Books I read in 2007
The Sun, the Genome and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolution by Freeman J. Dyson
I found this in Daresbury Lab's library just before Christmas, it turns out that it's based on a set of lectures that Dyson gave at the New York Public Library in 1997. That doesn't seem so long ago but it's a long time in the areas of genomics and the internet. The early part of the book was most interesting for me: for example, the difference between "sustainable" and "unsustainable" projects - in the former a lot of resources are poured into achieving some relatively short-term aim, at the cost of developing new techniques that will ultimately be more beneficial in the long term because they can reduce the cost of doing research (Dyson cites the Apollo space missions as one example and the human genome project as another). It was also interesting to read about how John Randall's development of cavity magnetron in 1939 (which was needed to produce high power microwaves for a useful radar system) not only contributed to winning the war, but also put him a position to abandon his career in solid-state physics in order to create a new department of molecular biology. As Dyson writes, "it was directly due to Randall's vision that the structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 in England and not a few years later in the United States.". Another theme that Dyson explores is how science sometimes advances not because of huge conceptual leaps, but because of the development of new equipment and because of evidence that contradicts the prevailing recieved wisdom.
Later in the book Dyson talks about social justice, and how technology can narrow or widen the gap between rich and poor. There are other discussions for example about the use of genetic engineering, and a vision of a human race splintered into new species by modifications to their own genomes which he believes will ultimately lead to emigration to new worlds. Ultimately these things still seem very much like science fiction, but I think that the discussion about social justice are still very pertinent. In the end I'm not sure what conclusion I was supposed to draw (if any) but it was certainly a very thought-provoking and stimulating read.
Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger by Nigel Slater
Another book that my friend Steve forced me to borrow, and that I put off reading for ages (ironically Steve agreed with me that the cover had also put him off reading it at first). In the end I only started reading it in order to be able to return it to Steve when I was due to see him in early December, but it turned out to be really great. Essentially this is an autobiography of Nigel Slater, or at least his early life, and it doesn't matter that most people probably don't know who he really is (he's a food writer in the UK). The story of his life is told via connections with various foods - including the eponymous (burnt) toast his mother makes for him. Food is the unifying thread that runs through his stories like music runs through Nick Hornby's life in 31 Songs - it's his passion, and like music it's one that most of us share (he won me over with his description of bread and butter pudding). At the same time the stories about growing up - many of them almost vignettes - also reminded me a bit of Black Swan Green, and there were also some interesting descriptions about what goes on behind the scenes at hotel restaurants. So overall it was a really great read (although in the end I didn't actually manage to finish it in time to give back to Steve).
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
I read this on a flight at the end of October to New Jersey, and in spite of its shortcomings I really enjoyed it. It reminded me a little of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, Pattern Recognition by William Gibson and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. It's a glorious mess of a book that imagines a world in which abstract information can manifest itself in physical reality, often in a way that is also physically dangerous, and where books and tape recorders and filing cabinets can also be weapons, defence systems or prisons. It's also the first book I've seen with an endorsement printed on the spine. Although it felt like it had too many great ideas packed in together, so that frustratingly many of them weren't really explored or developed, a long time after reading it I'm still occasionally reflecting on it. I guess I'd call it an intelligent airport novel.
The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon
This is a very slim book which is described as a "novella" - I bought it in New Jersey earlier this year instead of the American edition of Black Swan Green. I'd read Chabon's full-sized novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a few years ago and really enjoyed that, so I thought that I'd give this one a try.
I think that Chabon may be a fan of Sherlock Holmes and while I've never read any of the Holmes stories he manages to capture what I think the spirit of those stories must be. So although it was short, it wasn't too short - and I'm wondering now whether I should read some more of Chabon's work sometime soon.
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman
My friend Steve forced me to borrow this when I saw him near the start of the year, and I suppose I took it out of politeness. From the title I'd imagined this to be the story of some reclusive academic who was brilliant at mathematics and no good at anything else.
In fact I think that Paul Erdos - the brilliant and eccentric mathematical genius at the heart of this book - is done an enormous disservice by the title, since what emerges is a picture of a man who's passion for mathematics took him around the world engaging with as many people as he could. The title aside however I think that this is a great book. Not only do we learn about Erdos and the various people that he inspired, I think that Paul Hoffman also manages to communicate a little of what Erdos must also have found so beautiful and intriguing about mathematics and prime numbers. Only once did I really feel that the book wandered off at a tangent, with a long discussion of the Monty Hall Problem which is only tenuously connected to Erdos (it appears to better effect in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). Aside that I loved it. Thanks Steve!
Why Software Sucks...and What You Can Do About It by David S. Platt
An odd book, this - it starts out like a populist version of Alan Cooper's The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, and goes on to make some excellent points of its own (for example, explaining the issues surrounding software security). So far so good. But then the book seems to lose its way a little, as Platt tries his own take on Cooper's "homo logicus" analogy - at which point I think his true colours as a software developer come out: Platt is actually proud of being one of the geeks, and I think the last part of the book suffers from a lack of focus as a result. I think also some of his arguments late in the book are a little disingenous and self-serving (for example, if you don't like Windows then "why don't you use a Mac instead").
Still I felt I learnt some new things, both as a user and as a writer of software (I found his take on Sun's battle with Microsoft over Java/J++ quite interesting). So I'd recommend it for the first 3-5 chapters.
Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design by Henry Petroski
I think that I got this after reading the Donald Norman book The Design of Everyday Things, but whereas Norman's book is about design generalities, in this book Petroski is concerned with the specifics of how the design of various objects (paper cups, plastic bags, duct tape, WD-40, even houses) comes about. What is the original need that inspires the creation of a new object? What are the constraints on the design? How do things change over time that influence how designs evolve or even how they become obsolete? It's quite meandering but also quite fascinating, if you like that kind of thing (in fact it reminded me a little of Nicholson Baker's musings on shoelaces and plastic drinks straws in The Mezzanine, if the footnotes had been expanded to a whole book) which I do, and an interesting compliment to Donald Norman's book.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
I've been a quiet fan of David Mitchell's work since reading his first book Ghostwritten several years ago, although I found his last book Cloud Atlas a bit unsatisfying - it was inventive and intriguing but it didn't seem to add up to anything at the end. Anyway, his publishers in the UK at least seem to give him great covers and so I thought that I would give this one a try. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read the story of a 13 year old boy and I found it a bit difficult to like at the start, but then partway in I was suddenly hooked. I think that at his best David Mitchell is very readable, and while there seemed to be a few cliches (and a connection with his previous book which doesn't seem to add up to anything - Mitchell seems to like odd connections between things) in the end the writing and the story has enough charm and interest to sustain me to the end of the book. So all in all I'd recommend it.
The Prestige by Christopher Priest
This was the second of my two "holiday books". I wanted to read this because I'd been intrigued and fascinated by the film adaptation that I'd watched a few months earlier. As with other Christopher Priest books that I've read I pretty much tore though this, and the film is sufficiently different that I didn't know exactly how things would play out. In fact it's in many ways completely different from the film, and I think that it's fascinating to me to reflect on many elements in the book were changed to make the film while at the same time keeping true to the spirit of the book. But I think that each stands on its own without the other.
The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
I bought this and The Prestige as holiday reading for my holiday with Kyle in Myrtle Beach - I think we both had a vision of sitting on the beach whiling away many quiet hours reading and relaxing (when in reality we spent most of our time playing miniature golf).
Instead I started reading "The Third Policeman" on the plane back from New Jersey, wow it is a strange and fascinating read where the plot seems almost incidental to the various happenings in the book. In places it feels genuinely disturbing, but there is also lots of humour. I was reminded a bit of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, although it's been a long time since I read that.
The reason that I'd even heard about "The Third Policeman" was because it had been mentioned in the context of the TV series "Lost", and certainly many of the themes and ideas seemed familiar or at least have an echo in the TV programme. However I don't know that I feel it has explained anything particularly. Still to quote a quote from "Lost" scriptwriter and producer Craig Wright (from the notes at the end of my edition of the book): "... fans who bravely decide to delve into O'Brien's world '... will have read a really great book.'"
The Vitamin Murders by James Fergusson
I bought this to read on my flight to Salt Lake City for a conference in July, based on a review that I'd read. Ostensibly it's the story of the author's investigations into the 1950's murder of the food scientist Jack Drummond and his family while on holiday in the south of France. Jack Drummond is all but forgotten now here in Britian even though he was hugely influential at the time in the emerging field of nutrition, and played a vital role during WWII in devising diets that kept the British people healthy.
The book is framed as a narrative, with the authors uncovering of Drummond and his legacy interwoven with his investigations into the various chemicals used in modern farming since the 1950's which make their way into our bodies. The various strands are interesting, however I found something about the writer's style a bit irritating and that spoilt my enjoyment a bit.
Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
This is a book about the various ways in which people behave irrationally, usually through misinterpretation of information that is available to them either willfully or by not thinking clearly enough. It's absolutely fascinating. Essentially the book is a digest of many years of published psychological research by many different people, and it made me look at my own behaviour and realise that I (and just about everyone I know) often behave in irrational ways. In particular the chapters on how statistical data is misintepreted even by highly educated professionals made me feel that a better grasp of probability and statistics would benefit all of us. But aside from any salutory lessons it's also a very humourous and entertaining read (and also reminded me a bit of Eric Berne's Games People Play). You really should read this book.
No Opportunity Wasted by Phil Keoghan and Warren Berger
Phil Keoghan is the host of an American TV show called "The Amazing Race", which I gather has been shown all over the world except in Britain - as a result of which I don't imagine that anyone in the UK has ever heard of him.
This is Phil's book exhorting us all to essentially try and live our dreams, and create "N.O.W. moments" (N.O.W. is "No Opportunity Wasted") - special moments in your life that you look back on and treasure. He argues that if we don't make an effort to consciously remind ourselves of our dreams then we will miss the opportunities to make them happen - so we should make a list and then ensure that we keep it close to hand.
I guess that I was a bit sceptical when I started reading the book but Phil won me over, and I even made an initial list. (I might even post it here sometime, when I feel brave!) The style of the book is a lot like Phil seems to be on TV, and I think that he communicates the idea that sometimes you have to treat having fun as a serious business. And in a small way it's also made me take opportunities to do small things that previously I might have said to myself, "aw, I'll do that another time." So all in all a pretty interesting and inspiring read.
Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire
I've had this one for a while so I don't remember now why I bought it. It's a novel about a young woman who tries to recapture the feelings that she had with her first lover (who was also her school English teacher when she was fourteen - the beast in the title is Shakespeare's one with two backs) after he leaves her suddenly.
With all its descriptions of sordid sexual encounters and emotional betrayals and misunderstandings, it's quite grim in places, and I feared for the two central characters (the woman and her lover, finally reunited after the books ends) who are completely out of control when they're with each other. Thinking about it now I'm reminded a little of Jenny Diski's Nothing Natural, which is also about a destructive relationship and which I read I think in 2004. But in Diski's book I think that the woman finally takes control of the relationship, whereas in "Taming the Beast" I suspect that the couple destroy each other shortly after the final page.
The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity by Alan Cooper
I first heard about Alan Cooper when someone recommended his book (with Robert Reimann) About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design, back in 2005. I found many of their ideas for making software that is better for people to use fascinating, and it changed my perspective on both the software that I use (I'm more aware and less tolerant of poor design) and that I'm involved in making (which still may be poorly designed but I think are getting better).
This book is a good companion to "About Face", and in some ways I wish that I'd read this one first as "Inmates..." is the "business case" for why good design matters, and why existing ways of making software products (which he defines as anything with a computer in it - cameras, washing machines, cars, airplanes...) are flawed. I'm not sure that I agree with everything that he says, however like "About Face" it offers many thought-provoking comments (and amusing anecdotes) on software users and programmers and their cultures. Well worth a read if you have anything at all to do with making (or using software).
Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey Through Britain by Roger Deakin
I heard about this from an Amazon recommendation, and it turned out to be a really fantastic read, I really enjoyed it. The premise is that Roger Deakin decides that he will embark on a tour of outdoor swimming places around Britain, taking in natural places like rivers, streams and bays as well as outdoor pools and lidos. In the course of his quest to seek out these different places he paints a picture of Britain that is very different from the modern life that I lead - it's a much older place, often hidden, and often closer to nature. I guess that a lot of people know about those places that he goes, but a lot of it was new to me. So it was much more than just swimming.
This was another one of those books that took a long time to finish, because I really wanted to savour it. There are lots of fascinating details, and I've made a separate page with some relevant links. Like Deakin I swim breaststroke almost exclusively, and reading this I felt better about that (although he reports near the end that in Australia preferred swimming strokes are drawn along gender lines, and mostly only women swim breaststroke). Most of all he excited me about the idea of outdoor swimming. I haven't, yet - but I'd like to sometime, after reading this.
31 Songs by Nick Hornby
This is another book that I had for a long time before I starting reading it. In fact, since I was unfamiliar with most of the artists (and I think all of the "songs") in the book, I even bought the companion cd as well as trying to locate the tracks that didn't make it onto the cd. It turned out that this was pretty much unnecessary, as the book isn't really about the music at all, it's about how music is more generally part of the very fabric of life, mixed up with all the other things that are also part of living - hopes, dreams, disappointments, good times and bad times.
So he explains why Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" or Nelly Furtado's "I'm Like A Bird" are significant to him. He doesn't try to make an argument that his choice of songs are the 31 greatest songs in the world (in fact it's not even his 31 greatest songs ever - that's not the point). Instead they're chosen because they illustrate for him a particular connection that music has with his life. I think what Nick Hornby writes about particularly well here is the experience of being a music fan, and a lot of the things he talks about I also identified with - even though my choice of 31 songs would be very different, he captures and articulates something that I also feel about my own relationship with the songs that have significance for me.
There are a couple of things that I didn't identify with so much - I don't have arguments with other people about whether pop music is "real music" or not - and I think even though it's quite a short book (not in itself a bad thing), he still seems to lose his way towards the end. But it had me thinking about my own enjoyment of music, and things like how my walkman and more recently iTunes and the iPod shuffle changed my relationship with it. So overall it was a really interesting and enjoyable read.
Poison by Kathryn Harrison
I'm not quite sure now why I read this, and many of the descriptions talked about the author's "beautiful writing" (which often translates to me as "long boring descriptions" when I see it in book reviews) so I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy this before I started reading it. The book is set in 17th century Spain and really consists of two stories: one concerns a silk-grower's daughter who eventually falls foul of the Spanish Inquisition, the other concerns Queen Maria Louise's miserable marriage to King Carlos II.
In the event I did enjoy reading this book, although at the end I wasn't sure what I was supposed to take away from it - the two women never meet and the two lives have only a very tenuous connection. Also both strands are told rather implausibly by the silk-grower's daughter. But the writing *is* beautiful and intelligent, maybe like silk itself, and I think that more than anything was what I enjoyed the most about the book - more than enough to overlook any of its faults. So I'd recommend this one as well.
Getting "Lost": Survival, Baggage and Starting Over in J.J. Abrams' "Lost" by Orson Scott Card
At the start of the year I watched all of "Lost" seasons one and two on DVD in the space of about 6 weeks. I was hooked! I wish I could watch season 3 but I don't want to pay for cable, so I'll have to wait. So in the meantime, there is this book which is a collection of musings on different aspects of the show.
I guess it was okay. I felt that a lot of the pieces were rather short, and I wonder if they were originally published on the web. I know that what seems long when you read it on a computer screen can seem short when it's printed out. Also since the book was put together while season two was still airing, the writings don't take account of later occurances. On the other hand: the introduction is really good, and the "who's who in Lost" piece made me aware of a lot of connections that I hadn't noticed when I watched the shows. I also particularly enjoyed "The Lost Bookclub" and may well look to read The Third Policeman sometime in the near future.
Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan
I bought this at Kyle's suggestion last year, just before we went to Hawaii, but I didn't get around to reading it at the time. Then it lay in a drawer for nine months or so until I finally read it, and it's a pretty amazing tale: a true story of a man who is shipwrecked and survives at sea for 76 days.
A couple of years ago I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is a fictional account of a boy who is lost at sea. There was a big buzz about Martel's book at the time, and although there are a number of fantastical elements in "...Pi", it feels like it was heavily influenced by Steven Callahan's story (particularly things like the solar stills, the obsession with collecting and conserving water, and the encounters with flying fish). Even the drifting seaweed-like "island" in "...Pi" seems reminiscent of Callahan's encounters with drifting clumps of sargasso seaweed which are themselves tiny ecosystems. And the "road of trash" - a floating stream of man-made debris - that he encounters as he crosses the continental shelf seems almost as bizarre as anything in Martel's novel. (To be fair, I gather that "Adrift" is actually referred to directly in "Life of Pi".)
The other book that this reminds me of is Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. "Touching the Void" is the incredible story of Joe Simpson's survival after being left for dead after an accident whilst climbing in the Peruvian Andes. The circumstances and actions of the two men are completely different, but what is consistent in both accounts is their refusal to give up, to lay down and die. Amazing books and both highly recommended.
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
My friend Steve gave this to me for my birthday this year, and as it looked like the right kind of thickness and size for a transatlantic flight I decided that I would try and read it on my current trip. It turned out to be a really read, so I'm glad that circumstances worked out to give me the opportunity of reading it.
The "Arthur" of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, while "George" is George Edalji, who's wrongful conviction for the "Wyrley Outrages" (and Conan Doyle's subsequent involvement in re-examining the case) was one of the reasons that a Court of Appeal was established in the UK. The novel is a fictionalised account of the lives of the two men, but in the way that Julian Barnes weaves other aspects of the two men's lives into the story it also reminded me very much of Glen David Gold's novel Carter Beats The Devil. I highly recommend both.
The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman
It took me ages to finish this - I think that I started it last September - but it turned out there was only one more chapter to read, which summarises the rest of the book. I was reading it principally from the point of view of design for user interfaces. The book was written in 1988 and is more concerned with the design of physical objects, however the principles are just as relevant now as then - and it's interesting to see just how things have moved on in the area of computers since 1988 (the discussion of hypertext in the concluding chapter is particularly interesting). Also I think that it's still a revolutionary concept nearly twenty years later that "user error" might be a result of poor design. It's made me look again not only at the design of everyday things in my own life, but also at some of the procedures and routines that I have. I really recommend this book.
You can find out more about Donald Norman at the Nielsen Norman Group website.
The Day the Whale Came by Lynne Cox
This was a quick read, a nice short book that Kyle persuaded me to buy at New Year (as if I ever take much persuading to buy more books...). It seemed to continue the aquatic theme of the previous book, and it was interesting to read Lynn Cox's descriptions of the marine environment around the stretch of Californian coast where the events in the book take place - the images of the oil platforms surrounded by waterfalls and different coloured lights was particularly memorable.
At the Water's Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs by Carl Zimmer
I really enjoyed this one, another popular science book but this time about the process of "macroevolution", which is essentially large-scale changes such as "how did aquatic animals evolve to survive on land?" (the fish with fingers) and "how did land-based animals evolve to survive in water?" (the whales with legs). Highly recommended.
Girl with a One-track Mind: Confessions of the Seductress Next Door by Abby Lee
Not as racy as the blurb on the back suggested. The style of writing reminded me a lot of "Bridget Jones", but I gather it was actually taken from a blog, so I wonder if what we read influences how we express our experiences in writing.