Books I read in 2014

Some of them, anyway, and in no particular order.  A couple others I’ve talked about previously.

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 KingsThis 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.

The best books I read in 2013

I don’t read anywhere near as much as I’d like to.  Here’s a brief list, more or less in order, of my favorites from 2013, most of which came out in earlier years.

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (audiobook) — A wonderful mixture of science, sociology, and human interest, beautifully narrated.
  2. Pride and Prejudice (e-book) — Filling a gap in my education here.  I probably would have enjoyed it better in a print version, but it was wonderful nevertheless.
  3. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (audiobook) — David Sedaris has turned himself into a national treasure.  His essays are funny on their own, but even better when he reads them.
  4. Olive Kitteridge (print book) — How come no one told me about this novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago?  It suffers a bit from being a series of interconnected short stories (like Winesburg, Ohio) rather than a true novel, but it’s still moving and beautifully written.  On the other hand, I tried listening to Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, The Burgess Boys, and gave up on it for various reasons.
  5. Lawrence in Arabia (audiobook) — A long, engrossing look at the Middle East during World War I.  (It helps that I have a kid living over there now, in a country that didn’t exist back then.)  I should have read it rather than listened to it, since I wanted to study maps, see photos of the characters, etc.
  6. The Particle at the End of the Universe (print book) — I cannot understand physics, but I like to try.  Sean Carroll is a very engaging writer who really understands stuff like the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs Boson, to the point where I could delude myself into thinking this stuff finally made sense.
  7. The Signal and the Noise (audiobook) — I love Nate Silver’s 538 blog, and this book was pretty good too — a look at how prediction works (and doesn’t work) in various fields.  Again, I should have read it rather than listened to it — there were too many graphs I wanted to look at rather than have the narrator describe them to me.
  8. Telegraph Avenue (e-book) — Not Michael Chabon’s best novel, but still very enjoyable.
  9. Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story (e-book) — For some reason I’m interest in why the world exists.  I enjoyed this book a lot, although it also annoyed me a lot.  Here is my moderately clever review written with the limited vocabulary of Up Goer Five.
  10. The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix (print book) — Filling another gap in my education.  The annotations and illustrations added considerably to my enjoyment of what by now is a familiar story.  On its own, Watson’s narrative wasn’t as interesting as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Other books I enjoyed: Lee Child’s One Shot and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.  I most emphatically did not enjoy Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.(including the parts supposedly written by Shakespeare) or Lee Child’s A Wanted Man. Neither Kyd nor Child (hmm, that’s an odd juxtaposition) will care.