As in 2015, I’ll write a quick post about my favorite books and movies that I read or watched in 2016. Like last year, there’s (almost) nothing in this list relevant to the blog’s usual themes of science and academia — I’ve got two posts on grant writing and teaching half-written, though, so we’ll be back to regular programming fairly soon!
Of 28 novels, my three favorites are:
- The Round House by Louise Erdich (2012), a beautiful and rivetting book set on an Indian reservation about a teenage boy and the aftermath of a violent attack on his mother.
- Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes (2009), an excellent short novel, involving a mystery in a remote village in Ghana and its investigation, primarily by a British-educated forensic scientist. Some of it touches on the relationships between scientific and traditional worldviews, but much of it deals with the conflict between each of these “honest” perspectives and the evils of corruption.
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1997), a surreal novel about a seemingly unremarkable unemployed man, whose life intersects stories of WWII, and a bizarre and dream-like parallel world. It’s impressively irrational, in a magical sort of way. I had never read anything by Murakami before, which leads to the one motif that emerged from this year’s books…
… that the second book I read by an author is often very disappointing compared to the first. There are many reasons why this might be. First: it could be that the books are pretty similar, and what seemed refreshingly unique the first time seems stale the second. This year’s example: Sputnik Sweetheart by Murakami. Second: regression to the mean, in which one might have randomly picked an unusually good book of an author’s in the first selection, and a more representative one later. This year’s example: I randomly picked, because it had a nice cover, The Islanders by Pascal Garnier, a short, great, and stunningly dark novel, which I followed with two others which were similar, but which failed to match the first. (Of course, this may also be an instance of category 1; these aren’t mutually exclusive.) Third: the author writes a great first novel and can’t even come close with the second. This year’s example: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (2013), an unusually good sci-fi novel, with it’s truly awful sequel Ancillary Sword which, remarkably, I couldn’t even bring myself to finish.
I read less (non-work-related) non-fiction this year than last (6 books), of which the best was
- The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, on the innate properties of the mind, and the lack of a “blank slate.”
Notable, though not great, was:
- Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez (2016). It’s a gossipy memoir about life in Silicon Valley, by a tech start-up founder and later Facebook worker, who sometimes seems like he has depth and insight into the meaning, or lack thereof, of internet companies, but who more often seems like a shallow, unpleasant cad whose commentary I don’t trust. The author was a Physics Ph.D. similar in age to me, so “there but for the grace of God go I” was running through my mind when reading it. It’s a unique and interesting book, though; perhaps some time I’ll write more about it.
Graphic novels, comics
Of nine read this year, none are worth mentioning.
I continue not to note down books books read with the kids, and so have trouble remembering anything! To have a better understanding of my older son’s fondness for a gigantic series of books on warrior cats, I read Crookedstar’s Promise; it hasn’t stopped me from making fun of it.
Two favorites of the year (both via Netflix) were Bridge of Spies and Captain Phillips, both of which star Tom Hanks, and so this fits into this post’s theme of repetitions (except that both were good). Also of note, Rams, the best movie about sibling Icelandic sheep farmers that I’ve ever seen, and Kahaani, a fun Indian thriller.
In theaters, it was fun to see how much my older son (11) liked the Ramanujan biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity and my younger one (7) liked The Eagle Huntress, both of which were very good, though too formulaic in structure to be great. But, if you’re young, you haven’t gotten tired of the forumulas yet. Unlike us adults, who complain that the same author can’t consistently churn out novel books…
(Addendum: Jan. 1, 2017) Having just seen Rogue One, I think that if I’d seen it yesterday, I would have added it and Arrival to this best-of post, and been amazed that I’ve seen two really excellent science fiction movies this year.
…a peregrine falcon, which I drew from a page in The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds.