This year, for the first time since I began in 2011, I met my 50 book challenge! Usually I write a short review of what I’ve read on Facebook and recommend things to friends I think will like them. Since there are too many books for that this year, I’m parceling them out into five-book-blog-posts a couple of times a week.
So, without further ado:
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed | Jared Diamond
I was pumped to read this book as research for a pre/mid-apocalyptic writing project I was working on, and while it had some interesting ideas and a number of very interesting anecdotes, I can’t really recommend it. Around halfway through, I became somewhat exhausted by the writer’s agenda. (This is often the problem with non-fiction: theses without enough interesting, relevant supporting evidence or arguments to fill a whole book.)
It is noble to want to create momentum around climate change, but this was starting to feel disingenuous, borderline intellectually dishonest toward the end. Turns out, I learned, my feelings were not unfounded: many experts in sociology and related fields find Diamond’s work wanting. In particular, his characterization of what happened to the native population of Easter Island is completely misleading. The upside is that I learned my lesson about pop nonfiction, and steered away from reading other books (like Malcolm Gladwell’s) that, in attempting to simplify complicated ideas, distort them.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat | Oliver Sacks
I’d read pieces of this in various psychology classes in college and deeply enjoyed both the content and Sacks’s writing style. I’m so, so glad I finished it all these years later, because it exceeded my expectations by far. There are a couple of mildly patronizing and problematic moments, but overall, it’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s easy to find human interest stories about all the quirky ways brains can fail and the ensuing results, buts Sacks’s reflections about what that means our humanity are inspiring without being trite. It deserves its place among the most beloved non-fiction titles around.
This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress | John Brockman
Another surprise hit for me! I heard about the book on Freakonomics and was continually impressed with how thought provoking and insightful the essays were. There was the odd dud, but I learned so much that it didn’t matter. It turned me into one of those people who couldn’t stop bringing up trivia from the book in conversation.(Did you know testing medicine meant for humans on rats is nearly useless and we basically only do it because it’s convention?) I am tempted to buy a copy, since I’ve forgotten some of the essays and want to revisit them. Warning to anyone who wants to read it, the toughest, most esoteric essays are all at the beginning, so don’t get intimidated!
The Red Tent | Anita Diamant
An old recommendation from multiple friends, which I finally got to this year. This book is essentially Mists of Avalon but for the Bible. A lot simpler, and I think possibly more grim as it lacks the spirituality of Mists, but an plainly written, worthwhile read. Because there are some tedious moments at the top, I was taken aback by how emotional I became at the end. If you grew up in a Judeo-Christian household it might mean significantly more to you than it did to me. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the subversion of legend and its refusal to pull its punches.
The Cold Commands | Richard K. Morgan
As grimdark fantasy goes, I prefer Morgan’s style to a lot of others, but the plot of this series is difficult to follow. I love that one of the leads is a black lesbian warrior who is the last of her intellectually sophisticated race, left to advise a petty and short-sighted human king. I like the mix of sci-fi and fantasy. I am emotionally attached to Ringil and fiercely want him to be okay. Yet, I couldn’t now tell you how the story fits into the overarching fantasy-meets-aliens plot of the trilogy, which is a shame because it seems sophisticated and subversive.
(I saw a lot of criticism of his explicit sex scenes on the fantasy subreddit, and while they are graphic, I don’t find them juvenile or off-putting. They’re on the same tier as his descriptions of violence. Another prominent fantasy author also felt he wrote his gay sex scenes in an intentionally baiting, in-your-face style, which leads me to think the discomfort has more to do with the male-male sex than it does with the ‘luridness’ of his writing style.)