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21 for 2010: The best books I read during 2010

December 25th, 2010

As most of my friends know, I read a lot. I make no claims to read books on every subject – I am quite prejudiced. I only read books that looks interesting to me! Being a geek, I tend towards history, science, and books on “big themes” (and for some odd reason this year, several books set on generational starships). However, part of the pleasure of browsing a real bookstore is that sometimes something completely unexpected will pass my eye, and I will discovered and enjoy a book that I never would have known about otherwise.

Below is my list of the best 21 books I read through the past year. Not all of these were actually published in 2010 (although many of them were). Why 21? Basically, I went through my catalog of books (yes, I catalog my books – I told you I was a geek!) in reverse order back to the beginning of the year, and this is what I found…

Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
A great collection of thoughtful and humane science fiction short stories by the author of “The Windup Girl” (see below). The best among the bunch is the title piece, “Pump SIx” about a a guy who tries to keep civilization going as everything is breaking down and coming apart.

Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Tyson’s collection of short essays covers the gamut of astronomy and physics, in a fun and enlightening style. This is one of the rare science books that would be enjoyed by any intelligent person even if they do not otherwise have much interest in science.

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzon
A fascinating overview of the psychological and cultural aspects of humankind’s interaction with the animal kingdom. If you’ve ever wondered why we keep dogs as pets but eat pigs, or how owners of fighting animals can claim with a straight face that they love the animals they condemn to death, this book will enlighten and entertain you.

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
A man wakes up in an enormous, frigid, ancient, mechanically unsound spaceship, and has no idea what is going on, all the while being chased by strage horrifying creatures while trying to survive and figure out what is going on. Bear takes the reader on an intense and entertaining journey that plays out like a more intellectual version of the (underrated) movie “Pandorum”

At Home by Bill Bryson
Bryson is genius at taking the mundane and peeling it like an onion, and in “At Home” he used the rooms of an average home to explore the social and cultural history of everything from why salt and pepper are our ‘default’ spices to how the modern bathroom came about. As is Bryson’s wont, he peppers his prose with a myriad of fascinating historic tidbits and stories about obscure and not-so-obscure people and their amazing lives. You will never look at your house the same way after reading this.

On the Grid by Scott Huler
Infrastructure is the sinew of our society. Without plumbing, sewers, electricity, roads, and communications, we would be living like monkeys. If you’ve ever wondered about how all these systems actually work and what it takes to maintain them, you will enjoy Huler’s book. In the best “Dirty Jobs” style, Huler goes on location investigating (and working with) the people who make our civilization operate by delivering water and power and removing waste. Entertaining and enlightening.

War by Sebastian Junger
“War” has won numerous awards, and for good reason. This is probably as close as the average reader can come to getting a feel for the emotional and physical experience of being in combat in a modern wartime environment. The author ’embedded’ with troops in an isolated firebase in Afghanistan, going into combat with soldiers, coming under fire, and basically experiencing everything except actually firing a weapon. A truly intense and harrowing read.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Rocket engines, trajectories, and such are quite important in space travel, but what about how you go to the bathroom in space? Or eat, sleep, and of course, make love? And of course, what happens to the human body when you are weightless for months? The practical issues of “human engineering” are the topic of Roach’s book, and she takes the reader on an enlightening and entertaining trip into the lesser-covered aspects of day-to-day life in space.

Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
Everyone “knows” that men naturally evolved to mate with as many women as possible, and that women evolved to be naturally picky about mating, the best to protect their precious eggs and look for a mate with the right qualities. It’s just common sense. Not so fast! The authors show, carefully, with ample evidence that many of our most cherished myths about what is “natural” human sexuality isn’t backed up by the latest research. Written in an engaging and friendly tone, never lecturing, the authors cover the latest research on human sexuality with wit and verve.

Lucy by Laurence Gonzales
Lucy is a “humanzee” – a hybrid of bonobo and human, who is adopted and raised by a woman in Chicago after Lucy’s original father is killed in an African civil war. What makes “Lucy” amazing is that the book focuses on not on the science of hybridization, but rather Lucy’s actual life as a teenager, and how she develops and socializes, as well as the political and cultural reaction once her true nature becomes known. Emotional and touching, the “Lucy” represents the best tradition of science fiction by moving tech to the background, and making us examine ourselves.

Ancestor by Scott Sigler
“Ancestor” was the most fun book I read this year, and winner of the “most likely to be made into a blockbuster movie” sweepstakes. The plot? Genetically engineered ‘organ donor’ cows give birth to…something. These somethings are isolated with researchers on a snowbound island in the middle of the Great Lakes. There is a blizzard. The animals are very, very hungry.

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom
I never thought an evolutional psychology book on the nature of pleasure could turn out to be so interesting. Bloom covers the obvious bases, but in looking deeper at the meaning and source of ‘pleasure’ he examines sources as disparate as the fetishes of cannibals and the mechanisms of overeating along with a survey of the latest findings in a topic in which we all are self-developed experts.

Grounded by Seth Stevenson
I picked this up almost at random at the bookstore and I glad I did. “Grounded” is the travelogue of a couple who take a journey around the world while eschewing any travel by air. They take steamers, trains, busses, cars and everything in between as they circle the world in an adventure featuring exotic people and places that are unseen from the usual 30000 foot view.

Five Roads To the Future: Power In the Next Global Age by Paul Starobin
I do not read many books on geopolitics, but am glad I made an exception here. For anyone wondering about our turbulent age and what the next few decades will bring, Starobin proves to be an adept guide lucidly laying out five scenarios, all of them both plausible and refreshingly free of the posturing and wishful thinking of the usual pundits on both the right and left.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
An amazing journey into a post peak-oil world in which the genetic code of plants (controlled by “calorie men”) is the source of wealth, molecular springs are the main source of power, and civilization is adapting and making the best of things. The genius of the book is its plausibility and refusal to give into Mad Max-like scenarios of a post-oil world. The titular character, the Windup Girl, is a genetically-engineered ‘pleasure girl’ who is on the run from the law and whose movement through society ties the various threads of the novel together. Covering themes from cultural identity to the meaning of power, “Windup Girl” is one of the finest novels I have read in years.

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
Probably my surprise book of the year. I don’t read much historic fiction, and certainly not a book (apparently) aimed at female readers with a title containing the word “mistress!” However, I am glad I did. “Mistress” is a historically-accurate look at life in first-century Rome under the emperor Domitian, and about the flow of power, vengeance, and politics in that world, along with a generous helping of (very perverted) sex and gladiatorial violence. A fun read, and an interesting look into one of Rome’s lesser-known periods.

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
Tony Judt is one of the the most thoughtful historians with a keen eye towards recent history and political trends. He passed away in 2010, and this was his last book, which was adapted from a speech he gave to graduating college students. At once both a meditation on the current (degraded) state of affairs in the modern economic-deterministic American body politic as well as a stirring call to arms, “Ill Fares the Land” is at once both disturbing, wistful, and hopeful.

The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank Robinson
A starship sent from Earth has been wandering the galaxy for hundreds of years, searching for life. The captain is both immortal and mad, the ship is falling apart, and the protagonist seems to be suffering from severe amnesia, all the while someone (or something) seems to be trying to kill him, as he starts to unravel the secrets of the voyage. “Dark” contains some great action sequences, as well as a really interesting take on the evolution of shipboard culture and mores over hundreds of years that propel the story forward.

Lonely Planets by David Grinspoon
“Lonely Planets” is a great survey of all aspects of extraterrestrial life. One of the most unique aspects of this book is that Grinspoon includes a history of SETI going back hundreds of year – surprisingly, a lot of philosophers and scientist going back centuries were open to the idea of ET and actively speculated what form he might take. Grinspoon covers the modern SETI program, technologies and findings, and then goes into details with some speculation on what real alien life might be like and why we haven’t yet found it. This is probably the best overall book on this subject I have read.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds manages to do “it” again – “it” being a novel that has a relatively mind-blowing “big idea” as well as some great character development and old-fashioned action sequences that are something right out of a blockbuster movie. The “big idea” is that at some point in the distant past, something changed the nature of reality on Earth, splitting the world into various zones, each one having different physical laws. In some zones life is impossible, in other zones humans can survive but higher-energy processes don’t work, and so on. The story is about a man who is ‘drafted’ into an adventure crossing many zones to figure out the nature of the world, as well as save his city and friends from a terrible calamity.

Exodus: The Ark by Paul Chafe
“Ark” is the second book of a planned trilogy, and is far better then its predecessor (and luckily doesn’t require the reading fo the first book to enjoy this one). “Ark” is the story of life aboard a massive generational starship, and about a series of people. over thousands of years, who try to figure out the nature of their world and where they came from, and are going. The depiction of the ship itself is amazing (think something Rama-sized) and both the culture of the residents and the mechanics of the ship itself are presented in a very plausible manner weaved into a great adventure.

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