Review: Big Bang

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Big Bang: The Origin of the UniverseBig Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is right up there with my all-time favorite science book, Music of the Spheres. I wish I had read it sooner. I was only going to give it four stars because, honestly, I was a little let down to find out it was a generic run-down of the history of cosmology, from Ptolemy to COBE. I’ve read all about these stories many times and was hoping to read a more technical book on more recent discoveries. Alas, such a mixup was my own fault and should not count against Mr. Singh, who amazes once again with his extraordinarily clear prose and explanatory power. For anybody curious about what the (terribly named) Big Bang actually is, and how we know what we know about it, this is an excellent primer. Like many science writers, Singh does a good job, perhaps the best job of any, of pausing along the way to highlight the subtle importance of different aspects of a scientist’s discovery, and how it epitomizes the scientific process and why it works so well.

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Review: The Secrets of the Fire King

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The Secrets of a Fire KingThe Secrets of a Fire King by Kim Edwards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is exactly the kind of book I enjoy. It follows the tradition of other favorite collections like The Shell Collector and Ship Fever: Stories. Imagine the cleaning lady at Marie Curie’s laboratory, who at night marveled at the glass jars of faintly bluish glowing “dirt,” with mangled, cancerous hands on her deathbed from picking them up out of wonder and curiosity. Imagine a mother who, tired of her marriage and family, drinks seawater ravenously, to the detriment of her health, because she so misses the freedom of swimming alone in the ocean. I love these creative little windows into other worlds that short stories are so known for. But Edwards goes beyond the traditional formulaic short story and does what only the masters of the craft do: Presenting crisp, emotional, tragic lives with flowing literary prose. I am definitely putting her novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, on my list (though don’t I know I’ve read my fair share of mediocre novels by masterful short story authors).

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Review: How to Read Water

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How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea: Learn to Gauge Depth, Navigate, Forecast Weather, and Make Other Predictions with WaterHow to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea: Learn to Gauge Depth, Navigate, Forecast Weather, and Make Other Predictions with Water by Tristan Gooley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charming, whimsical read. I’m amazed how quickly I tore through this mini-tome. It works great as a reference book, dog-eared and highlighted on your shelf for those rare days when your newly intensified sense of observation kicks in and you notice something about the water you never have before. I will henceforth be more highly tuned to cats paws, dead wakes, refracted ripples, the direction of the prevailing wind, and the cardinal direction in which puddles form around paths and obstacles. Sadly, I don’t live on the water, though this book has encouraged me to spend more time on the lakes, streams, and rivers in my area. I might even dig a backyard pond!

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Review: Black Like Me

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Black Like MeBlack Like Me by John Howard Griffin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book blew me away. Reading it, I kept thinking “This is a gag, right? Surely this is some recent work of historical fiction, posing as journalism.” The writing is so relevant, so modern, it is difficult to believe it was written by a Jim Crow era Southern white man, even a civil rights activist. Griffin has a way of distilling the non-tangibles of racism, the sociological aspect. The “death stare,” the hair trigger to rage, the morbid fascination with sexuality that were all a normal part of black-white interaction in the parts of the South he traveled. Most importantly I appreciated the remarks in his prologue. “I could have been the Jew in Germany, the Mexican in any number of states, or a member of any ‘inferior’ group. Only the details would have differed. The story remains the same.” He has the ability to transcend the subject of civil rights from a uniquely American story to a universal story of poverty, oppression, and psychology. I really appreciate this deeper perspective, from which the entire subject of civil rights can take on a new relevance. All too often debates tend to center around “whether it was really that bad” or “whether we’re past it” which are meaningless questions. The real question, the deeper issue is a psychological one, one expertly explored in this book and best summed up by a James Baldwin quote:

“What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question.”

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Review: Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe

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Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe
Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe by Ian Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t recommend this book for everyone, but it was a perfect fit for me. The last time I read a physics/astronomy book that taught me profound new things was Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace. While I can definitely recommend Kaku’s work for anyone, this book was more technical. I would say it speaks to a graduate level audience in either math, physics, or astronomy. While these aren’t my areas professionally, I am passionately interested in them, so this book spoke my language. Every chapter took a subject with which I was familiar and laid out a laundry list of all the things I didn’t know about it, and all the underlying assumptions that aren’t set in concrete. I was floored to read about the subtleties and intricate structures within Saturn’s rings, for example, a treasure trove of lessons from Mother Earth about how gravity works, and far from settled science. I was equally exhilarated to hear doubts about what Stewart calls “bolt-ons” to the Big Bang theory: Inflation, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. Not because I don’t want to “believe in them,” whatever that means in a scientific context, but because they are so counter intuitive they cry out for either a better explanation or some measured degree of doubt.

The greatest lesson of the book is that science is always provisional. Every theory we have (even the seemingly settled, orthodox ones) are only as good as the observations they match. And every theory we have really only matches 98% of observations. Science is a continual process of improvement and the occasional overhaul. It’s a great pleasure to read an author with both expertise and humility, who can illuminate while at the same time casting doubt.

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Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book more than lives up to its promise. I watched JD Vance’s TED Talk and heard his NPR interview and resolved to pick this book up. It doesn’t disappoint, however it may be a bit different than you think, based on the aforementioned summaries. I was expecting a well-researched nonfiction sociology exploration supplemented by his personal stories. It’s inverted. The book is very much a personal family memoir, supplemented by a sprinkling of stats and regional history. At first this turned me off. He spends the first chapter introducing us to the members of his lineage and I thought, “no book needs fifty ordinary characters.” But he focuses on a few, and he makes each choice relevant. He talks about his great uncles in terms of their obstreperous reputations. He talks about his grandparents in terms of a stable home to fall back on when his parents fail him. He talks about his sister, aunt, and cousin in terms of their healthy marriages and what they did differently to break the mold of corrosive relationships endemic to the culture.

The formula, if you will, consists of a personal anecdote or journey, followed by statistics and historical context, followed by a compassionate, contemplative analysis. Vance displays a deep sense of appreciation and love and emotional intelligence. He is very forgiving but not at the expense of incisiveness. Wisely, he keeps away from politics, though he flirts with a few ideas toward the end having to do with income credits, schools, and welfare. It’s obvious he’s a conservative thinker, but his sense of worldliness and openmindedness is exactly the brand of conservatism we need more of for a well-balanced national conversation.

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Review: Supreme Court Decisions

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Supreme Court Decisions
Supreme Court Decisions by Richard Beeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to imagine why I would give a civics book a five star review. It’s not a “book” at all, just a series of excerpts of some of the most famous of Supreme Court cases. I’ve never been interested in politics until recently (I think 2015-16 probably activated a lot of people). Yet I’ve always been drawn to Supreme Court cases. Though some may disagree, I’ve always appreciated that justices are lifetime appointments. Removing the fundraising-campaign-reelection infrastructure, I believe frees up these individuals to focus on their jobs without fear of consequences. That gives them the ability to make bold rulings that withstand the test of time more than congressional acts or presidential rulings, which in hindsight seem many times like shortsighted pandering.

I love that SC decisions blend logic, morality, law, technology, and philosophy. It’s an extremely cerebral book, in that you will be forced to think about an issue in a new way, regardless of your personal belief. The first tough lesson to learn is thinking of the SC as the living embodiment of the constitution, as written, not a group of nine superthinkers dispensing morality for the masses. This particular tension came to light, for example, when John Roberts upheld the ACA as a constitutionally sanctioned tax, while condemning the act itself. The book is filled with examples of this. It is tempting to read the paragraph summary of each case and make a personal judgment before diving in to the decision’s text. This is very difficult to do. Each decision (along with the many dissents included) is carefully crafted from a unique perspective, and if you want more than a laundry list of seminal decisions, then you must tune yourself to appreciating that perspective for the moment.

Having said all that, it’s refreshing to finally have some content understanding (rather than headline understanding) of such famous cases as Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Citizens United. I may be late to the table with my civic education, but I know there are millions out there who yearn for the who-what-why explanations of why their country is the way it is. To that yearning, I will always prefer to go to the source itself to avoid the coloration of another’s telling.

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Review: Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

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Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a delight to read! I picked up this book at one of the dozens of book stores and gift shops in the delta selling it. Part travelogue, part memoir, it’s an hysterical exploration of the kooky culture and characters living in the poorest part of the poorest state in the union, the Mississippi Delta, a rich-soiled, cotton-planted floodplain extending from Vicksburg to Memphis. I just finished a weeklong tour of the region myself, so it was especially delightful to read about all the places I’d personally been, and in a few cases, about some of the people I’d actually met myself.

I hope the outlandish descriptions and soulful meanderings convince you to add this region to your list of places to see on your personal travels. If you live in the South, it’s only a few hours’ drive away. (Be sure to stay at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale if you’re doing the Blues Trail!)

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Review: Armageddon in Retrospect

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Armageddon in Retrospect
Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this collection. There is something spooky about war stories taking place off the battlefield. I think there is nothing which probes deeper into human nature than the interactions and motivations of people during “a state of war.” The title story wasn’t my favorite: a tongue-in-cheek letter from a scientist leading a lab project claiming to have successfully isolated and trapped the devil and so freeing humanity from temptation and violence forevermore. It gave me a good chuckle though.

My favorite stories were “Great Day” and “The Commandant’s Desk.” The former is about a 2037 Army of the World recruit who takes part in a time travelling experiment back to a 1918 World War I battlefield. The latter is about a carpenter who’s been pressed into service by three different occupying commandants during the Czechoslovakian war (German, Russian, and American) who has to keep changing the logo on the same desk.

There is a humorous, fatalist streak in all his stories, not unlike Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my favorite books. He conveys the tragedy of senseless war born of his own experience as a POW in Dresden. It’s easy to see that that experience defined his life and his writing forever.

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My Year in Books 2016

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Done!

At the beginning of 2016 I set out to read a book a week. I failed. I read 50 of the 52 books I’d set out to read, but as you may imagine I’m hardly disappointed. Although I read only 4 books more than last year, I read longer books, a total of 12606 pages over last year’s 8903. Although this reflects an average length of only 250 pages, I’m happy with my decision to remain focused on short books, maximizing the variety of my experience. I did a slightly worse job at gender balancing, reading 34 male-authored books vs 16 female-authored as opposed to a 70/30 split last year. Overall I’m pleased with my results and a little wearied. 34 pages a day translates to about an hour of consistent time set aside for the hobby (reading before bed most nights, with the occasional 2-3 hour “curl-up” session). That means I spent 1/24th of my life last year reading books in addition to eating, working, sleeping, etc. That’s pretty substantial, and represents what feels like my realistic upper limit.

Awards

Best Book of the Year: Reading Lolita In Tehran, by Azar Nafisi — I give this the highest praise. The author writes with poise, intelligence, class, and insightfulness about life during a time of revolution. (Runner Ups: The Snow Leopard, The Secret Life of Bees, Longitude)

Worst Book: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy — Really, this boring, monotonous, depressing thing won a Pulitzer? (Runner Up: Incubus, Bushwhackers)

Most Overrated: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr — I enjoyed reading it, but it’s about on par with About Grace, a decent, enjoyable book. There is something wrong with the fact that people exploded with unbounded praise over it that I still haven’t figured out. I still contend that The Shell Collector is his best work. (Runner Ups: The Secret History, The Plot Against America, Alice in Wonderland)

Best Indie Book: The Pugilist, by Sylvia McKenzie — Really, this is an impressive new voice in the literary landscape, and you should check her out.

Best War Book: The Coming Fury, by Bruce Catton — Blew my socks off. I learned so much about the Civil War and the months leading up to it.

Funniest: Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe — Do not underestimate the power of this book. It may be a gag gift, but it’s both hysterical and educational. I love an author who plays with form, and this is about as unique as you can get: a labelled picture book, not a novel, not a text book, not a comic strip, not a graphic novel, totally its own thing!

Pinker Award: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker — I’d rate it “best book” but I read the bulk of it in 2015. It deserves its own category. In future years I’ll give the Pinker Award to the nonfiction book that most deeply affects my worldview. For more about this incredible tome, I wrote an entire series of blog posts unpacking each chapter.

Honorable Mention

I can’t help plugging my own book. Impossible is the task to rank or categorize it against the backdrop of existing work, classic or contemporary (I’m a wee bit biased). Yet it is worth mentioning that years of sweat and toil culminated in my own carefully curated drop in the literary ocean on April 28th, 2016 with the publication of The Gingerbread Collection. Thanks to all who contributed, read, and/or reviewed it, and I hope many more of you do so in the future! I am already working on my next big project. May my best work still lie ahead of me.

Click on the icons below to read my individual reviews on Goodreads. (Copied from my 2016 Reading Challenge.)