Short book reviews by Jacob Williams from 2019. Send feedback to

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (2019-12-29)

So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent — if not an inappropriate — response.

What this book offers: interesting thoughts on how we relate to photos of suffering, and on the history of war photography; numerous references to morbid photos and films

What not to expect: many clear conclusions

Radiator Days by Lucy Knisley (2019-11-25)

This book is thoroughly adorable. I didn’t realize until near the end that Knisley was also the author of French Milk - I wasn’t a huge fan of that one, but I’m glad I (accidentally) took another look at her work.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2019-10-09)

Had he been a lunatic or an intellectually honorable man who’d thought things through to their logical conclusion? And was there any difference?

At first I thought this was just OK, heavy-handed in some aspects and not measuring up to the brilliance of Handmaid’s Tale; but Atwood’s wonderful prose won me over again by the end. Moreover, it’s a particularly thought-provoking dystopia. The story is centered around a global catastrophe, but the world prior to that catastrophe is already disturbing. And the problems of that world cannot be attributed to one single enemy, one simple evil that a protagonist could overthrow to set everything right. It is, like the real world, complex.

Educated by Tara Westover (2019-10-09)

If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

This memoir is both hard to read and hard to put down. A heart-wrenching story of how a child can internalize abuse and damaging ideologies, and an inspiring story of escaping them.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (2019-09-25)

The key point: we’re much worse than we think at reading other people. Even judges and law enforcement can far too easily mistake weirdness for dishonesty, or miss real dishonesty because they are looking for stereotypical indicators. Greater humility and caution in our interactions and evaluations of one another could save the world a lot of pain.

Connecting the various cases he discusses into one thesis seems like a bit of a stretch. I think what he’s going for is: in cases like Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar, we see the enormous harm that could have been prevented if the people who supported these perpetrators had been less trusting of them. But demanding that people be highly suspicious has risks as well; training police officers to be hyper-attuned to anything that could possibly indicate hidden criminal intent was one contributing factor in the gross abuse of power perpetrated against Sandra Bland. To avoid both pitfalls, we should do more than demand that people simply be better at judging each others' intent and truthfulness; we should seek to equip them with the best knowledge of how to be better, and make systemic improvements to help them be better.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (2019-09-25)

I’ve forgotten the joy dancing brings. This togetherness, this intimacy, this common direction, and built-in safety net—all this is very much what I envision for our family.

What this book offers: interesting speculation on how society might deal with a large gender imbalance, and glimpses of an interesting vision of polyandrous families

Range by David Epstein (2019-09-12)

This book’s thesis is one that I very much want to be true, so, take my approval with a grain of salt. But it’s full of references to interesting studies as well as inspiring anecdotes.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff (2019-09-04)

A wanderer in darkness, she followed an eccentric orbit, each new disturbance angling her closer to some long-awaited rendezvous. She could only hope that when the moment came, she’d be wise enough to know it, and brave enough to act.

Although the Lovecraftian feel starts to wane in the latter half of the novel simply because it becomes clear that you can expect all the protagonists to come through safely, the whole book is excellent - by turns creepy, amusing, imaginative, and moving.

Flight, Vol. 1 (2019-09-03)

This collection is hit and miss, but there are a few I really like in it and some moments of really striking artwork, like this from Khang Le’s “Outside My Window”:

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (2019-09-02)

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

What this book offers: incredible prose

What not to expect: to experience any positive emotions (other than excitement about the incredible prose)

Fall or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson (2019-08-29)

Look, the nature of the Quest far transcends ordinary concerns of day-to-day existence, such as eating, drinking, staying warm, and not getting maimed or whatever.

What this book offers: interesting blend of near-future sci-fi with epic fantasy and religious symbolism

What not to expect: plausibility

I have mixed feelings about this book; sometimes in the middle, when it settles in for long segments taking place in “the Land”, it becomes tedious. And the implausibility of the particular route of development that consciousness-simulation technology takes within the story can be hard to get past. But overall it’s a lot of fun and has a number of fascinating ideas.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (2019-08-27)

The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way.

Well… damn. This is a work of genius and I should have gotten to it so much earlier. Marvelous prose; intricate and thoughtful characterizations; sobering portrayals of the desperate and needless miseries that we so easily fall into inflicting on entire classes of people.

Giant Days, Vol. 2 by John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin (2019-08-12)

What this book offers: fantastic art, delightful characters

What not to expect: memorable plot

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (2019-07-30)

Although we are technologically bound to the earth and its immediate neighbors in the solar system, through the power of thought and experiment we have probed the far reaches of both inner and outer space. During the last hundred years in particular, the collective effort of numerous physicists has revealed some of nature's best-kept secrets. And once revealed, these explanatory gems have opened vistas on a world we thought we knew, but whose splendor we had not even come close to imagining. ... Wave functions, probabilities, quantum tunneling, the ceaseless roiling energy fluctuations of the vacuum, the smearing together of space and time, the relative nature of simultaneity, the warping of the spacetime fabric, black holes, the big bang. Who could have guessed that the intuitive, mechanical, clockwork Newtonian perspective would turn out to be so thoroughly parochial—that there was a whole new mind-boggling world lying just beneath the surface of things as they are ordinarily experienced?

What this book offers: good explanations of relativity, quantum mechanics, and the basics of string theory

What not to expect: to understand many details about string theory

This book starts out strong and seems to do a good job of conveying the motivations for and fundamentals of string theory. Somewhere in part 4 it becomes more difficult to follow; in particular, the author’s explanations of his own work are more effective at communicating the breathless excitement of physicists working on the subject, than at communicating anything more than a very general impression of the work itself.

But it still gets a lot of interesting stuff across. My favorite “mind-blown” moment is in chapter 10 on Quantum Geometry, where the author explains how string theory predicts a symmetry between expansion and contraction of space. In string theory, the nature and behavior of fundamental particles depends on the size of the dimensions of space; but once those dimensions contract to a certain minimum length, any further contraction leads to the same fundamental particles as if they were expanding, such that further contraction is indistinguishable from expansion. (A later chapter says this is a bit imprecise - more precisely, if I understand correctly, once you contract beyond a certain point in one variant of string theory, you get behavior that’s indistinguishable from expansion in a different variant of string theory.)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang (2019-07-30)

I asked them to imagine being confronted with proof of a past extending so far back that the numbers lost all meaning: a hundred thousand years, a million years, ten million years. Then I asked, wouldn’t they feel lost, like a castaway adrift on an ocean of time?

What this book offers: interesting thought experiments and soft poignancy

Not all of these stories are memorable, but some of the longer ones are excellent. My favorites are all meditations on the implications of some particular hypothetical technology:

- "The Lifecycle of Software Objects” takes an unusual perspective on how artificial general intelligence may develop, and how humans may relate to it.

- "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” contemplates the benefits and drawbacks of being able to remember every event of your life instantly and with perfect accuracy.

- "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” explores how our lives and attitudes would be affected if we could communicate with parallel universes.

I also really enjoyed the premise of “Omphalos” - a universe in which science seems to confirm young-earth creationism - I just wish the story had been developed further.

Infinite Powers by Steven H. Strogatz (2019-07-29)

For its part, geometry gave algebra meaning. Equations were no longer sterile; they were now embodiments of sinuous geometric forms. A whole new continent of curves and surfaces opened up as soon as equations were viewed geometrically. Lush jungles of geometric flora and fauna waited to be discovered, cataloged, classified, and dissected.

Interleaves some explanations of the mathematical concepts with interesting biographical and historical background, and examples of how those concepts are important to modern technology. Pretty interesting and pretty successful at conveying the beauty and fascination of these concepts.

The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine (2019-07-26)

People who aren’t fully committed to the values that their activities represent sputter through life, pulled in one direction by their commitments and in another by their spirits.

When many different interests appeal to you, it can be frightening to commit too deeply to any particular one; the feeling that you’re closing the door on all the others is too distasteful. Lobenstine insists, I think correctly, that there really is time in life to pursue a multitude of varied passions; you just need to be intentional about focusing on only a few at a time, knowing you can come back to the others later. The book is a bit cheesy, but I found it helpful in spurring me to clarify precisely what I want to be doing in life right now, and making my peace with everything I won’t be doing right now.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2019-07-17)

What this book offers: some “hell yeah!” moments

What not to expect: plausible politics, people, or technological setting

Paper Towns by John Green (2019-07-15)

You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves.

It’s been a few years since I last read a John Green novel, and I was afraid I might find his work to be less compelling now than when I was younger.

Nope. He’s still amazing. In fact, I think Paper Towns may be my favorite of his that I’ve read so far, though perhaps that’s just recency bias. There is a lull for a while after the end of the first part, but apart from that, this novel was hard to put down, and it’s quite funny and eloquent.

Some reviewers complain about the cliche, manic-pixie-dream-girl nature of the character Margo, but this is merely the narrator’s perspective of her; part of the novel's point is precisely how flawed and dangerous such conceptions of people can be. It’s also true that the characters, events, and dialogue are all over-the-top; this is Green’s typical style, and I simply love it.

East of West, Vol. 1 by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Rus Wooton, Frank Martin Jr. (2019-06-30)

What this book offers: cool setting

What not to expect: to care about any of the characters

This is trying a bit too hard to be gritty and ominous without really doing the setup work to make you take it seriously. There’s some good art, and a pretty cool concept for the setting, and a plot that’s at least a little tantalizing.

Stumptown, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth (2019-06-29)

What this book offers: good art, good noir storytelling

Precisely what you’d want from a gritty-but-not-entirely-cynical detective tale. Dex is a likable protagonist and I’m interested to read more of the series. The art fits the genre perfectly; there are beautiful spreads and there are impressionistic, disjointed sections that perhaps communicate what it's like to be a detective tailing people and trying to make sense of a confusing jumble of events.

The volume includes includes several essays by Southworth discussing his process of drawing the comic that I found quite fascinating.

American Vampire, Vol. 1 by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque (2019-06-02)

What this book offers: an intriguing grim story, good art

What not to expect: much happiness

I’m not blown away by any particular thing here, but I'm definitely interested to see where the story goes next.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (2019-05-22)

Most human activities are predicated on the assumption that life goes on. If you take that premise away, what is there left?

What this book offers: excellent, stylish writing

What not to expect: a satisfying resolution, ideas explored in depth

An odd, intriguing blend of magical realism and science fiction. The story is enjoyable enough, but the real draw is the literary flair; as a review in the Harvard Crimson put it, “Murakami’s writing is pure jazz”. I must admit, though, to being less blown-away by this (the first Murakami I’ve read) than I might have expected based on his reputation.

Giant Days, Vol. 1 by John Allison, Lissa Treiman (2019-05-14)

What this book offers: fantastic art, delightful characters

What not to expect: memorable plot

image from the book

The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo (2019-05-03)

Not one to suffer in silence, Dyson amused his fellow students by bombarding Dirac with questions, sometimes catching him off-guard and once causing Dirac to end a lecture early so that he could prepare a proper response. Almost twenty years before, the young Dirac had pressurised Ebenezer Cunningham in one of his lecture courses; now it was Dirac’s turn to be shown the drawn sword of youth.

An interesting look at the development of quantum mechanics and at the rise - and long, slow decline - of a brilliant scientist. Dirac was indeed a strange man, though he seems to become at least slightly less detached over the course of his life, which is a little heartwarming to follow. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about him was his insistence on the crucial role of mathematical beauty in discovering and evaluating physics formulae.

Death's End by Liu Cixin (2019-04-23)

Once, Yang Dong had held a basic belief: Life and the world were perhaps ugly, but at the limits of the micro and macro scales, everything was harmonious and beautiful. The world of our everyday life was only froth floating on the perfect ocean of deep reality. But now, it appeared that the everyday world was a beautiful shell: The micro realities it enclosed and the macro realities that enclosed it were far more ugly and chaotic than the shell itself.

What this book offers: fascinating concepts and thought experiments

What not to expect: well-developed characters, believability

This finale has the same strengths and weaknesses as the rest of the series. The prose is occasionally beautiful and poignant, but more often clunky. The characters and humanity as a whole often behave in bizarre or nonsensical ways that kill any suspension of disbelief. Some of the science it posits seems far less than half-baked. Yet it’s packed with utterly fascinating ideas which, ultimately, make it compelling.

First, my complaints. The basis given for the primary protagonist Cheng Xin’s rise to fame after hibernation could hardly have been less plausible. The ease with which she forgives and gains respect for the demented Wade who attempts to murder her isn’t exactly convincing, either. And the whole Great Resettlement to Australia thing just feels weird.

Some of the intriguing ideas aren’t developed well enough. Humans gaining an advantage by entering four-dimensional space is a cool plot point, but there’s not even an attempt made to explain why the human body would suddenly be capable of perceiving or acting on an additional dimension. And the concept of “two-dimensional” time is thrown out in an offhand comment at the end:

“Even if time were only two-dimensional, it would be a plane instead of a line,” Yifan explained. “There would be an infinite number of directions, and we could simultaneously make countless choices.”

“And at least one of those choices would turn out to be right,” added Sophon.

OK, but wouldn’t most of them turn out to be wrong? How is that comforting?

But the big ideas in the book are very satisfying. As in The Dark Forest, one of those big ideas is a puzzle about cosmic civilization. There, the puzzle was “how do you protect yourself against an enemy more advanced than you who sees everything you’re doing?”; Death’s End gives some interesting elaborations on the idea of the “dark forest” state and its usage as a deterrent. And for the new puzzle of “how do you convince all other civilizations that you are no threat to them at all?”, a satisfyingly mind-bending answer is proposed. I love the notion that the laws of physics in the universe have been drastically altered by life just as the geography of Earth has been molded by life:

Then she asked, “Will the universe turn into a war ruin? Or, maybe it’s more accurate to ask: Will the laws of physics turn into war ruins?”

“Maybe they already are.…”

Numerous other cool concepts are sprinkled throughout the novel. At times it’s frustrating or tedious but overall, it’s worthwhile.

Semiosis by Sue Burke (2019-03-29)

“What human beings and other sentient species bring to the universe,” she said, “is the ability to make choices, to step beyond the struggle to survive and be the eyes and ears and minds and hearts of the universe. Survival is just the first step.”

What this book offers: neat plant aliens, inspiring multi-generation story

What not to expect: a story centered around survival / dire conditions

John Dies at the End by David Wong (2019-02-24)

Something coming back from the dead was almost always bad news ... For every one Jesus you get a million zombies.

What this book offers: witty writing, engaging plot, moderately diluted Lovecraftian dread

What not to expect: sustained creepiness

I was hooked within the first two and a half minutes of the audio recording (I’m instantly a fan of any author willing to devote space to an elaborate setup for a philosophy joke), and the rest of the book more than lived up to that promising intro. Humorous speculative fiction is at its best, for me at least, when it manages to be utterly absurd while still being serious enough for you to emotionally invest in the characters and plot. John Dies at the End walks that line perfectly. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it manages to communicate a bit more genuine cosmic than you’d expect.

Saga, Volume 9 by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples (2019-02-18)

Just as good as the rest of the series. Great art, very poignant moments.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua (2019-02-15)

Liberated from the static shell of the material, transliterated to the purely symbological, sublimated into a state entirely new! It can be filed, indexed, converted, replicated, searched, shared, shuffled, linked, remixed, recombined, archived, analyticated... resurrected!

This is less an adventure comic than a celebration of these two people and their milieu. Most of the book is the footnotes, but if you take the time to read them, you’ll be rewarded with numerous fascinating details and anecdotes that Padua dug up in her clearly extensive study of the era. She loves these people, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Also, the appendix that delves into the design of Babbage’s (real) analytical engine is wonderful.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2019-02-13)

First, I must beg forgiveness because I can’t resist picking a highly specific nit:

She sounded as if she was translating certain information … into ones and zeros.

Writers, please resist the impulse to talk about “ones and zeros” every time you talk about programmers. Binary code is foundational to computers, yes, but it’s unusual for us to write or interpret it directly, just as (to make a very rough analogy) a writer is not generally thinking about the molecular structure of ink and paper when they compose the text of a novel.

Anyway, I’m on the fence between rating this at 3 or 4; there were several points that interrupted the suspension of disbelief for me. The worst offender is when we are told at the end, and with no attempt to provide even a tenuous scientific account of how it could be possible, that a person’s entire mind can be reconstructed from a sample of their saliva.

But the book is a ton of fun to read, and also thought-provoking - Lafferty has some really fascinating ideas about the impact that cloning and mind-uploading technologies could have on society.

Up Jumps the Devil by Michael Poore (2019-02-10)

But nothing lasted. Which would be fine, except the human mind seemed geared to miss what it no longer had, miss it so much that memories, if you really thought about it, mostly hurt.

What this book offers: a good mix of humor, quirkiness, and mild poignancy

What not to expect: satisfying resolutions to any metaphysical mysteries

While I didn't love this as much as I loved his more recent novel Reincarnation Blues, this one was a pleasure too and definitely reinforced my high opinion of Michael Poore.

Embassytown by China Miéville

We landed and from the hillside came the distress call of grass, as our vehicles began to graze.

This is one of the few times I’ve read a book and thought, “I wish someone would make this into a movie.” The Ariekei city - grown/constructed entirely from bioengineered organisms - would truly be something to see. Miéville does some excellent world-building here, both in the setting of Ariekes and in the broader universe that provides the backdrop.

The plot is about language, so it’s fitting that the novel’s prose stands out too, filled with archaic and invented vocabulary. Characters floak and moue, watch trids and flats, attend “eisteddfods of mendacity”; they use biorigging to grow umbrellas with “vespertilian canopies”. The writing creates a slightly eerie, very alien mood.

The story is compelling as well; my only complaint is that everything said about the Ariekene Language (whose strangeness is the centerpiece of the book) does not seem to me to add up to something fully coherent, although it’s possible the fault lies with the reader. Regardless, the concept of that Language is fascinating.