Note 37: More book reports

Lately, I'm the worst pundit.

Another weekend Note for you all! I’m looking to get back on my regular Wednesday publishing schedule, but life/work/etc. has kept me pretty busy, so here we are late on Sunday banging out a new Note to quiet the OCD Demon (OCDemon?) that lives within me and doesn’t want to break the weekly streak.

Since my last Note, I’ve been dealing with my usual amount of work, taxes, and trying to figure out how much space I have in my life for sailing. On the work front, things are going well - I’m wrapping up some projects that feature the dialog engine technology I’ve been building for the past couple of years and it’s now a core component of all my SMS-based projects moving forward. Furthermore, there are some upcoming projects where we’ll put it to work in a digital assistant context, so be prepared for your Siri/Google Assistant/Alexa to ask you to sit on the couch and tell it all about your childhood.

Tax season has been stressful this season. As a business-person, I tend to focus more on the client work side of things over the “running a one-man agency” part of the business, and I’ve been figuring out how I was going to pay a larger-than-expected tax bill tomorrow, given that my business increased profit 50% over last year. Given some wonkiness with last year’s taxes (my usual bookkeeper was sick and unavailable during an important part of last year), I’ve been flying in a bit of a fog this spring with respect to what I earned/owed/etc. However, it’s all been straightened out and I have a lot more clarity heading into FY2021 (with a lighter-than-expected wallet).

Finally, last week was the first week for Crew U at the Chicago Yacht Club. As I’m too ready to admit, I hail from a landlocked desert state and likely didn’t see an actual sailboat until I went to college or started living in Chicago. So, I’m starting from literal Square One. That said, I’m an eager learner and while I’m getting hung up on a lot of the terminology at the moment, I’m confident that once I get on a boat, a lot of it will fall into place, given that I’m a much more hands-on learner than an abstract one. (Math was a cakewalk for me until I started getting into topics that I couldn’t readily visualize and draw out.) We had our first class on Tuesday, the next one’s this Tuesday, and I spent some time at the dock and club this afternoon meeting skippers looking to add crew to their boats. What I’m looking for isn’t a super-competitive team that’s looking to fill a couple of slots (since I’m functionally only a self-relocating ballast at this point in my education), but the sailboat equivalent of an MLB team that’s in its rebuilding phase. I’m looking for a boat and skipper that I can commit to being present and ready to listen and learn, and where I can “grow” with boat as its team matures. Kind of like a young Anthony Rizzo signing on with the 2012 Cubs and putting in the time to become the player he is today.

Anyways, that’s been the last week for me. I don’t have too much to share news-wise or commentary-wise that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. So, I’ll spare you the punditry and get to some book reports, since my “books to review” pile has been growing alarmingly tall.

Book reports

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (★★★★★): I have to admit that I struggled a bit with the first few John le Carré novels, as I expected Cold War spy drama and I was getting something else. I can say now that this novel has addressed all of those issues and I’m now a conductor on the John le Carré Train. This novel introduces the character of Alec Leamas, who - after witnessing the death of his last undercover East German agent at Checkpoint Charlie - becomes a key element in a British counter-intelligence operation against the East German spy agencies. I don’t want to say more than that and risk spoiling the story, but this is the distilled essence of what I was expecting from le Carré, and it reset the scale for what a great spy novel can be for me.

The Looking Glass War by John le Carré (★★★★☆): I think one of the things that I am enjoying most about le Carré is embodied in this book. Where the previous book was taut Cold War drama, le Carré’s next book was more a tragic comedy of errors arising from the jealousy that British military intelligence felt towards its civilian branch (called “the Circus” in this book and others), and its attempt to demonstrate that it too is a relevant player in the overall national defense establishment. Many authors (like Clancy and Ludlum) would have doubled down on the formula that made their last book a success, but le Carré went in a completely orthogonal direction. For me, this added new dimension to the fictional universe he was building, and really demonstrated what happens when you play in that world without the competence of Alec Leamas or George Smiley.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (★★★★☆): Confession time - when I read Klara and the Sun a few weeks ago, I was completely ignorant of the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro was an established author who won a Nobel Prize for his work. Since I really enjoyed Klara, I went back and read this book given my interest in the servants who made it possible for some of the old great houses to function. This book tells the story of a butler concerned with being the most professional butler possible, as he is oblivious to both the personal and historical dramas unfolding around him in 1930s England. It was an excellent read and has me looking forward to the film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

We Only Find Them When They're Dead, Vol. 1 by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo (★★★★☆): This comic book science fiction saga concerns the crews of human ships in the year 2367, where mankind encountered cosmic gods (think Galactus) - that happen to be all dead. What does mankind do? It sets up entire economies around strip-mining the bodies of the dead gods to support their expanding interstellar ambitions. The entire concept is pretty gonzo and Ewing and Di Meo do a great job exploring the drama around this strange way of living. Ewing’s ideas are pretty out there and Di Meo does a wonderful job introducing an entirely new visual aesthetic that both captures the cosmic scope of the story and the weirdness of it all. It’s a look that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago, and I’m a big fan.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (★★★★★): Building on the universe he constructed around Leamas, Smiley, Control, and the Circus, this novel follows an investigation by George Smiley as he attempts to discover whether the Circus has been compromised by Soviet spymaster Karla, who seems to know what’s going on within British intelligence better than the retired Smiley. This is full-on paranoia-laced storytelling as Smiley attempts to unravel what led to a changing of the guard within his own agency and whether that change was being orchestrated by someone else. This is excellent mystery storytelling with a rich cast of characters with their own rich internal lives and motivations that really propels this story along.

Batman: Thrillkiller by Howard Chaykin, Dan Brereton (★★★★☆): A DC Elseworlds story (not part of the main DC continuity, whatever that may be at the moment), Thrillkiller is a stylistic take on the Batman mythology set firmly in the 1960s. Written by Howard Chaykin, this is a very unique take, where Bruce Wayne is Gotham PD detective, and it’s the amorous pair of Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson who serve as Gotham’s masked vigilantes. This is Chaykin taking Batman full “noir”, and it works for the most part. Brereton’s art style takes some getting used to, but once you’re in the story, you can’t imagine another artist illustrating this story better. It’s not going to be everyone’s favorite, but I enjoyed it. (And as a bonus, I discovered that mine was actually signed by Chaykin and Brereton, making me wonder at what convention I picked it up.)

RYA Competent Crew Skills by Jon Mendez, Steve Lucas, and Richard Falk: I’m not giving this book a rating, given that it’s my textbook for sailing class. I spent some time over the weekend going through it, but I’ll need several more passes through (as well as some hands-on practice) to absorb everything it’s teaching. Overall, it seems to be a great reference book for terms, processes, and other elements of sailing, and I expect my copy will end up rather dog-eared by the end of the summer.

In terms of my overall reading goal, I am two books ahead of schedule (39 of 101).

Interesting reads

Starlink review: broadband dreams fall to Earth (The Verge)

The Profound Potential of Elon Musk’s New Rocket (Nautilus)

Amid labor shortage, these Pittsburgh companies are filling open roles. Here's how. (Pittsburgh Business Times)

Into the Mystical and Inexplicable World of Dowsing (Outside)


I hope everyone has a good week and I can find some time to watch all the film adaptations of Book Report Books that I embedded above!