Book Notes, 2021


  1. Himalaya by Michael Palin — Palin crosses the Himalayas: Pakistan, Nepal and Everest Base Camp, Tibet, India, Bhutan.

  2. 10:04 by Ben Lerner — One from my old New York list, read quickly but didn’t grab me.

  3. Deep Work by Cal Newport ↻ — A great one to come back to and I think Newport’s best.

  4. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut — I never have much I want to say about Vonnegut books except I love them and you should read them.

  5. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy — The Coen Brothers’ adaptation might be my favourite film, I’ve watched it so many times. The film stays close to the book.

  6. Solar by Ian McEwan — Hard to read such a hateful protagonist but funny in parts with some physics nods to keep me interested.

  7. Maigret’s Patience (Maigret #64) by Georges Simenon — Grabbing something to read I went way out of order with the Maigrets.

  8. A Man’s Head (Maigret #9) by Georges Simenon — Back in order. Maigret helps a convicted murderer to escape. Trust in Maigret.

  9. The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff — I have a slow goal to read all of the Oxford History of the United States, I enjoy the grand idea of it. If it’s even completed in my lifetime. This first volume was published in 1982, on the American Revolution, 1763–1789.

  10. God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright — California (54 votes) and Texas (40) dominate the Electral College, but Texas is growing.

    Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America — the South, the West, the Plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities — what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.

    A few years ago a friend moved to Lubbock and another moved to Houston for postdocs so I planned a roadtrip across Texas to visit both. Other things got in the way and I regret not doing it.

  11. The Runner by Markus Torgeby — Escaping the world to live in the forests of northern Sweden and run every day. What’s not to love.

  12. Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi — A short story collection about Ugandans who move to Britain, specifically to Manchester, and about British Ugandans returning to Kampala. Obviously I enjoyed the references to the city, like a wait at the bus stop outside Kro on Oxford Road, a scene I know well. Makumbi’s range of characters explores some of the variance in people’s experience of migration, even to the same place. I’d say Christmas is Coming is best.

  13. The Dancer at the Gia-Moulin by Georges Simonen (Maigret #10) — this one’s in Liège, and where is Maigret? He’ll be there, don’t worry.

  14. The Wire by Rafael Alvarez — Alvarez was a staff writer on The Wire, brought in by David Simon for the second season because he’d worked the Balitmore docks for the Seafarers International Union as well as the Baltimore Sun.

    What you see in this guide is how much David Simon and Ed Burns are telling the stories of the city they know. Melvin Williams was a drug trafficker in the 70s sentenced to decades in prison. Burns was one of the detectives on the case, Simon covered it and profiled Williams for the Baltimore Sun. He was the inspiration for Avon Barkesdale. After his release from prison after season one, Williams joined the cast of the show: he’s the Deacon.

  15. World Order by Henry Kissinger — A survey of Kissinger’s perspective on the history of geopolitics.

  16. The Perfect Spy by John le Carré — I didn’t enjoy as much as some of the Smiley ones, a bit psychological for me but still great.

  17. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck — In Monterey, California, Mack and the boys are pushed to the edge of society (and town) but still have a plan to make something happen.

  18. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui ★ — This graphic memoir starts at the end with Bui’s new motherhood and navigates from there her relationships with her own parents and siblings, telling their story of life in South Vietnam, colonialism and war, dangerous escape by boat, asylum in the United States and experience as Vietnamese Americans.

  19. Full Circle by Michael Palin — an anticlockwise traversal of the Pacific Rim.

  20. The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall — A sequel to Prisoners of Geography, with a shift of focus from geography’s impact on historical events to now and the near future. I was reading the chapter on Australia, and how its military priority will always be the need for a strong naval force, as news of the AUKUS alliance broke.1

    The chapters on Iran and Saudi Arabia can be read together as a battle for influence over a region, likewise Greece and Turkey.

  21. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — Time’s a goon. These linked stories around the music industry were written at the time of mass pirated MP3s and before the rise of Spotify and the vinyl revival so there’s a negative outlook written in.

  22. The Story of China by Michael Wood ★ — The innovation in the Song dynasty up to the 1200s, compared with Europe at the time, is unparalleled. Public opinion in Britain was largely against the Opium wars.

  23. Believe Us by Melissa Reddy — Detail and insider views on Jürgen Klopp’s title-winning machine.

  24. In Search of the Canary Tree by Lauren E. Oakes — A snapshot of climate change in its destructive effect on yellow cedar trees on an archipelago off Alaska.

  25. The Places In Between by Rory Stewart — Given that the options for British Prime Minister are mostly men who went to Eton, it’s a shame we didn’t get the one who survived a few hundred miles across Afganistan’s high mountain passes in winter during a war. He gets by speaking Dari, relying on hospitality and carrying a relay of letters of approval from village to village, hopefully from from the right warlord. He might have had a better go at a pandemic anyway.

  26. The Man from the Future by Ananyo Bhattacharya ★ — The Manchester Baby2 is generally recognised as the first electronic stored program computer but Bhattacharya makes the case that Klára von Neumann’s earlier program for the ENIAC could be considered stored. It strikes me how much of my own career so far has been based on the application of innovations John von Neumann made in quantum physics, Monte Carlo methods, game theory, and on. This year I wrote an internal research paper on a method based on payoffs in cooperative game theory, extended from von Neumann’s invention by Shapley and described in this book.


  1. Suprising to me: Beijing is closer to Dublin (~8,300 km) than it is to Canberra (~9,000 km). Thanks again, Mercator projection.↩︎

  2. A replica of Baby sits in MoSI.↩︎