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Winter one-liners and unfinished science books

In January, we were on home leave and I read a lot of books not related to the Middle East, history or diplomacy.  Then in late February I returned to work and started my Hebrew language training, and almost all “free” reading came to a screeching halt.  Here’s a list in reading order with mini-reviews of what I enjoyed during home leave.

The Grand Complication, by Allen Kurzweil.  Not as good as I remember his A Case of Curiosities being (years ago), but still a fun puzzle with mildly appealing characters.  Great for book lovers.

Ultimatum, by Matthew Glass.  Great page-turner political thriller, with an over-arching message related to global warming and US-China relations.

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville.  Fascinating crime thriller set in Ireland.  This is one of several titles I tried to read which I found on a list of literary thrillers recommended over the new Dan Brown novel.  The recommendation was a good one.  This will probably end up as a movie one day, very action-packed, very violent and you ended up caring a lot about the main character.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Goldstein. Very clever novel about a young man’s search for love, which along the way covers the main theological arguments for the existence of god and points out the flaws in all of them.  Also, an interesting look into the world of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.  Goldstein, FYI, is married to Steven Pinker.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.  A sad, touching story about the Holocaust, written for young adults.  Particularly moving at the end.

In Defense of Food:  An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan.  Very interesting analysis of the best way to eat.  I enjoyed Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years ago, but this title seemed to put me in motion to actually change what I was eating.  Pollan is a journalist, not a nutritionist, and it turns out that’s a good thing.

Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, by Gary Taubes.  Pollan recommended this book, with a minor reservation.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Again, Taubes is a science writer, not a nutritionist.  Again, that’s a good thing.  If you’re susceptible to moving to a restricted-carbohydrates diet, this book will probably push you over the edge.

Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem,  by Simon Singh.  I think I wanted to read this because a.) I like Simon Singh and b.) I was intrigued to learn more about Fermat’s Theorem by the fictional Lisbeth Salander.  The book did a very good job of explaining the problem, the history of mathematics behind the problem and the drama related to the solution of the problem.  Singh wrote the screenplay for a documentary, and then expanded that into this book.   Singh is a great science writer and I now almost understand how Andrew Wiles eventually proved the theorem.

Food Rules:  An Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan.  Very small book, mostly a condensed version of In Defense of Food.  But still handy as a reference and for motivation.

Fermat’s Last Theorem:  Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem, by Amir D. Azcel.  Shorter book with less drama, but a good explanation and a good reinforcement of Singh’s book.

The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry.  Wow, this book was terrible.  I wish I could remember where I read about it, so I could forever not count on that source.  The idea for the novel was clever, but the whole thing appeared to me to be written by a college kid who had just read a bunch of Kafka and The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.  Skip this one completely and just read Kafka and Chesterton (although, not too much Chesterton…..).

The Singer, by Cathi Unsworth.  Another entry from the read-instead-of-Dan-Brown list.  Catchy and cinematic story about solving a very old murder in the punk music scene in England.  I was not really interested in that scene, that music or that period, but the story was good and I’ll read Unsworth again.

The City and the City, by China Mieville.   Very clever story about a world (ours) where two populaces live in the same physical city, but they officially don’t see each other.  The story is a murder mystery/thriller; but the thriller part of it is bogged down just a little by trying to keep track of the two-cities conceit.  Past the cleverness and the mystery, the story could be a pretty strong social commentary too.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clark.  Listened to the unabridged audio version of this, forever.  It’s a huge book and I drove thousands of miles listening to it.  Nice historical drama (except this history did not take place) about magicians in England a few hundred years ago.  I can’t imagine the work she put into this.

The Mind-Body Problem, by Rebecca Goldstein.  An earlier work by Goldstein, I was hoping it would have more actual mind-body problem content.  It was philosophical, but it was also about the sexual coming-of-age of a young lady in college.  I’m getting old, as I was more interested in more consciousness-is-the-hard-problem stuff.  Oh well, still a good book.

Rain Gods, by James Lee Burke.  Page-turner, violent, creepy.

Hannibal Rising, by Thomas Harris.  Listened to the unabridged audio version.  This is the prequel to the other Hannibal Lecter books.  Not as good, but still disturbing in that Hannibal way.  For what it’s worth, the story did describe fairly well how Hannibal ended up being Hannibal.

I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak.  Listened to unabridged audio book on the drive from Hot Springs to DC.  Nice story, but lighter and not nearly as good as The Book Thief.

NOTE: In the midst of my mostly-fiction glut, I started but did not complete three great science books.  I’m including the info here to remind me to return to them one day.

Tour of the Calculus, by David Berlinski.  Very wordy explanation of the calculus.  Once I got into the author’s mood, I really enjoyed this book.  Half-way through, I understand about half of the calculus!  Will return to it one day.

Big Bang:  The Origin of the Universe, by Simon Singh.  Started reading this before Singh’s work on Fermat.  The writing is very clear and  I learned a lot about the history of astronomy and the Big Bang theory.   Singh really is an excellent writer.

From Eternity to Here:  The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, by Sean Carroll.  I heard Sean Carroll at Shermer’s Origins-Big Questions conference in 2008.  Fascinating lecturer on the nature of time.  At that time, his only book was a text book for graduate physics students.  FE2H, though, is written for laymen and very interesting and challenging.  I was reading along at a chapter a week in step with a book club Carroll was running on his blog….but I have not finished the book yet.  Since then, Carroll has spent some energy arguing publicly with Sam Harris… when I return to his book one day it will be with a new perspective.   All that aside, the book is well-written and takes the reader through the necessary math, physics, astronomy and history to understand how scientists deal with the concept of time today.

Well, home leave turned out to be reading leave for me, and that’s a good thing.


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