Circuit Mason‎ > ‎

The Reading List (with no spoilers)

My other passion is reading.  For fun, I'm putting together a list of some of the books I've enjoyed (no spoilers below).  Maybe I can get some targeted recommendations for books people think I'd like.  This is just a fraction of the books I've read, trying to put my favorites up, but feel free to email me if you have a favorite you'd like to share: I have a "" account, the address is at "Gregory dot Kiesel".  If you can't figure that out, you are probably a bot.


Guns, Germs, and Steel: Jared Diamond

A nice overview of why the world's economy is shaped the way it is.  The book outlines how geography and natural resources dictated how the different societies in the world developed wealth, with relatively little sway from national "character", or even luck.  In Collapse, a subsequent book I also recommend, he shows how national "character" and luck can destroy a society.  Diamond is a field person who has traveled to many of the places he's described, and provides both broad strokes over thousands of years and personal anecdotes of specific places. 

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: David Landes

A counter-point to Guns, Germs, and Steel, David Landes argues how national character and luck actually did help shape the distribution of wealth in society.  Their opinions are really not as contradictory as I make them out to be, it's definitely a good book to round out one's understanding of economic development in the past several hundred years.

Age of Wonder: Richard Holmes (and other history of technology books)

This book provides a fair amount of historical context and biographical anectdotes for British scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  An entertaining read, in particular for an engineer who can see the same personality types back then reflected in ones modern day colleagues.   The book highlights the relationships between the different scientists, as well as their literary counterpoints and the public abroad, and touches on the science in an approachable manner.  Many good books will pick out one technology (such as Dava Sobel's Longitude, A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tome Standage, or Disenchanted Night by Wolfgang Schivelbush), but few authors tie so many disparate things well.  In contrast, I've found several books I thought overreached in their thesis, such as The Religion of Technology by David Noble or Salt by Mark Kurlansky, both books filled with interesting ideas and history you probably wouldn't otherwise run across, but are marred by trying too hard to fit history into their viewpoint.  See Bryson, below, for more good selections.

The Invisible Gorilla: Christopher Chabris

Very enlightening, very informative, very entertaining- this book covers a number of ways that our intuition and our perception of the world often fail us.  This is one of those books where philosophy, physiology, and psychology pleasantly intersect.  It's also a fairly quick read, the author does a good job of being comprehensive without getting bogged into details.

Nickel and Dimed: Barbara Ehrendreich

A journalist tries her hand at working minimum wage jobs for a year, while giving herself every possible advantage.  She starts out with a car, enough money for first and last months rent, and good health.  She brings up a number of interesting observations about the difficulties facing the working poor.

The Tipping Point: Malcom Gladwell

A fun read into how trends (and epidemics) start, he provides insights on how ideas can spread.  Useful if you are looking to become a trend setter, understand the mechanisms of how things can become popular, or just want to help inoculate yourself from the whole matter.

The World is Flat: Thomas Friedman

I really enjoyed this book, the premise is that the world is "flat" now that people can now compete for jobs even if they're halfway across the world.  A big part of the book looks into the world of outsourcing and intellectual property, and how do you deal with a world where many jobs can be done equally (or more) effectively overseas than locally.  He offers interesting historical perspectives, anecdotes, cultural insights, as well as practical advice on what one should do to survive in the global economy. 

Freakonomics: Seven Levitt

This book is a fun read about looking deeper into the world of economics and statistics.  Part of the book goes into the economics of crime (crime, it turns out, doesn't pay well on average), the economics behind teachers and sumo wrestles (yes, those topics are linked), and what factors actually are important for producing successful children.  

Charlie Wilson's War

Implausible, but apparently true, a story about the Soviet-Afghan war.  Talks about a lot about politics that isn't often spoken about, in a pretty entertaining way.  


I highly recommend Jarhead, which is an basically autobiographical account of a marine in the first Gulf War.  The author provides some insight into what the modern soldier goes through.  I also recommend Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, which is a well written, in depth narrative of a famous incident in the Somalian War.

Inside Intel by Tim Jackson

A good history chronicling Intel's rise, what they did right, and some interesting anectdotes along the way.

Kitchen Confidential bAnthony Bourdain

An amusing insight into the restaurant business.

At Home: Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is full on interesting anecdotes and asides, and anything he writes will be fun to read.  I also like his A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is filled with things I largely knew (at some point, at least) but is fun to rediscover with him at the helm.  In contrast, The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski has more things I did not know, but is less compellingly written (though I still enjoyed the book).  


The Practice of Management: Peter Drucker

This is one of those foundational management books, written in the 50s, but after you read the first twelve pages or so you'll see that good business principles really haven't changed.  So much of the recent economic implosions have roots to poor management styles which he identifies (and councils against) in this book.  This isn't a difficult book to read, but it's what I refer to as "informationally dense"- it will take you a while to digest this, it's not something you breeze through.   

Good Boss, Bad Boss: Robert Sutton

A modern take on being a good boss, or at least steps to avoid being a bad boss.  Educational and entertaining.

First, Break All the Rules: Marcus Buckingham

One of the few books that I will recommend with a reservation, this book has a really good core message.  Gallup went through a interviewed 80,000 managers and figured out 12 questions that help separate good employees from bad employees.  For example, good employees want to know what is expected of them, and bad employees prefer to operate in ambiguity.  The first several chapters are interesting and useful... and some of the other chapters make for good reference if you want specific insights.  Still worth picking up even if you can't quite make it cover to cover.


The Man Who was Thursday: G.K. Chesterton

A beautifully constructed novel, the entire book revolves around a series of minor mysteries and one major mystery.  As you read, generally one can eventually deduce what a plot twist to come but not before a new mystery is introduced, so one is kept pleasantly engaged and self-satisfied.  The entire novel is an allegory, but one crucial piece of the puzzle is not revealed to the end when it all gloriously comes together.  I am also reading his Father Brown series, which is a series of fairly short, fun mysteries.  I strongly suspect Encyclopedia Brown is a distant grandchild of Father Brown...

The WInter of our Discontent: John Steinbeck

I really enjoy Steinbeck, and I find his works especially poignant and bittersweet.  I find it remarkable how he can depict the greatness in the common man.  While I'll admit Steinbeck novels tend to be on the depressing side, I find inherent hope in his writings.  I'm also a big fan of Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath, and I should add Of Mice and Men to the list.  Of all his writings, The Pearl is probably my least favorite, it's a Mexican folk story which I found especially depressing.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy

As a father of two young children, I found The Road to be especially painful to read.  In particular, the relationship between the father and the son are painted in an Impressionist style which just enough detail to become your reality.  An exquisite piece of literature... in some ways it is difficult to recommend to another person an experience as heartbreaking as this novel, but the book is also uplifting and moving enough that I have to.  At the very least, everyone should take time, from time to time, to evaluate how they choose to live their life.

The Alchemist: Paulo Coelho

A Brazillian author writes this fable of following one's dream (translated into English).  I enjoyed this book a great deal; it has a lot of good lessons wrapped up in a fun read, and it's beautifully written. 

Things Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe

Achebe is like an African Steinbeck- the story primarily takes place around a family man who has pulled himself up from nothing and how fate and his own choices knocks him down again.  It's a very good read, in particular in gives a very interesting perspective into a non-Western culture... something my reading habits generally neglect.

Science Fiction

Forever War: Joe Halderman

Well written with an engaging protagonist, this novel includes fun science fiction and sociology elements.  The author is a Vietnam veteran and in many ways this book is allegorical of that conflict, while being far enough removed that it's not depressing.  Mostly, I mention the veteran connection because a lot of the commentary that is interwoven (but not in a preachy way) is more authentic to me since he lived the life.  For example, one theme of the book is how difficult it is for soldiers to remove themselves from the civilian world for a number of years and then try to reintegrate into a now changed society.  I've also enjoyed (to varying degrees) Marsbound, the Accidental Time Traveler, Forever Peace, and The Coming by the same author.  

In a related note, I've also recently enjoyed Armor by John Steakley, in my mind a fun pairing of books; Armor is not great scifi, but it is entertaining.

The Past Through Tomorrow: Robert Heinlein

Perhaps Stranger in a Strange Land was the most provocative of his novels.  Perhaps Starship Troopers best exemplifies his ability to balance adventure and ideology (and props to Paul Verhoeven for completely subverting that ideology).  And perhaps it's a cheat to label a collection of short stories as my favorite work of the author.  However, this is the book I've probably reread the most.  Includes "Metusaluh's Children" which leads into another favorite, Time Enough for Love; "The Long Watch", "If This Goes On-", "The Green Hills of Earth", and of course "The Man Who Sold the Moon".  Covers stories written over a 20 year span, so a nice sampling of his writing.

The Last Question: Isaac Asimov

I'm trying to hit less known works, and who doesn't know of I, Robot; or the Caves of Steel series; or the Foundation seriesAll classics.  But, one of my favorite works can actually be found online.

Neuromancer: William Gibson

The most famous cyberpunk novel, if not the first to create the setting, definitely the one who inspired the most people.  Very raw, very cool, a fun ride with characters who have their own sense of morality.  I also enjoyed Snow Crash and the short stories you can find in Burning Chrome

The Star's my Destination: Alfred Bester

For one, there is a Babylon 5 character named after the author.  Classic science fiction in the sense that he takes a what-if concept and imagines how society would be impacted.  Typically the "what-if" is technology (spaceships, or "free" energy, or advanced computers), but sometimes the "what-if" is internal.  In this case, what if every person had the innate ability to teleport themselves.  I will concede the writing is definitely pulp, but it's a worthwhile read if only as context for later writings. 

Red Mars Trilogy:  Kim Stanley Robinson

I kept seeing Red Mars pop up on Slashdot comments, so I'm currently working through the trilogy.  I'm enjoying the first book so far.  The technology is plausible, but what's really fun are the characters that drive the story.  In any successful campaign through history there are the idealists, the pragmatists, the disgruntled, and the vast majority who just try to muddle through on their own limited agendas (do good work, keep alive).  Politics and Sci Fi, not really seen as well coupled since Dune.

Replay by Ken Grimwood

Generally I try to avoid spoilers, but it's hard with this book, especially since they put the premise on the cover.  A man has a heart attack and wakes up as himself, but several decades earlier.  He can live his life over again, with the knowledge of what will happen.  This book tracks what might happen if you could do it all over again... and again.  It's an entertaining read with a good ending.


Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

I really enjoyed the first and third book, the second book in a bit slower but still enjoyable.  There is a interesting system of magic to this universe which is well defined and stays consistent.  This series has one of the most satisfying endings I've seen in a trilogy.  There is a fourth book set in the same world (but several hundred years later) called Alloy of Law that is good, too.  I also enjoyed Elantris, and I'm looking forward to how is series The Way of Kings will unfold.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

A fun story wrapped in a world with a very well developed system of magic.  This is the first book in a trilogy, where the main story is told over three days.  Another series I'm looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.  

The Dresden Files Series by Jim Buther

The series starts with Storm Front, and is a good read but honestly it gets way better as you go through the series.  The premise is a wizard private investigator told in the noir style, and is both compelling and hilarious.  I honestly didn't care for his other fantasy series (Codex Alera), but fourteen books into the Dresden Files and it's still going strong.  I really like that the author keeps really good continuity through the series, characters are still bitter or grateful for things that happend six books back, and if a trick works well once you'll see it tried again several books later.  

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

If you enjoy British absurdist humor, Neil Gaiman is a good source.  The story is cast in a well developed, well executed world where a parallel fantasy world coexists with our own... or maybe the main character has gone nuts.  The book has unsavory elements- not something the wife would enjoy reading- but a fairly believable everyman hero who manages to muddle through.  I also enjoyed American Gods and Good Omens (Terry Pratchett co-wrote Good Omens).

Little, Big by John Crowley

 A beautifully written book, a compelling tragedy of what happens when the mundane meets the fantastical.

Dark Tower series by Stephen King

This series has two good "meta" aspects: it explains and ties together the whole of the Stephen King universe, and it tracks the authors career since the first book in the series is one of King's first novels and the seventh was after he wrote something like sixty books.  To be honest, I didn't much like the first book, and only liked half of the second... after the third book it's really good.  Whereas in the first book it's not so much mystery as secrets (which is annoying), by the third or fourth book he basically tells you what will happen and it's still more suspenseful to see it unfold than almost any other author I've read.  I'm not a huge King fan, but I would recommend the series with the caveat that the first two books are not as good as the last five.

Light Reading (Young Adult)

Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins

A trilogy nominally for young adults, reminiscent of a future version of Crete's labyrinth where Athenians had to send tributes. I heard an interview of the author on NPR, and her inspiration came flipping through late night television and seeing the contrast of kids competing on reality TV shows, and a documentary on children impressed into fighting a war, and the two images gelled into the idea of the book.

Little Brother: Cory Doctorow

Also nominally for young adults, this novel is a modern day retelling of 1984, which is set not too far in our future.  The book highlights many of the ways the scarier elements of 1984 have come to pass or been surpassed.  Many technologies relating to privacy are discussed, and is done so in a clear and accurate manner as an integrated digression from the narrative- it's done well.  My interpretation of the title is: Little Brother needs to watch Big Brother and make sure he doesn't get out of line.  You can download this, and most if not all other works, for free online... but really, it's worth the cost of the book.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Nominally for young adults, this is another dystopia world with a strong female character (if you liked Hunger Games, you may enjoy this).  The people in this world are split into castes based on their core value: selflessness, intelligence, honesty, peacefulness, bravery... and jobs are assigned accordingly.  It's a more humane version of Brave New World (which might make an interesting pairing to read after this book).

Subpages (1): links