Up here above the 42nd parallel the weather is such that I’m staying inside and reading more, and you might also plan to spend extra time indoors in the next few weeks. Or months. So in case you wondered, here are the best books-without-many-pictures I read in 2011, complete with my brief notes to myself about them. They’re in no particular order; they’re all good and some are even better than that. I hope you find something here that you like!
Stuff of Thought
Full of interesting ideas, examples, and facts, but I didn’t understand the throughline and don’t think it held together as a complete thesis. Maybe it wasn’t intended to, and maybe it’s an affect of it being an audio book, so I may need to read this again. It was certainly more fun than I anticipated.
Excellent, as usual, though I got a little tired of corpses. I read it while eating, mostly, though, so that might contribute to that feeling. It’s her first book, and you can see her style and sense of humor develop and mature through the course of it.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
The best book about food, in all its aspects, that I expect I will ever read. Well written, researched, and lived. In the top five I read all year.
Though too fond of trying to coin new words, this is a good book about how math and numbers (not just statistics) are misused, particularly by politicians. His bias is clearly against the conservatives, but I didn’t mind that. He’s particularly harsh on Scalia.
The Making of the The President 1960
White, Theodore H.
The writing, and some of the ideas and attitudes, is dated. But this is still much more fascinating than I thought it would be, and the chapter on television and Kennedy’s speech on religion are classics.
Sleights of Mind
Macknik, Stephen; Martinez-Conde, Susana
The neuroscience of magic. Entertaining and light, but also interesting. It inspired me to want to learn more about magic.
Detailed and interesting (though narcissistic and disjointed as well) account of the Phoenix mission to Mars. If anyone needed convincing that doing science via robot is hard, this would do it. The 90 (Martian) day mission could have been done in about 10 minutes by a human. It’s a tough job. The description of NASA’s weak P.R. ability is probably the most telling, and damning, thing about the book.
Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout
Beautiful book — it might be a graphic novel, but it probably isn’t. Regardless, from font to the texture of the cover it’s terrific.
The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter
Davies, Russell T.; Cook, Benjamin
Writing successful TV clearly requires a great deal of ego, but there’s a great deal of insight into creativity (and work ethic) in the book as well. If nothing else, it prompted me to watch Dr. Who, which is a feat.
How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
Crisp and entertaining and informative. It even has some skullduggery and suspense and some educational and confessional parts to. All in all, excellent. And…sorry Pluto! (And Xena, etc.)
Krauss, Lawrence M.
The best introduction to Feynman’s technical achievements I’ve read. I need to read it again (and again).
Excellent book on the natural history, uses, and evolution of feathers. Feynman is up against this in the SB&F awards, and if it loses I won’t feel bad. Well, not too bad, anyway.
Austin, Dan; Doerr, Sean
Amazing stories of the ruins of the city, and the photographs are even better. “Death is the mother of beauty,” as Wallace Stevens said. Just wish there was less architectural death in the Motor City.
The Summer Book
Quiet and lovely; I can’t figure out why the father says only the one line and it’s that one, but that’s the only odd note in an unwonderful way. The rest of the notes are wonderful.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Shaffer, Mary Ann; Barrows, Annie
Better than its title by a long, long stretch. Nothing shocking, or even mildly surprising, but a pleasing story, well told.
The Final Solution
A fine novella about an unnamed, late in years, Sherlock Holmes. Rich writing.
Unsparing, and wonderfully written. It won’t make you feel good, but it will make you believe in all of its characters, no matter how briefly they appear.
Spare and excellent. It was hard to get the movie images out of my mind, but the movie was so faithful and well-acted that it wasn’t a problem. An excellent book.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Concise and harsh.
The Windup Girl
Terrific near (?…hope not!) future science fiction with fully realized characters, settings, conflicts. Genetic engineering gone awry, and our messing with the world’s seedstock comes home to roost. Really really good.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Innovative and well done sf, playing with the genre in literary terms reminiscent of Never Let Me Go, though by no means as dark or dour. Excellent.
Banks, Iain M.
Huge ideas here, and well developed (see e.g. Stephenson’s latest). It felt long, but I started to feel immersed and interested before I got frustrated with the apparent digressions and slow speed. Which was on purpose, I’m sure, given the presence of the Dwellers. A good Culture novel, so thanks to Gina and Leland M. for recommending it.
The God Engines
A lot of story packed into a few words. Terrific atmosphere of horror and failure. One of his best, I think.
Dead End in Norvelt
A fun book to read on a summer’s day. (And that’s what I did.)
The Implosion of Aggie Winchester
A page-turner. Teen melodrama, and not meant for my demographic, but I enjoyed it.
Makes the case that he’s the best pitcher ever, and from the other things I’ve read it’s probably true. It certainly makes me wish I’d seen him play.
56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports
Provides a glimpse at the setting and context (personal, local, and international) of the hitting streak. As often is the case, I find myself doubting some of the interior dialogue/thinking Kennedy attributes to the various main characters, but they do enrich the texture and mood. The asides as they relate to modern thinking, e.g. about the statistical likelihood of streaks like this happening, are good.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
More somber than I expected, but still laugh out loud funny often. Read by him is the only way to go, so…