My 2013 Year of Books

Collage of book covers

I like to read contemporary fiction, especially mysteries. When it comes to reading, mysteries are my guilty pleasure. But this past year I tried to put the mysteries aside (for the most part) and read less pleasureful, but perhaps more thought provoking, literature. The annotated list for the past year is below. If you have read any of the following books and agree, or disagree, with my views, I would enjoy hearing from you.

Fiction
Book Cover - The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

 


Atwood’s story of the theocratic Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States, is well known. In the new society, because of an unspecified catastrophe, women are valued only for their reproductive capacity. Atwood’s narrative has a stark quality reminiscent of Orwell’s police state,
1984. I found the story compelling, especially as there are places in the world today in which the story is not so far-fetched. As for the United States, however, I find Huxley’s Brave New World more prescient than Orwell’s 1984.

Book Cover - Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

 

Bronte’s classic love story about Heathcliff and Catherine is also a psychological study of Heathcliff’s emotional and spiritual demise. The impact of social class differences on human relationships is the vehicle which drives this tale of ill-fated lovers. Though Victorian England provides the context for the novel, perhaps it is the universality of its themes and its descriptive boldness that render it a classic of English literature.

Book Cover - The Woman Who Wouldn't Die

Colin Cotterill, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die

 

This is the last book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series of mysteries. I didn’t
find the narrative to be as strong as that in previous installments..
Nonetheless, the familiar characters carry the novel to a satisfactory
conclusion. As the ninth book of the series, readers will understand if it
is indeed the last. The subsequent series, the Jimm Juree mysteries, will
likely be just as successful as this one. Yet, I regret having to say
goodbye to a group of characters I have come to know so well.

Book Cover - Killed at the Whim of a Hat

Colin Cotterill, Killed at the Whim of a Hat

 

This is the first novel in Colin Cotterill’s new series of mysteries that
feature Jimm Juree, a journalist who must abandon her rising career in
Bangkok as she follows her wacky family to the southern coast of Thailand. Although she expected life on the coast to be leisurely and uneventful, it turns out to be more interesting than anticipated. Adapting to her new environment, Jimm Juree finds herself on the trail of murderers all the while dealing with her unpredictable family. Cotterill writes clever and fun fiction. This series will undoubtedly be as good as his previous series set in Laos featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun.

The title of the novel is taken from a mistake made by George Bush while
reading a teleprompter in September, 2004. Somehow he managed to merge the two expressions, “killed on a whim,” and “at the drop of a hat,” into one.

Book Cover - Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach

Colin Cotterill, Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach

 

Jimm Juree, with the aid of her transgendered sister and other family members, sleuths her way to exposing and bringing to justice human slave traffickers. Once again Cotterill manages to engage the reader in a far-fetched plot involving numerous characters that live just on the edge of believability.

Book Cover - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

 

This is a depressing book. It is the story of Oscar de León, a child of
immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Oscar is a socially inept,
overweight, maladapted teenage Latino nerd whose brief life ends
tragically. Beyond the particulars of the narrative, however, Oscar’s
story speaks to larger issues about the human condition. It is a morality
play in which good confronts evil, and evil wins.

Book Cover - A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 

I have owned this book for the past forty years, but on picking it up and
reading just a few pages, I discovered that I had never actually read it.
I had “seen the movie” and watched television productions, but the actual
reading had eluded me. I glad I took the time. Dickens is a masterful story-teller and his observations on human nature often ring true. If you haven’t read this work, I think you should, even if you already know the story. It merits its reputation as a classic.

Book Cover - A Hologram for the King

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

 

This is a quiet novel about Adam Clay, a contemporary Willy Loman, who works for an international IT firm. The setting is Saudi Arabia, where Willy, after a run of bad luck and diminishing life prospects, attempts to make one last big sale – a holographic communications system – that will solve his problems and meet the expectations of others.The conclusion is predictable, but the trip to the conclusion offers insights about contemporary life that ring true. Eggers book is an interesting character study, even if it is about people I already know.

Book Cover - The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey NIiffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

 

This is a novel about a couple, Henry and Clare. Henry is unique in that he is a time-traveler. Everything else about Henry and Clare is ordinary and thoroughly boring. The vehicle on which the novel moves is the tiresome exploration of the paradoxes that time-travel can produce. In this regard, the book is imaginative. In every other respect (character development, plot, human interest, social message, or whatever) it failed to engage me. I don’t recommend it.

Book Cover - Tenth of December

George Saunders, Tenth of December

 

I was prompted to read this book because of an article in the New York Times with the provocative description, “George Saunders has written the best book you will read this year.” Well, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. The
Tenth of December is a collection of short stories about characters I
generally didn’t like, whose patterns of thought were characteristic of
maladjusted adolescents. Saunders is clearly a writer of great talent, but
in this collection of stories, his talents were wasted.

Non-Fiction
Book Cover - The Clockwork Universe

Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

 

Dolnick provides a highly readable introductory history of science during the 16th and 17th centuries. Though the title singles out Isaac Newton, the book deals at length with other major thinkers of the period including Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz. Of interest to me was Newton’s devotion to alchemy as well as the conflict between Newton and Leibniz concerning the credit for the invention of the calculus.

Book Cover - The Disappearing Spoon

Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements

 

This is the book I wish I had read in high school. Kean has written a
delightful book about the periodic table of elements. I know it seems like
an oxymoron to include the words “delightful” and “periodic table” in the
same sentence. But it is true. Kean’s book is delightful. While much of
the chemistry discussed is still beyond me,he provides a fascinating
account of the history of the personalities and events that created the
contemporary periodic table.

Of philosophical interest is whether the periodic table was invented or
discovered. From its structure, and from chemists’ ability to predict the
existence of elements not yet found, it seems more like a discovery rather than something created. My high school chemistry course had led me to believe that the table was simply a scheme for classifying elements, but Kean makes clear that it is much more than that.

Book Cover - The Violinist's Thumb

Sam Kean, The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code

 

Here Kean undertakes an account of the history of genetics and DNA research. Like The Disappearing Spoon, Kean intersperses scientific explanations with human interest episodes. Though interesting, this work is not as strong as the Spoon. Kean includes several  historical examples that are bizarre, if nonetheless true. These seem tangential to the main scientific narrative, producing the effect of discontinuity. Nonetheless, The Violinist’s Thumb is worth the effort.

Book Cover - Ox Herding in Wisconsin

Richard Quinney, Ox Herding in Wisconsin

 

Quinney offers a series of meditations or vignettes written over the course of a year. The title is taken from the parable of the ox and oxherd in Buddhist teachings. This is a story used to illustrate the path toward enlightenment.  In the parable the ox represents undivided reality, the ground of all being. The oxherd represents individuality, separate from the ox.The oxherd, a young boy, goes searching for the lost ox, only to find in the end that to find and tame the ox there must be a transcendence of self.

A native of Wisconsin, Quinney’s meditations are beautifully written descriptions of daily life in rural Wisconsin. The vignettes display a  mindfulness of ordinary life activities and ordinary things. Ox Herding in Wisconsin is a welcome departure from the noisy popular media parade. It invites reflection and contemplation.

Book Cover - Time Reborn

Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the
Universe

 

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist concerned about the direction of
contemporary physics. The incommensurability between quantum and large scale physics continues with no resolution in sight. If I understand him correctly, Smolin proposes that physicists adopt an approach in which time is regarded as real, not merely a mathematical element in physics calculations. Though this book is written in language that a lay person can understand, I’m afraid that only those with specialized knowledge of these topics will be able to assess the merits of Smolin’s work.

For my part, I found the work engaging, well written, and philosophically
provocative.

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