King Leopold’s Ghost — This harrowing book, about the Belgian colonization of the Congo, is depressing enough to make to make you swear off humanity once and for all.
The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind — Written decades ago, the author’s thesis still holds up pretty well, it seems to me. I read it as an ebook, and the OCR is pretty bad, though. It has a cameo role in my new novel, Where All the Ladders Start. See if you can spot it!
The Glory of the Kings — This is a novel by my cousin’s husband, Dan Close, and it’s really good. It’s about Ethiopia repelling an Italian invasion in 1896, and Dan’s affection for his characters and his deep understanding of the country (he served in the Peace Corps there) shine through on every page.
Someone — Alice McDermott’s novel is the kind I wish I could write but can’t — a series of vignettes from an ordinary life, scattered in time, that add up to way more than the sum of their parts.
All the Shah’s Men — This is the story of the US and British-led coup of the Iranian leader in 1953. If you want to know why so many people hate us in Iran, this is a good place to start. We have a lot to be sorry for, but the Iranians don’t come off looking very good either.
Our Mathematical Universe — Max Tegmark is an MIT professor with interesting ideas about multiverses. I’m incapable of judging the science behind his speculations, but he’s an engaging writer. Very useful background if you’re interested in writing alternative history novels set in a multiverse.
Inferno — This is a history of Word War 2 by Max Hastings. I’m not sure why I decided to listen to it, except I had this suspicion that I didn’t know much about the subject, and it turned out I was correct. Ask me anything about the Battle of the Bulge. OK, don’t do that. But at least I now have a clue about what the battle was all about.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — I remember being entranced by this novel when I was in high school Either I have a faulty memory, or I was one weird kid (probably both are true). The book is occasionally hilarious and charming, but eventually I found the endless digressions annoying, and I started skimming.
Echo Burning — I keep dipping into Lee Child’s oeuvre. This one is better than some of his later books, but as usual he goes to great lengths to justify why Jack Reacher has to go around killing everyone in sight.
The Demon under the Microscope — I had this suspicion that I didn’t know anything about the development of sulfa drugs in the 1930s, and it turned out I was correct. A very entertaining story about the discovery of the first antibiotics, and how they changed the world.
Salt — I also had this suspicion that I didn’t have a proper understanding of the role of salt in world history. Now I do, but I’m not sure I care. Listening to this book was a mistake; if I had read it, I would have skimmed long sections of it. Recipes don’t work well in audiobooks.
The Circle — This is David Eggers’ brave-new-worldy novel about modern social media and Facebooky corporations. I found it predictable and uninteresting, and finally I gave up on it.
Why Nations Fail — The authors have an explanation, which they hammer home relentlessly. It seemed pretty persuasive to me, but what do I know?
The Origins of Political Order — By Francis Fukuyama. More than I wanted to know about almost everything.