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Mike’s favorite books of 2013

December 6th, 2013 Comments off

Following the tradition I started in 2009, and continued in 2010, 2011 and 2012 I present my annual list of my favorite books I read during the past year. As always, the lists tends towards history, science, and speculative fiction, but hey, it’s my list, so without further ado, and in no particular order…

The Abominable: A Novel by Dan Simmons

This novel starts out slow, and turns into an absolutely intense fight for survival in a harsh environment with stakes as high as they get. The attention to historic detail and the minutiae of 1920s mountain-climbing tech is fascinating.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Bryson could write about watching grass grow and it would be fun. He has much more interesting material here, chronicling one summer in American life, using as his hook Lindbergh’s famous flight. A remarkable look at pop-culture history.

On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

The best writer in science fiction today hits another out of the park with “Steel Breeze,” a story that combines a fight for survival on a massive generational starship, an encounter with a mysterious alien machine intelligence, and the politics of a world where human nature has been changed (or has it?) due to the influence of advanced software.

Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma

A refreshing and entirely new take on World War II, focusing not on the fighting itself, but what happened during the first year after. Of particular note, the author covers the entire world, Asia and Europe, focusing on the themes of vengeance, re-establishment of the rule of law, and the politics and implementation of the occupations.

Doctor Sleep: A Novel by Stephen King

The sequel to “Shining” is much less ‘horror’ then the original (although some old friends do make appearances) and more meditative. This is King, though, and he doesn’t skimp on the plot development or strong characters. A fun read with color villains and great heroes.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) digs into one of the biggest secrets of the atomic age: namely that our weapons were stored and controlled with less attention to security and detail then the average person’s LinkedIn password. An essential history of how we managed these weapons is told through the story of a near-disaster in an Arkansas silo where a nuclear weapon came close to accidental detonation on American soil.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

A teenage boy wakes up alone in a world that is empty and decayed, with no memory of how he got there. This is the hook for a mystery that extends very deeply into the nature of reality, linked to traumatic events in the boy’s family past as he discovers who he is. One of the most unique and fresh takes on this genre in years.

Odds Against Tomorrow: A Novel by Nathaniel Rich

Cross Nate Silver with Rick Grimes, and you might have the protagonist in this literate post-apocalyptic novel. The protagonist is a conflicted math whiz who uses his predictive skill to make himself rich forecasting disasters for insurance companies and other wealthy clients, becoming numb to the world, until he and the woman he cares about experience an apocalypse he himself predicted.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner

Ostensibly the story of one of two drug-addled screwballs who managed an audacious hijacking in the early 1970s, Koerner’s book more broadly focuses on a history of the so-called “golden age” of hijacking, in the late 60s and early 70s, the age before metal detectors and when hijackers were generally non-violent. Both a history of the hijackers themselves and the story of how the system tried to respond, the book really brings alive that crazy, amazingly innocent (compared to now) era.

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

The premise is simple. The zombie apocalypse happens, and the only folks who are immune are meth addicts, and only if they remain addicted (sobriety means a quick death and turning into a zombie). A mix of delicious zombie gore and musings on the nature of society and addiction, this novel is both comic and touching.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George

Look around; almost everything in your home or office got there because it travelled on a giant boat from somewhere else. Author Rose George climbs aboard the merchant marine and through her journey throws some light upon this little-known but essential piece of our world’s infrastructure, covering shipboard life, pirates, cargo handling, the the experiences of sailors and captains as they keep the flow of world commerce going.

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt

War is horrible, but it has rules, right? How these rules developed is a little-known story, featuring a very well-known President. Mixing military history, legal theory, and politics, author Witt tells the story about how fallible men tried to make what is essentially an inhumane activity as “humane” as possible.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer

There are many histories of Elizabethan England, and most of them cover the the lives of the powerful, and a certain well-known playwright, but what was it like to actually live then? How would you go about daily life, what would actually make you laugh or cry, what might you do to fill your plate and where might you go to shit it out? This is history made real, and short of a time machine, the closest we’ll come to really feeling what it might be like to experience another time.

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

In recent years there has been a lot of hype about how technology will finally be able to solve various problems that have been plaguing humanity. While no luddite, Evgeny Morozov takes a much needed pin to these balloons of hot air, explaining that technology is not a panacea and by itself cannot fix problems that at their root are not solvable via purely technical means. Sharp and witty, but backed by real thought and depth, this is some of the best writing on this issue I have seen in years.

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

Using the little-known diary of a German executioner as its primary source, the lives of 16th century Germans and their notions of law and justice are examined. This book is fascinating, because for the vast gulf of time, and major changes in legal concepts and morality since then, the humanity of the titular executioner and the people he served have stayed surprisingly constant over time. History at its most interesting.

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark S. Weiner

There’s a fundamental difference between two different systems for organizing political life – tribal rule, and rule of law; the latter seems self-evidently much better, but there are strong pulls in human psychology towards the former. A fascinating look at the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, and how they can explain a lot of what we see in the world today; probably the best popular political philosophy book I’ve read in years.

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine

That the South lost the Civil War is obvious, but less obvious is the very specific ways that the Southern “system” was dismantled, socially and politically. Looking at both the debate in the North and the facts on the ground in the South, author Levine brings this turbulent era to life on both sides.

The Secret Lives of Sports Fans by Eric Simons

I am a pretty dedicated fan of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, and my euphoria when they win big and despair when they lose has always tickled my intellectual side – why do I feel this way, how does it affect me psychologically and socially, and is it similar to other “mass euphoria” like religion? This wonderful book demonstrates experimentally some of the deep truths about sports fandom and the inner lives of fans.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of the most entertaining science writes out there, and she doesn’t disappoint with this delightful trip down the digestive tract, from the mouth to the, uh, other end. It is rare to find an author who combines the childish fun of a fart joke with some interesting and genuine science, a real winner.

The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

A simple premise – the Earth starts rotating slower, the days start gradually getting longer. In “Age of Miracles” we see how this affects the world, through the eyes of a teenager girl with the usual joys and terrors of adolescence. The changes causes by the slowdown are well thought out and scary. Amongst the best speculative fiction novels I have read in a while.

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk

As someone who is quite sick of pop-evolutionary psychologists saying that we do X or Y because the “cavemen” evolved to do it, or that we should eat this or that for the same reason, this book is a breath of fresh air. Zuk uses real science to show us how evolution really worked on human beings and separates the paleo hype from scientific fact in an engaging and informative style.

Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley

Phone Phreaks were the original hackers, and their story has never been told with as much verve as here. Combining an interesting technical history of the phone system in America with the personal stories of some of the most colorful hackers who explored the system, this book takes us to a more innocent time. The cat and mouse tales practically leap off the page; a real celebration of the spirit of learning and exploring that marks true hacker culture.

The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse by Sam Sheridan

Zombies, meteors, bird flu, alien invasions or whatnot, what would it actually take to survive? Sam Sheridan explores this, taking on the role of an ordinary schlub who decides to learn all the skills of apocalyptic living, ranging from extreme driving, tactical weapons, food preparation, and combat first aid. This is a fun and interesting book, it’s not a boring survival manual – the author’s sense of humor comes through as he concocts ridiculous scenarios but then learns what real-world skills might come in handy.

The Reach of Rome by Alberto Angela

This might be considered the Roman equivalent of “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England” noted above; both books do an amazing job of really giving the reader a feel for life in the past. Where this book differs is that it covers the Roman world more broadly, following the movement of a coin around the Empire, touching on dozens of different people as they go about their lives. It reads like fiction, although everything in the book is based on actual archeology. An amazing trip through time; a day at the chariot races, a trip to a garum factory and a visit to a doctor’s office…real life in the Roman world from patricians down to slaves.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene

If psychology and philosophy had a baby, it would be this book. A great exploration of how humans make moral decisions and how these decisions inform our political and social choices, Greene ends up with a full-throated defense of a form of utilitarianism as the best way for groups of people with different moral views to live in peace.

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My favorite reads from 2012

December 23rd, 2012 1 comment

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.

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The rich are not like you and me…

January 2nd, 2012 Comments off

Pity The Billionaire by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank spends this book doing what he does best – analyzing why, in spite of historic trends which say otherwise – much of the politically active population of the United States espouses and defends policies and ideas which are contrary to their own best (economic) interests.

This is a restatement of Thomas’s thesis from “What’s the Matter With Kansas” with a focus on the political situation post-Great Recession. Like his earlier book, Thomas is puzzled why so many average Americans are seemingly choosing ideology over what actually benefits them economically. In this case, sympathy for billionaire bankers and their political supporters (couched in the rhetoric of defending capitalism and free enterprise) over policies – such as economic and health care reforms – which might actually benefit middle class folks directly.

I approach politics from a liberal viewpoint, but Thomas seems to fall into the same bit of blindness that affected “Kansas” – namely, he is shocked to see a group of Americans hewing to ideology over their own material self-interest. At least it is shocking and dismaying when these folks are middle-class Americans from the flyover states. This shouldn’t be surprising. Ever since the late 1960s and the rise of the modern political environment, large swaths of Americans focus more on ideology over their own self-interest – liberals and conservatives (how many wealthy Manhattanites voted for Obama in 2008 even though his proposed policies might have hit them in the pocketbook?)

Nonetheless, Thomas has written a fairly incisive book, and one which is rather depressing, if only as a catalog of the myriad of ways that a more imaginative or energetic Democratic party or President could have responded to the crisis. In the end, the President ceded the ideological battleground to his opponents, and like French generals in World War II, seemed most interested in negotiating his own defeat rather then using imagination (and the significant resources still at hand) to try to actually win.

Thomas’s book is a depressing reminder of the state of American politics today, and a fair look at the Tea Party and other forces (including a great side-trip into the depths of Ayn Rand’s oeuvre) who have been driving the debate in the country the past two years. He tells it like it is, and depressed liberals (as well as triumphant conservatives who aren’t afraid to read a book by someone on the left) will be both enraged and enlightened.

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

December 7th, 2011 Comments off

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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My favorite end-of-the-world books

May 20th, 2011 2 comments

As we all know, the world is coming to an end tomorrow (and if you’re reading this after May 21, then you obviously weren’t good enough to make the Rapture), so why not kick back and spend the last few hours on the earth reading a good post-apocalyptic disaster novel? I’m a fan of the genre, and these are a few of my favorites, organizaed by the means to mankind’s demise….

Water
Flood and Ark by Stephen Baxter.

Water wells up from below the oceans, inundating the world.


Plague
The Stand by Stephen King

Bio-engineered flu wips out humanity.


Nanotechnology
Blood Music by Greg Bear

The original “grey goo” novel.


Earthquake
The Rift by Walter Williams

The Big One hits – at the New Madrid fault, tearing America in two.


Meteor
Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Purnelle

Big meteor. Bigger bang.


Nuclear War
The Last Ship

There are tons of great post-nuke books, but this unique one, from the perspective of a Navy ship at sea, is an underrated gem.


Aliens
Out of the Dark by David Weber

A nice solid, fun alien invasion set in the Internet era.


Zombies
World War Z by Max Brooks

Hungry zombies. Lots of guns.


Peak Oil
World Made by Hand by James Kunstler

Life in small town after a sudden decline in the world’s oil


Economic Collapse
Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

There’s nothing Great about this Depression, but the book is stunning.


Magic
Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

The laws of physics change with devastating consequences to civilization


Infertility
Children of Men by P. D. James

No more babies.


Evolution
Evolution by Stephen Baxter

Life evolves. Humans do not (at least not anything like what we would expect). And yeah, Baxter’s on here twice. He’s that good.


Supernova
Aftermath by Charles Sheffield

When a nearby star goes supernova, things do not look good for little old Earth

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A soft apocalypse is a hard read

May 5th, 2011 Comments off

Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse” is one of the most emotionally intense and harrowing books I have read in several years. Set in the near future, it is the story of one man, and his friends, as they live through the terminal decline of our modern civilization.

“Soft Apocalypse” is refreshingly different then most “end of the world” genre books – you see, this book is about you. Yes, you. You are no action hero. You don’t know how to grow your own food, and you probably aren’t a crack shot. If you were in a zombie movie, your brains would be in the digestive tract of the walking dead. This book’s author’s protagonists are all ordinary people like you and I, not action heroes.

Throughout the entire book, the protagonist, Jasper, deals with life as society slowly crumbles. He doesn’t have any grand plan, he just muddles by, unheroically, with a circle or friends, as things gradually decay. The book takes place over a decade, and through the slings and arrows of Jasper’s daily life, you get a real sense of what it is like to live through the gradual decay of civilization. If most fictional ends of the world are the sharp bite of a cobra, this one is the slow, long suffocation of a constrictor.

Our story opens with Jaspar and friends living as travelling nomads a few years after a major depression has led to 40% unemployment. While things are bad, modern life is still holding up. The power’s on, you can still find Oreos at the grocery store, and a text message is still the fastest way to stay in touch with friends. Yet, the middle class has declined, the armies of the poor are vast, and the rich live in secure privately-guarded enclaves while ostensible public servants such as the police do nothing to prevent or try to stop crime. In many ways, it is America as a third world country.

As the years pass, Jasper settles into a modicum of stability as a convenience store manager, moving in and out of various social circles consisting of old and new friends, as the world around him continues to crumble. The economy just doesn’t improve. A nihilistic tribal-ish terrorist movement called the Jumpy Jumps spreads random dadaesque violence. Strange new diseases and genetically engineered destruction accelerate the decay of both the natural and man-made environment.

There are so many fascinating and well-written vignettes here – a bowling alley during a power outage, a trip to a virtual reality speed dating service, a flash rock concert, an abandoned carnival, canine-powered taxis, browsing an abandoned bookstore, and even (a bit too sterotypical) an emergency surgery via cell phonel.

This is a challengingly violent book – brutal rapes, torture, violence against people and animals – that are frankly disturbing and in many ways reminiscent of accounts I have read from World War II. In one scene, paramilitaries are executing citizens, and Jasper spots a fondly-remembered teacher about to be shot, and all he can do is look away while the man begs for help. Even a riot which destroys a Wal-Mart is rendered in a way that is less about economic despair and more about pure nihilism. Many of the scenes of destruction are more heart-rending then other books’ nuclear wars, perhaps because those are massive, while this book is, in many ways, very intimate. As ugly as the violence is, it is never gratuitous or celebrated, and is presented as a necessary part of the plot.

There is despair in “Soft Apocalypse” – the book in many ways seems the fictional representation of the famous poem by Yeats – the center definitely cannot hold, and a bevy of antagonists tear down society while decent people – including our protagonist, can’t do much other then survive the best they can as the rudiments of civilizations gradually seep away. The book’s strength is the author’s exposition of Jasper’s essential humanity, even after he sees everything he has cared about fall away and is forced, in the end, into making a terrible choice. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road , there is no happy ending, but like “The Road” the “Soft Apocalypse” is at its best when exploring the human condition, and how humanity can exist even in the most terrible conditions.

“Soft Apocalypse” is not a fun read, but is a very good book, and has provoked hours of thought and reflection, even after I was finished. It also kept me up at night, and it has been a while since any book was able to do that.

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Review: Across the Universe

January 9th, 2011 Comments off

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

“Across the Universe” is an excellent, fairly fresh take on the generational starship theme written for teenage/young adult readers. The basic themes are familiar – a passenger in hibernation is unexpected woken up, the cloistered society of the ship has gotten really weird over hundreds of years, and a tyrannical leader rules with an iron fist (and some help from genetic engineering and drugs). However, the author deftly blends these themes together, creating believable, sympathetic characters living in an environment that is weird enough that you wonder how things really work. The story itself is fairly straightforward, told from the alternating perspectives of the two protagonists – the teenage girl unexpectedly awoken, and the son of the ship’s absolute leader.

As both protagonists discover more and more about the truth of the situation on the ship, they are faced with a bit of a murder mystery as well as threats from both the ship’s dictator, Eldest, and the various forces that are keeping most of the people living on the ship in a state of almost animal-like somnolence. For those who like the science in their sci-fi, the author is quite believable, creating a realistic shipwide ecosystem, as well as not forgetting small touches, like the fact that the accents of the people living aboard would have gradually changed over hundreds of years to be difficult for a newly-awaked person to understand.

This isn’t merely lightweight teenage reading. The author imbues even the dictator Eldest with humanity and you can really appreciate the reasons he made the choices he did, even if in the end you will probably not agree with them. No one-dimensional villains here. There’s a small amount of PG-rated romance between the protagonists, but also a few scenes of slightly less mild sexual and physical violence, but nothing outside of the scope of similar books. “Across the Universe” will appeal to both fans of dystopian young-adult literature (readers of the Hunger Games trilogy and the Uglies will likely enjoy “Across the Universe”) as well as anyone who enjoys science fiction or dystopian novels.

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21 for 2010: The best books I read during 2010

December 25th, 2010 Comments off

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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Looking for some summer reading bargains?

June 3rd, 2010 Comments off

Last fall, on my old blog, I posted a review of what were my favorite books of the year..

Now that it is six months later, a bunch of these are now available in paperback, and most of the hardcovers are now available at remainder or bargain prices.

So, if you are looking for a good read this summer, you might check some of these out (and don’t worry, I am already working on the 2010 list!)

First are the ten new books I enjoyed reading the most in 2009. I am not going to say these are the “best” books of that 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 read last 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.

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The glass is half full – but of what?

May 31st, 2010 Comments off

We’re in a recession, oil is gushing uncontrollably into the ocean with humans helpless to stop it, North and South Korea are on the brink of war, the Middle East is near boiling, the US is mired in two intractable wars, and the ending to “Lost” was thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Perfect timing for me to start reading Matt Ridley’s newest book “The Rational Optimist”, don’t you think?

The subtitle is “How Prosperity Evolves” – so I have a good idea what Ridley’s thesis will be. I generally much prefer doom-and-glood books, but I like having my preconceived ideas challenged, and I really liked Ridley’s earlier books on evolution and the human genome, so I am actually quite looking forward to the new book….because let’s face it, the way the world is going, I need some sunshine and unicorns right now.

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