My Year in Books

There was a time, before I had kids, when I looked at the 50 Books challenge and scoffed. Not even one book a week? How was that a challenge? Try to stretch yourself people! Now I find myself in a position where 50 books a year isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossible dream. But still- I did 37. While working, raising three kids, and #resist-ing. So that’s not too bad, right? Right?

I hope for 40 next year. But my real challenge for 2018 isn’t for 50 books, it’s 52 blog posts. One review a week shouldn’t be too much to ask of myself. I didn’t come even close to that schedule—or keeping up with my reading habit—this year. But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for, I suppose.

So, without further ado, my incredibly brief reviews of the books I’ve read this year. With links to a full review on the rare occasions they’re available.

Earth is Room Enough, Isaac Asimov—A collection of Asimov short stories, all of which take place on Earth. Asimov is at his best at a short story writer, and this was entertaining enough. I don’t think any of these are my favorites that he’s written, but they were a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys through Knowledge, James Burke—In the vein of How We Got to Now and other such stories, this book aims to explain how discoveries in one era can lead to unintended inventions and discoveries elsewhere. I thought that the connections were less compelling than those in other, similar books, and Burke isn’t the best of writers. There are other such books and miniseries done better.

The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris—A while back there was a Facebook quiz thingy asking people to list the 10 books that had most influenced one’s life. Two of my friends listed this. I picked it up at a library book sale and it was fascinating and beautifully written.

The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a life in academia wasn’t for me, and that academic writing tended towards pointlessness and preening with no meaning. Sometimes I regret that decision. Then I read a ‘popular’ philosopher like Žižek and realize all my worst thoughts of academia are correct and I made the right decision. And on a related note.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards—The book opens (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s on the back cover and everything) with a doctor’s decision in the 1950s to tell his wife that one of their twins, born with Down syndrome, was stillborn, and asks his nurse to take the girl to an institution. The book covers how this lie affects everyone’s life for years. It was poignant and well written, and I’ve been talking about it with others all year.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson—Bryson is always hilarious, and his tangents informative and fascinating. My mind is also a weird musty attic for pieces of trivia, so anyone who provides as much as he does is a valued companion to me. Sadly, Bryson is also a grump and, in his old age, a curmudgeon who turns his astute judgments on the absurdity of society to complaints about Kids These Days and their clothes. This book was fun enough for a Bryson fan, but if you’re a newcomer pick up a younger and more cheerful book first.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein—There’s a prison colony on the Moon that wants freedom, and so a super computer and three unlikely leaders plot a rebellion. I’ve read other Henlein books and this is similar in that it starts off interesting enough and then gets sort of strange and goes off the rails. Also this was written when he was quite firmly in his extreme libertarian phase, so there’s that. He has some… interesting… ideas about government and feminism, I’ll give you that.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke—Until I was looking through my Goodreads list of books I’d read this year, I completely forgot this book. Which should probably tell you all you need to know.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jossi Adler-Olsen—A Scandinavian murder mystery! This was an enjoyable thriller, and I enjoyed the troubled detective enough for his type. If you enjoy the genre you’ll likely enjoy this book. I’ve read a few of these types now, and personally I find the Scandinavian thrillers to just be a bit too tortured and cruel, but I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than most.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan—This book was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was basically created from whole cloth to center around uranium enrichment factories. It was a secret city that didn’t even appear on maps until well after the war ended, and women and men were employed there in almost every conceivable position. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this book.

Armada, Ernest Cline—Ready Player One was absolutely amazing. I loved it. But you can only go to the well so many times, you know?

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi—This was, hands down, the most creative book I have read in a long, long time. I read a lot and it is rare that I read something that is entirely original, but this is. I have spent all my time since I read this book wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it and how amazing it is.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks—There is always interest to be had and things to be learned with Oliver Sacks. That being said, this wasn’t my favorite of his books. It didn’t have quiet enough variety and just didn’t capture my attention they way others have.

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay—This was a book I took with me on summer vacation, and about where I would assign it. It kept me entertained, it passed the time. It didn’t do much more than that.

Flight, Sherman Alexie—I had never read anything by Alexie, and this showed up at a library book sale. It was something, that’s for sure. I read it a few months ago, and I’m still working out all of my feelings, which I take as a good sign in a book. A troubling read, but a worthwhile one.

Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood—I *love* Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS. Because I am a white, upper-middle-class woman and we are obsessed with British* crime dramas. This was the first of the books I’d read, though, and it was great fun. If I ever have time to dive into a series again, I’ll definitely pick them up.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Charles Chaput—Not to be confused with Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein, a very different book indeed. Chaput thinks that traditional Christianity is under attack, and that liberal views, particularly those on sexuality, are to be blamed for most of our current ills. He also thinks that civil authorities letting gay people be married is a far greater threat to our Church than, say, objectivism. He has some great things to say about the ideal society and civics, he just seems to have trouble identifying the actual problems.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep TufeckiAre you part of the #resistance? Good. Get this book. Read it. Bring it to your Indivisible or Flippable or Swing Left or whatever group and have them read it and talk about it together. And follow Tufecki on Twitter. I didn’t think everything about this book was perfect, but she has important things to say and we need to think about the questions she’s raising.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrecht—A moving tale told through the perspectives of a woman in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and her grandfather. It tells the history of the place, and the story itself, and is imbued with magical realism and a painful sympathy for the region.

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon—A suspenseful thriller and a modern day ghost story. The genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the book was a page turner, and if you enjoy this type of book I think you’d love this one.

Getting Better, Charles Kenny—I know everything is horrible right now, especially in the developed world. But that’s exactly why a book like this is important. For one thing, it gives you some hope. For another, while so many on the right are trying to tear down the current order, and many of the far left (my political home) are too disillusioned and disappointed to vigorously fight for it, this book reminds us of the tremendous successes of post- WWII liberalism. I’d like to give a copy to everyone.

Nightfall and Other Stories, Isaac Asimov—Asimov is amazingly prolific, and as I mentioned about another collection (old sci-fi paperbacks are usually $.25 on half-price day at the library book sale, so I have several) he wrote so much that his short stories can be hit or miss. But “Nightfall”, the title story of this collection, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Reading the whole book was worth it just for that.

The Best American Essays, 2003, Ed. Anne Fadiman—I love the “Best American” series, and I adore essays and long form articles, so I loved this book. My favorites were Katha Pollit’s very honest “Learning to Drive”, and “Home Alone”, which surprisingly had me cheering on a defense of Martha Stewart and her fans.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene—God, this book is amazing. I kind of want to read it again right now. Why Greene isn’t more held up as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I don’t know. An amazing spy novel against the backdrop of Viet Nam, before Americans were even in the thick of it. It’s less than 200 pages and has more to say about colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution, and human nature than almost any other book I’ve read.

Disarming Beauty, Julian CarronDisappointing. This collection of essays circled back and occasionally repeated itself, but never built on itself. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire, Richard Adams Carey—An incredibly engaging read. Carey does a wonderful job of talking about the history and future of caviar, going into detail regarding high end importers, the agents enforcing endangered animal treaties, environmental regulators, organized crime, and the politics of biologists. A great example of the genre of digging down into a rarely examined piece of life.

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher—Rod Dreher thinks that Christians need to remove themselves from current society to the extent possible to defend the faith because traditional Christianity is under threat from people wanting cakes at their gay weddings and gender theory in schools. It’s basically just like communist Eastern Europe, an analogy he actually uses. But let’s leave that aside for now. The bigger issue is, how does one write an entire book about having lay people exercise a Benedict Option and never once mention lay Benedictine Oblates! I mean, that just seems obvious.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009 ed. Elizabeth Kolbert­—The Science and Nature writing series is my favorite, and this was no exception. It’s a bit depressing—Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, and her knowledge of and interest in ongoing environmental catastrophe shows. But there’s plenty of other topics to round it out. Try reading Atul Gawande’s “The Itch” without scratching for weeks. I’m itchy again just thinking about it.

A Long Way Down¸ Nick Hornby—Four people contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve meet each other and form connections instead. Entertaining, if you like Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) you’ll like this one, too.

Arkwright, Allen Steele—You know all those books by Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein that start out with humans on a planet we colonized long, long ago? This is the prequel. It should be a must read for any sci-fi fan.

Murder at the Dacha, Alexei Bayer—A murder mystery in Soviet era Moscow. Well paced, well written, and a good mystery novel that also paints a picture of life at this time and place.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett—The first in Pratcett’s Witch series in Discworld, it follows a girl who was accidentally made a wizard when women clearly can’t be wizards. I still don’t understand how I made it so far in life without reading Pratchett, but I’m doing my best to make up for it now.

Well of Lost Plots, Jasper FfordeThird of the Thursday Next series, our protagonist has taken refuge in Book World while she tries to un-eradicate her husband and plot how to take out Yorrick Kaine, a would-be dictator who’s escaped from fiction to the real world. And if none of that made sense, just start with The Eyre Affair and keep reading.

St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, Marie Dennis, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor—My only problem with this book is that it was clearly written to be studied at a prayer or small faith group, with discussion questions and everything, and it wasn’t presented that way up front. There’s limited utility if you’re reading it on your own.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian GreeneGreene traces the history of the scientific quest to determine reality and its beginnings from Galileo and Newton and on through modern string theory. It’s fascinating. Also, the difference between discussions at physics conferences and weed intensive college dorms is apparently just how many math equations are used.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde—Having left the safety of Book World, Thursday Next is now back in real-world England trying to take down Yorrick Kaine by ensuring Swindon wins the biggest croquet match of the year, deal with a mopey Hamlet, and find reliable child care.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco­—Umberto Eco is amazing. I still think Baudolino is my favorite, and a far too underrated book, but I will always have great love for this one. My fourth (?) time reading it, and I always discover something new.

And that’s it! I suppose not a bad showing on my part, but I could certainly do more writing. My main goal for the coming year.

Happy New Years, all, and Happy Reading.

 

*Okay, technically this one is Australian, but it’s on our PBS station that shows entirely BBC shows, so I think it counts as British Crime Drama.

^My youngest is 19 months, so I figure another 16 years or so until I have spare time.

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The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir    

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

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So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you missed it the first time it went around, you should probably pick it up today.

                                     

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar).  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.