2011: Books

by wil — Jan 20, 2012

New Year’s blew past, but it’s not yet Chinese New Year, so I figure I still have time for my annual book summary (nb, part of this post is a regurgitation of a May post, so if it seems familiar, that’s why).

meatMeat: A Benign Extravagance: An in-depth, heavy-duty, and sometimes dry investigation of meat-eating from an environmental/sustainability (and British) perspective.  A much longer review (Part 1 of 3) »

The TerrorThe Terror: An engrossing historical novel with a supernatural twist: 1840s, the Franklin Expedition searches in vain for the Northwest Passage and encounters an ancient arctic evil. I enjoyed it, but there are several spots where the story really starts to drag. I think it would’ve been stronger if it had been a bit shorter.

Faery TaleFaery Tale: One Woman’s Search for Enchantment in a Modern World: Signe Pike travels from NYC to Mexico, the UK, and Ireland in a heartfelt search for magic, belief, and a deeper sense of connection.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction UniverseHow to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe: A humorous, touching ride through Minor Universe 31, time loops, story space, memory, and family relationships.

Fight ClubFight Club: This is one of those rare instances where I think the movie is actually quite a bit better than the book. I felt like the novel was dark-and-disturbing just to be dark-and-disturbing. I had hoped for more, something deeper.

Foucault For BeginnersFoucault for Beginners: A quick overview of Michel Foucault’s thoughts on knowledge, truth, power, justice, etc. My impression: Foucault is highly influential, yet difficult to summarize/synthesize. I think I might try another, longer introduction to Foucault.

RumoRumo: And His Miraculous Adventures: Part Grimm’s fairy tale, part Princess Bride — a humorous, imaginative, delightful fantasy adventure. I will definitely be reading more Walter Moers.

The History of LoveThe History of Love: Warm, often-funny prose, but a story that feels disjointed. Halfway through, I set it aside for several weeks, but eventually picked it up again and finished it.

ConsciousnessConsciousness: A Very Short Introduction: An interesting but annoying introduction to the scientific study of the “hard problem” of consciousness. Susan Blackmore covers a lot of fascinating research, but for an introductory, presumably objective overview, I felt like she was a bit too free with her own subjective opinions.

If on a Winter's Night a TravelerIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler: The opposite of a flowing narrative, but interesting nonetheless. Calvino has lots of fun with conspiracies, obfuscation, and metafiction, popping in and out of the story/stories to write about writing/reading. Reminiscent of Borges and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—”I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Alone Together: A really interesting critique of social robots and the hyper-connected individual by a psychologist/MIT professor. Technology offers alluring “solutions” to many our problems — But what do these “solutions” say about us as a society? What are the downsides?  A longer review »

Hogfather: My first Terry Pratchett novel. The Hogfather (Discworld’s version of Father Christmas) is missing, so Death assumes the Hogfather’s duties while Death’s granddaughter, Susan, investigates the Hogfather’s disappearance. — Some laugh-out-loud bits, but all-in-all, too disjointed…too higgledy-piggledy for my taste.

The Hidden Brain: An interesting pop-science book on unconscious bias. Vedantam explores the often-unrecognized conflict between our conscious thoughts and the heuristic activities of our unconscious minds. One interesting, yet morbid bit: the (USA) suicide rate is twice the murder rate, but as a society, we tend to focus on murder. Why?

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time: Science writer Michael Brooks explores the boundaries of current scientific knowledge: dark matter & energy, cold fusion, the placebo effect, the Pioneer gravity anomaly, free will, homeopathy, etc. Engaging and intriguing.

An End to Suffering: A rambling history of Buddha/Buddhism + travelogue + memoir + primer of Indian politics/history. I particularly enjoyed the section on the discovery/rediscovery of Buddhism by early-19th-century European explorers. A longer review »

Daemon: I picked this up because I’m a sci-fi/cyberpunk fan and it got some rave reviews, but I was ultimately disappointed. It’s a fluffy, beach read, and I found myself chuckling at the ridiculous nature of the “this-could-really-happen” storyline.

Embassytown (audio): I read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station a couple of years ago, and was less than impressed. But I thought I’d give him another try…and…I still feel like he has talent, but falls short in the character development department. The plot was quite interesting, but I need characters I care about. I just didn’t care.

The Raw Shark Texts: A re-read. One of my all-time favorites. Funny. Surreal. Beautiful. Steven Hall’s first and (to-date) only novel. I’m thrilled to hear he’s working on a second, codenamed “Hula Hoop”.

Exploring Happiness: Ponderously dry philosophy.* This is not a “how to be happy” book. Instead, it asks questions such as: How do we define “happiness”? Can one be delusional or morally repugnant and happy at the same time? And the answers come largely from (to my mind) often tedious Enlightenment thinkers and Ancient Greek philosophers.

Making Supper Safe: Food politics/saftey. Ben Hewitt covers dumpster-diving, Monsanto, the FDA, the CDC, the Rawsome raid, etc. — interviewing Bob Marler, prominent foodborne-illness attorney; Mark McAfee, founder of Organic Pastures Dairy; Justin Sonnenburg, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, etc. A longer review »

Total: 20
Fiction: 10 (including 1 audio)
Non-fiction: 10



  • Rumo: A charming, imaginative fairy tale.
  • The Raw Shark Texts: Technically a re-read, so I’m not sure it counts, but it’s so freaking good.


  • Faery Tale: A sweet story of one woman’s search for magic and meaning in the modern world.
  • Alone Together: An MIT professor critiques social-robots and the always-connected individual from a psychological/sociological perspective.

* “Ponderously dry philosophy” — You might be thinking to yourself, is there any other kind? And the answer is, Yes!

2 responses to “2011: Books”

  1. Imperatrix says:

    Give Pratchett one more try: Read Small Gods. Absolutely hilarious.

  2. wil says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I think he’s worth another try down the road.