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The best 20 books I read in 2011 (and the worst)

December 7th, 2011

Last year I blogged about the 21 best books I read during the year. Unlike some other lists of this type, not all the books were published that year; most were, but it was a list of my favorite books. I am doing the same this year, 20 of the best piles of dead tree matter I came across, and one bonus pick of the worst for the late great 2011.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
My pick for best work of non-fiction for 2011
Pinker’s simple idea: violence – of all kinds, from bar fights to wars between nations – has declined throughout history and today it is lower then it ever has been. He backs his thesis up with extensive data and masterful research, presented with the precision of a scientist and the passion of a novelist. A fine, fascinating book.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My pick for best work of fiction for 2011
Set in a near-future where society is run down and most people spend their days in a virtual world, Cline’s debut novel tells the story of a young ‘hero’ who solves a series of puzzles, based on 1980s pop-culture geek nostalgia, to win control of a Willie Wonka-ish empire. A fast, fun, imaginative exercise in world-building which is a no-brainer bit of awesomeness for anyone who remotely considers themselves a geek, or who grew up in the late 20th century.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
This is one of King’s most ‘humane’ books in a long time. There’s almost no horror or supernatural elements; instead it is a bit of a real, honest-to-goodness love story, along with a bit of time-travelling action and even a tiny bit of science fiction. Probably his best full-length standalone novel since It.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson
Stephenson doesn’t do short, and “Reamde” is no exception at over 1000 pages. It is less science fiction and more a technothriller, and a very good one at that. WHat makes it great are all the Stephensonesque touches, such as long digressions into topics like MMORPG development. Some great, memorable characters, including a top-notch villain.

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
A personal, philosophical and psychological look at what the experience of combat is like, and ideas for how soldiers, commanders, political leaders, and civilians can better deal with the reality of war.

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick
A straightforward autobiography by one fo the best-known and most accomplished computer hackers that reads like a thriller.

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox
This book is another entry in the trend of history books covering some esoteric aspect of life, in this case, artificial light. Brox, uh, illuminates her subject with verve and, dare I say, makes us see things in a…new light?

Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith
A superb review of the biological, social and psychological reasons why human beings seem to to demonize other groups of humans. This isn’t just a survey of “bad things in history” but rather a look at the why of dehumanization, in all its different forms, and whether it can realistically be overcome.

Flashback by Dan Simmons
Simmons takes a step away from historic fiction and sci-fi opera to write a near-future political thriller/police procedural. In spite of positing some rather unlikely political development, Simmons does a really nice job with world-building, and creates an exciting, fast-moving story that really works.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
It’s the near future, and our robot servants become self-aware, and decide that there needs to be a change in who’s running things. The story is unoriginal, but the wit and graphic joy in which the author tells the various stories of individuals fighting the vast electronic hordes make this a damn fun read.

In Defense of Flogging by Peter Moskos
An extended philosophic essay on criminology specifically focusing on whether it would be a worthwhile reform to allow convicted criminals to optionally trade their sentence for a medically-supervised public flogging. The premise sounds bizarre, but it is less an end in itself and more the “hook” upon which to base a great discussion of the failure of the modern criminal justice and rehabilitation system in America.

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
A deeply-satisfying work of historic fiction, following the career of an archer in the English Army during the Hundred Years’ War. Richly detailed depictions of medieval life and warfare, a serviceable love story, knights, ladies, and even a lecherous priest make for a fun (and historically accurate) read.

How It Ends: From You to the Universe by Chris Impey
How does it end? A simple question leads to a great book about how everything ends, starting with your own mortal coil and leading to the heat death of the universe. In between the author is quick to weave scientific anecdotes about everything from how aging works to the odds of various cosmological disasters hitting Earth. Spoiler: we all die.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
I reviewed this in more detail earlier, but suffice to say, this harrowing and believable story of ordinary people trying to survive during the slow economic and ecological collapse of modern civilization is an instant classic in this genre.

The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel by James Howard Kunstler
And speaking of the apocalypse, peak oil cassandra Kunstler has written a great piece of PA fiction about the lives of some ordinary villagers living in upstate New Yorks after Peak Oil has ended national civilization. “Witch of Hebron” is actually a sequel which tops the original (“A World Made By Hand”) because unlike the original, the sequel is more about (fine) storytelling and less about ideological axe-grinding.

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield
It wouldn’t be the 150th anniversary of the Civil War without some great books on the conflict, and this is one of the best, telling what is essentially a moral history of the war, focusing on the cultural and social aspects (of both sides) and showing how the war really built modern America.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
This wide-ranging survey of the history of information, in all its forms, covers an impressive panoply of topics – biology, anthropology, physics, information theory, computer science, and mathematics. Anyone who is an informational omnivore – and if you are reading this list, you probably qualify – will probably really enjoy Gleick’s book.

The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick
Another “history of physics” book – there have been lots of these, but what make Dolnick’s book a bit different is both the freshness of his writing, and the focus on the intellectual and social world before, during, and after the age of discovery. He gets down and dirty describing day-to-day life in London during Newton’s era, and how the experience of daily life drove the mental state of the various scientists who travel through his pages.

Perilous Fight by Stephen Budiansky
A swashbuckling collection of nautical tales of derring-do, which have the added benefit of being both true and quite relevant to the history of our nation. We are approaching the 200th anniversary of this little-known war that gave our country its navy and national anthem (along with the burning desire to invade Canada!) and Budiansky’s book is a great (nonfiction) survey of the naval aspect of the war, told with the storytelling skill of a good work of fiction.

The March by E.L. Doctorow
A beautiful panoramic novel about Sherman’s March, told through the eyes of a cast of dozens of characters, ranging from Sherman himself, to slaves, Southerners, and everyone in between. All of humanity’s foibles, and glories are laid bare in this stunningly well-written novel.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The heartbreaking and heartwarming true stories of what life is like in one of the world’s most impenetrable nations. It is hard to comprehend the amount of suffering the subjects of this book underwent, all while keeping their humanity under harrowing conditions. The book is written beautifully and the storytelling does the subjects justice.

Caliphate by Tom Kratman
My pick for worst book I read in 2011
I picked up this turd of a book essentially for free when our local Borders went out of business, and sadly, I still paid too much for it. It is essentially Starship Troopers, with a fascist 22nd century American Empire as the good guys and the part of the bugs played by an Islamic Caliphate that has taken over all of the Middle East and Europe. The storytelling is hackneyed crap, filled with one-dimensional characters that make a 1930s comic book look like Wuthering Heights in comparison. The plot (involving the rescue of a Christian slave girl from lecherous Islamic masters while trying to stop a doomsday device) got lost beneath the continuous grinding of the author’s ideological axe – and unlike the excellent world-building and sharp plot of “Flashback” (see above) also written by an author with similar political leanings, “Caliphate” is just awful.

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