American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Finishing a lot of books lately. This one was finished late at night in bed when I should’ve been sleeping. When I realized how close to the end I was though, I had to just keep going through the last 10% of the book.

The whole thing reads like a dream. Not the “it was all a dream” end of a television serial, like an actual dream where you’re simultaneously exploring something new and comfortably thinking about something familiar.

Going too far into the plot gets spoilerific too fast. So let’s just say that a man named Shadow goes on a really crazy road trip. If you’re planning on going on a road trip in America anytime soon, I think this would make an amazing audiobook for your travels.

American Gods (Author’s Preferred Text) on Kindle with avid reader cat, Bagheera.

It feels like an important read. Literature, not fluff. My Kindle edition included discussion questions and I could see a high schooler writing a really great report on it. I’m not into that kind of write-up here on the blog, but you may be glad to know you could.

But I still had a lot of fun reading it. There’s a motif of Shadow mishearing others’ names and it’s fun to catch the real name in spite of his error. The scenes are all great encounters on their own; as much as it is a page-turner it’s also a great pick-up-again. No matter which section you read it will be beautiful to read and another layer of the story.

For a big book that you’ll be proud to have read, this is a good one. I could see myself reading it again and recommend it to you without hesitation.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman, part of my 2017 Reading

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Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi was one the early psychologists to study positive psychology. This book is an explanation of his years of findings in the subject, all put into practical terms for everyone instead of academics.

The premise of the book is that humans are happier overall when they spend more of their time in a state of “flow.” Precisely defining that state is a good portion of the book; for the sake of a brief blog post it can be helpful to think of it with the following visual aid.


The situations that create a state of flow are when the challenge of the situation matches up perfectly with an achievement in our skill. Too easy a challenge on something you’re competent in leads to boredom. A high challenge with no training? Anxiety. High challenges in something you’re very skilled? Flow.

While in flow, our experiences become “autotelic.” We do the thing for the thing’s sake. We master our chess match only because we want to. We climb the mountain because it’s there. Not out of boredom or worry, but because it matches with what we’re skilled to do and it’s a challenge to overcome.

If you’ve not already seen it, you should watch this TED talk before reading the book.

I’ve seen this video more than once and I still found value from the book. But if you watch this and say “meh,” I think you’ll not enjoy it or find it useful.

Once you agree that this flow state can bring about a more systemic joy to your life, the question begins to turn to how you can and can’t control bringing more flow states to your life. Not every job lends itself well to flow, but you may not be so quick to rule yours out. The errands and chores of family life may be boring to you in some ways, but changing your perspective and the system of those actions might help you find flow in commonplace activities.

“Flow” in paperback with avid reader cat, Bagheera.

I’m working through a lot of issues right now. Having a young family and managing a career have both tested me a great deal on their own; combined I’m often amazed I’m still standing. But some notions from this book really strike a chord with me. Finding the situations that I can turn into a flow state are worth my while, and I think it an obtainable goal for many hours of my day that currently tend to land in boredom, apathy, or anxiety.

Such systemic changes would lead to good things, I think.

Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, part of my 2017 Reading

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Getting Things Done by David Allen

I try to avoid being overwhelmed simply by avoiding tasks. Ever invited me to something? I got all cringy and didn’t want to talk about going to it, right? Yeah – I avoid tasks. It’s not a social anxiety thing, it’s a “I have way too much stuff asking for my time to sign up for yet another party/event/whatever” thing.

This should only be one tool in your toolbox. At some point you have to reckon with the responsibilities you do accept.

In the last few years, I’ve gotten better. I embraced the idea of putting thoughts into a calendar and task manager and working off those instead of trying to work off whats in my head.

Accepting that brains are bad at remembering things was easy. I think more clearly when I’m not trying to remember things.

A lot of these ideas I got from blog posts online and two names popped up a lot: David Allen and Merlin Mann. I never totally followed either of them, but the trend was obvious. One day I was in a used bookstore and saw a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen, so I snagged it.

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Getting Things Done in paperback with avid reader cat, Bagheera

And never read it. D’oh.

I never learned the remaining tools I needed to make use of all these lists and calendar appointments with best efficiency. I even complained about this on a post, To-Do Debt.

My colleague Bryan read the post, empathized with me, and wrote a follow-up on his blog: Battling To Do Debt.

He had some great advice, and also mentioned reading GTD, so it went on the reading list instead of just my bookshelf. I finally did it!

The book did commit one of my pet peeves: it spends several paragraphs of its opening chapters making promises about what I’ll learn by reading on. Snore. I already own the book, get to the point.

What follows after that is a document you immediately want to read again, as you follow its advice. It’s odd because once you’re about halfway through, every time you pick up the book you ask yourself, “should I read more or spend some time doing what I’ve already learned from it?” The only answer I have is “plan to read it more than once.” Then it doesn’t matter how many times you put it down to get stuff done.

Thankfully I had already done some of the hard work. I’m not in overwhelm mode and my mind is mostly dumped. But there’s more efficiency to be had,for sure.

For the Olympic weightlifter, the title is won with efficiency not just strength. The same is true for work. Efficiency with your tools and planning can push you much further than just worker harder for more hours.

The biggest new habits GTD has convinced me of is to focus on Next Steps and to hold Weekly Reviews. My biggest pitfall that lead to “to do debt” (as I called it) was trying to use my to-do list as a habit changer. Really I should use thought-out next steps as the habit changer and not be scared to leave some things on a Someday/Maybe list. So long as a I have my Weekly Review, the Somedays will be seen and maybe allowed to be a project with a Next Step.

I even convinced Ber to do a portion of my Weekly Review with me to make sure we’re on the same wavelength.

So I guess what I’m saying is: it’s a good book if you’re ready to work.

Getting Things Done by David Allen, part of my 2016 Reading

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Dune by Frank Herbert

Renewed interest in reading is a recent success in my attempt to be a less horrible person. It would shock many of my friends to learn just how few books I’ve actually read. Dune is one of the several books that come up in conversation as, “how have you not read that yet?” along with 4 out of 7 Harry Potters and anything at all by Issac Asimov.

Wil Wheaton asking, "Do you not know how to read?"
Do you not know how to read?

As Wil Wheaton joked on TableTop: “Do you not know how to read?”

Credit goes to my friend Ash (with an assist from Simon) for getting me to startup Dune late last year. It had been on my reading list since December 2014, 2015 was the 50th anniversary year of the book’s publication, and I needed more science fiction in my brain. Clearly the book needed reading.

Another element of ‘real life’ that made this book so wonderful was that it also coincided with my deep dive into the world of Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition. Reading a lot about world building, storytelling, and resolving characters’ flaws, desires, and choices was a perfect pairing with a book that does all those things so well.

Herbert tells a story of espionage and intrigue in a way that let’s the reader feel like they understand everything at play, but still holds enough back that the big surprises within the plot leave little ones for the reader who thought all had been understood. Dramatic irony at its best.

The characters are all somewhat of a caricature, and I think that’s why part of me loved it along with the D&D research. There’s a guideline in D&D called ‘the rule of cool‘ — if your player wants to do something that’s a stretch of reality, still let them do it for the sense of adventure. It’s suspension of disbelief that makes the heroes of legend so great. Dune crafts a larger story arc so real it lets the people involved be larger tropes than suspension of disbelief would normally allow.

In the final moments of Dune, the Emperor accuses Paul Atreides of assuming overconfidently that he can do whatever he wants because of his Fremen-earned power on Arrakis. Paul then basically does whatever he wants, impervious to any attack or error. Sounds like the boss battle in every JRPG or D&D campaign ever, except he’s not even a scrappy underdog who’s barely leveled up enough to win. He’s an overpowered, all-time-and-space-seeing übermensch who goes berserk if you mention his dad. It’s a little weird if you think about it too much.

But all that seems normal in the epic scope you spent 600 pages reading before you get to that. You’re too excited to care if its a little inflated. Does Muad’dib kill the bad guy or what?! Will everyone break into giant space war?! Is there a elaborate ruse waiting behind the final door? What do the sand worms taste like?!

It’s a very good book and worth every minute spent on it. I took my time mostly because I spent too long trying to read the paperback copy when I wasn’t holding the baby when I should’ve been reading it on a Kindle while holding the baby. I switched to the latter method after a couple months and finished the last half of the book in a week.

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Dune on Kindle with avid reader cat, Bagheera

Funny enough, I just so happened to come across a Dune spoiler while I was reading the book. It was in a video a guest contributor posted on Wil Wheaton’s blog. You don’t really need spoiler alerts for movies that are 20 years old based on books that are 50 years old, but I had no idea people were going to ride the damn sand worms.

Oops. Spoiler alert.

Lastly, I really want to play in an RPG based on Dune. There’s technology, but no computers or internet. There are still swords and shields but they’re used beside lazer guns and rocket launchers. The DM would have to explain psychdelic hallucinations just as much as any combat encounter. So great. So if you can recommend somewhere where this exists, please let me know.

Dune by Frank Herbert, part of my 2016 Reading

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The Martian by Andy Weir

Some books just grab you and don’t let go. I wasn’t even expecting to read this book last weekend. On Friday I got an email saying my library’s ebook version of The Martian was now available and was automatically checked out for my account. All I had to do was open up my Kindle and let it download. I got hardly any sleep after that until I finished the book.

A Perfect Story?

Picking out favorite parts of this plot is nothing but spoiler country, so I won’t get into details. Thanks to the movie that came out, everyone knows the story is about astronaut Matt Damon Mark Watney being marooned on mars. The book could have a much worse plot and still be entertaining for most because of the humor Watney uses to make light of his unconscionably hopeless scenario, but that’s not what makes the book great.

What makes the book so appealing is that Weir lets the plot do its own development. Everything that seems to work well carries with it the seed of another problem. The book could’ve gone any number of directions because it’s amazing anything Mark does works at all. Every little victory carries so much risk it’s easy to rejoice for today and have your heart torn out tomorrow. Your blood will pump hoping for Mark’s safety to the very last page.

There’s little need for suspension of disbelief, because the problem-solving sounds like an annoying process you’d face at work. Little details you’d never consider except in a weird edge case. Mark just faces them while alone on Mars with limited supplies. Even the technical language doesn’t come off  as mumbo-jumbo like the stuff you’d read in a Star Trek novel, it’s basic ideas that need grappling. How efficient can a solar panel be? How do you make water from scratch? These aren’t scientific ideas that need faking, they just need to be explained in an entertaining context.

Not a Perfect Book

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The Martian Kindle Edition with avid reader cat, Bagheera

The book still falls short in a lot of little moments. Almost every bit of dialogue (this doesn’t include Watney’s narration that drives most of the book) felt flat. Even when Watney does the talking, half the time it bits of moaning like ‘well, shit’ or a string of expletives.

I get it, it’s an impossible situation and your mad and mad people swear a lot. But this is the fifth time I had to hear it. Stop trying to talk at me, make a joke, then get back to trying to build a radio out of coconuts. I like coconut radios way more than your soliloquy.

Thankfully Weir limits the amount of interaction we have with other characters, so we don’t listen to their crappy dialogue any more than necessary. It’s this reason the movie may actually be better than the book, because there’s no reason the movie can’t have the same amazing plot, but good actors and screenwriter’s view of dialogue could really whoop it into shape. I’ve not seen the film yet, so feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

Making Up For It

Don’t let the thought of poor dialogue get you down though – the majority of the book is just so much stinking fun you’ll not give it another thought until you need to write a book review. The first night I was reading, I kept telling Ber, “You really need to read this book.” Over and over.

Eventually I had quoted so many little lines to her she said, “turns out I just have to listen to you read it!” I tried to stop, but I couldn’t completely.

Weir originally wrote The Martian as a series of blog posts. Arguably, what makes a blogger a blogger is the desire to share information, and this book is a joy to share. I’m not surprised it spread as quickly as it did and eventually got picked up for full-on publishing. I think it spread well even early on because the story comes off as so likeable. And Watney’s humor and wit are almost assuredly just moments of Weir projected into the work. It’s a book that makes you want to grab coffee with its author.

And that’s why I’m here with you, too. As soon as I finished it I wanted to share the experience of it.

The Martian by Andy Weir

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