The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

One of my favorite literary devices is an unreliable narrator. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time turns that notion on its head by providing a most truthful narrator: a teenage boy with an autism spectrum condition. The narrator, Christopher, is mentally incapable of lying (though he has a talent for noting loopholes) and therefore presents his experiences as wholly accurate accounts. But quickly the reader learns that even such pure truth is filtered by the person’s understanding of the events.

In my case, I was a listener. On our long drive to Arkansas for Thanksgiving, Ber and I got several audiobooks from the library to help things along. This is actually the only one we listened to all the way through as we would normally turn the books off when the baby fell asleep.

Avid listener dog, Nada. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on audiobook.

The interesting narrator holds most of the weight of the book, but that seems enough with the skilled design of its plot. Just enough happens for Christopher to react to that any amount of unexpected twists or secondary storyline would be fluff; a distraction from the character we care about.

One line (bolded below within a larger quote for context) I enjoyed I keep coming back to for nearly a month now:

And Siobhan says people go on holidays to see new things and relax, but it wouldn’t make me relaxed and you can see new things by looking at earth under a microscope or drawing the shape of the solid made when 3 circular rods of equal thickness intersect at right angles. And I think that there are so many things just in one house that it would take years to think about all of them properly. And also, a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of it being new.

As a person who is most happy when left alone to do nothing other than think through whatever is in my head – yeah, I agree.

I also loved this book because it had my five-billionth reference to the Monty Hall problem within like one week. Other ones including Numberphile (via my chronological listen of Hello Internet) and Back to Work. So when the main character explained it so easily I actually knew the answer too. I also love that Haddon has this funny webpage about that bit from the book. It’s like the law of Monty Hall: make something about the Monty Hall problem and everyone will email you to tell you you’re wrong.

It’s a well-executed book with an interesting premise. Would recommend it to anyone in book or audiobook form.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, part of my 2016 Reading

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You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop by John Scalzi

It’s kinda my fault that I didn’t like this book any more than I do. I kinda thought it was going to be like War of Art by Steven Pressfield. But I was kinda dumb. The actual words used to describe the book on all marketing materials make it clear this book is Scalzi’s writing about writers and the writing business. Not about the day-to-day grind of working in solitude (which I could really use some advice on.)

You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop on Kindle Cloud Reader. This is how I would’ve read the book on my laptop had I read it on my laptop in a coffee shop.

I guess it says something about my future in publishing that my idea of being successful in that business is roughly equivalent to churning out words everyday. (Laughable at best.)

Even though this ended up not being the book I expected, it was still an enjoyable read. I like Scalzi’s blog, the Whatever, and read all his new stuff there as it comes out. Most of the content in You’re Not Fooling Anyone […] are old posts from that blog when he was still carving out his space as a novelist and primarily working as a non-fiction writer. All his snark is in full force even if it didn’t really motivate me to go and do anything.

And for the record, I’ve been getting some of my best work done in a coffee shop recently.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop by John Scalzi, part of my 2016 Reading

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I’d been meaning to read this book for a while. Friend and then-coworker, who is also named Patrick but is not the author of this book, recommended it to me back in 2012. In April 2016 I bought the damn book when the price dropped for the Kindle copy. In November, I finally got around to reading it and finished it in about two weeks staying up too late most nights. It was a journey, but now that I’ve read the book I can say that Patrick Not-Rothfuss was correct: it is a good book for me.

Guest reader cat, Ladybug, who is not as avid as Bagheera. The Name of the Wind on Kindle.

Set in a fantasy world, The Name of the Wind likes to keep its readers guessing as to what toys happen to be at this playground. There’s magic and lore, but there’s also a lot of civilization à la medieval Europe. Paragraphs about medicine, math, and chemistry are just as commonplace as something we’d describe as magical. There’s discussions about the existence or non-existence of rare, mythical creatures or hoaxes.

At its heart, the book is the coming of age for a special young man in Rothfuss’ new fantasy universe. His hero’s work is ahead of him, and he discovers his own world at the same time as the reader, albeit with a head start. Not so different from the young Paul in Dune. We learn about sympathy, Naming, and artificing right along with Kvothe, but can assume from the early pages that he can do all the things a level 1 hero can do here on earth and he’s smarter than the average bear from being raised well by an intrepid troupe of entertainers.

Framed around Kvothe’s young life is an older Kvothe, renowned for his feats and adventures, spinning the tale. That’s how I know there’s better stuff ahead – he told me himself. About the only thing I don’t like about the book is how this frame sets the book as  one of a series so early on. It concludes with dialogue that’s nearly a sales pitch for future books. Blegh — it left a bad taste in my mouth.

The story of young Kvothe is enjoyable. But the storytelling is pieced together masterfully. It’s Rothfuss skill that will compel me to the sequels more than the stories yet to be told.

Some “rules” about Rothfuss’ writing that particularly grabbed me:

  1. Associate places and the people in them. It flushes out both the secondary characters and the settings.
  2. Hide foreshadowing within description. Kvothe’s summer before living in Tarbean seemed odd for a while, but it more than made up for itself in later scenes. (No spoilers.)
  3. Create allies and enemies on a spectrum. Not all the good guys are heros. Not every rival is a “big bad” or a peon, more likely somewhere in between.

He stages his scenes efficiently, and there always seems to be a purpose from it. If not immediately, then later. That’s the feeling I’m always hoping to give my own creative endeavors. If one could run a D&D campaign the way this book reads, you’d be one hell of a DM indeed.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, part of my 2016 Reading

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Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Foolish I was, to believe that I would read this book super quickly. Zoe’s Tale is a parallel story to Scalzi’s previous novel in the Old Man’s War universe, The Last Colony. We go through the experience of the Roanoke colony, but this time from Zoe’s perspective. I thought this meant I could shoot through the story and move on to the next book on my list for the year.

But it was just too good for that. Parallel it is, but the Zoe Boutin-Perry’s experience is wholly separate from her parents’. It’s surprising how little John Perry is involved in this story. The book stands on its own legs and earned my full reading attention, which meant that I took way too long to read it. The library late fees are racking up as I type this post. You, dear average-paced reader instead of a slow-like-me reader, may not have such difficulties because it’s still a typical length and light effort.

Zoe's Tale in hardcover, with avid reader cat, Bagheera
Zoe’s Tale in hardcover, with avid reader cat, Bagheera

I must admit that I was also hesitant that it would be too much of the Young Adult genre for me. Teenage relationships don’t really catch my interest, and it is a vital part of the book. But the YA and Sci-Fi are balanced well. At least well enough that I didn’t skip anything.

Most importantly the novel does a couple important things that were missed in The Last Colony.

  1. The ending feels thought-out, full, and true to the narrative.
  2. The colony felt a lot more like a community, less like a group of people being lead by rock star protagonists

From Scalzi’s appendix it sounded like a lot of Zoe’s Tale’s story was developed for The Last Colony and was cut. It covers so many gaps that I wasn’t shocked to learn that. It does make me wonder what The Last Colony could’ve been had it been 150 pages longer and included this material. I’d read it.

Another great episode in a universe I’ve come to love. The remainder of the Old Man’s War books are on my list, but I’m pretty far behind so it may be a bit yet before I read more from Mr. Scalzi.

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, part of my 2016 Reading

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Project Management For You by Cesar Abeid

After reading Getting Things Done by David Allen, I was excited to get to work. With clarity about my system and tools, I made better Next Steps and forced myself to confront the things I could do and what I needed to defer or delegate.

But on some items, I found myself running in circles. Things big enough that a Next Step would be the planning and thinking about what would make a good next step.

What I needed was project management. The ability to break down big, ambitious tasks with multiple parts into a series of next steps.

GTD falls short on material of how to handle project management. Where David Allen left off, Cesar Abeid picks us up. Reading Project Management For You is like unlocking some hidden bonus chapters of GTD.

I came across this book because I’m lucky enough to call Cesar my friend and colleague. Before our recent team meetup in Austin, Texas, I was making a point to learn more about my fellow teammates. Whenever you become a new Automattician, one of your first tasks is to make a p2 post introducing yourself. Cesar mentioned his book in his intro post, so I added it to my Kindle for one of my plane rides.

Project Management For You on Kindle with avid reader cat, Bagheera
Project Management For You on Kindle with avid reader cat, Bagheera

What a great decision! In addition to being the missing sibling to GTD, it was short enough to be read in a few hours on the plane and had some great stories that helped me get to know Cesar.

Cesar and I got to have some good talks about projects and productivity on that meetup. In particular I wanted to hear him speak more on the distinction between projects and operations he makes in the book.

For something to be a project, it has to have an end. You’ve made the thing, you completed the task, and it’s done. Ring the bell – ding! But operations are ongoing. Cesar’s example is that writing a book is a project, but marketing, promoting, and selling it is operations. It’s easy to make the mistake of trying to use project tools to improperly manage operations.

In my work of customer support, I’m in operations. There’s little chance of people not wanting help anytime soon. The chats and emails will keep coming in and we continue to find the best ways to answer them quickly and helpfully.

But Automatticians love projects. We obsess over chances to do a sprint of work once that will pay off multiple times in the future. To the point that sometimes we start to see projects where we should be thinking of how to optimize operations.

The appendix to Cesar’s book helps with this too! Using Agile concepts, you can shift most operations into successive projects. Getting his perspective and advice on this was invaluable for me in person. Unless you have that opportunity yourself, I recommend you check out the book as well as his podcast, PM for the Masses. Here’s an episode with an inteview of David Allen!

Project Management For You by Cesar Abeid, part of my 2016 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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