The Best Books of My 2017

Brought to you by the UC San Diego library system.

This is the fourth in a series of annual book reviews:

I read fewer books this year than in 2016, thanks to a new marriage and a few online serials that consumed a lot of reading time. But I’ve improved my selection process: I’m finishing more of the books I start, and learning more from the books I finish. As a result, I’d put this year’s class up against any of the other years in a… book fight?

 

(My Goodreads account has a rating for every book I remember reading.)

 

The Best Books

The first five are, in order, the books I’ve thought about most often this year, and that I remember most vividly. The rest appear in no particular order.

  1. Ache Life History
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
  3. Tools of Titans
  4. Against Democracy
  5. The Damnation of Theron Ware (free to read online, from Project Gutenberg)
  6. Hitch-22
  7. Killers of the Dream
  8. The Subjection of Women (free to read online, from Early Modern Texts)
  9. Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction
  10. Maverick
  11. War
  12. Hard to Be a God
  13. Annihilation
  14. The Traitor Baru Cormorant
  15. The Gods Are Bastards (free to read online)

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The Lightning Bat of Jason Jones

Jason Jones was not a natural athlete. He barely scraped by, even on his high school baseball team. But he’d always dreamed of playing in the majors. And he had a good heart. That’s the most important thing, in this kind of story.

One fateful night, as Jason walked home from practice, rain began to pour. Thunder boomed. Lightning struck a nearby tree. (Well, the thunder came after the lightning, of course, but it’s more dramatic this way.)

The tree caught fire, but was soon extinguished by the rain. Jason knew fate when he saw it. He took a sturdy chunk of lumber from the lightning tree, then carved it into a bat — which he just called “the Lightning Bat”, because he wasn’t a natural nomenclaturist, either. He wasn’t a very thoughtful boy in general. But we did mention the good heart, right?

Anyway, thoughtful or no, Jason was a mean hand with a lathe, so the bat came out smooth and powerful. At his next high-school game, hit a ball so hard it almost disintegrated on its way over the outfield fence. A few spectators noticed a flash of light at the moment of contact, but they all figured it came from the camera held by a stranger in the stands.

The stranger turned out to be a major-league scout. After seeing that phenomenal home run, he bought young Jason a ticket for the next train to Cleveland. Soon, the boy was up to bat for the Indians, who occupied the cellar of the American League standings and were willing to try just about anyone.

(The employment contracts in those days were loose and flexible. Things are different now, for reasons that will soon become clear.)

# # # # #

Jason stared into the eyes of Tommy Castro, the ace of the Boston Red Sox. Confidence surged through his veins. He held the Lightning Bat over his shoulder, practically twitching with anticipation.

Castro wound up and fired. A fastball.

Jason still stood with the bat over his shoulder. He hadn’t moved an inch. He hadn’t even seen the pitch go by. Strike One.

Another fastball. Jason swung and missed by a mile. Strike Two.

(As it turns out, a major-league pitcher is much better at throwing than a mediocre high-school batter is at hitting, even if the latter wields a bat charged with the force of a thunderstorm.)

Another fastball. Low and outside — just a bit too far outside. Ball One.

Jason still couldn’t see the damn thing. He felt his dream draining away. But the bat sparked and buzzed in his hands, beckoning him to give it one more try. Power swelled up in the barrel. The sweet spot began to glow.

Another fastball. Last chance.

Jason swung the Lightning Bat harder than he ever had before. By some accident of timing, he connected, with a crack that deafened the crowd and a white-blue flash that struck them momentarily blind.

It was a line drive, practically sideways, foul from the moment of contact — and fast. So fast that the ball obliterated a section of the stands above the Cleveland dugout, leaving a forty-foot crater that crackled with electricity.

Thirty-eight people died, and Jason Jones went to prison for the rest of his life.

# # # # #

Eight years later, under new management, the Indians finally won a World Series. By that time, the scout who found Jason Jones was working as a forest ranger in Alaska, spending his nights alone with a bottle of whiskey and a radio tuned to anything but baseball.

But every storm cloud comes with a bright silver lining: Nowadays, high-school athletes around the country learn from their coaches in an annual, mandatory lecture (at least in public schools) not to mess around with elemental magic. That shit is dangerous.

 

This story is a revised version of a submission that reached the final round of cuts at Flash Fiction Online. Thanks to the editors for their helpful comments!

 

The Sad Story of Marilee Jones

David Edmondsdon, the former CEO of Radioshack, was fired because he falsely claimed to have a theology degree from an unaccredited Bible college.

At least, that’s what Radioshack said. There may have been other reasons, but newspapers took the college story seriously, even though it was ridiculous. Why does learning about your CEO’s lack of a theology degree matter, once you’ve seen him perform decades of competent work?

But even that story isn’t as crazy as…

 

The MIT Scandal

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CPR: A Heroic Thought Experiment

Imagine that an all-knowing genie manifests in your bedroom.

The genie tells you that sometime in the next ten years, you will have a chance to save a total stranger from dying by performing CPR.

But you don’t know when it will happen, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed when the time comes.

How would you respond? How would your life change, from that moment?

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Hacking LinkedIn For Fun (But Not Profit)

In the summer of 2014, I worked at a recruiting firm. This meant that I was on LinkedIn for most of the day, reading thousands of profiles.

LinkedIn profiles aren’t much fun, unless they’re the profile of someone you can’t hire.

(Exhibit 1: The programmer who is so confident and secure in his job that he’s formatted his profile as a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet.)

 

I can be hired. Sometimes, I even want to be hired. So I can’t totally sabotage my own profile. Still, I wanted to have some fun with LinkedIn.

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