Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

Maria Konnikova

Perhaps the most fun I had reading a book this year.

Here’s he premise: Konnikova, a New Yorker writer with a phd in psychology hires one of the world’s greatest poker player to teach her the game with the intent to eventually compete in pokers marquee event, the World Series of Poker. Standard fare in the participatory journalism narrative.

Except it turns out Konnikova is good. Very good. And she uses her understand of psychology, probability, and, sexism is do very well. You have the great writing you’d expect from a New Yorker writer with a great narrative and bouts of true surprise all of which add up to a enjoyable, informative read.

This one is just lots of fun.

Recommended.  

El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s This Is How You Loose the Time War

This Is How You Loose the Time War
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A wonderful little book imagining a fight / friendship / love affair (?) between two warriors in a war across time. Written by two top notch SF writers it consists essentially of letters our warriors write to each other across time. The whole thing is just so well done. Places visited are both real (the Mongol horde) and imagine (future possibilities) and across them our warriors begin a relationship where it is never really clear exactly what is happening here. Is this love, or a trap?

Incredibly clever, very well written, this was just a joy.

Recommended.

Nestor’s Breath


Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
James Nestor

A clear example of book that should have been an article. There’s some good stuff in here on breath work and its (arguable) importance to health as well as heaping helpings of the kind of anecdotal bro science I tend to enjoy, but don’t take too seriously. All in all, the chaff outweighs the wheat, in my opinion. Still of interest to those intrigued by breath work with excellent easy to follow instructions on various kinds of breath work.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Ross’s Wagnerism

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
Alex Ross

Let’s get something out of the way here first. I do not like Wagner. Even if he wasn’t an anti-Semite (he was, this really isn’t up for debate) his operas would still repulse me – I hate the grandiose and Wagner is nothing if not grandiose. But I’m living proof that you’re don’t have to like Wagner to enjoy Ross’s new book, which is, frankly, extraordinary.  All you have to do is acknowledge Wagner’s important to Western culture and watch Ross draw out his connections to huge swaths of Western art.

It’s a remarkable achievement. Ross seems to have read every novel, looked at every piece or art, seen every movie and play, made in the West from the end of the 19th century up to today. I learned so, so much from this book, about Wagner, about pre-war European anti-Semitism, about turn of the century occultists, and so, so much about art. It’s a stunning achievement and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it.

Highly recommended.   

Delillo’s The Silence

The Silence

Don Delillo

In recent years, Delillo has turned to short works focused on small groups of people and I’m hear for it. Yes, I loved Underworld and it’s expanses of time and characters, but books like the Silence, focused on the actions of an intimate group of people showcase Delillo’s gift for sketching compelling (if not always believable) characters filled with nuance and contradiction.

The plot here is simple, but compelling. The power is out, everywhere, and we’re stuck with each other. What happens now? We stare at blank screens, we talk about the things we rarely if ever discuss, we go a little mad. Perhaps not a major Delillo work but remarkably enjoyable all the same.

Recommended.

Mateer’s Aphrodite Made Me Do It

Aphrodite Made Me Do It
Trista Mateer

I don’t know what to make of this book. I truly don’t. It made some best of the year poetry lists, but it is very much not my thing.

That said, I’m a forty something year old CIS white dude and I’m pretty damn sure I am not the writer’s intended audience. This is a combination of art, selfcare advice and poetry. It left me confused about the strong reviews, but we must accept that its quite possible I just don’t get it.

When I started doing these reviews years ago I committed to either recommending, not recommending, or recommending for the enthusiast. I considered not doing that here, but that felt like a bit of a copout. So I’ll honor this author by being honest and saying while I cannot recommend it that could really very well be more about me than the author.

Not recommended.    

Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa

Dancing in Odessa

Ilya Kaminsky

Another beautiful collection from the talented Illya Kaminsky, this one more focused on the beauty in the ordinary. I like this collection fine, but Kaminsky’s slightly later work, Deaf Republic, which I read last year is a work of true brilliance and really worth reading. If you’re new to Kaminsky (or really even new to contemporary poetry) start there.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years

A Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe

Defoe’s book, a fictional recounting of one man’s reflections during the plague of London, 1665. It begins with the plague beginning to ravage London and the protagonist weighing whether he should flee to the country as so many people of means are doing or stay and stick it out in London.

Sound familiar?

It doesn’t stop there. Soon folks are holed up in their homes, fearful of letting anyone in, then the mechanisms for dealing with the sick and dead are overwhelmed and society is reduced to the barest minimum of food shelter and survival until the whole thing passes.

Defoe wrote this 350 years ago and his language can be a bit difficult for the modern reader, but it was oddly comforting to me to see that London went through this, and so much more, and survived.

Recommended.

Weatherford’s Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Jack Weatherford

Before reading this, I knew nothing, like seriously nothing, about Ghengis Khan and the Mongol empire. I knew stereotypes, about rape and pillage, but that was it. This book was a revelation. A fascinating account of how a small nomadic tribe ended up taking over a large chunk of the world.

This is the story of Ghengis Khan, who rises from humble beginnings to rule a vast empire. He does this through relentless war and destruction of his enemies, but also by allowing those he conquers to go on about their lives, worshipping how they choose, living how they choose, as long as they accept his reign (and tax).

It’s also the story of how future generations both expanded and lost territory through theory leadership successes and victories. (There is the drunk heir who fucks up the western expansion, and the careful distant relative who ends  up taking over much of China.) All in all a fascinating book that walks that pop history line well. I totally enjoyed it.

Recommended.

Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
Saidiya Hartman

This is probably my book of the year.

An incredible use of the archives to tell the stories of the lives of Black women at the turn of the century. Hartman uses criminal records, photographs, memoirs, to show how precarious and wonderful the lives of these women were. The writing is gorgeous, but the subject matter is often very dark – violence, especially sexual violence, runs through this book. But so does love, and joy, and loss and growth and everything else that makes up life. It’s brilliant. I have never read anything like it.

Recommended.