A few years ago, after too many instances of starting a book and then realizing that I’d read it before, I began to keep a list of the books I’ve read, making a brief note in it each time I finish something. The list makes it easy to look back on what I’ve read in the past year. Today, on New Year’s Eve, I’ll write a quick post on my favorites of 2015. It doesn’t really fit in with the general themes of the blog, though there is a bit of science in it, and some thoughts on randomness.
Out of 21 books, it’s surprisingly easy to pick my favorite for this year: Your Republic Is Calling You by Young-Ha Kim (2010). It’s a novel about a North Korean spy, living a normal life for many years in South Korea, who is suddenly called back to the North. It gets a surprisingly low average rating on Goodreads (3.5/5.0), perhaps because most people want their spy novels to be action-packed and thrilling. This one is not. Rather, what’s striking about it is its depiction of a possibly sudden end to an ordinary life. Plus, its scenes of North Korea are fascinating and chilling, like seemingly everything about North Korea.
City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate (2006). A modern noir with a Ugandan-Indian-British private eye, investigating a political murder. It’s funny, clever, and fast, though it becomes annoyingly implausible in its last quarter.
Serious Men by Manu Joseph (2010). I don’t often read fiction about science because (i) there isn’t much of it, (ii) it’s often bad, and (iii) I spend enough time thinking about science. I picked this one, though, because it’s Indian and because the cover is neat (see below). It’s a cynical and funny novel about scientists, social dynamics, and more. Its characters are too caricature-ish to take the top spot, but it was nonetheless enjoyable. Its depiction of the culture of science, especially “big” science, are remarkably good, and free of the stilted and artificial characterizations of how science works that one usually finds. I noted these lines, which I particularly like: “… he stared at the ancient black sofa. Its leather was tired and creased. There was a gentle depression in the seat as though a small invisible man had been waiting there forever to meet Acharya and show him the physics of invisibility.”
These three books have something in common: I picked them all by randomly browsing the bookshelves at the University library! (There’s an excellent “popular reading” section that I like to look at.) I hadn’t heard of any of them before, or searched for them, or had an algorithm from Amazon recommend them to me. There’s a lot to be said, I think, for random discovery, especially if one wants to find things one didn’t know existed, rather than refinements of things one already knows.
My favorite out of 13 non-fiction books is a very new one: The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, by Oliver Morton (2015). I read this in the past few weeks, mainly because I’m teaching Physics of Energy and the Environment this term — a course for non-science majors that I’ve taught before — and felt that its topic is one I should explore further. It’s a brilliant book about geoengineering: scenarios, methods, concerns, and more. It’s thoughtful, thorough, and beautifully written. I could write more, but I might turn this into its own blog post.
A very close second is Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert by William Langewiesche (1997), about the author’s travels starting from Algeria, south through the Sahara, and west to Mali. It has a wonderful and thoughtful mix of descriptions of the natural landscape and of the remarkable, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes dispiriting people and societies he encounters along the way. Science comes up in a few spots, both directly — there’s a charming section on Ralph Bagnold, a giant in the study of sand dunes — and indirectly, when the author is stranded amid ancient rock art that depicts the rich wildlife the Sahara used to contain, before it became a desert, a topic discussed by Morton as well.
If I were to travel back and visit my 2005 self, I would suggest that he note down books read with his kids, of which there are a lot of great ones, and which he has trouble remembering. (They aren’t on the present list.) Certainly some highlights of the past year were finishing the 42-book comic book version of the Indian epic, The Mahabharata, with my six-year-old. It’s not surprising that it’s such an enduring story — it’s fascinating, and full of ethical quandaries. There’s apparently a new prose retelling that gets good reviews.
We’ve also read a lot of Asterix comics (e.g.), which I never knew when I was a kid. They’re great. Perhaps as a result, my six year old has become very fond of ancient civilizations, Rome in particular. There are a lot of very good kids books on the topic, such as Rome: In Spectacular Cross-Section, which have been fun to read.
Almost all of my wife’s and my movie watching is via Netflix, whose selection (on physical DVDs) is thankfully vast. The best movie seen this year, out of 16, is the appropriately titled “We Are the Best!” (2013), about a trio of 13-year old girls in Sweden who form a punk band. It’s charming, funny, clever, and uplifting without being at all sappy.
Runners up: All is Lost (2013), An Education (2008), Nobody Else But You (2011). The last of these is perhaps the strangest of the three, a French mystery about a dead small-town starlet whose life mirrored that of Marilyn Monroe.
I can’t think of any deep insights to convey about these movies, or anything that touches on biophysics or science or anything else I usually write about. I should, I suppose, note that none of these movies were found by random browsing, but rather made use of Netflix’s recommendation algorithm. Make of that what you will…
Overall, it was a great year for both books and movies, revealing many new worlds that I wouldn’t have otherwise imagined. We’ll see what 2016 brings.
Happy New Year!