Two and a half weeks of travel halfway around the world frees up a lot of time for catching up on your reading. Here's what I read.
A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin. Much more on this in subsequent posts. I'm utterly addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, to the point where I even bought a House Martell t-shirt from HBO (the silkscreening is pretty much erased after six washings!) and yelled "Fire and Blood!" while parasailing off a Phuket beach. But A Dance With Dragons calls into question whether this series is any, y'know, good as opposed to being merely enjoyable. My friend Adam Serwer insightfully observes that ADWD is where the series goes from commenting on and subverting the fantasy genre to being part of it. And fantasy sucks. Anyway, more later.
Supergods, by Grant Morrison. A comic-convention panel soliloquy passing itself off as a book about superheroes as modern mythology. Or something. Morrison doesn't have much of an actual thesis, but he has lots of opinions about the history of superhero comics and he's ceaselessly fascinated with his own career. That's as generously as I can describe an awful book by a brilliant comic writer. Eventually you're just reading it to see how bad the train wreck can be.
The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter, by Ian O'Connor. Who threw that? Don't aim at my head! Whatever, Yankee hater... If you're looking to penetrate the sphinx that is Jeter, that's not going to happen. Jeter cooperated minimally with O'Connor, and given his persistent reluctance to say anything interesting or self-reflective, additional cooperation probably wouldn't have been helpful anyway. But O'Connor turns in a really good overview of Jeter's career, warts and all, without being saccharine. Where he's sentimental, he's sentimental about baseball, not Jeter. Worth the price of admission just for the accounts of Jeter's early minor league struggles and his relationship with Alex Rodriguez, which goes beyond what you've seen on ESPN for a decade.
The Bad Guys Won, by Jeff Pearlman. Sheer awesomeness. It's the story of the 1986 Mets, loveable by how unlikeable the members of this team were. (My own crew of unlikeable people, a band called Yakub, once wanted to call our first LP When Good Things Happen to Bad People, which suits the '86 Mets very well.) Pearlman writes like Lenny Dykstra played: without refinement but with pure cunning and unmistakable determination. In fact, it's even better to read now that Nails has traded rails for jails.
The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre (but really Tom Verducci). So bad, structureless and boring that I stopped reading a third of the way in.
Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against al-Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. An intellectual history buried within a newspaper-y expose. The real value of Counterstrike isn't any of its unearthed tidbits about ten years of counterterrorism. It's about how defense intellectuals in the second Bush and first Obama term came to believe that most terrorists are, in fact, deterrable. As it turns out, the stance of G.W.B. during his first term that there can be no deterring the suicidal quietly gets reversed during his second, with bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri -- the real undeterrables -- looking more to counterterrorism professionals as the outliers than the representatives of a new terrorist threat. Alas, that insight can come across as tacked on when stretched to a book-length treatment, and Counterstrike strains under the weight of reporting dull bureaucratic details and processes with clinical exactitude. Oh, and one really important discovery: Bush tried to send back channel messages to bin Laden himself! Remember that the next time you read some conservative getting on Obama's ass for trying to talk to Iran or Bashar Assad.
Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future--and Locked Us In, by Brian X. Chen. This one I started when Brian -- one of my SF-based WIRED colleagues whom I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting -- published it a few months ago, but I never found the time to finish it. I'm institutionally biased, but his book is a pitch-perfect chronicle of where we are culturally, if overshare-y at times. (Which is probably tonally necessary!) It's surreal to read Brian's account of developing minor social anxiety and inconveniencing his friends and colleagues during a weeks-long experiment of going offline... during a honeymoon in which I set myself the same goal. (And, uh, didn't succeed.) If you're not excited for Layar after finishing this book, I don't know why you even have a smartphone. And if I've got a criticism to offer, it's that Brian insufficiently grapples with the security implications of always-on tech, but I guess I would say that, wouldn't I...
The Submission, by Amy Waldman. I'm 86 percent of the way through this wonderful novel -- and isn't it great how the Kindle permits you that exactitude? -- so I want to hold off on a fuller discussion until I finish. But there's a certain point at which many journalists feel nonfiction is an insufficient vehicle for conveying the depths of a story. The American descent into Muslim-panic and the decadence of counterterrorism as culture war is definitely one of those huge stories. Waldman's skill at fictionalizing it without writing a polemic -- she's way more generous toward the opponents of her "Ground Zero Mosque" stand-in than I am capable of being -- is impressive to behold. If you care about these issues, and if you read this blog I imagine you do, you have to read her novel.