: Informative but would have preferred more examples with practical scenarios. No code and this all mostly conceptual. Some good references to papers for subsequent reading. The first part of the book deals primarily with storage and covers an in-depth discussion of b-trees and types. The second half is focused on distributed systems and has useful sections on consensus protocols. Concepts like “2-phase commits” are explained well with figures. However, the lack of practical examples/code and overall dry subject matter made this a laborious read. Good book to reference theoretical concepts.
Practical Deep Learning for Cloud, Mobile, and Edge: Real-World AI & Computer-Vision Projects Using Python, Keras & Tensorflow: Plenty of examples and links for more research. The material is too vast enough to make an all encompassing book but this delivers in terms of practical tips. Lots of practical tips provided that will find a place in any serious ML engineer repertoire. The consolidated list of tips are worth the book alone. Excellent comparisons of Raspberry Pi, Jetson Nano, and Google Coral. The reinforcement learning sections could have used some more practical examples in areas like q-learning but overall great read and reference material.
The books this year included Van Halen ( Eddie R.I.P), Megadeth, Glyn Johns amongst others.
Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes–A Memoir by Steve Gorman: Great read start to finish. The Black Crowes were one of the many soundtracks of my teenage years in the 90s. The first three albums are seminal works that stand out despite having to contend with changing musical climate with the rise of grunge and the decline of hair metal. The book is a page-turner for anyone even vaguely familiar with the Black Crowes. It made me go back and re-immerse into the catalog especially with albums like By your side which is an underrated gem produced by the great Kevin Shirley and their successful but short-lived collaboration with Jimmy Page – Live at the Greek. Gorman’s insight as a founding member and the frank admission of all the dysfunction makes up for a great story. Im a huge fan of Rich Robinson’s use of open G tuning and this book has led to more inspired practicing in that vein.
Overall 35 books for the year which I can hopefully better in 2021. Current reading list here.