Red Letter Day

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

My favorite (and least favorite) reads of the year so far

There's still two full months left in 2009, but it's never too early to start work on "best of" lists, in this case, for books. I read a lot. A lot. Probably too much. I should watch more TV. Maybe start drinking more. Try that crystal meth I've heard so much good stuff about. But, until then, here are the books that have touched me the most during 2009, so far.

First are the ten new books I enjoyed reading the most in the past year. I am not going to say these are the "best" books of the year, merely my best books. You'll notices a theme. I like speculative fiction, science, history, and cultural studies. You will not find this year's best romance novel here.

So, in random order...

The Greatest Show on Earth" by Richard Dawkins
A masterpiece, and one of the finest examples of quality, thoughtful, intellectual popular science writing I have ever read. If it were merely a thorough overview of evolutionary theory, it would be brilliant just on that alone, but Dawkins also manages to convey a beautiful sense of how science is done, as well as conveying his thoughts with a subtle wit and good humor lacking in his other, more strident books. If you love science, you need to read this book.

Ark by Stephen Baxter
"Ark" is the second book in Baxter's duology of planetary extinction from a massive flood. Baxter is known for his "hard science fiction" and "Ark" doesn't disappoint on that level, but what makes this book something special is the human element, as well as the sense of crushing, overwhelming loss, seasoned with the tiniest bit of hope that keeps moving as inexorably as the flood waters. "Ark" can be read as a standalone, but the prequel, "Flood" is nearly as good, so read it first.

Lost To the West by Lars Brownworth
"Lost To the West" is what popular history is supposed to be. It is enlightening, and sheds light on a subject that few people - even those of us who like to think we know something about history - really understand other then as a dim caricature. I am referring to the Byzantine Empire, and Brownworth covers a millenium of history gloriously, with a full pageant of heroes, villains, emperors and patriarchs, with a good overview of the cultural and religious aspects of the empire as well. By necessity, he glosses over a lot of territory (literally and figuratively) but this is a general survey, and was a pleasure to read.

The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty
Speaking of great popular history, "The Illustrious Dead" manages to find a fresh look at a subject that has been trampled to death....Napoleon's invasion of Russia. What makes Talty's book unique is his focus on medical detective work, and the role of disease in crushing Napoleon's ambitions. An excellent mix of science and history, told in a lively fashion. This was probably my favorite history book of the year so far.

Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson
If I had to choose a "best book of 2009" this would be it. This book is so many things at once: a speculative look at America after our technological civilization is done away with by peak oil, a mediation on the role of history and the preservation (and loss of) knowledge, a rousing military buddy adventure story, a wry comedic social commentary a la Mark Twain, and simply a damn good read. "Julian Comstock" is an amazingly deft, thoughtful story, which will really make you think. I deeply identified with the characters and the deft nuance of the writing, and, yeah, I laughed out loud a few times as well. This book is a triumph.

Fragment by William Fahey
"Fragment" is an old-fashioned scientific horror novel, kind of like Jurassic Park remixed and kicked up a notch. Of all the book I read in 2009, it is the most likely to be turned into a movie, and reading it, it feels almost cinematic. Although the book offers plenty of fascinating speculation, and lots of strange and hungry animals, there's also enough scientific exposition to make this book several levels more enjoyable then a mere gore-fest like "The Ruins" (which many have compared to this). A fun, smart action read.

Idiot America by Charles Pierce
Sarcastic, smart, bitter, yet hopeful. I'd like to think that describes some of me, but even if it doesn't it certainly describes Charles Pierce, who lays bare the genius and depravity of America. This is not just some Michael Moore-ish rant, but rather a thoughtful and bitingly funny celebration of the American crank, ranging from radio shock jocks to Creation Science museum curators. Pierce explores the fauna and flora of American idiocy with a deft hand, and a firm grasp on the saddle (which is itself on top of a dinosaur at the creation museum).

Why Shit Happens by Peter Bentley
You make up in the morning late because your alarm doesn't go off. Your toast falls on the floor, a bird craps on you as you walk outside, your car breaks down on the way to work, and your pen explodes in your packet. And this is all before 9 AM. Using as his hook a litany of minor disasters that we have all dealt with at one time or another, Bentley explores the science and technology of our daily lives, and how it affects us in ways both bug and small. This is a delightful little book.

Drood by Dan Simmons
I normally do not read 900+ page novels about Charles Dickens, but I loved Simmons' incredible Arctic horror story "The Terror" so I gave "Drood" a try (it didn't hurt that it was 40% off!) I am very glad I did. "Drood" is gripping psychological horror story, told through the drug-addled memory of one of Dickens' closes friends and biggest rivals. "Drood" is meticulously researched, and by itself, the depiction of day-to-day life in Victorian England is fascinating. Throw in a healthy dollop of genuinely frightening gothic horror, and you have a book which kept me up a few nights.

Angles and Ages by Adam Gopnik
This year marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of two giants: Darwin and Lincoln. Gopnik uses these two intellects to synthesize a tour de force essay on the cultural changes ushered in to the world by these two men, and how they affected our views of man's role in nature, and the governments role in societies.

Continuing on in a similar vein, here are my nine favorite books I have read this year that were not published in 2009(i.e. previously published). Mostly, these are paperback or remainder editions of books published last year or a few years before, that I have only gotten around to reading now.

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English by Henry Hitchings
There are a lot of books covering the history of English, and Hitchings' book is one of the best. He focuses on words and vocabulary, and how it has developed over time. It is a joy to read for a word-lover, with a focus on the words themselves and less on the theory of language.

Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller
Muller's writing feels like being in a class by one of those memorable college professors that everyone loves. He makes the complex science behind our public policy choices easy to understand...and interesting to boot. Focusing on physics and chemistry, Muller covers the science behind the headlines in the fields of climate changes, nuclear weapons, and energy. I really learned a lot reading this book. I hope Obama read it too!

Chances Are: Adventures in Probability by Michael and Ellen Kaplan
A history and overview of the nature of probability and chance, written for non-math majors. Each chapter covers a different aspect of the field...gambling, insurance, medical research, and so on. Given the importance that numbers play in our lives, this book ought to be read by a lot more people.

In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension by Dan Falk
A great mind-fuck, this book covers the strange nature of time. What does it mean, when did it start, and how will it end? Falk explains the basic stuff (relativity, and so forth) in a clear and easy to understand manner, and then delves into the really fascinating aspects of how we perceive time, and even covers time travel. A fun, fascinating book.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross
"Glasshouse" is a superb science fiction novel about a group of 28th century researchers, living in a post-human "accelerated" future who are running an experiment to simulate life in the 20th century. Seeing their attempts, it gives me much greater appreciation for the archeologists of our day trying to understand life 1000 years ago. "Glasshouse" is much more then a simple meditation on historic research. There's a heroic gender-bending protagonist, an evil conspiracy and thoughtful science fictional adventure. A great, thoughtful, fun novel.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
"The Hunger Games" is a novel aimed at teenaged readers, but is certainly enjoyable for adults as well. It is the story of a protagonist in the distant future who must participate in a gladiatorial game put on by an oppressive government, a la "The Running Man." I don't think it is quite as good as the similarly targeted "City of Ember" but in the burgeoning field of post-apocalyptic teenage literature, "The Hunger Games" is a very enjoyable entry.

Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard Degroot
I read this book after enjoying the nostalgia of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Although I am firmly on the side of manned space exploration, I found Degroot's book a very good "contrarian" history of the space program and some of the flawed assumptions behind it. In addition to being a great history of the program, Degroot has a wry sense of humor and covers many things that were left out of the papers, including self-pleasuring space monkeys and on the more serious side, some of the technical and human issues that were pushed under the rug during development.

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
The amazing "Julian Comstock" (see above) made me check out Robert Charles Wilson's earlier books, and of them, the best was "Blind Lake," the tale of a research base where humans observe (but cannot interact with) a distant alien species via a type of quantum viewer. Things are not as simple as they seem, and a series of strange events follow. This book took a little while to get going, but once it got rolling, it was great.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
FInally, non-science fiction fiction! "City of Thieves" is an old-fashioned adventure story set in Leningrad during the German siege, about two young men who must brave the elements -- human and nature -- to retrieve food for a Russian general. Memorable encounters with Nazis, civilians, and even a gang of cannibals make for a memorable and touching story of friendship and survival.

Finally, we have a list of the four books that disappointed me the most this year. Strangely enough, none of these books was bad in any way, they just let me down, and could have been so much better. These books were enticing enough to separate me from my money, but once I sat down and read them, well...

Inside of a Dog Alexandra Horowitz
A love dog books, especially ones which promise to be scientifically valid but also recognize that we love dogs because they are our pets. This book looked promising, but it just didn't seem to deliver. The science was rather weak, and the book seems to focus more on the philosophical experience of what it might be like to be a dog. I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't nearly as good as it could have been.

Heart of the Assasin by Robert Ferrigno
I really like the first two books in this trilogy about a shattered America ruled by and Islamic theocracy with a rump Christian theocracy in the south. Although its premise was unlikely, the author conveyed a fairly nuanced look at these two different countries and what they might actually be like. It helped that he had compelling, likable characters going on exciting adventures through an Alice in the Looking Glass world which was recognizable yet alien. That was the first two book. This final book of the trilogy just went over the edge, with silly science fiction flourishes, throwaway characters added, and numerous points from the first two books just ignored in favor of a contrived plots involving (really) a piece of the True Cross. A perfectly adequate read, and still fun, but nothing like the first two.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
The first two thirds of the book were entertaining, but the last hundred pages were awful. A real let down compared with his previous two books. I am not one of those snobs who hates Dan Brown. I really liked "Da Vinci Code", and I enjoy suspending disbelief to simply take in the cinematic aspect of the books, but "Lost Symbol" just petered out.

1848: The Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport
I bought this thinking it was a popular history of the pivotal year of revolution in Europe. There's a great story to be told here, but it is not told in this book. Leaden prose falls like a heavy hand upon every page, and reading this felt like a college textbook. The history was accurate and well-done, but the book was, well, boring. And it shouldn't have been.



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