It’s that time of year, bibliophiles – my list of the best books I have read during the past year. In case you are curious, here are my lists from 2011, 2010, and 2009.
Anyway, onward to 2013, and here’s this year’s list…
It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
This is the best book I have read concerning why government in this country is so messed up. The authors have devoted their entire lives studying Congress and they refreshingly call out the current Republican Party’s shenanigans as the main reason the institution is so dysfunctional – all the more searing because these are not liberals or Democrats but rather conservatives writing the book.
Bowl of Heaven by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
I have always loved “big dumb object” sci-fi, the genre where explorers come across a large, mysterious object and explore it (the most famous literary example is Arthur C. Clark’s “Rendezvous with Rama”). “Bowl” is a fresh take on the genre, with a human hibernation ship comes across a massive alien construct that harnesses an entire star as its drive system. Amazing concept of a habitat the size of a solar system and some truly alien intelligences mixed with old-fashioned sci-fi adventure and a sense of wonder. The first of a planned trilogy.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
Why do we use forks int he West while the Chinese use chopsticks? How did the butter knife evolve? What’s with all the ridiculous ways we measure things in cooking? How did the oven evolve? If questions like these interest you, you will find “Consider the Fork” fascinating. A great, accessible cultural history of various aspects of cooking and kitchens.
The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body by Frances Ashcroft
Usually when electricity comes in contact with the body, bad things happen, but of course electricity is also necessary for life. Ashcroft explores how electricity works in the human body, and how various processes keeps us alive, and enable us to move, sense, and think. A fascinating exploration of the chemical basis of life – and what can happen when things go wrong.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
This would have been a great book even if Silver would have blown his election predictions, but the fact he was nearly perfect only enhances his reputation, and in his first book, Silver covers the nature of predictions, and how forecasting works across a variety of fields. The book is less about “how to predict” then how to think about concept of predictions and probability, and is just fascinating, thoughtful, and very well-written.
The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
On one level, “The Last Policeman” is a well-done police procedural. However, it is much more, as the particular murder the protagonist is trying to solve has occurred against the backdrop of a massive asteroid that is only months away from ending human civilization. This presents a new sub-genre in the otherwise-tired pile of post-apocalyptic novels: the pre-apocalypse, and the thoughtful consideration about how our society would change with the end of the world months away is intriguing, and the dogged detective trying to solve a murder when the entire world is about to be ended is touching and haunting.
Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger by Harvey Molotch
Security is always in the news, whether the lastest TSA outrage or another tragic shooting spree. Sadly, the usual way our society reacts to security issues is the way an over-stimulated immune system reacts to peanut particles and pollen – with an “allergic” reaction that usually ends up worse then the original problem. Moloch talks about how security works, and how real security is actually accomplished, focusing both on the obvious areas (airports) and places people don’t think about (bathrooms). This book is must reading for any American concerned with how we react to security threats.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This is the list of best book I have read in 2012, and so “Cloud Atlas” is included even though it came out in 2004. “Cloud Atlas” is a humane big-concept exploration of the human condition across time and space, and the storytelling method, with six stories wrapped in each other, layered like a Russian nesting doll, is both daring and well thought-out, and is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read.
Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David Randall
We all sleep. We all have had problems sleeping. If we’re lucky, occasional mild insomnia, but for some people, it gets a lot worse, none more so then a man who (apparently) murdered his wife while sleepwalking. “Dreamland” explores the physiology of sleep, what is it for, and what kind of crazy things can happen there, including chapters and dreams, sleepwalking, and more, written in a breezy style.
Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
A terrible disease, spread by mindless biters that has terrified humanity – it’s not the zombie apocalypse, but rabies, and this dread disease has been part of human culture through recorded history, oftentimes turning our most beloved companions into vicious killers. The history of rabies is surprisingly fascinating, giving rise to legends like werewolves, and one of history’s greatest scientific triumphs, the creating of an effective vaccine. Wasik and Murphy tell a great story, best read while curled up next to your dog, of course.
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
“Last Hundred Days” is a (historical) novel about an English academic who is mysteriously granted a position as a lecturer in a Romanian university during the last days of the Ceaușescu regime. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the protagonist is drawn into a vibrant and chaotic world of government officials, spies, dissidents and assorted hangers-on – not everyone being who they appear to be – all the while the regime and society slowly collapse around him, putting the lives of himself and those he cares about at risk.
X-Events: The Collapse of Everything by John Casti
The title doesn’t do this book justice, making it sound like a catalog of disaster or porn for survivalists. “X Events” is neither, but rather an examination of the systems that make both our natural and man-made worlds work, and the various way in which they may collapse. Carefully considering the various possibilities, the author not only describes the various disaster, but talks about the natural of systems, and how the various levels of complexity of (man-made systems) can make them more or less liable to fail.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King
“Wind” is a book that is an absolute must for fans of Stephen King and the “Dark Tower” series, but even for a newbie, it can be successfully enjoyed as a standalone novel about a boy’s adventure in a fantastical world. In effect two complete stories nested together, “Wind” is fundamentally about a boy learning courage and overcoming doubt while going on a quest. It works.
The Drowned Cities by Paulo Bacigalupi
“Drowned Cities” is more then it seems on the surface. At its most basic level, it is the story of pre-teens struggling to survive in a future Washington, D.C. that has been flooded due to rising sea levels and is fought over by rival militia groups. This adventure story, filled with action and unforgettable scenes, works well enough simply at that level, but on a deeper level, this is a thoughtful book on the nature of war, on human nature, love, and what makes people do horrible things. As a meditation on violence, the book is very memorable, and imagining the horrible, hopeless world of child soldiers, drugs, and despair that exists in places like the Congo transported into what was America leaves an image on the mind that I will not soon forget.
Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter
A straightforward, revelatory telling of the story of Lawrence vs Texas, the Supreme Court case that overturned Bowers vs Hardwick and struck down anti-gay “sodomy” laws in America. Carpenter covers the case from the beginning to the end, including interviewing the original participants in the arrest that triggered the case – the police and those at the scene of the “crime” – followed by the case’s amazing journey, against numerous obstacles both legal and procedural, to actual make it to the Court. Both a gripping legal story, and the tale about how real people made fundamental change in America, this book could not be more timely given the current marriage equality cases that are before the Supreme Court
The Fear Index by Robert Harris
“Fear Index” is the one guilty pleasure on this list, a fun, smart thriller about a ‘quant’ – a computer-driven stock trader and mathematical genius who has built an intelligent system that ends up being a bit too smart. A thrilling, cautionary retelling of the Frankenstein tale for our time.
That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz
Why is “X” gross (poop, rotting food, an ugly person, etc)? It seems obvious, it just is. In the best tradition of popular science writing, Herz explores the actual mechanisms that drive disgust in humans, and what evolutionary pressures might have generated them. What kinds of disgust are inborn, and what have to be learned? Are there cultural difference? A fascinating, well-written, fun – and gross – book.
The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson
North Korea is a fascinating country, being that it is the last totalitarian communist state on the planet, and mixes oppression with a cult of personality very alien to Americans. “The Orphan Master’s Son” is a story about life in North Korea, specifically the life of one individual, who rises, falls, and rises again to different stations in North Korean life, eventually ending up as apparently a famed general who can challenge the Dear Leader himself. A story of love, violence, and absurdity of life in a dictatorship, told with verve, a sense of adventure, and compassion, and quite possibly the best book I read in 2012.
The End of War by John Horgan
This is a very short book, essentially a long essay on war. Specifically, and optimistically, war as something that is not endemic to humanity and something that can be cured, like a disease. Whether you believe war is inevitable to the human condition or not, Horgan’s book is worth a read for being a clear, concise and well-argued polemic that we do not have to live with war and violence as the price of being human.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter
Technically an alternative history, “Impeachment” posits a world where Lincoln survived the assassination attempt only to run aground in a whirl of partisan post-war acrimony, ending in an impeachment trial. Carter’s very well-researched novel puts the reader in the middle of the swirl of life in Washington, with rumors of conspiracy mixing with the courtroom drama of the actual impeachment trial in the Senate. As Lincoln’s defense, rallies, powerful enemies try to bring him down. The ostensible protagonist, a female black legal clerk, has deep connections to the issues at hand that could save Lincoln, or bury him.